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In Timothy O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, a number of insightful themes are forwarded by the author. One theme in particular interests me the most; the subject area is how people handle their emotions through the avoidance or distortion of reality. Specifically, throughout the novel a number of characters respond to the emotionally charged realities they are confronted with in one of two major ways, distortion or escapism. This pattern, shown throughout the novel, surveys one manner in which humans approach the rough emotions they carry with them throughout their life. To support this thesis I will analyze a number of character’s responses to emotional stressors and compare them against my claims of escape and distortion reactions.
I have identified two major ways the characters I analyze respond to their realities in this novel, distortion and escapism. When I identify something as distortion, I intend to imply that the characters take the edge off of the reality of their situations by making the events they encounter seem less real. Examples of such behavior would include finding humor in otherwise horrifying situations or even romanticizing the environment around them to make it seem something different than what it is. The escapist manner of reacting to the intensity of emotions is to distance oneself from the actual events or surrounding. To accomplish this all a character needs to do is to daydream themselves away from the problem or to create alternative realities in their own mind.
It is important to establish that O’Brien develops the premise that the emotions and situations these men had to deal with were very intense and traumatic. Beyond the more or less obvious contention that dealing with death and war might be painful, there is textual support that O’Brien is trying to get this message across. On page 20, the narrator says, “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.” This analysis sets up textual basis for my theme. If it is true that these soldiers experience (d) tremendous emotions then there is room to analyze how they go about carrying their tangible “emotional baggage.” Additionally, it should be noted that the characters I analyze in this paper are only a small representative sample of the larger number of characters who may very well fit my within my thesis statement. It is also noteworthy to mention that how I classify a character in terms of their response to emotional intensity-escape or distortion-is very much a debatable contention. Given that, I do believe, however, that my conclusions will stand on the merit of my analysis.
In the first chapter, Timothy O’Brien wastes no time examining one coping mechanism, escapism. Escapism is a rather basic way of handling intense emotions. Timothy O’Brien first introduces a character named Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who exhibits the escapist manner of dealing with his emotions. Jimmy Cross is the Lieutenant of the group of men that this story focuses on. Jimmy Cross is first introduced fantasizing about his love, a girl name Martha. Martha is a student back home in New Jersey and for all intents and purposes does not return Lieutenant Cross’s love. On pages 3 and 4, the narrator comments that, “They [the letters] were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant.” Thus, despite the fact that Lieutenant Cross acknowledges that Martha probably does not return his love, he still daydreams about falling in love with Martha and the times they spent together before the war. The somewhat excessive, so it seems to the reader, amount of time Jimmy Cross spends thinking about Martha may indeed be a failure of reading. We ask ourselves why it is that Jimmy Cross spends so much time thinking about Martha? This and other similar questions about the daydreaming provide room for interpretation.
This daydreaming of Martha is a way of escaping the intensity of emotion Jimmy Cross has to bear during the war. We find out that in the week before Ted Lavender dies Jimmy Cross daydreams a great deal about Martha. This daydreaming helps to take him away from the intensity of the war. On pages 9 and 10 the narrator describes how Lieutenant Cross would walk along his missions thinking about spending time with Martha. While on tour, Lieutenant Cross once received a pebble in a letter from Martha. This inspired him to daydream about how she must have kept it in her breast. He escaped to the beach where she found the pebble and vividly thought about the waves crashing upon the beach of the Jersey shoreline. The narrator identifies how distracting this daydreaming is when he says, “He [Jimmy Cross] had difficulty keeping his attention on the war” (9-10). The daydreaming about Martha is a way that Cross took himself completely away from the war. He could be thousands of miles away on a quiet beach in Jersey as the war raged on around him.
Another character who demonstrates escapism is our child of the Song Tra Bong, Mary Anne. This act of escape is slightly more radical than Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s response, however. The chapter, “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” allows the reader a chance to evaluate a more extreme reaction to the emotions of war. The story of Mary Anne begins with her boyfriend who is part of a small medical regiment located along a river, called the Song Tra Bong. Rat Kiley is the narrator of the story; he was also a part of this regiment, along with Mary Anne’s boyfriend, Mark Fossie. Rat Kiley explains how Mark Fossie arranged to have his girlfriend brought over to Vietnam, so they could be together. Marry Anne comes over to Vietnam and is delivered to the medical outpost by way of supplies chopper. Mary Anne is depicted by O’Brien to be very innocent. She is described as a soft, curious, and friendly person adorned in her pink sweater. The feminine elements are stressed in the description of her in order to juxtapose her against the harsher, more masculine, surroundings. It is this dissimilarity, between Mary Anne’s serenity and the war’s roughness, which allows us to see how fully the war could force a person to confront an uncomfortable reality.
