Summary and Analysis
On the Rainy River
In an attempt to relieve some shame and guilt about his involvement in the war, middle-aged writer "O'Brien" relates a story about himself that he has never before told anyone. "O'Brien's" story is about the summer of 1968 when he was 21 years old and was drafted to serve in the Army. Before his draft notice arrived, "O'Brien" had taken a mild stand against the war in the form of campaigning for the presidential campaign of anti-war advocate Eugene McCarthy and writing college newspaper editorials against the war.
He recounts his thoughts on receiving a draft notice, feeling that he was not suited for war because his educational accomplishments and graduate school prospects were too great. O'Brien tells his father that his plan for the summer is to wait and work. He spends his summer working at a pig slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. The work is messy and unpleasant, and O'Brien feels his life going out of control.
Around mid-July, O'Brien begins thinking about crossing the border into Canada to avoid the draft. He weighs the morality of this decision as he fears losing respectability, being ridiculed, and being caught by authorities.
While at work in the slaughterhouse, O'Brien suddenly feels an urge to go to Canada. He leaves work and drives north along the Rainy River, the natural border between the U.S. and Canada. Exhausted and scared, O'Brien stops, still on the U.S. side of the border, at a shabby old fishing resort. The elderly owner, Elroy Berdahl, rents him a cabin. Elroy does not pry into O'Brien's plans, though they are probably fairly obvious. O'Brien continues to feel nervousness and fear, and above all else, shame for running to Canada, but he joins Elroy in chores around the lodge to forget about his troubles.
When figuring O'Brien's bill, Elroy recalls the chores O'Brien had done, decides that instead he owes O'Brien money, and gives him $200. O'Brien refuses the money, though he would need it if he did continue on to Canada. But Elroy tacks it to O'Brien's cabin door with a note marked "Emergency Fund."
During O'Brien's last day at the lodge, Elroy takes him fishing on the river. O'Brien the narrator comments on the thoughts that flashed through his mind. He remembers crying and feeling helpless while Elroy just keeps on fishing, pretending not to notice. O'Brien tries to force himself out of the boat and toward the Canadian shore but can not compel himself to flee to Canada. They return to the lodge, and O'Brien departs for home and, eventually, for Vietnam.
From the first sentence of the chapter, O'Brien begins to impress, however subtly, the importance of the novel's form, a blend of war autobiography and writer's memoir. Readers should note that a writer's memoir is a form of autobiography. Generally, a writer's memoir is more essayistic and contemplative than an autobiography, in which an author recounts scenes from his or her own life. Writer's memoirs frequently describe how a writer writes and what the conditions were — mental and emotional — that surrounded the production of some literary or journalistic work. The admission that "this is one story I've never told before" signals two points to the reader. First, the story establishes a confessional tone and creates an immediate empathy between the reader and the O'Brien character. Second, in the context of the preceding chapter, the reader knows that this is an unresolved story, perhaps a fragment of memory that, given O'Brien's philosophy of storytelling, is being crafted into a story as a means for understanding the events of the past.
Yet the story is not fragmentary and disconnected, abruptly moving between memories. The overall form of the chapter is narrative, though the stream-of-consciousness interjection of raw emotions interrupts the story's fluidity. For example, when O'Brien discusses the justifications that apparently underpinned U.S. involvement in the war, he writes that "the very facts were shrouded in uncertainty" and that "the only certainty that summer was moral confusion." This political discourse O'Brien provides is the real-world macrocosm version of the personal microcosm of "moral uncertainty" that distressed him during the summer of 1968. The uncertainty continues to disturb him until he takes this "act of remembrance" and makes sense of moral disorder by committing it to paper and formulating it into a story for the narrator himself and the novel's readers to understand.
An important difference exists between the physical and sensory detail O'Brien employs at the beginning of the chapter, or rather the lack of it, and the attention paid to it at the chapter's close. "O'Brien" describes his stance against the war as "almost entirely an intellectual activity. . . . I felt no personal danger." His precise use of detail mirrors an internal change in O'Brien as he is described in physical detail.
An example of this detail is the contrast of O'Brien's work in the meatpacking plant to the future that he hopes awaits him in graduate school. O'Brien works in the meatpacking plant as a summer job, not as an occupation that will become a full-time career. He has aspirations, and those aspirations are higher than working in such conditions. Work in the plant, for O'Brien, is nearly an indignity, an indignity that is surpassed only by his participation in a war that he morally opposes. O'Brien offers this variation in detail for the following reason: the former, with its "dense greasy pig-stink," elicits a strong reaction from the reader. The effect also appears when Elroy Berdahl perceptively tells O'Brien that he had wondered about the smell. The metaphor of the pork product assembly line also extends to the military machine that drafts soldiers and sends them to war.
