"I thought talking and not talking made the difference between sanity and insanity. Insane people were the ones who couldn't explain themselves." As stated by Maxine Hong Kingston in her autobiography, The Woman Warrior. Implies that, vocalization in our day to day lives is very important, but perhaps even more as Maxine shows us, is the pressing need to understand the difference between sanity and insanity. Sanity can be defined as the ability to think in a reasonable way and to behave normally. Insanity on the other hand, can be considered to be the opposite. Hong, in her statement, asserts that the difference between the two or rather mental stability and instability is simply made by the ability to communicate though talking. If one cannot properly explain or express one's self, he or she is likely to be considered insane.
The Things They Carried, is the story about Cross's company, Alpha company, in the US army and his fellow soldiers while at war in Vietnam. In his novel, Tim O'Brien narrates his experiences before, during, and after, Vietnam, and so he functions as an organizing principle, a center for all his narratives. It's his youth days, the America he experienced, his abortive draft dodging into Canada, his dead girlfriend from the past, his publication of Norman Bowker's story, and his conversations with his dear daughter that present and seem to connect all his anecdotes and reflections that make up the novel.
But despite this centering of episodes on himself, O'Brien frequently tends to blur the line between those things that happened to him solely as an individual, those things that happened to his fellow soldiers and friends, and those things that would or could happen to any individual in the universal at large. O'Brien deliberately undercuts the precision of the facts and situations he wishes to narrate. He mixes situations, persons, and events, and he invites the reader into the thought processes and choices behind the whole process.
In his book O'brien shows us the importance of language or rather in this case communication and how the presence or the absence of words can affect an individual's physical and mental conditions. Tim O'Brien even suggests the significance of words to the soldiers when he describes how the soldiers would converse: "There it is, they'd say. Over and over-there it is, my friend, there it is-as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy."(21). Obrien is trying to show us how spoken words could be so vital and important, so as to be used to manage psychological and even in some cases physical experiences in The Things They Carried. How the act of repeating words was like an act to balance one's mental state.
But then again, there are times when words are not enough, and the definitions of sanity and insanity in such circumstances tend to change. This is aptly authenticated in the Chapters Speaking of Courage and Notes. Where, Norman Bowker the main protagonist, of these chapters, returns to his hometown at the end of the war. With himself he brings, countless experiences, memories, and thoughts home. These things that he carries place him in a setting abstract from what he can remember to be "home." Norman finds himself driving around the seven-mile lake in his father's car reflecting on the past and thinking hypothetically. He drove twelve times around the lake, a total of eighty-four miles while thoughts ran through his head. In my opinion, Norman Bowker circles the lake, over and over again because, "he can't get to the center of his problem so he always has to go around it."
Bowker nostalgically remembers the times before the war, how he used to drive around the same lake, with his friends, from high school. He recalls the girl he once dated, Sally Kramer, and the carefree fun they used to have. That was before the war. Norman then begins to have a hypothetical conversation with his self as he continues to drive around the lake. He tells stories, the way he would tell Sally, his father, and Max. He even continues to include their reactions, hypothetically of course. Norman then tells of the horrible smelling "shit field" and how its pungent odor had prevented him from earning a medal, more specifically, the Silver Star. Norman goes on to tell about how he frantically tried to rescue Kiowa, his friend, but then, had to let go, when he felt himself had been engulfed by the muck as well. Norman says that he was more courageous than he ever thought he could be, yet not as courageous as he wished he had been. It clearly bothers him that he did not save Kiowa.
I think that is why he refers to it, as when he almost won the Silver Star, rather than when his friend was killed. There was so much, he would have liked to say... if only, there was someone to listen. Max his best friend, was now only an idea, an idea as real as the conversations he was having in his head. Ironically to Norman, the war that had been fought so many miles away from home had even changed everything so close to him. Neither the medals earned, nor the ones not earned held any value. But there was so much value in the stories that lie behind them, yet Norman's past would remain only in memories, nothing he could ever go back to. In the Notes chapter, Bowker wrote O'Brien a letter, the "long, disjointed letter", in which Bowker described the problem of "finding a meaningful use for his life after the war" (155). But he couldn't adequately articulate what he felt. O'Brien follows to comment on Bowker's letter: "The letter covered seventeen handwritten pages, its tone jumping from self-pity to anger to irony to guilt to a kind of feigned indifference. He did not know what to feel (156). We are led to question ourselves, what is the "truth" of Bowker's feelings here? Is it a part of O'Brien's list? All of it or a mixture of it? The poetics of The Things They Carried, seem to suggest that it is all of the above,
From the suggestion put forward, certain truths about mental health or rather sanity and insanity emerge from the Bowker episode, to depict how the chances of survival and mental health are largely dependent on the degree, of individuals' being able to convert their experiences into words and stories, by the use of a language that can be communicated. From the way Norman tries to explain himself in his letter to Tim O'brien, the language he uses, to the way that he tells stories in his head, only imagining how the people in his life, before the experience would react, if they only knew, shows us the lasting impact that the war has left on Bowker's mind.
The war clearly separated Norman from everything he wanted to be close to. He knew no one in the town would understand his experiences, so he hardly talked to anyone. His thoughts were endless and repetitive, but he could not get away from them. He spent a lot of time alone because he simply could not seem to use language to relate to anyone anymore. I could not help myself, but relate to Norman's mindset. It was as though, he was devotedly trying to bring his past back to life just to get it out of his system. Obviously Norman was emotionally twisted and psychologically tormented by thoughts he himself couldn't even fully grasp.
The effects of the war become so vivid to us just by reading how alone this veteran felt. With the exception of his letter, Bowker remained silent, at the great cost of his eventual suicide. I am led to conclude that, those who cannot speak, who cannot convert the experience of Vietnam into story, seem doomed and are burdened to carry something they will have to "hump" for the rest of their lives, provided they survive the battlefield and "mind field" during and after the war.
Conclusively, I believe that Tim O'Brien brought something new to story-telling, In his third chapter , "Spin," he brought up the idea that war stories are sometimes altered or made up with the intention, for them to be endured or to make a point. In fact, chapter three's title creates a some sort of irony for it hints that the stories needed to be "spun," or slightly altered for them to be worthy of re-telling. Up to that point, we read about experiences of certain soldiers during and after the war and the effects of these experiences on their sanity. However, this chapter introduces the possibility that these stories may or may not be true. Therefore, how we to know what information are is real and what information was just made up by O'Brien or another soldier in, The Things They Carried.
Yet, he challenges the traditional meaning of truth. O'Brien continues to argue that for a story to be true, the events do not necessarily have to take place. He states that the message in a story communicates and the way it makes you feel is what makes it true. According to O'Brien, events that do not occur can be as truthful as events that do occur. Finally, although it is unclear as to whether or not O'Brien actually experienced the events the way he wrote about them, it is clear that he was in the war, for many of his stories were based on facts. However, from the language he uses, it is very likely that he exaggerated or even fabricated some of the stories so that they could prove their points, more specifically, the effects of words on sanity or in this case insanity, to emotionally affect the reader even more.