On the Rainy River by Tim O'Brien: Summary, Theme & Analysis

On the Rainy River by Tim O'Brien: Summary, Theme & Analysis
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  • 0:01 Overview of On the Rainy River
  • 1:05 Plot Summary
  • 4:03 Themes & Analysis
  • 7:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

As the Vietnam War looms ahead, the protagonist in 'On the Rainy River' must make a crucial decision. Will he escape to Canada, dodging the draft, or will he remain and fight? In this lesson, we'll go over the plot, themes and main character of Tim O'Brien's short story.

Overview of 'On the Rainy River'

Imagine it's the summer of 1968. The Vietnam War is on everyone's mind. Not a night goes by that the conflict doesn't make the news, yet it's hard to make sense of events going on half a world away. Why is the U.S. involved? More and more young men are being drafted into the army - and more and more are speaking up, protesting the war and even burning their draft cards. Are the American soldiers helping to preserve democracy, or is it a hopeless situation, with nothing to gain but greater violence?

Like so many young men in the late 1960s, author Tim O'Brien found himself facing these questions in a very real way when he was drafted into the army. Many years later, he drew on those experiences in his book The Things They Carried, a collection of interrelated stories about the members of the Alpha Division who fought together in Vietnam. A short story from that collection, called 'On the Rainy River,' gives us the backstory on how Tim, our protagonist, became one of those soldiers.

Plot Summary

Tim is a liberal guy, a literature major and editor of the college newspaper. He's against the war in Vietnam, prints some anti-draft editorials and attends a few political meetings here and there. Still, he is, in his own words, politically naïve. He's convinced the war is wrong, but he has to admit that it all seems so abstract. Besides, he's just won a scholarship to Harvard, where he plans to attend graduate school and become a famous author.

But all that changes when he receives the fateful draft notice. Grad school and literary dreams are replaced with gripping fear and moral repugnance. Will he have to kill others? Be killed? Wounded? He doesn't even believe in the war. How can he fight, much less die, in it?

Tim's been working a summer job at a meat-packing plant in his Minnesota hometown, spending all day scrubbing down pig carcasses with a water gun. Once he receives the draft notice, Tim begins to feel like one of those pieces of meat. It's like he's just waiting to be killed. The pressure builds, and one day he snaps. Somewhere between a daze and a panic, he walks away from his job in the plant, packs his car, and begins to drive. Many draft dodgers have escaped to Canada, which offers a safe haven to U.S. citizens who don't want to fight.

Tim winds up in a motel on the banks of the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada. He's met by Elroy Berdahl, the 81-year-old owner and caretaker. It's the off-season, but Elroy takes one look at Tim, who's visibly distressed, and decides to open the resort for one more visitor.

A week goes by. Elroy is gruff and eccentric, but he cooks for Tim, and the two begin doing some repair work together. Gradually, Tim begins to feel that Elroy is on his side. They never discuss the war or why Tim's come to the Canadian border, but Tim senses that, like a father figure, Elroy understands it all. On Tim's last night, Elroy makes a show of paying Tim for the work he's done around the motel. Tim understands that Elroy wants to make sure he has money for the dangerous journey ahead of him.

On the final day, Elroy takes Tim fishing. They travel down the Rainy River, farther and farther north, until the Canadian side is within swimming distance. Tim looks both ways - what will he choose? Freedom is right there, but it means giving up his entire life and possibly never seeing his family again. Worse, he knows that he'll be remembered as a coward in his conservative hometown.

Scenes from his life flash through his memory. Overcome, Tim chokes up. All he can do is cry. Suddenly he knows that even though he doesn't believe in the war, he'll go home and fight in it. As he puts it, 'I would go to war - I would kill and maybe die - because I was afraid not to.' Gently, without a word, Elroy steers the boat home.

Themes and Analysis

Let's take a look at some of the major themes of 'On the Rainy River.'

First, the theme of the Vietnam War. Like all of the stories in The Things They Carried, 'On the Rainy River' takes place during the Vietnam War, the 20-year conflict between North and South Vietnam. The United States became involved during the 1960s, and many American families were affected as the death and injury tolls mounted.

The draft became necessary because so few young men were voluntarily signing up to go to war. This sparked nationwide protests, especially on college campuses. The 1960s was a time of social upheaval, with the feminist and civil rights movements taking place as well. The country was divided between those who supported the war and those who disagreed with the U.S.'s involvement. Many young men burned their draft cards or, as Tim considers, fled to Canada.

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