“On the Rainy River” (Textual Analysis)

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In the story “The Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien, you could review it in numerous different ways. Though in my opinion, I believe that it is a story about overcoming guilt and uncertainty. Why is this story a memoir? O’Brien’s interpretation of his dilemma, following his impulses, how this story is a paradox, knowing if something caused all of Tim’s issues, and why he changes his mind about fleeing to Canada are all parts that need questioning and answering throughout this story.

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““On the Rainy River” (Textual Analysis)”

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From the opening sentence of the chapter, O’Brien starts to create, though subtly, the effect of the story’s structure, with a mixture of war experiences, and the writer’s memoir. Students should note that a writer’s memoir is a form of an autobiography. Frequently, a writer’s memoir is more formal and attentive than an autobiography, which is when an author narrates scenes from his or her own life. Writer’s memoirs often explain how a writer writes and what the circumstances were, mentally and emotionally, that surround the origin of some literary or journalistic work. The statement that ‘this is one story I have never told before’ (Page 1), signals two circumstances to the reader. First, the story builds a confessional mood and creates an instant understanding between the reader and O’Brien. Second, in the setting of the novel, the reader knows that this is a half-done story, possibly a piece of memory that, given O’Brien’s viewpoint of storytelling, is being crafted into a story as a means for interpreting the results of the past.

In this narrative, a month after Tim O’Brien graduates, he is presented with a draft notice to fight in the Vietnam War. O’Brien’s interpretation of his dilemma about going to war demonstrates how the battle is supported by soldiers who were often opposed and contrasted. “On the Rainy River” presses the guilt of committing cruelties against other humans, along with the guilt of avoiding the draft. Because of this, the war seems wrong to him.

The causes and effects of unpredictability also give him anxiety. O’Brien only took action to dodge the draft and follow his impulses, rather than follow the expectations of his city. After that, Tim felt something break open in his chest. A physical separation — a cracking-leaking-popping sense. He creates an intricate connection between physical features, his ability to understand the story of his own life, and the readers’ knowledge to understand the universal lessons of battle, even if those lessons are paradoxical. He deems he is too good to fight, so he runs away.

From the story, it could be considered that Tim is a coward, that he is afraid of everything, lonely even. However, has it ever been thought of more like heart disease? That he is hurting? At the beginning of the book, Tim is understood to have a dull, uneventful life. Cleaning pigs out for a living is not exactly what every kid would pick to be a dream job. Though maybe the decisions of running away are caused by something? Chapter 23 from the book “How to read literature like a Professor” by Tomas Foster talks about this in a more direct way. “The afflicted character can have any number of problems for which heart disease provides a suitable emblem”(Page 216). Being a coward and being lonely are only two of several possible explanations for abrupt decisions such as running to the border. If he had a support system, such as more love from his parents, and more sympathy about the war, then this story might have turned out much differently.

O’Brien sets up difficult relationships that are repeated in various forms during the novel. One such inconsistency is that of courage and fear. He elaborates that he was ‘ashamed to be doing the right thing’ (Page 6) in supporting his conscience in driving to Canada. Since this paradox is a reversal of commonly held assumptions about courage in war, O’Brien, who has never told the story of his retreat to the Tip Top Lodge before, needed to reproduce a story as a means for structuring a way to recognize the paradox and come to terms with it. This meta-fictive means of imposing a sense of moral sickness and individual struggle is not the only storytelling O’Brien does in this part. He honestly tries to do the same thing in the midst of the Rainy River, he ‘slipped out of his own skin’ (Page 7) and viewed himself (much like Elroy Berdahl watched and read O’Brien) in his efforts to determine whether he should flee to Canada.

At the end of the chapter, after six days unitedly, when the old man leads Tim to the river, the pressure of making a choice once and for all becomes evident to the boy. The narrative exposes that he feels the need to explain his decision to us. Although his probe of “What would you do?” and “Would you cry, as I did?” urges us to recognize his situation. The young man has flashbacks to explain his complete life. This could be reflected as a representation of “rebirth” or being “baptized” as told in “How to Read Like a Professor,” Chapter 18. The restoration enables the character to completely think out what his judgment will do to himself and the people around him. When O’Brien is just feet from the Canadian Border and could jump and swim to Canada, instead he chooses not to because of what could happen to his loved ones, his city, and himself. Despite the importance of the physicality of ‘O’Brien,’ he reemerges as someone who cares and thinks things through thoroughly. O’Brien is paralyzed as Tim tried to drive himself from the boat. So it resulted that he had denied his feelings and resigned to the schemas of stories of other people, like the older contemporaries of vets whom he detests, and to what he deemed cowardice — at least until finally telling this narrative.  

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“On The Rainy River” (Textual Analysis). (2021, Jul 27). Retrieved February 8, 2023 , from

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