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"What Went Wrong" by Tim O' Brien:

Updated on January 14, 2014

In his short story, "What Went Wrong", Tim O' Brien creates a heartbreaking tale of modern family and relationships, this article aims to pinpoint the beginning

Doomed From Love’s First Promise

When we fail in life, when things do not go as we would have hoped, we humans begin to trace the problem back to its root. For the protagonist in Tim O’Brien’s “What Went Wrong” we see tragedy strike and ultimately overcome a promising young baseball player and an injured soldier. Should we analyze the chain of events that led to the breaking of David Todd, our hero, and Marla Dempsey’s marriage, we may follow it past the young stockbroker from Chicago who Marla leaves with, past the horrible events that transpired along the Song Tra Ky river in Japan during World War II. Though the specifics are never mentioned, before David is brought home, he lays “dying” and sixteen of his comrades lay dead, by the end of the ordeal, his leg is amputated. We may follow it back to the initial of promise of marriage “after the war.” The promise implies an unsure relationship, which the author reveals is more than true for both David Todd as well as Marla. It is the first moment we see the impending doom the marriage inevitably brings and the first inkling that neither are sure of the marriage. The promise of a delayed marriage, if not the direct cause of David and Marla’s divorce, is the first step down into a failure of a marriage.

Fresh into a blooming career in baseball, David Todd asks his girl, Marla to marry him. At this time, Todd is not who he is by the time the story begins, after his war experience. David Todd, like getting a tattoo, makes a decision for an older man, a version of himself that must accept the consequences of a younger man’s promise

The promise itself though worded as “let’s get married after the war!” translates frankly to “ If by some chance you do not die, I will marry you.”. Worded this way, the promise is no longer romantic but shows an indifference as if flipping a coin. The story does not reveal who proposed the idea of marriage upon survival but we can infer it was Marla; for David’s uncertainty with their marriage stems with a lack of confidence and intense paranoia amounting to Schizophrenia while Marla is unsure in the relationship because she claims she “remorseful and frightened, exploring her life, telling herself she should never have gotten married, not in a thousand years, and certainly not to a decent, loving man like David Todd.” (O’ Brien)

By the end of the story we see a relationship resolved, friends who should never have married go back to where they should be. To consider the effect of the after-war marriage promise one must imagine their lives should the promise never have been made. Marla, while David went to war, would probably meet someone else, move on. Perhaps they could have been the friends that ended the story from the very beginning. Likewise, should the marriage not have been proposed until after the war, pressure would be off for both parties. David could rest easier knowing that Marla would be saying yes not out of pit or to uphold a promise, but because she love and for that matter Marla would have the luxury of saying no.

It would not be fair to say the failure of their marriage was caused by a single force, nor could one say for sure that they never should have been married. What we can surmise is should the two never have made the promise of marriage, to the reader it would throw off the entire theme of uncertainty that defines their relationship, to the characters it could have saved them a lot of time and trouble. The story teaches us to maintain out confidence and to always attempt objectivity. Should Marla not have made the vow of marriage, should they have postponed the engagement, they may have avoided the greatest conflict of each other’s lives.


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