The short story “On the Rainy River” is an integral chapter in the memoir The Things They Carried written by William Timothy O’Brien. The short story is written through the perspective of O’Brien in present day and as a young man faced with a draft notice for the Vietnam War. In “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien portrays the importance of bravery of individuals in the society through the use of symbolism, powerful tone, reflective point of view, narrative devices, and through the reoccurring theme of courage.
In the short story, O’Brien uses symbolism to depict the religious aspect of the Rainy River, a watercourse which segregates the land of Minnesota and Canada, a divide that tested O’Brien’s bravery to either enlist in or flee the Vietnam War. O’Brien states that “the Rainy River . . . separated one life from another [;] . . . the cold [sprayed] against [his] face . . . [as] [they] . . . passed into Canadian waters, across that dotted line between two different worlds .
. .” (1012). The Rainy River symbolizes the rebirth of O’Brien into a new world; water epitomizes the purity and renewal of a new identity.
This symbol adds great significance to the anecdote because it portrays the man vs. self-conflict of O’Brien; he has to choose a life of fearing the U.S government in exile, or a life of hostility and bloodshed in a war that he does not support. The author’s use of symbolism allows the reader to construe the variation in O’Brien’s point of view as he flees to the land of Canada to evade the drafting: that in fear, he gains the courage and strength to return to the U.S and face the inevitable war. Susan Farrell communicates in “The Vietnam in Me” that “[e]ven though the young narrator believed the war was morally wrong, he was unable to defy the traditions and expectations he had been raised with [;] [h]e was afraid of what people would say about him should he flee the draft, and he could not . . . leave behind everything he knew and loved.” The narrator considers that he is reared to take responsibility and is expected of his family and the society to do the right thing: join the war; even though he does not support the battle, O’Brien feels pressured by the fear of shame and embarrassment of not enlisting.
Although the symbolism of the story reflects the author’s self-conflict, tone also enhances the significance of the decision he has to make. O’Brien creates the tone of fear in the short story; he reflects on his cowardice and dreads the fate of his life if he were caught. O’Brien expresses that there are instances in which he is overwhelmed by fear: He stays up at night envisaging being chased by the border patrol and helicopters; he sweats while envisioning himself fleeing through the woods and being thrown to the ground by police. He feels dizzy with sorrow, guilt, and regret for parting the country and not enlisting into the war; he is troubled by the lack of sleep and the sickness that consumes him. (1009) The tone is created by the character’s personal emotions towards his life decisions and his dread upon the events that are foreseeable.
The tone deepens the meaning of courage because it allows for a reflection on what could have contributed to the fear and how the character’s courage would ultimately overcome it. The tone of fear supplemented to the importance of O’Brien’s decision to escape the Vietnam War; he is acting out of fear—he, “was no soldier . . . [he] hated dirt . . . and mosquitos . . . [t]he sight of blood made [him] queasy, and [he] . . . didn’t know a rifle from a slingshot.” (O’Brien 1003). Bobbie Ann Mason observes that, “[t]he litany reifies the sense of constancy the men experienced: constant conditions, constant fear and apprehension, constant movement, and constant burdens” (Mason). Mason recognizes that the narrator’s use of a long and repetitious list of complaints and problems enables the reader to perceive the burden that he feels. The tone presented in this story allows for depth and apprehension that heightens the anxiety for future events.
The point of view in the short story is presented in first person; by using first person narration, the author is enabled to express his internal emotion throughout the story. O’Brien perceives that “[c]ertain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons [; he] saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law . . . facts were shrouded in uncertainty . . . [w]as it a civil war [,] a war of national liberation or simple aggression” (1002). O’Brien expresses his personal views on the war: there is no purpose for it to occur or for him to engage in the battle. Tegmark states in “The Perspectives of Other Characters” that “[there is] relative importance . . . [of] the perspective of . . . [Tim O’Brien as] the protagonist . . . and that of what I call [primary] narrat[ion] [;] in . . .”The Things They Carried”. . . O’Brien functions as [a] focalizer, constituting the main perspective from which the reader perceives the story.” Tim O’Brien is the protagonist and the primary narrator; he is able to contribute to the story as the main perspective which allows him to provide memories and anecdotes, thus deepening the plot.
The first person account gives the narrative credibility because the protagonist is telling the story; he can recall past events that relate to the occurrence or contemplate on what may ensue next. The narrator experienced the emotional battle and retreat to Canada first-hand; in turn, this interesting relationship gives the reader a direct account of the topic. O’Brien writes that “[he] felt something break open in [his] chest . . . [b]ut it was real, [he] know[s] that much, it was a physical rupture- a cracking-leaking-popping feeling” (1006). O’Brien speaks directly to the reader presenting the reader an emotional perception. His narration provides a contemplative and insightful voice while relating events that have happened; he describes what is learned from the experience and how it has affected his life. The use of flashbacks is prominent throughout the short story; O’Brien switches between the past and present tense throughout the story to narrate his memoir.
By using flashbacks, shifts and reflective moments are created. O’Brien states that he remembers that when walking out of his house in the year 1968 to leave for Canada, he carefully observed all of his familiar possessions that he would leave behind, including his life (1006). This scene reveals the use of flashback and enhances the meaning of his separation from the life he had known; he feels expressively attached to his home country. This man vs. self-conflict of whether to stay or go lingers when he sees the chrome toaster, the telephone, and the bright sunshine that sparkled in the room. O’Brien uses recollections throughout the story to incorporate former events that contribute meaning and sentiment. Susan Farrell states that “[t]he [short story] alternates between present-day [narration and the scenes] that take place during  . . . [the] flashbacks . . . explain how [O’Brien] arrived at [his] present circumstances.”
