War stories: Exploring the progression of Tim O’Brien and the gendered nature of war literature and film

Plan Author

  • Victoria Fura, 2015

Fields of Concentration

  • Gender Studies
  • Literature

Sample Courses

Project Description

The progression of the war story in the fiction and nonfiction of Tim O’Brien.

Faculty Sponsors

  • John Sheehy
  • Katherine Fabel

Outside Evaluator

  • Brian Castner, author


This Plan is an analysis of the genre of war literature, focusing especially on the work of Tim O’Brien, supported by the study of masculinity in literary and film representations of war. It includes a paper on three works of Tim O’Brien, and a paper titled Masculine Myths: Hyper-masculinity and the misrepresentation of soldiers in war stories. The latter identifies three recurring tropes in modern American war stories, the hero, the coward, and the killer. The Plan also includes reflections on teaching a class on war literature and film.


O’Brien’s attempt to transcend war‐story clichés materializes in various ways: his use of the second person, his achronological narrative structure, and his tendency to blur the lines between memoir and fiction to articulate his complex stance on the war. He wants to combat the mythic quality of war literature that presents soldiers’ experiences as void of moral contradictions. O’Brien’s own experience appears more complex than the experiences he encounters in other war literature.

A core theme of the military and its soldiers revolves around adopting a traditionally masculine role and using that identity to navigate warfare. This calls for stereotypical masculine behavior to be taught, praised, expected, and assumed of soldiers in the military. Even women in the military often need to adhere to masculine tendencies to be accepted, successful, and even recognized as a soldier and not just a woman in a warzone.100 This form of hyper-masculinity learned during wartime or in peacetime within the military is an extreme version of the masculinity expressed in American society. Even men and women in the military who are capable of reaching these high expectations, let alone those who do not, struggle with this brand of behavior either while in the military or as a veteran.


As a first time teacher and still student, leading discussions and assigning work for my students was exceptionally disorienting. My main method of teaching was to frame the course around discussions, allowing myself only brief lectures on information I found necessary to provide context about the “bigger picture” of each war. Explaining how WWI began was a fiasco, WWII was more familiar to them, and their reference of Vietnam was built almost entirely on myths and images of Woodstock, clouds of weed smoke, and clips from Full Metal Jacket.


For me, the most interesting part of my Plan was teaching a course, exploring specific genres in literature, especially the portrayal of masculinity.