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O'brien's Things They Carried Essay: An American Nightmare

1475 words - 6 pages

History has shaped every country and their people, in particular negative experiences like the Holocaust in Nazi-Germany or the Vietnam war, involving the United States in a grueling controversy from 1964 until 1975. The author Tim O'Brian confronts an American audience in his short stories "The Things They Carried" with the inhumane consequences of political and military power decisions by rewriting history from a subjective,individual point of view. Thus he forces the audience to take a stand, to ask questions, to get morally and ethically involved.

The narrative structure of the "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" and "How to Tell a True War Story" contains two levels, the first on being a discourse about the characters of Vietnam stories. The "I", the narrator, introduces 'Rat' Kiley as his source for the narrative that follows. He characterizes stories about war as "strange", "swirling back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and mundane". The stories have a life of their own, reality is not absolute, not final. With this image he describes the ambiguity of war itself, the normality that turns into insanity, he summarizes the narrative about Mary Ann Bell and her experiences with the war. The narrator clearly states the purposes of these stories, he is not interested in factual truths about the war, he openly questions the reliability of his source: "Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement". He wants the audience to "feel exactly what he felt", an emotional experience, a subjective approach.

The second narrative level tells the story about Mary Ann Bell, the "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong". The narrator, probably the author, retells Rat's story in his own words, so that the source and the interpretation are interwoven. The historical reality of the Vietnam war is narrowed down to a "small medical detachment", over looking a river -"the Song Tra Bong". This place is ambiguous, even treacherous. While it is in reality "isolated and vulnerable" with "virtually no security" there is according to Rat "a sense of safety there". Symbolically this characterizes the guerilla aspect of the Vietnam war, its uncertainties and dangers.

The impression that "the war seemed to be somewhere far away" is definitely the reason for this comfortable situation which sets the scene for Mark Fossie's decision to "import" his girlfriend. In this island of apparent normality it doesn't seem too farfetched to complete the picture of a "normal" life. Mark and Mary, a typical young American couple, high school "sweethearts", want, what is considered the norm - "a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children". Gingerbread connotates sweetness, but also contains an association to fairy tales, which is ironic, considering the seriousness of Mark's plans. The "yellow-haired children" remind us that the picture of the American dream family was and is tainted with racial...

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