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The Role of Women in The Things They Carried

Introduction

While looking at Tim O’Brien’s book and what the author implements in it according to the role of women, one can surely guess of an unfair attitudinal background represented by men being involved in Vietnam War. This point is emphasized in many episodes where women were blamed and criticized without any sufficient argumentative base. The example of Martha excellently fits in this case. As I see, women play an integral but subservient role in the Vietnam War era, and misogynistic antagonism themes are prevalent in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and other literature and media made to reflect during the Vietnam War era.

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Before talking about the issue it is quite important to mention the statement of one wise man of the medieval epoch, meaning St. Augustine. He said once that if God wanted to make man dominate over the woman he would create woman from man’s foot; if He wanted to make woman dominate over man, he would create her from the head; but as God primordially designed a woman to assist a man on an equal base, he created her from a rib. This truth goes beyond any objectives of those thinking in terms of misogyny and points out that every attempt of men to built prejudices against women will be failed sooner or later.

Attitude toward women in society

Returning to Tim O’Brien one cannot but agree that the author reflects in the book, probably, not his attitude toward women in the 1960s. It would be right to say that this epoch and time before, actually, was marked in the history of social relations in the United States as a period when a woman’s mission fell into work about the house without any possibility to go beyond the borders of it. Such condemned conditions of social reality cannot but erect women’s conscientiousness versus men’s chauvinistic approaches regarding a so-called “inferior” nature of women. One of the male characters in the book points out while explaining to soldier the truth of war: “You got these blinders on about women, how gentle and peaceful they are. All that crap about…” (O’Brien 107). It is, undoubtedly, frustrating, as I see.

What is more, the society of that time was highly loaded with social problems dealing with different forms of discrimination, such as racial and gender ones. This fact outlined stable factors of paramount significance of men in the society throughout new generations. Even educational establishments shared such attitude toward gender questions which was then imposed in Tim O’Brien’s Things They Carried. Frances Conley negatively estimated such flow of “changes” when she wrote once: “I have learned that universities, in general, no longer function as agents of societal change… [that their] liberal environment is a masquerade” (Cited in Waxman 1998). This researcher of misogyny problem in relatively recent years reminded me of the situation with my parents who are perpetually quarreling when touching upon the theme of male or female things. A point of reciprocal misunderstanding takes place in the society of the 1960s. Speaking about Lieutenant Cross and the author’s depiction of him comparing with America of that time O’Brien notes: “…ironies went beyond him, in many ways he was like America itself: big and strong, full of good intentions” (O’Brien 117). Today society can hardly notice distinctive changes so that to emphasize a torrent of problem’s decrease. A journal article by Lorrie N. Smith tells a reader about different points to evaluate a gendered character in O’Brien’s stories about the war. This author designates the problem of sexism and male condemnation inside the plot of the book with points of other famous persons in the literature field, namely Sedgwick, who points out a homosocial bonding in O’Brien’s work using following words:

The sexually pitiable or contemptible female figure is a solvent that not only facilitates the relative democratization that grows up with capitalism and cash exchange but goes a long way — for the men whom she leaves bonded together — toward palliating its gaps and failures (L. Smith 19).

Thinking over this statement a reader can imagine those episodes with Martha and her cruel destiny in the war framework and men’s indifference about her. Her innocence and light-mindedness go beyond the war realities. She is an object of the sexual desires of Lieutenant Cross and becomes significant for her sexuality and nothing else. In that Vietnam Era, the American people indeed was with more patriarchal absolutism and male priority was taken for granted. It was in Vietnam as well when, as the author writes, “trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities” (O’Brien). Then what were women for men? Facts show that women were nothing but sexual satisfaction for the strongest half of mankind, and they served as an integral part of men. It seems to be very cruel and unfair because suchlike discrimination gives no other chance for women to protest morally and using their lifestyles. Feminism became needful support for women to argue their destination in society. The misogynistic approach in the book by Tim O’Brien creates a precipice between two main parts of humanity and correlates it with war events in Vietnam. It is such a good comparison, in fact, but with some peculiarities.

Characters description

For the author it was a challenge as Patrick A. Smith admits, to narrate about strong and highly-motivated female characters in the book and to draw their characters contrasting to those of male protagonists (Smith P 154). This observer runs a reader across the real intentions of the writer to make up a well-determined picture of relationships between men and women being in pain of death now and then during the Vietnam War: “For every man who went to Vietnam, or for every man who went to Canada, there were countless sisters and girlfriends and wives and mothers, each of whom had her own fascinating story, her tragedies, and suffering, her healing afterward” (Cited in P. Smith 154). O’Brien, speaking about war truth and social troubles concentrates attention more on the scenes of cruelty in the book: “…the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus” (O’Brien 40). One wants to believe that in the Vietnam period of social development in the United States there was no such attitude of men toward women, but when applying to the newspaper, journal articles as well as different films, the point clears up that, unfortunately, such inequality existed within the American society.

