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Where have you gone, Charming Billy?

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We all have heard the phrase “War is Hell,” and we watch movies about it like “We were Soldiers” with Mel Gibson. It’s stuff like that that communicates the message that war is a terrible thing despite what the young believe. There are many different books and movies out there that try to communicate this message, and one that is no exception is the short story “Where have you Gone, Charming Billy?” by Tim O’ Brian. This story is set in the Vietnam war, from the perspective of Private First Class Paul Berlin and his recounts of the day’s events. In the story “Where have you gone, Charming Billy?” the grim theme that’s communicated is “War is Hell,” and is shown through irony, setting, Characters, and the general state of the characters.
The first way this story communicates the horrific theme is its use of irony. In the story, Paul Berlin reminisces about the day and how Billy Boy Watkins died...of a heart attack. This causes Berlin to laugh despite the seriousness of the situation. for example, in the story, Berlin talks to a comrade about it and the fellow soldier says, : “ ‘A bloody heart attack!’ the soldier said. ‘Can't get over it-old Billy Boy croaking from a lousy heart attack. ...A heart attack-can you believe it?’ The idea of it made Private First Class Paul Berlin smile. He couldn't help it.”1 and later while he continues to recount: “He giggled again. He rolled onto his belly and pressed his face into his arms. His body was shaking with giggles.”1 and finally: “He giggled louder-he could
not stop. He bit his arm, trying to stifle it...”1 These three pieces prove that the story communicates the null theme through irony.
The second way the story communicates the hellish scene is through the description of the setting. Throughout the story, the platoon Berlin is in wades through rice paddies and marshes. The description of the sights and smells adds to general grim feeling. For example, early on in the story: “One by one, like sheep in a dream, they passed through the hedgerow, crossed quietly over a meadow and came down to the rice paddy”1 here, it describes the dark environment they are going through. Another example is later, when they exit the paddy: “...his boots sank into the thick paddy water and he smelled it all around him. He would tell his mother how it smelled: mud and algae and cattle manure and chlorophyll, decay, breeding mosquitoes and leeches as big as mice, the fecund warmth of the paddy waters rising up to his cut knee.”1 These examples prove how the story shows the numb setting of war and its horrors.
The next way the author shows us this appalling theme is through use of characters. In the story, O’Brian always refers to the main character by his full title. An example of this is in the beginning, when we are first introduced to Paul Berlin: “At the rear of the column, Private First Class Paul Berlin lay quietly with his forehead resting on the black plastic stock of his rifle...”1 and later on in the story: “Private First Class Paul Berlin blinked.”1 This usage of titles is a way to portray just how young Paul Berlin is and how the war is effecting him (see Iirrony.) This is but another way we are introduced to the recurring theme of war.
The fourth and final way we are shown the cold side of war is through the gruesome state of the characters in the story. Not just Paul Berlin, but the entire platoon, whose faces we’ll never know. In the story, it vaguely paints a picture of exhaustion, excitement, and fear. For example,
early in the story it describes the state of the platoon: “The twenty-six men were very quiet: some of them excited by the adventure, some of them afraid, some of them exhausted from the long night march”1 and later it talks about Paul Berlin and his fear: “But he was afraid, for it was his first night at the war...”1 This example serves also the purpose of reinforcing the earlier arguments about how the war is affecting Paul Berlin. This is the final way the author gives the reader a sense of nullification.
In short, the story has a grim theme that recurs throughout. Irony is one of the prime ways that the author likes to communicate the grim scene by having Paul Berlin laugh despite the dim situation. Setting is the other way O’ Brian gives the theme of War being hell by describing the grim environment of the rice paddies. Characters are another way the theme is shown to us; when O’Brian refers to Paul Berlin by his full title to imply how young he is. The final way War is hell in the story is the general state of the characters and how they are exhausted, excited, or afraid. In the end, we learn through these things just how atrocious war really is and its effect on the young hotshots that tend to look at it as a source of glory.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Citations:
1.
O'Brien, Tim. "Where have you gone, Charming Billy?." Nexus Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.nexuslearning.net/books/Elements_of_Lit_Course4/Collection%203/ Charming%20Billy%20p1.htm>.



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