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”The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and ”The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1257
  • Category: Novel

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The abstract idea that specific facts and events are inconsequential when looking at a theme or idea as a whole is used in the novels The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Through the use of talk story, as in Kingston’s novel, and the basis of a “true war story,” in The Things they Carried, the respective authors use the idea to portray the true meaning of the work. Neither talk story nor a “true war story”1 rely on the truth, but rather on the impressions left by the story and the effect on the listener. Both Kingston and O’Brien use this twist of a story to fully develop the themes portrayed in their novels and get across the true meaning of their story and what they want the reader to take away from the novel.

Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried delivers a strong theme throughout the story; the idea that the war changed the soldiers and eventually drove the soldiers insane. In the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” there are several examples of O’Brien using a “true war story” to strengthen his belief of the effects of the war on the soldiers. The first example is after Curt Lemon dies and Rat Kiley runs across a baby buffalo on the road.

“He (Rat Kiley) stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got back up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear…It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt….there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby buffalo”(O’Brien pg.78-79).

This passage shows the mutilation of a baby buffalo by Rat Kiley. In society this would be considered a horrendous act but because of the war the soldier’s sense of morality had been stripped away. “There wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby buffalo”(O’Brien pg. 79) wrote O’Brien, when describing the scene. The things the soldiers had seen and experienced made this act nothing more then a game. But at the end of the chapter, O’Brien reveals his secret; “No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. No trail junction. No baby buffalo…beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every god damn detail-” (O’Brien pg. 85) The fact that this story did not really does not matter to the over all picture of the novel. The idea that O’Brien wants the reader to take away from this short story is the driving idea behind the novel as a whole and that the war changed the soldiers.

Another example of the effect of the war on the soldiers is another “true war story” in “How to Tell a True War Story.” This is a story told by Mitchell Sanders, and in the story a six man patrol goes on a listening post which involves absolute silence. The silence took it s toll on the soldiers and “the guys started hearing this real soft wacked-out music…Like a radio or something” (O’Brien pg. 73) but they could not do anything about the music, only sit and listen. Eventually “they hear chamber music” (O’Brien pg. 74) and an opera so they call in the air strike. At the end of the story Sanders makes a confession; “Last night I had to make up a few things…There was no glee club…no opera”(O’Brien pg. 75). The specifics of what the soldiers actually herd did not matter to the story, the point was that the war drove the soldiers insane, and Sanders felt that he needed to add the chamber music and the opera to truly express the change the soldiers went through. This is the basis of a “true war story” the device O’Brien relies on to depict the idea that the war altered the soldiers and drove them crazy.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston is a non-fiction story of a Chinese-American girl growing up in California. Throughout the novel Kingston uses the talk stories from her mother to outline what a true woman warrior is and who Maxine’s mother expected her to be. The first example of this is the legend of Fa Mu Lan told in the chapter “White Tigers.”2 The story tells of the warrior Fa Mu Lan who manages to be everything to everyone, able to satisfy the role of wife and mother while still leading her people to victory in battle. Fa Mu Lan becomes what every Chinese woman wants to become, the powerful warrior that protects her family and the nurturing mother that raises her children. Brave Orchid shares the talk story of Fa Mu Lan with Maxine in order to show her who she should be. Despite the fact that Fa Mu Lan is only a myth and not true, the idea of the woman warrior is instilled in Maxine and causes her to think about her future and who she will become.

Another talk story that Brave Orchid tells Maxine to shape who she will become is the story of cutting her tongue when she was a child. This was to loose her tongue so she could speak her mind.

“The first thing my mother did when she saw me was to cut my tongue. ‘Why did you do that to me, Mother?’…’I cut it so that you would not be tongue tied. You’ll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another…'” (Kingston pg. 164).

Brave Orchid wanted her daughter to be a woman warrior for herself and her family so she told her stories like the about cutting her tongue so Maxine would mold into that woman. After brave orchid has this conversation with Maxine, Maxine questions whether her mother actually cut her tongue. “If my mother was not lying she should have cut more”(Kingston pg. 164). Maxine does not know for sure that her mother cut her tongue, but because her mother told her she did, part of her believes it and she is able to speak more freely. Even if the stories of Fa Mu Lan and of Maxine’s mom cutting her tongue are not true they have instilled the principles of who Brave Orchid wants Maxine to become in her. The truth of the story is inconsequential but the lesson that Maxine takes away is invaluable.

The idea behind both talk story and “a true war story” is affecting the reader in such a way that the specific facts of the story are insignificant to the meaning and the message that the authors want the reader to take away from the text. In both The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston the authors use this twist of a story to deliver the central meaning of their respective works. The idea of talk story and “a true war story” is the platform that both novels are written on and the device used to so accurately relate the message to the reader.

The Things They Carried vs. The Woman Warrior:

The truth, is it really necessary?

Caleb Schnarr

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Mr. Hamilton, Period 2

Link Essay

1 O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. (New York, Broadway Books, 1990) All subsequent references apply to this work.

2 Kingston, Maxine. The Woman Warrior. (New York, Random House, Inc., 1976) All subsequent references apply to this work.

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