On the Rainy River by Tim O’Brien
In On the Rainy River by Tim O’Brien we have the theme of responsibility, fear, connection, bravery and guilt. Taken from his The Things They Carried collection the story is narrated in the first person by O’Brien himself and after reading the story the reader realises that O’Brien may be exploring the theme of responsibility. O’Brien does not fully understand the Vietnam War but he is sure that he is not responsible for it. This creates conflict for O’Brien which leads him to feeling guilty about avoiding the draft and fleeing to Canada. It is while he is on the Rainy River that he encounters an old man called Elroy who without knowing it or prying eases O’Brien’s mind and allows for him to make the decision to go fight in the war even though he still knows that he is not a soldier.
How difficult the decision is for O’Brien is noticeable by the fact that he begins to cry (and hallucinate) while on the boat with Elroy. Elroy also does the right thing and does not interrupt O’Brien when he is crying. O’Brien believing that Elroy knows exactly why he is crying. If anything O’Brien makes a connection with the eight-one year old Elroy. A connection that leads him to make up his mind and fight in the war. Though O’Brien considers himself to be a coward the reader may not be so punishing. It is an act of bravery to go and fight in a war, particularly in a war that you have little understanding of. Like many twenty-one years olds O’Brien does not have any strong allegiance to serve his country. He has dreams and aspirations that do not include war.
There may be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The Rainy River serves to be O’Brien’s conscience. Depending on which way you look at it. If you support O’Brien’s decision you can see that his environment has played a big part in his decision making. O’Brien’s job in the pig factory and particularly his use of the water gun acts as a precursor to what will happen O’Brien in Vietnam. He will have a real gun and he will kill somebody. Something that O’Brien remains guilty about. The short note that O’Brien writes for his parent and which he can’t remember what the contents of the note were might also be symbolic. It is possible that O’Brien is suggesting that he was in such a panic to avoid the draft that he left as quickly and as unplanned as he could. All the people that O’Brien believes he sees on the Rainy River could symbolise his belief system and how he can’t fight it. He knows that he must go to Vietnam.
The end of the story is also interesting because O’Brien is alone again. Elroy has gone somewhere and O’Brien leaves the two hundred dollars on the kitchen table. This act may be significant as it feels as though O’Brien is paying Elroy for being there for him. Even though Elroy does not expect payment and has told O’Brien to keep the money in case of an emergency. It is also possible that O’Brien doesn’t need the money, that there will be no emergency now that he is enlisting in the army. The fact that O’Brien feels like a coward because he went to war is also important as it highlight s how torn or in conflict O’Brien is. He did not enjoy the war (not that anyone does) and he killed a man. Something he struggles to live with. In reality O’Brien fought in a war that the American public didn’t support and which tore America in two. Soldiers who came back from Vietnam were ostracized by the public and made to feel as though the war was their responsibility. When the reality is that politicians decided to go to war and young men were drafted against their will and had their lives altered permanently. O’Brien is a hero. Not because he fought in the war but because he decided against his own convictions to go to Vietnam. He knew the risks and still went.