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Literary Psychoanalysis: Medicine River and The Things They Carried

One of the main indications that a particular literary piece represents a high literary value has traditionally been considered the psychological soundness of how the featured characters address life-challenges. The reason for this is quite apparent – it is specifically one’s deep-seated unconscious anxieties, which largely define his or her tendency to act in one way or another. Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that the novel Medicine River by Thomas King and the collection of short stories The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien were able attain an instant popularity with readers. Apparently, the latter had a good reason to think of the themes and motifs, contained in both of the mentioned works, as being thoroughly plausible, in the psychological sense of this word. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length.

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Probably the main psychological characteristic of the protagonist of Will Sampson in King’s novel is that, being a half-breed, he appears to have been endowed with the so-called ‘hybrid mentality’ (Bhabha 108). That is, even though Will never ceased to remain utterly respectful of the Native cultural traditions, he nevertheless could not help perceiving the surrounding reality through the lenses of euro-centrism. In its turn, this prompted Will to experience the sensation of a cognitive dissonance, especially when being required to think of the surrounding reality’s emanations in terms of black and white only.

This explains why, throughout the novel’s entirety, Will is being represented as an innately insecure person, who tended to postpone making important decisions in his life. After all, as the below-provided quotation implies, Will used to suffer from his realization that he could not exercise a rationale-based control over his destiny: “The truth’s like a green-broke horse… you never know which way it’s (life) going to jump or who it’s going to kick” (King 177). We can well assume that it was namely due to the earlier mentioned mental trait, on Will’s part, that throughout the novel’s initial chapter he is being described as a somewhat socially withdrawn person, who used to exhibit the psychological qualities of an introvert.

Nevertheless, it would be quite inappropriate to suggest that it is specifically the characters’ identity-related anxieties, which define the essence of their existential attitudes. Being a discursively ‘deep’ novel, Medicine River contains a number of subtle hints, as to the fact that it is the particulars of one’s early upbringing, which form the sense of self-identity, on the concerned individual’s part. The earlier mentioned character of Will Sampson exemplifies the validity of this suggestion perfectly well. The reason for this is simple – as the story implies, the protagonist’s relationship (or rather the lack of thereof) with his farther Bob, had a strong effect on how he used to address the challenges of life.

The rationale behind this suggestion can be formulated as follows: Will never had a father de facto: “Will must have seen his father, heard his voice. But there was nothing. No vague recollections, no stories, no impressions, nothing” (King 7). What it means is that, while a child, Will was spared of the opportunity to develop the so-called ‘Oedipal complex’, which in its turn had a disadvantageous effect on the protagonist, within the context of how he used to go about trying to affiliate itself with the masculine values (Gee 195). After all, it does not represent much of a secret to psychologists that, even though one’s ‘Oedipal complex’ can indeed be considered the source of his tendency to indulge in the socially inappropriate behavior, there is a certain positive aspect to it, as well.

This aspect is concerned with the observation that, while causing the affected men to act in the short-tempered manner, the ‘complex’ in question simultaneously increases their ability to fit into the male-dominated (aggressive) society. Therefore, the fact that, as it appears in the novel, Will used to have trouble, while trying to become fully integrated in the society, can be well discussed as the long-term consequence of what the specifics of the character’s childhood used to be all about. In plain words – one of the main reasons why Will turned out in the way he was, is that he grew up in the single-parent family.

Nevertheless, it is not only that King’s novel provides readers with the psychologically plausible account of a ‘Native living’ in Canada, but it also contains a number of suggestions, as to how Native Canadians may go about attaining the state of self-actualization. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the character of Lionel James – a tribal leader, who was there to help Will to regain the sense of an emotional comfortableness with his Native roots. According to Lionel, it is specifically one’s spiritual disconnectedness from the community, which ‘atomizes’ the concerned individual to the extent of making him ignorant of the little joys that life is there to offer (King 167).

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Even though there may appear nothing extraordinary about the above-mentioned remark, it confirms Lionel having been an utterly effective therapist – quite contrary to being unaware of it. The reason for this is that this remark appears thoroughly consistent with what happened to be the foremost reason why many successful and mentally adequate Natives cannot help experiencing the sensation of a social alienation. While living in the egocentric Canadian society, they are being encouraged to strive to dominate the surrounding environment, as opposed to existing as the environment’s integral part.

