Here is an essay I wrote earlier this year analyzing the book The Things They Carried. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! It's a great read. Anyway, I think this essay represents some of my best work (I got an A+ on it, and my English teacher used it as an example of how to write a tightly packed essay in her class the next day; the students' paid me many a compliment!) Our assignment with this was to incorporate a quote or two from Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, and so I did. It's the weakest part of the essay, but I think that the analysis I did on Mary Anne's character more than makes up for it. Enjoy.
Mary Anne’s Fall From Grace
There are three goals that I believe any medium of work should meet at least one of in order to be successful, and if it can meet more than one, the better. First, the work should inform. By that, I mean it should feed us new information that we had not earlier possessed; a news story or a documentary does this quite well. Hand-in-hand with that, the item should not present us with misinformation. That’s worse than providing us with no information at all; the item has perpetuated a lie that could be seen as harmful. Second, the work should inspire, by which I mean, even if we haven’t necessarily learned anything new, we should be given something new to think about and/or question; the work should promote thought. However, so too should it promote something new; if we are told a message that we already know, then what’s the point? We already knew that, so the work is, at least on this front, a failure. Getting us to think about something in a new way, or getting us to think about something new altogether, makes the work a success. Finally, the work should be entertaining, by which I mean, if we fail to gain new information from it, or are failed to be presented with something new to think about, we are at least entertained by the experience of whatever the medium presents us with. The work should have something catching to it; it should draw us in.
The Things They Carried meets all of the above criteria in spades. It presents us with a blunt view of the Vietnam War, it gets us to think about the human condition and moral ambiguity in a new and interesting way, and the book itself is written very well. The first person narrative really puts you in the situation, and when O’Brien takes you out of his story to tell you some behind-the-scenes information, it’s exciting to get inside his brain and try to figure out what his thought processes were. Every story within the book presents us with a new slant on how humans deal with death, life, war, or friendship, but no story struck me quite as hard as “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”. Mary Anne Bell, the main character for this story, reacts to war and death in a very human way; her reactions are that of a civilian, and, whether or not the character was real, O’Brien brings this character to life by making her reactions and thoughts relatable to the average reader. This story is about what happens when the average human is subjected to war. What do you do in that situation? How do you cope with death; moreover, how do you cope with death by your own hand? These questions loom in the back of the reader’s mind as Mary Anne slowly becomes invested in war and its mechanics. How do the events of this story change the human psyche and behavior?
To answer that, first we must look at how Mary Anne came to be here in the first place. The majority of this story is told from Rat Kiley’s point of view, and one of the first things he mentions is how laid back and nonchalant his assignment at the medical base up in the mountains of Chu Lai is, describing it as “ideal duty” and saying that “you didn’t have to polish you boots or snap off salutes or put up the usual rear-echelon nonsense” (O’Brien 87). So right away, we see that this is a comfortable place. Very little to no danger is encountered by these folk, and this sets the stage perfectly in juxtaposition to the environment that Mary Anne will soon find herself in.
The second reason she came out here at all was because of Mark Fossie’s, her boyfriend, desire to see a side of the world where war didn’t matter. “‘Bring in a girl. I mean, what’s the problem?’” he asks, and the only response is “‘Nothing. A war’” (89). And that’s exactly what this is. This medical facility may be laid back, but to these people, they’re still part of the war. Fossie argues the exact opposite of that point: “‘Well, see, that’s the thing… No war here. You could really do it’” (89). No war here. That’s what he’ll keep telling himself throughout Mary Anne’s stay here. And by the end, both Fossie and the reader realize that Fossie was right. There was no war here… not until Fossie brought the storm in the form of a curious girl who wanted nothing more than to thrive in her new environment.
The final contribution to how Mary Anne got here (though this can only be called so in hindsight) is the introduction of the Greenies. Described here as “animals… but far from social” (88), these guys would vanish for weeks on end, doing things that no one bothered asking questions about because they feared the answers. The Greenies’ mystique and awe-factor gives Mary Anne something to strive towards in ways that the other people here do not. These people are smart, calculative, and deadly, and it’s easy to see why Mary Anne is so attracted to such a phenomenon. They play the role of final catalyst in Mary Anne’s fall from grace.
Mary Anne is an interesting character to analyze because she’s so out of her element when arriving, yet this new side of the world quickly becomes her element anew. She’s adaptive by nature (91). She’s curious, she wants to learn, and as the commanding officer, Eddie Diamond, puts it “‘There’s the scary part. I promise you, this girl will most definitely learn’” (92). And learn she does, but not in the sense of learning how to cope with war. That aspect of war doesn’t come into play until the very end of the story. For right now, she learns war based on what those around her see. They don’t see moral ambiguity or emotional backlash (at least not on the outside). These people are hardened soldiers, and they see an objective to be completed. She learns from these people how to repair and operate a gun, how to splint a wound, how to amputate a leg, all with that distance of emotion that the other soldiers display (93). She’s learning without really understanding what she’s doing. Rat mentions that when she was confronted with action, “her face took on a sudden new composure, almost serene” (93). Serenity is her response to horrors because she can’t know anything else. She doesn’t know how to cope with this, so her mind resorts to what it does best: learn and adapt, and fascination begins to override logic and fear.
