Gender Roles in The Things They Carried Essay

Gender Roles in The Things They Carried Essay

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Many of the short stories within the collection The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien, can be compared and contrasted in regards to elements including theme, characters, and technique. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” the character Mary Anne Bell appears to be apparently similar to the character Martha from “The Things They Carried,” in that both are young women who have relations with a soldier in the war. Though upon further analysis of Mary Anne, it appears she is far from alike to Martha. Rather, an unexpected parallel can be drawn between the characters Mary Anne and Elroy Berdahl, from “On the Rainy River,” in that both appear to be epitomes of masculinity. The peculiar connection between these characters developed by Tim O’Brien shines a light on the ambiguity of conventional gender roles of men and women.
Mary Anne is initially introduced to the audience, narrated by Rat Kiley, as an innocent and naïve young woman present in Vietnam solely to visit her boyfriend, Mark Fossie. She arrives in “white culottes” and a “sexy pink sweater” (86), and is deemed by the other soldiers as no more than a happy distraction for her man. As Mary Anne settles in though, her abundant curiosity of Vietnam and the war heighten, and she soon enough possesses as much interest in the war as many of the men. Forward, Mary Anne’s transformation into a soldier begins as she leaves her sweet femininity behind. No longer caring for her vanity, she falls “into the habits of the bush. No cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, [and] cut her hair short” (94). Mary Anne’s lost femininity is also evident when she handles powerful rifles like the M-16. Not only does the weapon literally scream out masculi...


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...of the value of time and silence. With few words and actions, Elroy is able to prompt O’Brien to reach a resolve regarding his moral obligation to attend war. Miraculously, he succeeds without so much as mentioning war or O’Brien’s obvious predicament “as if he already knew” (58), suggesting he encompasses the omniscient masculine ideal. The unique way in which Mary Anne and Elroy disappear nearing the end of each short story further establishes their character’s identity. While Mary Anne’s exit derives confusion and drama, Elroy’s is simple and painless. This suggests that Mary Anne’s masculinity is presented through her loud and chaotic actions whereas Elroy’s is through his quiet sagacity.

The character analysis of Mary Anne Bell in comparison and contrast to Martha and Elroy Berdahl implores the audience to consider the idea that gender is not inherent.

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