The Things They Carried

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The love interest of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They went on a single date in college. She sent him letters in the war and a pebble for good luck. After Vietnam, they see each other again at a college reunion. She never marries and spends her time during and after the war abroad, working as a nurse.

Martha Quotes in The Things They Carried

The The Things They Carried quotes below are all either spoken by Martha or refer to Martha. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin edition of The Things They Carried published in 1990.
Love Quotes

For a few moments he considered asking her to his room, but instead he laughed and told her how back in college he'd almost done something very brave. It was after seeing Bonnie and Clyde, he said, and on this same spot he'd almost picked her up and carried her to his room and tied her to the bed and put his hand on her knee and just held it there all night long. It came close, he told her—he'd almost done it. Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Martha
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Cross is visiting with Tim O'Brien many years after the war has ended and they have both returned home. He is telling O'Brien about how since he returned from the war, he saw his old flame Martha again at their class reunion. He maintains that he still loves her, and he discloses that when they saw each other again, he confessed to her that the night he walked her to the same place they were standing near her dorm at the reunion he wanted to take her upstairs, tie her to the bed, "and put his hand on her knee and just [hold] it there all night long." This harkens back to the title story in The Things They Carried where Lieutenant Cross can't stop thinking about touching Martha's knee while they both watch "Bonnie and Clyde" (page 4). 

When Cross tells Martha about wanting to touch her knee all those years ago, she does not react well. She cowers a little, crosses her arms, and appears cold. She tells him that she is glad he did not do that, and can't "understand how men could do those things." She leaves this in the abstract, even when Cross asks her to explain. "The things men do." Yet, he does not push her on the question because the answer makes sense in a way: "[the answer] began to form." Cross learned in the war, as O'Brien did, that the whole truth, the whole answer, is never available. He has come to accept the discomfort of uncertainty for what is true, and on top of that he has witnessed the horrors of war, the horrors of what men to do each other. Martha knows this too after she spent years as a combat nurse on mission trips throughout the world. She is not blind to the world he saw in Vietnam. In their world, men go off to fight one another, men start these wars. What men do, then, is inexplicable to her, and it is inexplicable to Cross as well. They are both caught in this double bind without answers to the big "why" of war and killing and lost love, but she can say she is glad he did not tie her up and touch her knee all night. That is something she can understand and react to, however strange it may be. 

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Martha Character Timeline in The Things They Carried

The timeline below shows where the character Martha appears in The Things They Carried. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Things They Carried
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross of Alpha Company is carrying letters from a girl named Martha that he loves from back at college, though he doesn't believe she loves him. He... (full context)
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross walks with pictures of Martha all over Vietnam. He has two pictures of her: one is of her standing against... (full context)
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
...Ted Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross got a pebble as a good luck charm from Martha. She said in her letter that she found it on the Jersey shoreline and it... (full context)
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
...the tunnel when he gets concerned about Lee Strunk, but he can only think of Martha and the tunnel collapsing on the both of them. (full context)
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
The morning after Ted Lavender dies, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burns Martha's letters in his foxhole. Then he burns the two photographs. He decides he hates her.... (full context)
Love
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Eventually, O'Brien feels like the mood has lightened enough for him to ask about Martha. Cross stands up and returns with a picture of Martha playing volleyball. Cross asks if... (full context)
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
At the reunion, Cross learned that Martha had become a Lutheran missionary and a nurse who had done service in Ethiopia, Guatemala,... (full context)
Morality Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
Cross tells Martha that he loves her, but she keeps walking and doesn't answer. He walks her back... (full context)
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Cross tells Tim O'Brien that he still loves Martha. O'Brien tries to keep the conversation away from Martha for the rest of Cross's stay,... (full context)
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
...over for a moment, then agrees to let O'Brien write the story, saying that maybe Martha will read it and come back to him. He makes O'Brien promise to depict him... (full context)