Analysis of Tim O’Brien’s Short Story “On the Rainy River”

“On the Rainy River” is among the collection stories in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. The story is about the Vietnam War based on the narrator’s experience. The narrator is given the same name as the author, and just like Tim O’Brien (the writer), the narrator grew up in Minnesota. After completing college, he was drafted into the United States Army. Before the draft, Tim had demonstrated his stand against the war by publishing a college newspaper disagreeing with war. The author sees himself to be overqualified in the school prospects on getting the draft notice, and he feels as though his academic qualifications are not compatible with war.  Tim had told his father that he intended to work over the summer. Though unpleasant and messy, O’Brien worked at a pig slaughterhouse, and this began making him feel as if his life was getting out of control.

To avoid the draft, Tim starts thinking of crossing the border and move to Canada. He quits working in the slaughterhouse and goes north along the Rainy River. Tired as O’Brien was, he made a stop on the US border and rented a cabin from Elroy. During O’Brien’s stay in Elroy’s lodge, he faces a tough time deciding on whether to continue his journey to Canada or just turn around and go back home. Finally, the narrator departed for home and abode by the draft to go to war in Vietnam.

Tim O’Brien’s Short Story “On the Rainy River”

All through the text, we notice the theme of fear; in many aspects, the narrator depicts terror in one way or another. O’Brien is not free to do whatever he desires to do because he is ashamed of what people will think of his actions. Fear does not necessarily have to be the feeling of shivering when one encounters a horrifying incident. It is also that restraint that inhibits an individual from living as he or she deems suitable. And as we notice from “On the Rainy River,” this is the condition in which our narrator finds himself.

On the first page of the narrative, O’Brien talks of living with the shame of the story, which he has never shared with his spouse, siblings, or parents (Melendez 2). It has been hard for him to share his summer experience because he fears what the family will think of him. O’Brien is not comfortable with the uncertain effects the war can cause. Nonetheless, he cannot express his anticipations for the war because maybe he might appear to be feeble or less of a man. While in college, together with other American students, the narrator opposed the war as they could not fully discern the personality of the North Vietnam president. The existence of a body against the war in school shows that quite a number of the youths did not want to be part of it. However, when these opposers received a draft notice to go to Vietnam, they could not even dare raise their voices. Not because they suddenly were for the war, but it was due to fearing what might come their way if they refused to abide by the draft. The narrator himself does not even try revealing to his parents what his stand is regarding going to Vietnam.

From the story, we note that the fear of being embarrassed before age mates is a potent motivating factor in war. O’Brien believes that the war is unjust and should be brought to a stop; at the same time, he does not want to be seen as a coward by his peers. He had made plans of fleeing to Canada but then decided to stay home and fight. One might confuse his choice of action to be driven by a dedication to his country’s cause or patriotism which is not valid. Customarily people were motivated by these two factors into participating in a war. But in this case, O’Brien’s reason for going to Vietnam fears what his community and family perceive of him in the event of him failing to fight. Perhaps the narrator’s judgment against the war was rational, but he does not share these at the expense of avoiding being called a coward. The far of shame did not only push reluctant individuals into the war but also played a role in how soldiers related to each other. The author uses other characters in the story that shows how the fear of shame blindly drove them to war.

When O’Brien decides to flee to Canada and comes to a stop at Elroy’s lodge, he is all nervous, restless and this expression is written all over his face. He, therefore, decides to help out the elderly owner in doing chores there as a way of keeping his mind busy to worry less.  When presenting O’ Brien’s bill, Elroy decides to give him 200 dollars instead, considering the many chores Tim had to lend a hand. Although Tim would have needed the cash if he proceeded with the journey to Canada, he refuses the payment. He might have behaved this way as he feared that by accepting the 200 dollars, it would have been shown how desperate and uncertain he was of where his journey will lead. On the last day before the departure of O’Brien, Elroy took him fishing. A lot of thoughts flashed through the narrator’s mind that made him feel helpless and cry. Elroy pretended not to notice and continued fishing. This act haunted the narrator even more and even made it harder for him to flee to Canada. At this juncture, Elroy never uttered a word because maybe he feared invading Tim’s private life. Based on how the narrator packaged himself from the moment he lodged a cabin, the elderly owner knew he must have been evading something or someone. By not being sure of which was which, Elroy was afraid to ask since he did not know how O’Brien would react.

According to the author, the truth that a story propagates is vital regardless of whether the story is fiction. Therefore one should not find it hard to believe what they read because the narrator in the story is the author himself. How the theme of fear is depicted in “On the Rainy River” is relatable as it is an emotion that dictates how persons behave. Fear may deny a person peace of mind, as we see in the story. For instance, after graduation, all that O’Brien thinks of are ways to avoid the draft. He was even open to crossing the border to a new, unfamiliar land where people will not judge him for not going to Vietnam.

Works Cited

Melendez, Macie. Tim O’brien’s the Things They Carried. Vearsa, 2012, Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

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