Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

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“The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is one chapter of a loosely connected collection of stories about Vietnam, The Things They Carried (1990). One major theme that runs through this story and the book is the nature of truth and of history. Tim O’Brien has said that fiction is more truthful than fact because the author can shape the facts to extract the essence and meaning in a way that fact alone cannot.

The form of the narration also highlights an important theme. The story of Mary Anne is a story within a story within a story. The fictional narrator “Tim O’Brien,” who frames the whole book, is looking back on the Vietnam experience and describing it from a distance of twenty years. Within the story of Mary Anne, “O’Brien” describes Rat Kiley telling a story. The narrative emphasizes Kiley’s unreliable grasp of facts and his tendency to exaggerate. Additionally, only part of what Kiley tells is his own experience; part is hearsay and myth. This layered narrative form reveals another theme: that history is composed of fact, hearsay, and myth. Sometimes one cannot know the difference, and maybe the difference does not even matter. O’Brien, during a lecture at Ohio State University in April of 1999, insisted that the story of Mary Anne had a basis in fact, but when students asked him whether it was “true,” he replied that this was irrelevant.

Another theme is that war corrupts the innocent. O’Brien, in the lecture at Ohio State, said that one major motivation for writing the story in the first place was his feeling that it was not fair that only men should fight and die in war and that women should remain innocent. Like Mary Anne—as Rat Kiley points out—the men are also innocent when they arrive in Vietnam. They too are changed—not only by the horror of the experience but also by the insidious seduction of danger and violence.

Heart of Darkness (1899, 1902) by Joseph Conrad is a tale about a similar journey, although it leads out of civilization and into evil in the Congo, not Vietnam. In Conrad’s story, women remain protected from ugly reality. The fiancé of Kurtz, Conrad’s main character, remains in civilization and hears from the returning narrator a sanitized version of how her fiancé died. Mary Anne, on the other hand, experiences what the men in Vietnam experience, and her reaction demonstrates the theme that women are as capable of savagery as men.