Toxic Masculinity in The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

  • Category: Books, Literature,
  • Words: 707 Pages: 3
  • Published: 11 May 2021
  • Copied: 102

In The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien, the two main themes that O’Brien illustrates are courage and toxic masculinity. The issues of courage and toxic masculinity have importance in this book because due to the time period, these issues were quite prevalent and affected the men heavily.  The novel, The Things They Carried encompases the young men in the Vietnam War and their battles with fear and toxic masculinity. Through the experiences the men go through in The Things They Carried, the reader can comprehend  their trauma and their reluctance to admit fear. Therefore the reader can say that the two critical themes in the novel are courage and toxic masculinity.

An example of the toxic masculinity exhibited in, The Things They Carried, is represented when Mary Anne, Mark Fossies girlfriend, was presented in the chapter,‘’Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,’’ as the idyllic girl of the time period; innocent, fragile, and feminine.The men in the camp did not see her as capable enough of being engaged in war simply because of her gender. They did not see her as one of the comrades but simply just something pretty to look at. This was affirmed by Mark Fossies when he claims that,  ‘’Well, see, that's the thing.No war here. You could really do it. A pair of solid brass balls, that's all you'd need.( page 59)’’. This quote conveys misogyny within Mark Fossie because he believes that in order to engage in the war, you must be a man.  To reiterate, women were not respected in military settings and or any predominantly male occupation and they were expected to follow the time period’s gender norms.

Courage is also referenced in The Things They Carried by using Tim O’Brien in the chapter, ‘’ On the Rainy River,’’ as a muse. Tim O’Brien is intelligent, cautious, yet unsure of himself. He is hesitant to join the war because he sees the war as nonsensical and overtly violent. He is afraid of how others will perceive him and he does not want to let anyone down. Due to his consciousness, Tim ultimately decides to go to war. Tim demonstrates his character by saying, ‘’I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.(page 38)’’ From the quote mentioned above, it can be reasonably assumed that O’Brien is facing an internal struggle with having the courage to go to war however he makes the decision of going to war in order to not risk ruining his morality.

To connect the themes of courage and toxic masculinity together, the soldiers carried the emotional trauma and fear they suppressed in order to keep fighting. The men would carry such burdens without ever telling others in fear of looking ‘’too soft’’ and appearing to be cowards, which represents the extreme fear of feeling emasculated. This is shown by Tim O’Brien when he 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. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.(page 14)’’. The quote has a very profound meaning that is present throughout the book; the men all carry an excessive amount of emotional weight. The men are forced to participate in a blood wrenching war in the pursuit of protecting their reputations and masculinity. 

Tim O’Brien uses The Things They Carried as an embodiment of toxic masculinity and having courage in life threatening situations.  Tim O’Brien expresses such themes through characters like Mark Fossie, Mary Anne, and Tim O’Brien. He uses them in a way that the reader can imagine and put themselves in the boots of the characters in order to better understand the circumstances the characters had to deal with and the time period in which the events occurred. Once the reader understands the exploitation of women and how men were expected to behave,  it guides them to an understanding of how society was and how we have progressed since then.  The Things they Carried is truly a bridge of the past and present, it represents the toxic masculinity and courage that defined the time period and aids society in understanding how life was during that time and why we function the way we do today.


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