Love by Tim O’Brien
In Love by Tim O’Brien we have the theme of guilt, connection, longing, appearance, trust and letting go. Taken from his The Things They Carried collection the story is narrated in the first person by O’Brien (the character) and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that O’Brien (the writer) may be exploring one of the main themes of the story, the idea of letting go. The reader becomes aware that despite several years passing (since the Vietnam war), Jimmy Cross still has difficulty letting go of Ted Lavender’s death and continues to have feelings of guilt over Lavender’s death. Just as he had felt responsible when Lavender was shot and killed, Cross still feels responsible for his death despite the passing of time. It is also interesting that when Cross tells O’Brien ‘it was something that would never go away,’ the reader finds that O’Brien too has ‘certain things’ which he also appears to be unable to let go of. Though both men have an obvious connection with each other, having fought side by side in Vietnam, it is also possible that they are further connected by their inability to let go of things that may have happened during the war.
O’Brien (the writer) may also be further exploring the theme of letting go, or rather the inability to let go, through the picture of Martha that Cross shows O’Brien. Despite having burned all the pictures he had of Martha after Lavender was killed, Martha has given Cross another picture. This may be significant as it could highlight to the reader that Cross has never let go of Martha. If anything he continues to long for her. Just as Cross loved Martha when he was in Vietnam, several years later he still loves her, though the reader is aware (through Martha) that she will never marry (not only Cross but anybody).
The title of the story is also interesting as some readers will be aware that Martha (in the first story from the collection) signed her letters to Cross with the word ‘love.’ Though Cross had suspected Martha never really loved him and that she was only using the word as a figure of speech, it is only on his meeting with Martha at the high school reunion that he fully understands that she never loved him. This may be significant as Cross already blames himself for Lavender’s death (focusing on Martha and her letter’s rather than on his platoon) and the realisation that his own feelings of love towards Martha are not reciprocated may suggest that Cross further feels guilty about focusing on Martha rather than on Lavender and the other men in the platoon.
Cross’ meeting with Martha at the high school reunion may also be significant as for the first time in the story the reader gets a deeper insight into Martha as a person. Some critics have suggested that Martha’s negative reaction to Cross telling her that he once thought of tying her to her dorm bed, is a direct result of her having been raped. The fact that Martha may have been raped is important. In the opening story in the collection Cross fantasies about Martha being a virgin. The reality that she may not be goes against this fantasy. It is possible that O’Brien (the writer) is suggesting that for some soldiers, when they returned from Vietnam, life was not as they would have hoped for.
The ending of the story is also interesting (if not ambiguous) as O’Brien (the writer) appears to be exploring not only the theme of appearance but also the theme of trust. Cross tells O’Brien ‘Make me out to be a good guy, okay? Brave and handsome, all that stuff. Best platoon leader ever…And do me a favour. Don’t mention anything about —.’ This line is significant as not only does it suggest that Cross wishes to be portrayed in a favourable or positive light but it also serves to highlight that Cross does not wish to have something that he has shared or discussed with O’Brien, mentioned. The fact that the sentence remains incomplete can suggest that O’Brien has not revealed to the reader what Cross wanted to remain secret between the two of them, which in turn would highlight the theme of trust. However it is also possible that O’Brien has mentioned the very thing that Cross wished not to be mentioned (possibly Cross’ guilt over Lavender’s death or Martha’s rape), the reader never knows. Just as Cross had his fantasies about Martha being a virgin the reader is left wondering about what is real and what is fantasy in the story itself and if O’Brien (the character) is a reliable narrator.