[Solved] on the rainy river

On The Rainy River prompt

In Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River”, Tim is presented with a conflict that would change his life depending on which choice he makes. Tim narrates the story in a mix of present day and flashbacks, being that the voice of the younger Tim O’Brien is less mature and less morally complex than present day Tim. In the summer of 1968, Tim, a recent college graduate, receives a draft notice to fight in The Vietnam War. This is where the conflict begins. Tim O’Brien, while not exactly a pacifist, does not support the war. He almost feels as if he is too good to fight in the war, describing himself as “too smart, too compassionate, too everything…[he] had the world-Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body, [he even had] a full ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard.” (1003) His world had suddenly come to a complete halt and he has to make the decision whether or not to go to war.

Tim mentions that “[that if our nation was using military force to] stop a Hitler, or some comparable evil, [he] told [himself] that in such circumstances [he] would’ve willingly marched off to battle…..The problem, though, was that a draft board did not let you choose your war.” (110) Tim can go off and fight a war he does not believe in or leave his life behind and fleeing to Canada. Tim talks about how much he detests how some people who mindlessly comply to the war efforts, not fully understanding it, just “blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes” (1005) He hated that they were “sending [him] off to fight a war they did not understand.” (1005) He holds them all personally responsible to the fact that he has to make the difficult choice. Tim fears condemnation, mockery and exile. Tim lives in a “conservative little spot on the prairie” (1005) and as he begins to seriously consider running off to Canada, he could already hear the town folk gathering around a coffee table and gossiping about how “that damned sissy [has] taken off for Canada” (1005).

Tim spent the summer of 1968 working at a meat-packing plant in his hometown, removing blood clots from slaughtered pigs on an assembly line. O’Brien uses this as a metaphor, him being the decapitated and eviscerated pig coming down the line and the dense greasy pig-stink, that was always hung onto him, was the war. The smell wouldn’t go away and neither would the war.

Tim eventually breaks down and decides to run off to Canada. On an impulse, he leaves work one day, packs up, leaves a vague note for his parents, and drives for hours. Tim explains that he was “riding on adrenaline” and “there was a dreamy edge of impossibility to it-like running a dead-end maze-no way out.” (1006) Tim heads northeast toward International Falls and then straight west along the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, “which for [him] separated one life or another.” The Rainy River acts as a fork in the road, a turning point. Tim can either choose to cross the river into Canada and start a new life and avoid the war, or to head back to Minnesota and get shipped off to Vietnam to fight.

As Tim is stuck in his rut, he decides to stay at an old fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge. It’s here, that Tim meets Elroy, who takes him in. Tim describes Elroy as “old, skinny, and shrunken and mostly bald” (1007). Elroy is the mentor/father figure in the story. He is the solid rock behind Tim. Elroy is “is the hero of [Tim’s] life…the man saved [him]. [Elroy] offered exactly what [he] needed…[Elroy] was there at the critical time.]” (1007) Elroy is not judgmental or critical, he shows self-control when he refrains from prying into Tim’s life. He helps Tim with his decision, no questions asked. Tim spends 6 days with Elroy at the resort, during which odd Elroy keeps Tim occupied with little jobs at the lodge and it helps Tim think clearly. Tim goes to say that “[Elroy] had a way of compressing large thoughts into small, cryptic packets of language.” (1008) It shows Elroy wasn’t much of a talker, but he was smart and didn’t miss much. Elroy sensed that Tim was at war with himself and needed guidance but Elroy never pushed Tim to talk.

On the last day, Elroy takes Tim fishing out on the river. Tim describes the atmosphere as calm and serene. As Tim and Elroy cross into Canadian waters, “across the dotted line between two different worlds..” Tim starts to feel a tightening sensation in his chest and everything becomes “tangible and real.” (1012) Tim is finally face to face with his confliction. He has to make his decision, here and now. Tim experiences a hallucination, where he imagines himself old and withered, “as a man of conscience and courage” and “all that was a threadbare pipe dream.” (1014) Tim starts to play back his childhood, growing up into adolescence. His entire life spilled out into the river. His conscience soon takes the form of people from his life, “[he] saw [his] brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor, and the entire Chamber of Commerce and all [his] old teacher and girlfriends and high school buddies. Like some weird sporting event: everyone screaming from the sidelines, rooting [him] on..” (1015) It is everyone who will ever be able to judge him, “faces from [his] distant past and distant future” (1015) Tim tried to will himself to cross across the water, it was now or never. He couldn’t do it. He was shamed from the embarrassment of running away. Elroy and Tim turned the boat back to Minnesota. Tim left and went to Vietnam.

At the end of this excerpt, Tim calls himself a coward for going to war and not running away, instead of vice versa. Tim, did not support the war. He did not want to go. Yet, he gave in and went. He did not stand by his morals and beliefs. He was so afraid of the judgment and exile, he did what everyone wanted him to do. When in everyone else’s mind he was a hero for going to war, in his mind he was a coward for not doing what he thought was right.


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