The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | On the Rainy River | Summary

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Summary

The narrator has never before told this story because it makes him "squirm." On June 17, 1968, he receives his draft notice. The narrator is against the Vietnam War. He's followed the news and grasps the "moral confusion" that surrounds U.S. participation in the war. He even took a "modest stand" against the war while in college. He lists several additional reasons he shouldn't be drafted: he doesn't like being outside, he can't "tolerate authority," and so on.

The narrator's summer job involves washing down carcasses at a meatpacking plant, eight-hour shifts in a stinking "lukewarm blood-shower." His once-promising future "seems to be collapsing toward slaughter," so he begins thinking about dodging the draft by fleeing to nearby Canada. He fears dying, but he also fears "exile." He tries to imagine explaining his decision to his parents and fears the people of his town, who don't understand the war, will call him a "damned sissy" and a "treasonous pussy."

One day the narrator reaches a breaking point and walks off his job. He showers, packs a few things, leaves a note for his parents, and heads north in "a blur." He stops at a rundown fishing lodge on the Rainy River, which separates the United States from Canada, where he meets Elroy Berdahl, the 81-year-old owner who, in the narrator's words, becomes the "hero" of the narrator's life.

Elroy spots the narrator's problem but keeps a respectful distance. For six days the narrator lives in a cabin at a lodge, eats, works, and visits with Elroy. One evening Elroy totals up the costs of rent and food, and the narrator, who is almost out of money, becomes worried. But Elroy offers him $200 for work the narrator has done during his stay. The narrator refuses the money; the next morning he finds the cash in an envelope tacked to his door.

On his last day at the lodge, the narrator and Elroy go fishing. Elroy gradually steers the boat closer to the Canadian shore, then watches as the narrator cries in anguish because he is not the "man of conscience and courage" he believed himself to be—he realizes he can't go to Canada. The narrator has a "hallucination" of his town cheering him on. The crowd expands, joined by popes, military leaders, a child named Linda, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), Huckleberry Finn, and many others, real and fictional. The narrator can't "risk the embarrassment" of fleeing while the crowd watches. At breakfast the next morning, the narrator says he's going home. Elroy nods and smiles, then leaves the lodge. The narrator cleans the dishes, leaves the $200 for Elroy, and goes to war to avoid social shame. He considers himself "a coward."

Analysis

"On the Rainy River" is a central narrative in The Things They Carried. It depicts the conflict in the mind of a young man who has been drafted into a war he objects to. Even though the name of the young man who tells the story is Tim O'Brien, the narrator is not the author. Rather, the narrator is a composite of young men the author knew personally. Readers must take the story as it is, a "work of fiction" based on real people in a historical setting.

This story includes the book's most complete consideration of the war's history, politics, and philosophy. It closely examines the conflict that the draft created for some soldiers and for the general population. Part of the narrator's anger is at the draft's unfairness. He believes it should be law that people who support a war must send their own family members—put their "own precious fluids on the line." The narrator is also angry about people who reduce the war to "communism is bad," due to their patriotism, but will never set foot in Vietnam or bother with the finer points of its history.

When the narrator realizes that escape is a "pitiful fantasy," readers confront a recurring theme in the book: what is courage? The narrator doesn't go to Canada, not because he decides bravely to face war but because he's too cowardly not to go. Dodging the draft, as thousands of young men did, requires courage of conviction. The narrator has always assumed that in a "moral emergency" he would behave "like the heroes of our youth." But, faced with the crisis, the narrator gives in to social pressure. "Embarrassment," he admits, "that's all it was." This is why he considers himself a coward when he joins the war.

The Rainy River, a boundary between the United States and Canada, symbolizes the boundary the narrator occupies between going to war and fleeing the draft. "Rainy River" suggests a sad place, a river of tears. The name expresses the narrator's sadness over his decision and the sorrow he later experiences on realizing that he goes to war not because of his courage but because of his embarrassment.

Stories tell how a character gets from where he was to where he is. "On the Rainy River" shows how storytelling can act as a form of confession and catharsis and as a route to greater self-knowledge.

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