As the story progresses Mary Anne begins to change from her bubbly and alive pink sweater persona into a more withdrawn individual. On page 109, Rat Kiley describes, “The way she quickly fell into the habits of the bush. No cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her hair short and wrapped it in a dark green bandana.” A noticeable point of departure is when Mary Anne begins to spend more and more time with the Green Berets and even goes on an ambush with them. After going on the ambush Mary Anne is remarkably withdrawn. Despite that she temporarily seems to get “straightened out” by her boyfriend and ends up wearing a nice blue dress and has groomed hair the next day, she is still distinctly different than before. As Rat Kiley notes on page 113, “Over dinner she kept her eyes down, poking at her food, subdued to the point of silence.” Questions run through the reader’s mind at this point. What did she see out there? What does she feel? Why is she acting like this? These questions signify a failure of reading. They force us to wonder what to make of Mary Anne’s character change and her reactions. The remainder of the story of Mary Anne brings us to her eventual departure into the jungle. Not on a mission with the Green Berets, but alone. She simply disappears. If we conjecture that while on their missions the Green Berets ambushed and killed people, then it is reasonable to assume that Mary Anne experienced and witnessed killing. Perhaps, the horror of such acts forced her to run. The intense emotions that the war produces within simply got to her. Her reaction was to escape. She escaped from a world in which she had to deal with the emotions into a world in which she let herself be consumed by them.
These two examples support the idea that when confronted with great emotional shock people desperately try to avoid the reality of their situation. Alas, escape is not the only way Timothy O’Brien develops this theme. Another way to respond to the reality of a situation wrought with emotional dismay is to distort that reality. What does it mean to distort reality? It means to make reality seem not what it is. To alter how one views the situation. To take the edge off realities harshness. To dull the otherwise piercing emotional intensity. There are a couple of significant examples of reality distortion that I will identify. The first example is the use of humor in otherwise horrifying situations in order to make the situation less real. After Ted Lavender dies the men in his company make fun of the circumstances of his death. Ted Lavender was urinating while he was shot and he also happened to be doped up at the time. It is important to note that Ted Lavender used tranquilizers in abnormally large amounts. They made jokes about his death. Mitchell Sanders provides a specific example of this behavior. Shortly after Lavender’s death Sanders made a joke that “The moral’s pretty obvious. Sanders said, and winked. Stay away from drugs. No joke, they’ll ruin your day every time” (20). The narrator says the men even joked about how “poor guy didn’t even feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was” (20). The joking about death is a failure of reading. We might ask ourselves why would people joke about such issues? Do they have no emotions?
It is when we ask these questions that we see yet another instance of reality avoidance in the novel. These men are not emotionless; on the contrary, they are so filled with internal emotional conflict that their joking is a way of responding to the reality they are faced with, the death of a friend and fellow soldier. The narrator says on page 19, “They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it. They found jokes to tell. They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness.” This quotation captures very accurately the idea that some people respond to intense emotion through humor. This is yet another method of reality avoidance in emotionally intense situations.
The final example I will analyze is in regards to the story of Norman Bowker. This story is a good example of the distortion that often occurs when people are working through emotionally taxing situations. Norman Bowker is a member of the company that Timothy O’Brien was in during Vietnam. After the war, Norman Bowker returned home to his quiet hometown of Des Moines. The story revolves around Norman Bowker driving around the town. Specifically, Norman drives around a lake near Sunset Park. In this story Bowker thinks to himself about his life and how things might have been different if he had not gone to the war. After a while, it becomes apparent the Bowker keeps imaging conversations he would have with people given different circumstances. One such conversation is what he might have said to people if he had received the silver medal of courage. In particular, he imagines what the conversation with his father would have been like. Then again, he creates a number of conversations with his former heartthrob, Sally. At one point in the story Bowker attempts to speak his story or his mind to the person over the intercom at A&W. Even then he cannot bring himself to talk about. The narrator on page 172 tells us that “He could not talk about it and never would.” This inability to talk about the war and, moreover, the made up conversations, are grounds for interpretation.
The ending of this story suggests that Norman Bowker had some deeply held emotional problems he needed to deal with. This claim has warrant because at the end of this story Norman Bowker kills himself. Keep in mind the thesis; people distort their reality when confronted with extreme emotional conflict. Given that, we can now make some sense of the conversations Norman Bowker fantasizes about. Quite simply, Norman Bowker is experiencing readjustment problems and cannot cope with his sadness. So, he distorts his silent reality, in which he cannot bring himself to speak to anyone, by creating made up conversations with people. These conversations serve as a coping device for his emotions, which are otherwise kept bottled up.
The repetition of different characters avoiding the very real and emotionally difficult situations they encounter suggests something larger about people. The war, as the backdrop for The Things They Carried, provides Timothy O’Brien with the cause for emotional conflict in his characters. From this starting point the novel becomes quite a valuable document for examining how people deal with their emotional baggage. The repetitive avoidance through either escapism or distortion is an insight this novel gives us about people at large. As said on page 21, “By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure.” Given this observation, it might be said that some people wear masks that alter their perception of reality and others wear masks that give them flight.
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