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On the Rainy River: Our Choice … or Theirs?

Our Choice … or Theirs? In Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River”, Tim is faced with the most difficult decision of his life. The Vietnam War is unfolding overseas and Tim is drafted into the military. As Tim has the option of staying and fighting a war he doesn’t believe in or facing the embarrassment of fleeing to Canada, O’Brien illustrates how other’s opinions sway our decisions in life more than we think they do. Tim battles himself over what should be an easy choice. Will he stay or go? His hometown is “a conservative little spot on the prairie” (1005).

There, it is all about tradition and duty. If he chooses to go, he can already imagine his fellow townsfolk gathering around to talk, shamefully, about how “that damned sissy [has] taken off for Canada” (1005). Tim talks about his hatred for those who mindlessly comply to it all. Not understanding the war or the reasons and history behind it, they just smile and blindly swallow it down. There was no grey area for them, just “their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes” (1005). Although he is the one who can make the decision to flee or flight, he holds them all personally responsible.

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He holds them responsible for making his decision so hard. Already fearing the law, Tim now fears condemnation, mockery and exile. With everything going well for him, Tim can’t understand why he is the one being drafted. Frustrated by the fact that the military could have picked better suited soldiers, Tim thinks that “If they [need] fresh bodies, why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age hawk? ” (1003). In other words, why not pick someone who likes to be outdoors and who might enjoy it as opposed to himself, who does not even like to go camping?

Why not someone who is patriotic and does not have to worry about other’s judgmental opinions? He chooses to focus on this inconsequential factor rather than the inevitable choice he will have to make. It does not matter why he has been chosen, he cannot change it regardless. O’Brien illustrates how Tim does not want to take action, does not want to think about what he will have to do, but it becomes his every thought anyway. Much like his dead-end job at the meat-packing plant, with the vivid title of “Declotter”, Tim’s job is a gruesome metaphor for the war.

The swine are slaughtered, hung upside-down, and moved down the assembly line while their bodily fluids drain out. Tim’s gun- like machine breaks all the blood clots free from the pig’s carcass, but in the process, covers Tim in “a lukewarm blood shower” that he can’t seem to cleanse himself of (1004). O’Brien uses the ever-present hog smell on Tim to symbolize the way killing would always scar his psyche if he were to join the war. It will forever haunt him and be a part of him. “And there was also the draft notice tucked away in my wallet”, there is always some part of him thinking about the draft (1004).

At the climax of the story, O’Brien uses vivid imagery to show us what is going through Tim’s mind as he tries to force himself to cross the river over to Canada. Crying, Tim caves. He can’t take it, any of it. Submitting, he realizes that he does not have the courage to face all the ridicule and scorn from his friends and family. On the boat, sitting beside Elroy, not twenty yards away, Tim sees his whole life. His past, present, and future materializes before him on the Minnesota shore line, cheering him on to one side or the other.

He sees himself in his childhood, “a twelve-year-old Little League shortstop pivoting to turn a double play;”, his adolescence, his past girlfriends, high school friends, distant family, popes and Christian martyrs (1014). And when a nine-year-old girl who died in fifth grade from a brain tumor appears to Tim, it’s clear that he is not just worrying about what his friends and family thinks, but what anyone thinks. He cannot face making the decision to go in front of a long-dead nine-year-old girl, let alone everyone else.

His imaginings are so vivid, Tim feels like he has to make a decision under the scrutiny of everyone he has ever known, or will know. And he cannot do it. Even as he sees the innocent lives that he will inevitably take if he chooses to stay and fight, still he cannot take the embarrassment of running away. Finally admitting it to himself, Tim thinks, “Embarrassment. That’s all it was. ” (1016). Tim thought that he could make the decision to save himself, but he cares too much about what the world thinks about him. Life is just a state of mind.

We can choose to control as little or as much as we want. When Tim decides to drive up to the border and stay at Elroy’s Tip Top Lodge, O’Brien leads us to believe that Elroy may be symbolism. A watchful presence throughout Tim’s journey, not needing to ask questions because he already knows—is he Tim’s conscience? On the river, while Tim tearfully resigns himself with the fact that he can’t take the ridicule of running, Elroy sits on the boat with him, a silent audience, saying nothing but, “Ain’t biting. ” (1016).

O’Brien compares Elroy to “God, or like the gods, who look on in absolute silences as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them” (1016). Elroy could be Tim’s conscience, knowing all along what he would decide to do, but needing to push Tim to realize this. Shamefully, Tim realizes that other’s opinions of him matter too much for him to flee. Tim O’Brien fights the war he does not believe in, because of what other’s thought. “I survived, but it was not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war. ” (1016).


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