O'Brien only took action to evade the draft and follow his own inclinations rather than follow the expectations of his community after he "felt something break open in [his] chest…a physical rupture — a cracking-leaking-popping feeling." O'Brien reprises this idea when "O'Brien" revisits the shit field ("Field Trip") and when Timmy/O'Brien learns of Linda's death ("The Lives of the Dead"). He creates a complex relationship between physical detail, his ability to understand the story of his own life, and the audience's ability to understand the vicarious lessons of war, even if those lessons are paradoxical.
O'Brien sets up paradoxical relationships that are revisited in various forms throughout the novel. One such paradox is that of courage and fear. He explains that he was "ashamed to be doing the right thing" in following his conscience and going to Canada. Because this paradox is a reversal of commonly held notions about courage in war, O'Brien — who has never told the story of his flight to the Tip Top Lodge before — needs to "write" a story as a means for structuring a way to understand the paradox and come to terms with it.
This meta-fictive means of imposing meaning on moral disorder and personal conflict is not the only storytelling O'Brien does in this chapter. He actually tries to do the same thing in the middle of the Rainy River — he "slipped out of his own skin" and watched himself (much like Elroy Berdahl watched and read O'Brien) in his attempts to decide whether he should escape to Canada. At the end of the chapter, however, the importance of the physicality of "O'Brien" reemerges. O'Brien was literally paralyzed as he tried to force himself from the boat. So it follows that he had denied his own feelings and submitted to the schemas of stories of other people, like the older generation of veterans whom he despises, and to what he considered cowardice — at least until finally telling this story.
The Lone Ranger Famous cowboy hero and the star of first a radio show and then a television show in the 1940s and 1950s.
USS Maddox American destroyer stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Gulf of Tonkin Arm of the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the coasts of Southern China and Northern Vietnam. Location where North Vietnamese forces attacked and sunk two American ships in 1964. Afterwards, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing military action in Southeast Asia.
Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969; born Nguyen That Thanh) President of North Vietnam (1954-1969).
Geneva Accords Established in 1954, the Geneva Accords were rules which governed military action and treatment of captured soldiers.
SEATO Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1955-1976).
Cold War Hostility and sharp conflict as in diplomacy and economics between states, without actual warfare.
dominoes Refers here to the "domino effect" or "domino theory," which was the prevalent course of foreign policy adopted by the United States during the Cold War. The notion was that if one area or nation "fell" to Communist forces, that the surrounding areas would also "fall" under Communist influences, like dominoes toppling over.
Gene McCarthy (b. 1916) Eugene McCarthy, a World War II veteran, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1948 to 1958 and the U.S. Senate from 1958 to 1968. In 1968, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, winning the New Hampshire primary, a factor in Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek re-election. McCarthy supported the Vietnam War at first, voting in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but by 1968, he strongly opposed the war.
draft notice Official notice sent by the Selective Service System, informing a young man to report for an armed forces physical exam. The first step to being drafed into the armed forces.
Phi Beta Kappa An honorary society of U.S. college students in liberal arts and sciences with high scholastic rank; a member of this society.
summa cum laude With the greatest praise: a phrase signifying above-average academic standing at the time of graduation from a college or university: the highest of three categories.
jingo A person who boasts of his patriotism and favors an aggressive, threatening, warlike foreign policy; chauvinist.
graduate school deferment Men in graduate school who maintained a high enough GPA (grade point average) could defer the draft and remain in school in the U.S.
National Guard In the U.S., the organized militia forces of the individual states, a component of the Army of the U.S. when called into active federal service.
reserves Personnel or units in the armed forces not on active duty but subject to call; last resort troops, usually remained in the U.S.
CO Conscientious objector. A designation for legal exemption from military combat service due to moral or personal ideological conflict.
Bao Dai (1913-1997, meaning "Keeper or Preserver of Greatness") Bao Dai was the last of the Nguyen Emperors.
Diem Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963), first president of South Vietnam (1955-1963).
Saint George Patron saint of England.
LBJ Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) 36th president of the United States (1963-1969).
Huck Finn Protagonist from the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain marked by his plucky and rebellious spirit.
Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) A countercultural icon of the 1960s, Abbie Hoffman was successful at turning many flower children into political activists.
Jane Fonda (b. 1937) Actress and sex symbol who toured Vietnam in 1972; she became a vocal anti-war activist and was harshly criticized by some veterans for her political position on the war.
Gary Cooper (1901-1961) film actor characterized by a rugged masculine quality well known for his roles in Westerns such as High Noon (1952). He also appeared in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Sergeant York (1941).
Plato's Republic Central text of Western thought in which the Greek philosopher Plato outlines the construction of the ideal political city and leader.