Summary and Analysis
O'Brien recalls a fellow soldier, Henry Dobbins, and his habit of wrapping his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck as a sort of "talisman," or lucky charm. O'Brien remembers Dobbins as a simple man with good intentions. When caught in a fight in the middle of an open field, Dobbins wrapped the pantyhose around his face and made it through the fight unscathed. The pantyhose, he believed, kept him safe, and he continued his eccentric practice even after his girlfriend broke up with him because he said the magic did not go away.
The vignette is essentially a character sketch of Henry Dobbins. O'Brien devotes several of his chapters in The Things They Carried to such character sketches not only to create a vivid story but also to author a portrait of Vietnam that is more personal than political, more realistic than fantastic. From such chapters as "The Dentist" and "Stockings," we get to know the men and their idiosyncrasies, and O'Brien takes us through Vietnam with him rather than just reporting events and names.
In contrast to Curt Lemon, O'Brien's portrait of Henry Dobbins is a positive account of faith and hope. Dobbins is shown to be a strong man because he has faith. O'Brien outlines the many good parts of Dobbins and then complicates that by comparing him to America. Dobbins, O'Brien says, is like America in that both are "big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along." The comparison starts well, and begins to wane to the point where we wonder whether O'Brien is criticizing America for being fat and slow or whether he has simply dropped the analogy. O'Brien shows Dobbins to be as the sons of America, exemplifying its great and dubious qualities alike, creating a realistic rather than jingoistic portrait of war and soldiers.
The main image in this vignette is the pair of stockings that Dobbins hangs around his neck. Stockings conjure up a number of meanings. First, there is some gender mixing when a man wears a woman's garment, demonstrating what we might now call a sexual fetish. Wrapping the stockings around his neck and pulling them over his nose, Dobbins displays a yearning for the feminine, gentler side of himself. Second, and most obviously, the stockings are a symbol of love and home. They are out of place in Vietnam where the soldiers have neither women nor refinement. Stockings recall memories of more pleasant times when Dobbins was with his girlfriend, away from the war and the jungle. So powerful are the stockings that they become a talisman, giving Dobbins real power to stay healthy and injury-free. Of course, we know that no nylon stockings would ever deflect bullets, but O'Brien shows how they affected a positive change of mind in Dobbins, and mental state affects reality. That is why O'Brien gives us so many stories where characters try to understand — the stockings give Dobbins an understanding, or a state of mind, that makes him more powerful.
Of course, in the end O'Brien robs us from this analysis by reporting that Dobbins's girlfriend breaks up with him, and Dobbins retains the stockings still. The power of the stockings, then, does not come from love or the memory of his girlfriend, but from Dobbins himself. They will continue to protect him so long as he believes in them. O'Brien shows us that anyone could have had stockings, whether Jensen's jackknife or Cross's picture. Anyone could have used anything as his own talisman. But Dobbins is singled out as someone who did. He found hope more than the other members of the company.
bouncing Betty An explosive that propels upward from the ground and then detonates.