The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien Summary and Analysis Love

Summary

Character "Tim O'Brien," a middle-aged writer, recalls when, many years after the war, Lt. Jimmy Cross visits him at his home. They spend a full day looking at old photographs and talking, recalling both good and bad memories of the war. "O'Brien" asks Jimmy about Martha. He is surprised when Jimmy produces the photograph of Martha playing volleyball in a small frame, because he thought Jimmy had burned it after one of his men died. Jimmy had, but he saw Martha years later at a high school reunion and she eventually gave him a replacement photograph. He had told her that he still loved her and was curious about why she never married but became a Lutheran missionary. She said she did not know, but she intimated that there was a reason why. All night long Jimmy told her about how he wanted to touch her knee. Martha told him that she could not understand why men did such things. After learning this, "O'Brien" steers the conversation away from Martha. As Jimmy is leaving, "O'Brien" says that he would like to write a story about their visit. Jimmy begins to ask "O'Brien" not to mention something in his story, but "O'Brien" interrupts him and says that he will not.

Analysis

This chapter is rich with subtext about Martha that is continued from the preceding chapter. In "The Things They Carried," Lt. Cross is preoccupied with thoughts of Martha: When checking on Lee Strunk who is searching a tunnel, "suddenly, without willing it, he was thinking about Martha. . . . he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all the dangers, but his love was too much for him." "The Things They Carried" is a story about longing, Lt. Cross's longing for Martha's love; "Love" is a story about longing as well. In this chapter, however, Lt. Cross longs for what could never have been, compared to his hopeful longings while he was in-country, which helped him both to maintain his ability to face the discomforts and horrors of war and to question his competence because of his constant thoughts of Martha.

In offering more details about Martha — that she became a Lutheran missionary, that she had never married, that she did not know why she had not — including her remark about how men do "those things," the author subtly reveals that Martha had been the victim of rape. This detail connects to Lt. Cross's fixation on her virginity in the preceding chapter; it undoes the "reality" of Lt. Cross's fantasies by making his wish that she was a virgin an impossible "reality," and therefore begins to undo the reader's sense of what is truth or fantasy. O'Brien demonstrates the complicated relationship between truth and fantasy in the final sentence of the chapter when "O'Brien," the narrator, promises not to mention the burden Martha carries, the rape that is alluded to, but still makes it the crux of the chapter. Thus the focus of the entire vignette remains unmentioned.

Another central theme of the novel emerges in this chapter as well: the "O'Brien" persona. A persona is a person created by the author to tell a story; the persona does not necessarily share the attitudes or dispositions of the actual author. Noting this fictional divide between the "O'Brien" persona and the actual author, Tim O'Brien, is crucial to understanding the novel. The preceding chapter is presented in third-person omniscient, in which the narrator tells the story using third person and is free to disclose the thoughts and emotions of characters. This chapter shifts to first person, in which the story is told by a character of the story and from that character's limited point of view. The persona, middle-aged writer Tim O'Brien, now becomes a subjective filter through which readers gain information. O'Brien reminds readers of this filter as "O'Brien" promises not to disclose Martha's rape.

Glossary

Bonnie and Clyde A 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway about the criminal pair of lovers.

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