November 11, 2014
The Stratums Bridged
Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘zone of dialogic contact’ can best be described as “struggle against various kinds and degrees of authority.” Simply put, a zone of contact is where a new meaning for a word or phrase is made in a literary work, where a word is assigned a new description. Tim O’Brien’s war novel, The Things They Carried is chock full of zones of dialogic contact. Characteristic of O’Brien’s novel is extraordinary imagery in the dialogue of the characters. The author has the ability of making the reader literally feel what the character is saying and elaborate on the world through the eyes of the character. The line between fiction and nonfiction is heavily blurred, and how the reader feels about the character is completely up to him, seeing as the characters are depicted with detailed accuracy. Three main examples of Bakhtin’s zone of contact in The Things They Carried will be explored in this essay.
Bakhtin’s concept of the upper stratum contacting the lower stratum occurs in O’Brien’s high usage of swear words for the dialogue of the soldiers. O’Brien makes it clear that the war changes the way men talk. After experiencing war, they come home “talking dirty”, uttering offensive vocabulary in every sentence. The upper stratum according to Bakhtin is all that is transcendental, metaphysical, and ideological; the less physical. The lower stratum, on the other hand, is all that is physical: body, food, sexuality, vulgarity, among other things. During war, these stratums not only touch, but switch. There is no need for proper language, for the soldiers are not in a proper place. There is no one to impress, there are only people to kill and the most basic need for survival in the process. War is an ugly place, so soldiers come back using ugly words. They realize in that there is no point in censoring their words to be pretty; they are going to show how they really feel. They realize what is important, and being proper is not. Swear words are upper stratum in that they are words but switch to lower stratum in that they are physical, they are “body” words, words of sexuality, of vulgarity.
However, swear words aren’t the only example of a zone of contact in The Things They Carried. “I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials, but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside.” (“The Ghost Soldiers”) The protagonist himself realizes the zone of contact that the war had created in him. The upper stratum of knowledge and education is replaced by the lower stratum of basic survival. He admits that all the years he spent in university did nothing for his survival as a person; everything he had learned held no importance in the real world. All his titles were useless in the jungles of Vietnam. His education had less use to him than a drop of water. The protagonist painfully revels in the fact that his instinct- his lower stratum- had overtaken his ideology, his morals and turned him into a different person: a mean person. A person with no interest other than getting out alive and doing what he had to do to achieve that.
The most insensitive yet honest way that O’Brien implements a zone of contact in this war novel is in the very end. “In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands, that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. By our language, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste. Thus, when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon did, his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage. I learned that words make a difference. It's easier to cope with a