“The Things They Carried” is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O’Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War. As the stories describe O’Brien’s memories, the female character’s roles in the novel depict important messages. Martha shows love and denial; Mary Anne Bell plays the loss of innocence, a sense of coming of age, and lastly Linda, memory, and death. All women play a part in piecing the novel together, a team. The female characters represent and reflect the soldier’s emotions and values while in the war.
One of the most significant female characters is Martha, who appears in the first short story in The Things They Carried, she symbolizes love and denial. As the novel starts, it goes on to describe the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and the way he carries his letters. The letters were from Martha, a friend, and love interest back home in college. No, they never loved letters however, Jimmy never failed to pretend or hope that they may have meant more. Often jimmy found himself obsessing over the fact if Martha would ever love him back, “sometimes tast[ing] the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there too”. He keeps hold of everything she sends, photographs, memories, etc. Out on an operation, Lieutenant Jimmy’s friend, Ted Lavender dies. Through a lapse of lost concentration and self-awareness, Jimmy discovers himself thinking about his distant love. He burns Martha’s letters and pictures, thinking it would set off a source of relief. The gesture does no such thing. As he analyzes the consequences, it is in this story that Martha signifies love, the most valuable human emotion, and danger: since it ends in such tragic consequences. Jimmy has both love and hate for Martha. The reason why Jimmy has such an attraction towards Martha is that she is the string tying him to home and female affection. He longs for a feminine love. The feeling of hate comes from her decision to only be friends. She never wanted more. Jimmy hates how he knows his obsession with her virginity has no purpose; it is a cynical attempt on his part to take his mind off the horrors of the war. Processing his feelings as being a soldier is too much for him, so he puts that confusion onto Martha. Martha prevents Jimmy from being a soldier, and because of that Jimmy Cross’ story is a war story. Martha helps give understanding to the text that Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ story is about nothing but sources of denial.
Mary Anne Bell is the main character told in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and describes the loss of innocence. Girlfriend to Mark Fossie, she is narrated to be a nice, long-legged pretty girl with a bubbly personality and all. She comes into war and gets tough. Goes into an ambush and comes out never being the same again; Wore a human-tongue necklace. “No cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her hair short, and wrapped it in a dark green bandanna. Hygiene became a matter of small consequence. Her body seemed foreign somehow – too stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be. The bubbliness was gone.” Mary Anne was stripped clean of the innocence she held, wiped down to the very core. Mark tries to stop her, but she is a soldier now. She is where she wants to be. “She cradled her gun.” O’Brien writes. She represents the soldiers going into war, and what it can do to you and your soul; “What happened to her, Rat said, was what happened to all of them. You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same. A question of degree.”The soldiers came into the war, young and harmless. Full of dreams. Now they are full of shame, and coldness. Full of war. The end of Mary Anne Bell’s innocence strikes what happens to men when going into war. She has become a metaphor for the softness lost in men. The way war has changed even the gentlest parts of men, those bits and pieces stranded far away never to be seen again.
“Stockings” is a wonderfully articulated chapter in The Things They Carried, a story about Henry Dobbins and his girlfriend’s pantyhose. Henry “wrap[ed] his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush.” He used his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a good-luck charm. He slept with them, “he liked the memories they inspired”. They were soft, secure. Henry described them as body armor. Even when Henry’s girlfriend dumps him, he still continues to wear her pantyhose; the charm protects something inside of Henry – his own heart and soul. It gives him a feeling of being back home. They give no protection towards his body, and the pantyhose itself no longer amounts to his girlfriend’s love anymore. Instead, the pantyhose simply protect the part of himself that can love. It is a bundle of cloth that holds intimacy and tenderness for Henry. Something he can’t express or show out in war. They hold his humanity while he is out living in chaos. It’s as if Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend is an escapist fantasy for him while he is out in war.
One of the last characters to be introduced into The Things They Carried is a 9-year-old girl named Linda. As her story is told in the last chapter “The Lives of the Dead” it tells of a time when Tim was a little boy – in love with a girl from school. Unbeknownst to him, she was awfully sick with an incurable disease. As she dies and passes on, it is revealed that he cannot let her go. He imagines her alive, revives her into the novel. “And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through the ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all.” Maybe it was the purity of the snow, or possibly the beauty of it that reminded Tim of her. Linda is allowed to live on, possibly she is in you today – Tim’s point is that when people have left your world, it doesn’t mean they cannot live on. Let them dance in the pages you lay your eyes on at night, let them shine a little brighter in the lightbulb you just switched from your lamp. See them in the ‘lucky’ penny you found on the ground at the waterfront in Seattle. Linda’s story allows us to appreciate the memories we have made up of the various artifacts in our life, to carry on. “In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite dead… I learned that words make a difference. It’s easier to cope [with the dead] if it isn’t human, it doesn’t matter as much.” Tim goes on to explain the various ways he and his mates turned the human corpse into different foods and critters the dead alive with stories.” Linda’s death and memory match with the way the soldiers dealt with death at war. They weren’t able to hold the thought of seeing so much death, it would have broken them. As the soldiers brought the dead back to life, it helped mask the sorrow. These actions, it shows us how we can capture the value of things that were once part of our lives.
O’Brien’s memories are tied together using bits and pieces of others as a rope to hold onto. Every aspect, every theme, every event, every character. But it is these women in the novel that truly mask together with the importance in his short stories. Their stories describe the soldiers. The woman’s actions describe the soldier’s weaknesses. They symbolize what the soldiers feel, see, touch, etc.