Thus, just as it was implied initially, there is indeed a good reason to think of King’s novel, as such that presupposes the discursive plausibility of the characters’ behavioral patterns, because the manner in which these characters go about trying to realize their existential potential, does expose them being affected by a number of the deep-seated unconscious anxieties.

Just as it happened to be the case with the King’s novel, the collection of short stories The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien can also be referred to as being psychologically credible. They validity of this statement will become self-evident, once we make an inquiry into what appear to be the motivations behind the narrator’s act. For example, the story On the Rainy River provides us with the account of O’Brien (narrator) having decided in favor of joining the U.S. Army, so that he could be sent to Vietnam – quite contrary to the narrator’s rationale-based realization that this was something he wanted to do the least.

The author explains his decision, in this respect, as follows: “It (decision) had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was… I would go to the war – I would kill and maybe die – because I was embarrassed not to” (O’Brien 21). Even a brief glance at this explanation, reveals it being thoroughly consistent with the Freudian idea that it is specifically the working of one’s ‘super-ego’, which prompt the individual to suppress the unconscious desires of its ‘id’ (Johnston 417). Having been an intelligent person, O’Brien knew perfectly well that it would be utterly foolish, on his part, to be willing to be sent to a war and to face the risk of being killed. However, had he decided in favor of escaping to Canada (in order to avoid military draft), this would forever brand him as a lowly coward – hence, making it impossible for the narrator to even hope to be able gain a social prominence in the future.

The soundness of the idea that O’Brien’s short stories are thoroughly valid, in the psychological sense of this word, can also be illustrated in regards to the story Friends. After all, this story provides readers with the seemingly illogical and yet fully credible accounts of the front-line soldiers uttering jokes and laughing, while exposed to war-atrocities (O’Brien 31). Even though that this kind of behavior, on the soldiers’ part, may seem as such that does not make any sense, this is far from being the actual case. The reason for this is that it is in people’s very nature to strive to lessen the severity of stress, from which they happened to suffer. The best way to do it is to make fun out of the concerned stress’s most disturbing aspects. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that, as it was shown in this particular story, some American soldiers used to laugh at death in the most grotesque manner – while doing it, they simply strived to maintain their sanity.

Nevertheless, having sustained a deep emotional trauma, due to their wartime experiences in Vietnam, many of the stories’ characters ended up being doomed to experience the acute sensation of guilt for the rest of their lives (just like the narrator himself) – the theme that is being explored in the story The Man I Killed. There are, of course, a number of the clearly defined Freudian undertones to this theme. After all, according to Freud, the mentioned sensation can be well described as a metaphysical ground, out of which the majority of people’s unconscious anxieties derives (Betensky 430).

Therefore, while exposed to this particular story, readers will not only be able to grow more knowledgeable of what were the actual realities of the Vietnam War, but they will also be able to gain a better understanding of the most fundamental principles behind the functioning of one’s psyche. Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate, on our part, to define the collection of short stories by O’Brien; as such that represents a high philosophical/psychological value, as well.

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I believe that the provided earlier line of argumentation is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. After all, it does illustrate the legitimacy of the idea that the novel Medicine River by Thomas King and the collection of short stories The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien can be considered rather enlightening, in the psychological sense of this word. Thus, it will be only logical to end this paper by suggesting that there is indeed a good reason to recommend both of the discussed works for reading.

Works Cited

Betensky, Carolyn. “A Dark Trace: Sigmund Freud on the Sense of Guilt.” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 15.4 (2010): 429-431. Print.

Bhabha, Homi. “In Between Cultures.” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 30.4 (2013): 107-109. Print.

Gee, Hugh. “The Oedipal Complex in Adolescence.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 36.2 (1991): 193-210. Print.

Johnston, Adrian. “The Vicious Circle of the Super-Ego: The Pathological Trap of Guilt and the Beginning of Ethics.” Psychoanalytic Studies 3.3/4 (2001): 411-424. Print.

King, Thomas. Medicine River. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 2014. Web.

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