O’Brien relates that on ambushes, and sometimes in bed, Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Superstitions are prevalent in Vietnam, and the pantyhose are Dobbins’s good luck charm. With the pantyhose around his neck, Dobbins survives tripping over a land mine, and a week later he survives a firefight. In October, Dobbins’s girlfriend dumps him. Despite the pain of the rejection, he ties the pantyhose around his neck, remarking that the magic hasn’t been lost.
“Stockings” and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” are thematically opposed in their treatment of the relationship between soldiers and women. While “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” challenges the idea that manifestations of femininity serve as comforting reminders of home, “Stockings” enforces it. The story affirms Henry Dobbins’s notion that his girlfriend’s stockings, which he ties around his neck, keep him from harm. At the same time, however, it emphasizes that this tactic is, in the end, nothing but superstition. Dobbins originally rationalizes wearing the stockings because their smell and feel remind him of his girlfriend and of a safer world away from Vietnam. But even after their breakup, he continues to wear the stockings, contending that their special, protective power has not been destroyed. Though his ex-girlfriend no longer offers herself as a source of comfort to him, he continues to perceive her as one.
O’Brien shows how American soldiers order their experience by superstition rather than by rationality. To the soldiers in Vietnam, superstition became a kind of religion, a faith that might save them individually from the ironic twists of fate omnipresent in the mysterious jungle. Dobbins’s girlfriend comes to exist for him in the realm of superstition; she becomes more of an imagined symbol than a real person. When she breaks up with Dobbins through a letter, her abandonment has no bearing on the protective power of the mystical stockings, since it is what she represents rather than who she is that endows them with their significance.
O’Brien doesn’t use a satirical or ridiculing tone when describing Dobbins and his belief, despite its seeming inconsistency and implausibility. Indeed, in the end, Dobbins does survive the war, perhaps because the stockings keep him motivated to survive by giving him a reminder of home. In any case, the belief in the power of the stockings is more important than the objective truth of their power. Because the stockings cushion Dobbins from reality, they improve his psychological condition. With “Stockings,” O’Brien contends that rationally thinking men can be made to think irrationally in order to preserve their well-being.