“The Things They Carried” is a collection of interrelated short stories written by Tim O’Brien, a novelist and a veteran of the Vietnam War. It is the story written by a man who saw this war and who passed it as an ordinary soldier. The use of an autobiographical metafiction in this book works to make a true observation about the complicated nature of truth as it concerns to the personal and historical traumas of Vietnam.
And now, after 20 years ago, O’Brien shares his experiences and tells about the screams of his soul in a short story “On the Rainy River” from the novel “The Things They Carried.” This is an argumentative essay, a kind of confession of the author before his family and the reader.
The story “On the Rainy River” tells about the difficult choice of the main character who is forced to fight with reality. This O’Brien`s story is a masterpiece of the inner workings of a man’s personal conscience, shame and courage. The narrator is the main character, who tells the reader about his past using flashbacks throughout the story.
The plot analysis
So, in the introduction we see 21 years old man Tim, who has just graduated from the college and was going to attend graduate school at Harvard. This is a young, ambitious man who is a successful editor of the college newspaper, who has serious plans for the future and who dreams to become an author.
But all his plans are destroyed in June 1986 when he gets a draft letter to the Vietnam war. And then the character realizes that his life has come to a dead end. Tim does not understand why he is chosen, as well as hundreds of other young guys. He hates and condemns the Vietnam war, he does not understand its purposes, who is fighting and for what, and why the USA is involved. He cannot find either a philosophical nor a historical explanation for this. An ordinary young guy, with ordinary hopes and dreams, who wants only one thing – to live peacefully with an ordinary normal life. But it does not matter since his destiny is determined by his country. Panic and fear have taken over the feelings of O’Brien. Thus, the only way out of this difficult situation for Tim is to escape to Canada, because he does not want to die.
The main conflict of the story lies in the inner struggle of the hero, his hesitations and worries. On the one hand, fear and the instinct of self-preservation prompt the character to escape, but on the other hand, he is tormented by self-reproaches and shame and frightened by an exile. He has a fear to be judged by his family and his town, to be responsible before the law. The consciousness pushes him to escape, but some powerful irrational force resists and, as a counterbalance, pulls him to war. At its core, apparently, lays a sense of shame. So, O’Brien is experiencing a modal split of his personality. The problem is that the narrator is ashamed as literally overwhelmed with a crippling tight chest feeling of embarrassment essentially what his conscience is telling him to do.
The other side of the conflict of the story reveals in the character of Elroy Berdahl, the owner of the hostel, where Tim settles for 6 days. O’Brien then calls him the “hero of his life.” After all, Elroy helps the man to overcome his fear and to find in himself the courage to accept reality as it is and make the right choice. Elroy provides O’Brien with a place free of social obligation and judgment without asking any questions.
He takes O’Brien out onto the Rainy River for fishing; they cross the dotted line in the middle of the river, the border of Canada. O’Brien realizes that the 80 years old man has made it intentionally, he prompts the character to meet freedom face to face and eventually understand the value of his choice.
The analysis demonstrates the reader that “On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien shows the idea how someone can discover the person deep inside themselves. Elroy in this short story is a rather the ingenious symbol of the witness. He just observes despite the obvious drama going on in the soul of the narrator.
In conclusion, O’Brien finds himself caught in a moral freeze, because it is just twenty yards to the coast of Canada, but Tim has the lack of courage to realize his plan. Or do feelings of fear and shame again wake up in him? Morality has nothing to do with it. He cannot; it is above human strength. Canada seems to him now a miserable and ridiculous fantasy.
The main themes in the story
“On the Rainy River” is a short story of a personal moral crisis. O’Brien raises serious topics throughout the story, such as the theme of war and its impact on ordinary people, the importance of morality, courage and fear, the importance of legal obligation, the complexity of human choice, etc. Some other themes in his “On the Rainy River” include a feeling of guilt and shame, the relationship between history and truth, difficulties which we all carry, and acceptance.
The Rainy River that divides Canada and Minnesota also has a symbolic meaning in this story. It is a peculiar boarder between a new and old life of O’Brien. The reader can understand the Rainy River as a culmination of a conflict, a place of overcoming the internal confrontation of the main character. O’Brien in “On the Rainy River” talks about strength, hope, despair, and agrees with the choices and obligations he and other people have to make. He discovers his own personality.
So, with this collection of stories, Tim O’Brien wants to tell about the heaviest burden and fear that he has to carry all his life, day after day. The author wants the reader takes his place as Elroy manage him to face with own fears on the Rainy River. Eventually, he chose the war, survived and returned home. But in any case, despite the courage to make the right choice, O’Brien considers himself a coward and feels shame as he drifted to implement his plan.