In the Shoes of a Soldier

Communication in Tim O'Brien's Vietnam Narratives

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Publication year: 1998

This is a study of the American writer Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried. Unlike previous O'Brien scholarship, which is either historical-biographical or formalistic, focusing on the contextual meaning or the literary merits of his narratives, this dissertation studies O'Brien's war narratives within a functional and communicative paradigm. It approaches the texts from the reader's point of view, bracketing the question of what they mean in order to focus on how they communicate. Taking its starting point in Wolfgang Iser's theory of narrative communication, the thesis looks specifically at what role the implied author of each text has created for his implied reader. The various narrative perspectives in the texts are identified and the reader's wandering viewpoint is analyzed as it moves among these perspectives during the reading process. Iser's inherently textual model is modified and supplemented by Mikhail Bakhtin's more socially oriented ideas on novelistic discourse, especially his concepts of heteroglossia and the dialogic text. The textual analyses show that O'Brien's communicative approach changes from a reliance on biographical and historical material in the first narrative, toward a keener sensitivity to how the human mind experiences and reacts to such historical events in the second and third. A comparison shows a general development from a relatively narrow and passibe reader's role to a more open and demanding one where the reader is expected to take part more actively in the construction of meaning. Thus the focus in the texts shifts from the war experience itself to a self-reflexive examination of how such an experience can be communicated.


Mats Tegmark

Högskolan Dalarna; Engelska
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