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A Feminist Idea


The Things They Carried


Tim O’Brien


Although there aren’t many female characters in Tim O’Briens’ The Things They Carried, there is still a feminist idea present in the novel. The idea present is that women served just as an important role as men in the Vietnam War, although it was very different. The women were the most important things for men at war, serving as inspiration and comfort. Often times, women were idolized and held to high esteem even without their knowledge. In some cases however, the women did not act as they were thought to. This came to a surprise and even heartbreak to some unfortunate men at war.


The idea of a woman waiting for you back home was the best thing for a man at war. This woman served as the reason to fight and a comfort because they had to. The men had pictures and souvenirs of the women they loved and carried with them. There are examples of this in the novel, one being Henry Dobbins. Henry had a girlfriend back home waiting for him, just like many other men. In order to remind himself of this, he carried with him a pair of her pantyhose. Often times when Henry had to go out on an ambush or when he went to sleep, he would wrap the pantyhose around his neck and smell them for good luck. Henry and the other men of his company recognized that the pantyhose had some sort of magic to them. This was seen when Henry tripped a Bouncing Betty and got caught in a harsh firefight, but had his pantyhose around his neck and was not injured at all.


Along with good luck charms like Henry’s pantyhose, the men carried pictures, and held on to them for dear life. Often times the men carried them in plastic so that the elements wouldn’t fade, warp, or ruin them. The men would do anything to keep the picture of their girl back at home. One vivid example from the book, is the day that Kiowa died. One night in a mud field, Kiowa and a young soldier were sitting and talking when the soldier took out a protected picture of his girl for Kiowa to see. The young soldier turned on his flashlight and a second later they were ambushed. During the firefight Kiowa was injured and sunk far into the mud, dying, but the most important thing to the young soldier was getting his picture of his girl back. While the rest of the platoon searched the muddy waters for Kiowa’s body, he searched for his picture, because it was the only picture he had and it’s what kept him going.


In some instances, the women didn’t even realize that they served such an awesome purpose in the war. These women just went about their daily lives, seeming to not even think twice about the war or dare to mention it in their letters they may write to a soldier they may know. For many soldiers though, these letters meant so much, or sometimes everything to them. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was one of these soldiers and the woman who was his unknowing inspiration was Martha. Martha was a girl Jimmy knew from college, and whom he had fallen in love with. When Jimmy went to war, this love was only amplified. The letters, pictures, and a souvenir pebble that Martha had sent over seemed to serve as everything for the Lt. Jimmy would spend every night in his foxhole analyzing the letters over and over, trying to find a hidden romantic meaning in them, when in all reality he knew there was none. He would look at the pictures wondering whom had taken them, and feeling somewhat jealous of those people. He would take the pebble Martha had sent him from the Jersey shore and place it in his mouth, tasting the salt and imagining he was on the shore with her right at that very moment. Every thing that Jimmy did wasn’t for himself or for his men or for the war, it was for Martha and the possibility of she and him being together in the future. However, Martha never knew that she served such a purpose for Jimmy. She wrote him letters, and gave him pictures, and sent him a pebble for a good luck, but never intended to be Jimmy’s romantic interest, or his girl waiting at home for him. Even Jimmy had admitted to himself that none of her letters had a romantic idea to them or that the pebble was anything more than a good luck charm. Nevertheless, Martha was to Lt. Cross what many other women were to other soldiers during the Vietnam war an inspiration and a comfort even without them being present and sometimes even without their knowledge.


In some instances, the women at home seemed to not fulfill their role as a comfort for the men at war, and this came as a real shock for many of the men at war. The novel gives two examples of this in Curt Lemon’s sister and Mark Fossie’s girlfriend Mary Anne.


Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley were in the same platoon and became best friends. One afternoon, Curt was killed and Rat was left without a best friend and no one to comfort him. For this , Rat turned to Lemon’s sister. After Lemon’s death, Rat sat down and wrote a nice letter to Lemon’s sister about how great a guy Lemon was, being a jokester and how Rat had loved him and how they were best friends. Rat even says that he’ll look her up when the war’s over. So what happens? Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back.(68). This comes as a surprise to all of the men, especially Rat, because this is not how a woman was supposed to act. All of the men expected Lemon’s sister to act like all of the other women they had idolized and write back to Rat, to be his comfort and support. It is almost as if the men wanted to women to realize that they were adored and should accept the fact and intentionally do things to try and comfort their soldier. When this didn’t happen, the men at war were devastated.


A similar situation happened between Mark Fossie and his long time girlfriend Mary Anne. Mary Anne was the typical innocent girl at home for Mark and when he decided to bring her to the war, everything changed. Mark brought her their to serve as a comfort still, but now that Mary Anne was put in the war zone she became a part of it and lost her innocence just like others did. Instead of staying in her room, wearing culottes and being by Mark’s side, she decided to go out on ambushes and help with injured soldiers. When Mary Anne started to not act as the woman Mark wanted her to be and expected her to be, he was surprised and even disappointed and heartbroken. Mark had his hopes up that bringing Mary Anne would inspire him and bring him even more joy than a picture or a letter could. However, Mary Anne was not the girl at home any more, she was part of Vietnam, and this reality hurt Mark and surprised other men, who wanted their women to be constantly there for them.


Women weren’t thought of as being important in war. In many peoples’ minds women couldn’t fight, kill, or last long in the jungle. This may have been true for many women, but as this novel shows, without women, all of the wars of the past would have been drastically different. Women served a very different purpose in the war, they served as hope and support for troops. Without his girl’s pantyhose Henry Dobbins would be very different, maybe even hopeless and depressed. Without a salty pebble Lt. Cross may not have had the strength to lead his platoon. Although there were some women who didn’t fit the mold of a soldier’s girl at home, many of the women during the Vietnam War fulfilled their role as an inspiration and a comfort to the men at war.





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