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War as the darkest landscape : postmodern Gothic in three Vietnam novels by Tim O'Brien
My thesis will focus on three of O'Brien's Vietnam War novels: The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, and In the Lake of the Woods. I will show how O'Brien develops these stories in terms of individual, social, cultural, and historical aspects in ways similar to, and perhaps indebted to Hemingway and Conrad. However, I will also demonstrate that O'Brien is correct in seei11g differences between his own approach and that of these authors, and other war literature writers. Where the suggestive style of Hemingway and Conrad minimize horrid detail, O'Brien's style highlights horror in an evocative, Gothic depiction of the true horror of war: the degeneration of men, the impossibility of regeneration, and the absolute moral desolation that results from the experience of war. O'Brien will thus be seen as representative of his generation, given to exaggeration, excess, overt disgust, anger, and fear. Chapter I will address the way in which O'Brien's depiction of the Vietnam War aligns it with World War I. In many ways, the cultural climate of the 1960s made the war a battle not unlike The Great War, in which Romantic ideals of nationalism and patriotism crumbled at the hands of a more personal disillusionment with war. The horrific individual, social, and cultural ramifications of war are brought to the forefront in O'Brien's works. Like Hemingway, O'Brien discusses very similar issues, central to the war of his time, in which, like Hemingway, the wasteland of the battlefield becomes an individual wasteland. In many ways, society was not prepared for either war, or for the shock, horror and degradation that war entails. We can see this clearly in the depiction of war as a degenerative force on society and culture in both Hemingway and O'Brien. Aligning the two wars historically also sets up social and cultural parallels between O'Brien and Hemingway. O'Brien is quoted as stating his admiration for Hemingway's work, and critics have noted the similarities between O'Brien's Vietnam stories and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. However, a much clearer connection exists between O'Brien's works and Hemingway's In Our Time, which depicts the transformation of Romantic idealism at the hands of Modernist fragmentation and alienation. The similarities between O'Brien and Hemingway are seen most strikingly between "Speaking of Courage," from The Things They Carried and "Soldier's Home" from In Our Time. Like Hemingway, O'Brien points out the failure of a Romantic ideal of war, the loss of patriotism and nationalism, to reveal the impossibility of individual, social, or cultural post-war regeneration. The Modernist wasteland that begins with Krebs ends logically in O'Brien. In Chapter Two, I will compare O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Where Hemingway's style mutes some of the awful details of war, O'Brien's style elaborates these details in order that the horror of war, in both the realistic and the Conradian sense, can be more clearly depicted. In In the Lake of the Woods, as in Heart of Darkness, one character's journey toward another through a dark and mysterious outer landscape mirrors an inner, moral journey, and exposes a figurative darkness lurking within the novel's protagonist. John Wade, a Vietnam veteran who now faces the shame and guilt not only of losing a political election, but also of his participation in the My Lai Massacre, is haunted by a past he cannot reconcile with his present life. Wade's psyche, already overshadowed by a traumatic childhood, grows morally darker as a direct result of his violent and horrific Vietnam War experience, which takes place in a dark and chaotic jungle reminiscent of Conrad's Congo. Although O'Brien's works are clearly indebted to Hemingway for the depiction of war as degenerative, and also to Conrad for the depiction of war as horror and moral terror, the most profitable way to read them is in terms of those elements we think of as Gothic, for then they become like confessionals, attempting to justify and resolve the transgressive individual, social, and cultural conflicts created by war. Chapter Three examines O'Brien's novels in terms of the Gothic genre, which sheds new light on the victory of fear over bravery, of terror over courage, of the loss of self at the hands of "the other," and of ghosts, the memories of war that arise from that dark landscape to haunt those that survived. By placing soldiers within a haunted landscape, issues of bravery and courage no longer lie solely within the realm of the characters' will, but, as in Gothic novels, are subject to outside forces that are constantly at odds with reality. When we examine O'Brien's Vietnam stories as discussing the failure of a Romantic ideal, as the reflection of individual, historical, social, and cultural anxiety, then they can be seen in terms of horror, where the stripped-down wasteland of Hemingway and the festering horror of Conrad come together in a Gothic world. O' Brien's The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, and Going After Cacciato, mediated by Gothic elements, reveal an individual, historical, social, and cultural anxiety beyond that which can be accomplished within the war literature genre.