The Great Descriptions They Carried
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried portrays the Vietnam war through numerous short vignettes. Some stories are fiction others non. In his short story, “Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong,” a story in which O’Brien admits he’s not sure if the story is real or not, Tim O’Brien reveals through internal and external description how war can rob a child robs of their innocence.
The story starts with Lt. Mark Fossie arranging to have his girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, brought to Vietnam for a visit. Medic Rat Kiley, who narrates the story to his companions, describes Mary Anne upon her arrival to the Song Tra Bong outpost as follows:
The cute blonde—just a kid, just barely out of high school—she shows up with a suitcase and one of those plastic cosmetic bags. (…) She’s got on culottes. White culottes and this sexy pink sweater. (90)
Kiley provides a pretty picture of Mary Anne Bell with three sentences, and readers see the words Kiley didn’t say: innocence, an innocent girl. By using the term “kid” to describe Mary Anne, Kiley gets readers to immediately think of the innocence of childhood. The mention of her being “barely out of high school” has connotations of her still growing up and having little or no experience out in the world. The plastic cosmetic bag is an interesting detail. By itself, the detail can attest to her vanity and naiveté. Here she’s brought a non-essential item into a warzone, a place where people are too busy fighting for their lives to worry about their appearance or how someone else looks.
According to wisegeek.com, Culottes are “a form of split skirt. They are usually made full or calf length, and consist of a pair of loose, flowing trousers which strongly resemble a skirt until the wearer engages in vigorous physical activity.” In other words, a fashion accessory that is like the cosmetic bag: useless in a warzone, pretty, but impractical. The fact they are white easily refers to purity, the untarnished innocence that white is often associated with. The pink sweater returns readers to Kiley’s descriptor of “kid,” which is when the favorite color of girls is most often pink.
Mary Anne Bell’s innocence in reillustrated a few pages later when readers are given the history between Mary Anne and Mark Fossie:
Mary Ann Bell and Mark Fossie had been sweethearts since grammar school. From the sixth grade on they had known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie and have three healthy yellow-haired children and grow old together and no doubt die in each other’s arms and be buried in the same walnut casket. (94)
This description shows the idolized life Mary Anne sees for herself. O’Brien chose his words carefully to convey that this was a fantasy she had, without actually saying it out right. He mentions they were “sweethearts since grammar school.” Grammar school refers to a time of innocence and a lack of expectations. The fact she would get married “someday” instead of a specific date also indicates she’s thinking of a vague concept of time that can easily slip through her fingers. There is no basis of reality to the assumption yet, no date set. The “gingerbread house” is possibly the strongest evidence that this is a fantasy, as it refers to the “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale told to children, which links readers back to the “grammar school” reference.
O’Brien also shows Mary Anne’s loss of innocence with descriptors in the story. Changes in Mary Anne start to show around the time she starts helping treat injured people and saving lives. She also learns how to use M-16s. Within weeks of arriving:
There was a new imprecision in the way Mary Anne expressed her thoughts on certain subjects. Not necessarily three kids, she’d say. Not necessarily a house on Lake Erie. “Naturally we’ll still get married,” she’d tell him. “But it doesn’t have to be right away. Maybe travel first. Maybe live together. Just test it out, you know?” (99)
The new imprecision shows her dreams and plans have changed. She’s gone from the childish certainty that she will marry and have three kids, to a more adult attitude about maybe this wasn’t what she wanted; a realization that there is more out there than marriage and motherhood. She could do other things with her life, like travel. Mark Fossie noticed other differences about Mary Anne:
He couldn’t pin it down. Her body seemed foreign somehow—too stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be. The bubbliness was gone. The nervous giggling, too. When she laughed now, which was rare, it was only when something struck her as truly funny. Her voice seemed to reorganize itself at a lower pitch. (99)
The description of Mary Anne being “stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be,” is a metaphor. The softness and flexibility of her childhood has faded, and became hard, adult, tarnished. The bubbliness, and the nervous giggling, are often associated with childhood as well, innocence. The fact her voice reorganized itself at a lower pitch is another indication of her growing up, stripping the childish innocence she arrived with. All these changes occurred as she learned more about war, saw more of the war: learning how to shoot, how to live like a soldier, learning how to treat wounds.
The last time Kiley says he saw Mary Ann Bell was after she’d disappeared for weeks with the greenies, special force members, and Mark Fossie, after waiting a long time for Anne Mary to come out, goes into the special forces building:
It took a few seconds, Rat said, to appreciate the full change. In part it was her eyes: utterly flat and indifferent. There was no emotion in her stare, no sense of the person behind it. But the grotesque part, he said, was her jewelry. At the girl’s throat was a necklace of human tongues. Elongated and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather, the tongues were threaded along a length of copper wire, one overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill syllable. (110-111)
The eyes are known as windows to the soul. Those who are innocent, tend to have a playful spark in their eyes, a sense of life and wonderment. But in this description her eyes are perfectly flat and indifferent, no emotion in her stare, no sense of the person behind it, a sign that any innocence she once had has now been killed. She has been corrupted by the war and the person she once was has been murdered. The jewelry she wears is also a sign of who she has become. Instead of the jewelry being sexy, cute or pretty, it’s grotesque. The tongue necklace shows she has nonchalance about the lives that have been taken, a lack of horror, and is a sort of badge of what she’s done and lost: her innocence.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, possess a short story titled Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong. The story is narrated by Rat Kiley, and through O’Brien’s word choices and descriptions effectively show how Mary Anne Bell and how soldiers lost her innocence by going to Vietnam.
O'Brien, Tim. "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1990. 89-116. Print.
Smith, S.E., and Bronwyn Harris. "What Are Culottes?" WiseGeek. Conjecture, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.