The human psyche is a fascinating subject all on its own, but to explore it within the confines of a fictional medium takes real skill. The characters in O’Brien’s book, real or no, are always human; they react to horror, love, confusion, war, and sarcasm as anyone would. Mary Anne’s personality is being redefined again as she begins to subconsciously question who she really is. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you…” (Emerson 20). Mary Anne accepts her “divine providence” with vigor, but she also questions who she is and who she’s turning into: “‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘Really nothing. To tell the truth, I’ve never been happier in my whole life. Never” (O’Brien 95).
This is her heart telling her that she is still human; her heart and mind are at odds with each other, no longer “vibrating to that iron string”. She’s coping with things that she was never meant to cope with, and this is the primary reason why soldiers don’t bring their girlfriends out into the field. “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried” (Emerson 20). Fossie knows how war works, and he doesn’t realize that his power to understand it and its complexities is not universal. Mary Anne’s understanding of war is peripheral in nature compared to Fossie’s; she hasn’t had the training or the preparedness that he has had, and when she finally does give in to the war and its consequences, it is in spite of Fossie’s help and not because of it.
“You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same. A question of degree. Some make it intact, some don’t make it at all” (O’Brien 109). Mary Anne did not make it back intact… because she died out there. She was destroyed. She was so fascinated by war and by the mechanics and politics of it that she forgot who she was and why she had come out here. She was a young, aspiring, intellectual woman who was in love with a man who both believed in himself and in her, and he had wanted her to come out here to see him. He needed that support, and Mary Anne needed that stimulus of being with her love once again. “‘I loved her…. We all did, I guess. The way she looked, Mary Anne made you think about those girls back home, how pure and innocent they all are, how they’ll never understand any of this, not in a billion years” (108). Mary Anne certainly got her stimulus, but it was one of war, one of discovering things that were not meant to be seen by young, unprepared eyes. “Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug; that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you’re risking something” (109).
A powerful drug is a perfect metaphor for how we greet unfamiliar territory. We don’t see new things through rose-colored glasses; we are able to capture the full experience and our mind tries to relate it to something that we are familiar with. Mary Anne does this by looking at war as another thing for her to understand. Her mind is one of learning and adaptability, and so she imprinted her skills onto this new environment of hers. “You become intimate with danger; you’re in touch with the far side of yourself” (109). Her vision of this place, of war, and of Fossie begins to evolve into a kind of instinctual sense, and instead of sorting out what she wants to see and understand, she now sees everything, and attempts to rationalize all of it out. “‘She was there. She was up to her eyeballs in it’” (108). And she understood what it was like to be in Fossie’s position; she now knew what it was like to kill and to face the consequences of it.
Her interactions with the Greenies are particularly telling of this; she took after them more so than after Fossie because she had seen and done all there was to see and do in Fossie’s world. She needed something more, and the Greenies offered that to her in the form of daredevil stunts and black-ops mercenary missions. When she does come back to Fossie’s side of the war then, she’s barely recognizable. “‘You’re in a place… where you don’t belong…. You just don’t know…. You hide in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don’t know…’” (106). Fossie never understood what real war was; he barely (possibly never) went out into the field. He was shielded from attack; all that safety and morale and easy-going nature made Mary Anne let down her guard, and when she was introduced to true warfare, she was forever traumatized, leaving her in a state of pure sadness, which eventually evolved into a kind of uncaring emotionless glaze over her character: “There was no emotion in her stare, no sense of the person behind it. But the grotesque part, he said, was her jewelry” (105).
And that leads into my favorite scene of this particular story: “At the girl’s throat was a necklace of human tongues. Elongated and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather, the tongues were threaded along a length of copper wire, one tongue overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill syllable” (108-9). This is what happens when a civilian is treated to the table of war. This is how much of a mistake Fossie made in bringing Mary Anne here: she’s not only lost to him, but she’s now lost period. Mary Anne died when she first came out here. Much like cancer, the war itself consumed her, eating her alive while those around her coped with it through their camaraderie and friendship. Mary Anne was left in the dust, having no external support. Fossie was a soldier; he couldn’t know how she was dealing with all of this, and yet at the same time, he wasn’t a killer; he was stationed at a medical facility that saw very little war. He didn’t know how much an actual firefight or assassination can mess a girl up, and as such all Mary Anne could do was honor her kills by threading a wire through their severed tongues and hanging them around her neck as a final act from her humanity as it finally left her to be replaced with instinct and animalism.
The Things They Carried as a book impressed me on every level it possibly could. O’Brien put so much care into his characters and settings and then just held you there. This story, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”, remains my favorite story out of the entire book because it presented the reader with the story of a B-grade character who was consumed by war and death and had no way to deal with it. Moreover, it met all of the criteria that I hold a work to. This story informed us of just how bad and traumatizing war can be, it inspired us to think about ourselves and our own life in a new way, and it was just a masterfully written piece overall. Mary Anne’s fall from grace is beautifully illustrated here, with lots of foreshadowing and juxtaposition and moral questions presented to us. Her interactions with Fossie are very human; at no point did I feel like I was reading dialogue out of a book, and the way she deals with her situation is realistic and natural. This story painted one of the most realistic pictures of how war can change a civilian, and of how our own brain can get thoroughly screwed up when presented with the horrors of war.