Mary Anne Bell in The Things They Carried

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  • 0:04 The Story
  • 0:49 The Folks Back Home
  • 1:17 American Arrogance
  • 1:54 The Mystery of Vietnam
  • 2:52 Total Immersion in War
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson examines the character of Mary Ann Bell from Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.' Mary Ann functions less as a character than a symbol in the story chapter 'The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.' We'll explore this symbolism.

The Story

Mary Ann Bell appears in only one story, ''The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.'' Despite her brief appearance in the The Things They Carried, she's definitely memorable.

Mary Ann comes to Vietnam from America to visit her boyfriend, Mark Fossie. Mary Ann arrives, fresh-faced and All-American, and slowly becomes obsessed with Vietnam and the war. By the story's end, Mary Ann's innocence is a distant memory. She's still wearing her cute pink sweater, but now she compliments it with a necklace of human tongues. She hangs out with the hard-core, mysterious Green Berets and leaves her poor dumb boyfriend behind as she spends her evenings out on ambush. The last anyone sees her, she's heading off into the mountains alone, fully absorbed by the fascinating, mysterious land of Vietnam.

The Folks Back Home

When we meet Mary Ann, she can be read as a symbol for Americans back home. Mary Ann is fresh, innocent, and clueless. She arrives in Vietnam in her pretty clothes and is described like the All-American girl next door.

We learn that she and Mark have been together since 6th grade, and they plan to get married, have 3 kids, and live in an adorable little house in the 'burbs. She clearly represents your average American, and as such, contrasts sharply with the reality of life for American soldiers in Vietnam.

American Arrogance

Mary Ann also functions as a symbol of American arrogance. When she first arrives in Vietnam, she just assumes she is safe and won't be harmed. She acts like a tourist, going where she pleases and marveling at the simplicity of the country. She swims freely in a river where she could be a target of sniper fire. She even walks through a Vietnamese village, exclaiming over how cute it is, oblivious to the danger she faces.

She represents the arrogance of the American attitude that the Vietnam conflict would be a simple in-and-out affair. Americans did not anticipate the enormous complexity of the situation in Vietnam. Mary Ann's naiveté reflects this.

The Mystery of Vietnam

Soon Mary Ann comes to symbolize the effect of Vietnam on American soldiers. Beyond the war, the land and culture itself are completely foreign to American soldiers. They are strangers in a strange land, and this situation is dramatized through the transformation in Mary Ann.

When she arrives she is the most typical American girl you can imagine. As she starts to change, that image changes as well. She cuts her hair short and forgoes personal hygiene. She gets rid of her jewelry and loses all interest in her appearance. All she cares about is the land - she hungers for it and wants to consume it.

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