Role of Women in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Kiesa Kay

Kiesa Kay has taught college English and has a master's degree in English, with honors.

Women serve several important roles in Tim O'Brien's classic of the Vietnam War, 'The Things They Carried', but they primarily function as metaphor for the innocence and youthful grace that the soldiers have to release to survive the horrors of war.

Woman as Escapist Fantasy

First Lieutenant Jimmie Cross carries love letters from Martha, an English major back in the States. He's almost sure she's a virgin, and he daydreams about romantic camping trips. His hopes twine around the letters in his hands, and it's not only the letters, but also the fantasies of romance with a pure young woman who loves poetry, that help him escape briefly from the rigors of war raging around him. He thinks about kissing her, touching her knee.

After his friend dies, Jimmie burns the letters and photos, and tries to release the fantasy. He carries a pebble; his friend, Henry Dobbins, wears his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck like a comforting muffler. After the war, Jimmie sees Martha. She's a nurse, and not interested in dating men.

When Henry's girlfriend dumps him, he still wears her pantyhose like a good-luck charm. That back-home charm protects something inside him, in his own heart and soul. They do not protect his body, and they no longer represent her love. Instead, they simply protect the part of him that can love.

Tim's daughter, Kathleen, age three, makes a cameo appearance to tell him to write about a little girl who wins a million dollars and spends it on a Shetland pony. Later, when Kathleen has reached age nine, O'Brien says he pretends he wants to tell her war stories when she's a grown woman, but he doesn't want her to know. He doesn't want to bruise her innocence, not even when she grows up. She says he's weird.

Bob 'Rat' Kiley writes a long, caring letter to the sister of a man who dies, but she never responds. He calls women 'cooze.' When O'Brien tells one of his stories, kindly older women often approach him, but they don't understand what he means, even as they ooze appreciation. He thinks, ''You dumb cooze.'' Sisters never write back, and these women never listen, he asserts.

Woman as Innocence

In ''Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,'' Rat Kiley tells about a girl who traipses into the war wearing a sweater and culottes. Mark Fossie's girlfriend, blonde and seventeen years old, has a bubbly personality and terrific legs. Her name is Mary Anne Bell. Eddie Diamond describes her as ''D-cup guts, trainer bra brains.''

She got tough. She went on an ambush. She represented the innocence the men had at the beginning, the innocence they lost in Vietnam. Mark tries to stop her, but she becomes a war-toughened soldier. ''She cradled her gun,'' O'Brien writes, but she no longer has the bubbly sweetness that might have led to her cradling Mark's babies. She gets cold, and she acquires a necklace of human tongues. The end of her innocence represents what happened to the soldiers and their innocence.

Norman Bowker, a soldier, thinks about Sally Kramer, a girlfriend who married someone else. He thinks about telling her what he's seen in war. He realizes she will have no understanding, no context. Back home, the girls stay sweet. One car hop is described as having eyes ''as fluffy and fairy light as cotton candy.''

Woman as Metaphor for Men's Changes

Rat Kiley says Mary Anne Bell reminded him of girls back home - clean, innocent people who never could understand. He says it's like trying to describe the taste of chocolate, and his pal Mitchell Sanders says it's like trying to describe what excrement tastes like. When she walks off and leaves, she becomes a metaphor for the way war has changed the softest, gentlest parts of the men who fight it.

''She was dangerous,'' O'Brien writes. ''She was ready for the kill.''

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