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The Value of Doubt through O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River” Essay

People value being certain as it gives them a sense of stability, self-reliance and control. Being certain gives one the power to be able to confidently assert beliefs or claims and act upon them. Descartes says as seen in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2005), “As my certainty increases, my doubt decreases, conversely, as my doubt increases, my certainty decreases. ” Doubting threatens the stability and assurance one initially possesses, which is why it is less frequently valued or appreciated.

However there is value in doubt, because through doubt, a person undergoes contemplation that may influence a decision or disposition, eventually evaluating the certainty of something. As a consequence the actions of the person toward this certainty may be compromised. This is exemplified in Tim O’Brien’s short story entitled “On the Rainy River”. The short story “On the Rainy River” chronicles the events of O’Brien’s life after he has successfully finished his studies at Macalaster College. During his stay in school, he was an achiever.

It was the time of the Vietnam War and he then learns that he was being requested to go to battle. Undecided as to whether he should fight or not, he chose to stay and work in a factory but eventually realized that he could not find a way out of fighting. Unable to handle his situation anymore he fled to the Canadian boundary. There he met and spent time with the fishing resort owner Elroy Berdahl. O’Brien contemplated on the events of his life, especially during the fishing trip where he was faced with the option of going to Canada or going off to war.

In the end, O’Brien chose to go return to his hometown and eventually decided to fight in the Vietnam War (Sparknotes, 2006). From the summary above, it can be seen that O’Brien doubted joining the war. This doubt that O’Brien felt was a huge contrast to the certainty he had when he was in Macalaster College. In the institution he was an honors student and represented the student body, making him strong and secure about himself, his ideas and his values. One example of this is his stand against war (Sparknotes, 2006). Once he received news of going to war, his initial reaction was to stand by his conviction.

However, the notice fueled his thoughts about going to war. He started to contemplate and think about whether he is fit to be a combatant. People making him feel that he had to go to war further aggravated his hesitation. He also realized that it would be hard for him to find an excuse or a way out of combat. Doubting showed his struggle of letting go of what he was certain about, which was not to go to war. Because of internal and external influences that fed his doubt, his certainty on denouncing war diminished and he was unable to handle the burden and decided to run away.

However, by leaving and meeting Elroy, he was also able to reflect upon the consequences of going and not going to war. He finally decides that he could not bear the thought of disappointing people he knew, especially his family. This shows the value of doubt because had he not questioned his stand, he would have not considered weighing what was more important to him at that point in his life. As he looked back, whether he was ashamed of his decision or not is not the main point.

What is to be stressed is that his doubt was able to question his certainty and it made him act towards this as seen by his decision in the end to join the army. In conclusion, the value of doubt can be seen in the text as it shows how O’Brien’s outlook on participating in the war was affected. First, doubting allowed him to contemplate and reflect on something that he used to be certain about. Second, doubt contributed to changing his conviction, as after much contemplation, he could not bear the embarrassment of not going to war that led him to fight.

Doubt is valuable because it has the power to challenge something that one considers as certain, and allows that person to take action. References Sparknotes. (2006). The things they carried study guide: “On the rainy river”. Retrieved October 24, 2007 from: http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/thingscarried/section4. rhtml Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2005). Descartes’ epistemology. Retrieved October 24, 2007 from: http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/descartes-epistemology/


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