The author uses flashbacks throughout the story to allow the reader to visualize the shifts in his voice and the change in his views between the past and the present. O’Brien creates pathos towards the protagonist by expressing the hardships of his decision of leaving his life in the United States for a life of hiding in Canada. O’Brien mentions remembering “. . . self-pity . . . driving aimlessly around town . . . feeling sorry for [himself] . . . paralyzed . . . [feeling] guilt [and] sorrow” (1003-4). O’Brien references his emotional pressure to gain the readers’ sympathy by stating “[a]nd so [he] sat in the bow of the boat and cried . . . [i]t was loud now . . . [l]oud, hard crying” (1016). He provides his audience the capability to commiserate by giving the reader a view into his distressed core.
Werlock states that O’Brien was “. . . faced with [a] choice and imagining a host of people, real and imaginary, on both shores encouraging him one way or the other, the fear of shame holds him back from jumping overboard and swimming to Canada . . . O’Brien cries in the boat over his future . . .” The reader sympathizes with the protagonist because he is afraid of what people might think of him; the reader is placed in his shoes and realizes that O’Brien is in a painful position.
O’Brien presents the themes of courage and cowardice throughout the short story. O’Brien states that “[it] was a kind of schizophrenia . . . [a] moral split . . . [he] couldn’t make up [his] mind . . . [he] feared the war . . . exile . . . walking away from [his] whole history. . . losing the respect of [his] parents . . . the law. . . ridicule and censure” (1005). Bloom states that “[w]hen the narrator writes, ‘This is one story I’ve never told before,’ it suggests [that] [r]eaders come to learn that the narrator’s reluctance may stem from what he perceives as revealing weakness: his emotional breakdown, his lack of courage actually to desert, and a fear of his family and friends learning of his weakness.” O’Brien portrays the theme of courage and cowardice to reflect on his decision to either enter or flee the Vietnam War.
He was split between choosing a life of war or fear. Because of his fear of shame and humiliation of his friends and family, cowardice consumes him and he is unable to will himself across the Rainy River into Canada. His cowardice is a vital part of the story because it conjures internal conflict, hallucinations, fear, pathos, and emotion throughout the story. The theme of shame is existent throughout the short story. In the beginning of the narrative, O’Brien reveals that he has never told this story before because of the shame and embarrassment that he would have felt if he had. O’Brien states “[what] it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame [,] [h]ot, stupid shame . . . [he] was ashamed of his conscience . . . [of] doing the right thing” (1009-10). O’Brien dreads the indignity and humiliation of his friends, family, and people of great importance if he does not enlist into the war:
He states that when he visualizes people of relativity and of importance on the sides of the river urging him toward one shore or the other he feels himself redden. He could not risk the disdain, ignominy, or derision and that he would go to war because he was ashamed not to. (1016) Werlock avers that “[w]hen Berdahl takes O’Brien fishing on the Rainy River, . . . he is confronted with the decision between one life or the other . . . the fear of shame holds him back.” The importance of the role of shame develops throughout the story; it is the motivating factor that prevents O’Brien from leaving to Canada. Shame held him back because he did not want his family to feel that he was a raised to become a coward. The author uses shame to enhance the emotional depth of the story; the shame compels the reader to recognize the struggle of his situation.
In the end, O’Brien overcomes the barrier of shame and acquires the courage to return to the United States to fight in the Vietnam War. In the short story “On the Rainy River,” William Timothy O’Brien explores the importance of courage and shame when he evades his draft notice for the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada. Throughout the story, the reader gains a sense of emotional perspective for what draftees distress and anticipate through O’Brien’s use of symbolism, tone, point of view, flashback, and the themes of courage and shame. O’Brien’s decision to be reborn into a new world is reflectively symbolized by the Rainy River and a penetrating tone of fear provides apprehension and unease upon the reader. The use of the first person point of view and the narrative devices of flashbacks and pathos allows O’Brien to recall the past and to provide emotion. O’Brien overcomes his fear of shame which ultimately enables him to gain his courage and fight in the Vietnam War.
Bloom, Harold, ed. “The Things They Carried.” The Things They Carried, Bloom’s Guides. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. Farrell, Susan. “O’Brien, Tim.” Critical Companion to Tim O’Brien: A Literary Reference to
His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 28 Sept. 2014 Farrell, Susan. “‘The Vietnam in Me’.” Critical Companion to Tim O’Brien: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. O’Brien, Tim. “On The Rainy River.” Literature Grade 10. Ed. Janet Allen. Evanston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2010. 999-1016. Print. Tegmark, Mats. “The Perspectives of Other Characters.” In the Shoes of a Soldier: Communication in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam Narratives (Uppsala University, 1998): pp. 245–71. Quoted as “The Perspectives of Other Characters” in Bloom, Harold, ed. The Things They Carried, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2011. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 27 Sept. 2014. Werlock, Abby H. P. “‘On the Rainy River’.” The Facts On File Companion to the American Short Story, Second Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009.Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.
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