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While describing Martha’s character and her aims while being in war realities, one notes that she was a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey and that she was an English major. This protagonist differs from other characters because her manner of writing excludes points of war at all. Tim O’Brien outlines in the book that “in those burned letters Martha had never mentioned the war except to say Jimmy take care of yourself” (O’Brien 24). She thinks in that way which presupposes a piece in the moral state of the soul. Nonetheless, Martha invokes in a reader an entire flow of soul equilibrium due to her constant positive evaluation of everything which happened. All her thoughts and words are told through Lieutenant Cross and there is no first-person narration of hers in the text at all.

This characterizes her as a grave and well-bred girl, whose perfection could not break down men’s obscene attitude toward her. A spiritual peculiarity of Martha made her another within soldiers. Notwithstanding, Martha appears for Cross in the role of the only pathway to the real world.

This fact is also underlined with cruelty and bloody realities in Vietnam War (Ringnalda 120). He urged for her and wanted her world because of a poorness of his own. He knew nothing better for him than to appeal to her feelings and emotions. The author depicts this by following words: “he hated himself he had loved Martha more than his men” (O’Brien 16). Moreover, this character tried to break down all obstacles between them, but here comes an aspect of virginity and a man’s nature overcomes rationality.

Men and women

Alex Vernon in his book Soldiers once and still tells about the realities of war seen with own experience and analyzed throughout those writers attempting to make those realities more vivid for a reader. His book provides a complex of writings and different articles gathered for one aim – to find out the truth in what and how Vietnam War is described in the literature. By O’Brien’s book, he scarcely can admit points of sexism and misogyny in the author’s book: “We can hardly accuse O’Brien of sexism or misogyny for quoting this cadence and others like it, because he does so to criticize the army, which, as he sees it, turns women into “dinks” and “villains” (Vernon 256). Nurses, sisters – they were helpful in Vietnam and provided necessary help for those having been injured or wounded. Their participation in war cannot be reduced and forgotten. Frances Conley is a living example of this approach. These women were also dreaming to be in a safe place somewhere in a place with warm beds and love, which they could share with someone worthy of it, but “it was safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true” (O’Brien 82). Furthermore, the role of a woman in society should prop up against the features to calm down men’s pain. This contradictory view is illustrated in the book with the presence of women. Why then male representatives continued blaming women? This rhetorical question still finds no solution in society, not only in the Vietnam Era.

Boys will be boys. This approach is outlined throughout the years of struggles between two genders and this fight is useless until finding a better solution for both. Grabbing special attention on them men strive to become popular, and their prevalence is felt when they experience intimate closeness with women so that later to condemn that girl and become popular at once within friends. Starting with school this feeling becomes stronger. “The high school was almost gone or married Sally Kramer,” – admits the author while describing Jimmy. This reminds a bit of sorrow and sadness in pictures depicted by O’Brien, where patriarchal supremacy and mere negative attitude of men cannot be dampened even in the war framework when women made all efforts to assist men. Here the words of St. Augustine, as was mentioned above, are perceived more distinctively than ever.

Conclusion

Things They Carried also signifies the paradox of national unity with unresolved internal controversies and conflicts within the US in the 1960s. This theme amazes me with its discrepancy. Discrimination and homosocial separation inside the American society point out once more that female protagonists in the book excellently underline and excluding the role of women for men. The role of nurses serving to be a “treatment” and a hope for sooner recovery was shifted notwithstanding the good things, which they did under falling bombs and hazards of “battlefield” called Vietnam. Furthermore, Tim O’Brien could not dismiss the role of women in America which appeared to fight for political and economic interests in Vietnam, those who coming of age became adult, and those, who maintain the affairs of national significance, forgot about own life and lived in dreams for better conditions for life in the piece and stable development of relationships throughout main spheres of peoples’ activities. Tim O’Brien made a great excursus toward the problem of gender relationships in the Vietnam War with personal views in fiction.

Works cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1998.

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Ringnalda, Donald. Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. Jackson, MS: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Smith, Lorrie N. “The Things Men Do: the Gendered Subtext in Tim O’Brien’s Esquire Stories.” Critique 36.1 (1994): 16-40.

Smith, Patrick A. Tim O’Brien: a critical companion. Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

Vernon, Alex. Soldiers once and still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, & Tim O’Brien. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.

Waxman, Merle. Walking Out on the Boys by Frances K. Conley. Washington: The New England Journal of Medicine. Vol. 339:1402 (1998), No. 19: pp. 245. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 8). The Role of Women in The Things They Carried. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-role-of-women-in-the-things-they-carried/

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