Step Towards Success In On The Rainy River By Tim O’Brien
The human need is to make a commitment towards an ideology, situation, or belief. Whether this commitment is required to be fixated is a new question. In the modern world where society has access to a wide plethora of information, the importance of maintaining a long-standing commitment to an activity is not lost. In fact, the CEO’s of Silicon Valley and the bigwigs of the World Market, all suggest that an individual must be devoted to their cause, whatever it may be. Though, does it infer that renouncing an action is something that should not be done? Over the years, the word – renouncing – has developed a largely negative connotation. To society, the word “renouncing” has become more of a cliché that is largely viewed as only to be used by the non-dedicated. Even the “motivational” speakers’ of the TED organization, preach the act of not giving up. What is lost in translation, though is the need to be pragmatic about one’s situation. Being pragmatic, may involve taking a different approach to a recurring problem or even renouncing an action altogether. To be successful: an individual must balance his/her commitment to ambitions and dreams with a pragmatic nature, which could entail renouncing some courses of action. For an example: when some of their assets do not perform in the green over a period, investors tend to get rid of them. It is important to establish that “to renounce” is not to fail rather it is a step towards success. A story which acutely embodies this understanding is “On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien. Tim, the main protagonist is an intelligent individual who sets ambitious aspirations for himself including a Harvard graduate degree but lives in a time that require him to renounce his dreams. In the story, Tim moves through three different environments – his Minnesota hometown, Tip Top Lodge and the Rainy River – that offer him the opportunity to deliberate in different aspects if it would be best to pursue his incomplete ambitions in Canada or renounce them for a stint in the army.
In the initial segments of the story, Tim describes to his readers the Minnesota hometown that he is from. It is his hometown that allows Tim the opportunity to examine the aspect of family and society’s opinion that is connected to his decisions. At the start of the story, Tim also reveals his thoughts on the “Armour Meat Packing Factory” and “his modest stand” on the Vietnam War. He also describes his aspiration to pursue “grad. studies at Harvard” and how he has “the world dicked” with his membership in “Phi Beta Kappa”, graduation with “summa cum laude” and position as the “president of the student body”.
By revealing his thoughts, Tim showcases to the audience his world before being drafted into the war. In that way when he expresses his desire to escape to Canada, the audience can understand his dilemma and the immense potential that he has with fulfilling his ambitions. When Tim does receive his draft notice, the exposition that he has initially given allows the audience to completely grasp the nature of his astonishment. This amazement of Tim’s is what makes him drive aimlessly around town which in turn exposes him to the aspect of family and society‘s opinion. Tim’s moral discussion on this aspect, is seen in the following excerpt: I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure. My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted, and it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Cafe on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O’Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d sometimes carry on fierce arguments with those people. I’d be screaming at them, telling them how much I detested their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simple-minded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand.
This passage demonstrates the nature of the deliberation that Tim is having, that is with respect to his family and the society around him. He explores the facet of how he fears abandoning the people who have forever cared for him, his family and losing the respect of society. Tim also alludes to the conservative beliefs of his society and how his true intentions would never be understood just as how he is different from all those simply being drafted into the war. As the passage progresses, Tim conveys an increased feeling of detachment and claims that he “held them personally and individually responsible”. This line echoes the one earlier where Tim had claimed that thinking “was entirely an intellectual activity”. It seems so to Tim that the entire world around him does not understand the war and rather than trying to do so, they expect him to partake in it. This line also allows the audience to get a true understanding of Tim’s deteriorating mental condition, a recurring idea that the writer uses to highlight the urgency to decide. Tim uses this growing detachment of his as a motive to escape the immediate need to view his situation from a more realistic perspective.
The moral discussion that Tim has showcases the facet of family and society that he must consider when he decides whether to continue a path to pursue his dreams or completely renounce them. To effectively convey the significance of Tim’s moral deliberations, the writer adopts a casual choice of words and accurately places them to develop oxymorons that aid his cause, like “Prideful ignorance, ” and “automatic acquiescence”. The writer also develops the setting and highlights the social pressures of the time by using common jargons like “damned sissy” and referencing specific details, “Gobbler’s Café” on “Main street”. Amongst the three environments that Tim dwells in, the setting of his Minnesota hometown allows him to explore the aspect of his family and society’s opinion that is connected to his decision of either remaining committed to his dreams or not. While Tim is in his hometown, he explores the aspect of his family and social pressures in deciding on whether he should accept his drafting into the army. He eventually heads off to the Canadian border where he stays at the Tip Top Lodge. It is here in six days of isolation that he explores the impact of following his commitment and running off to Canada would have on his conscience. Even though it is only at the Tip Top Lodge where Tim thoroughly reflects on his conscience, he first mentions it when he is flirting with the idea of how “Vietnam seemed…wrong”. By mentioning the Vietnam war at such an early stage in the story, the reader is made aware that it is the central focus and of the protagonist’s view on it.
Through his apparent displeasure and mentioning that “There was no unity in this purpose”, Tim makes it known to the audience that participating in this war would violate his moral principles and values. Thus, Tim’s views on the war are an example of situational irony. The topic of Tim’s moral values is again discussed in the Tip Top Lodge but this time, it is contrasted with his sense of shame and guilt. Tim’s thoughts on his conscience and shame are reflected in the following excerpt: It was no longer a question that could be decided by an act of pure reason. Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Cafe. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing.
In the passage, Tim contrasts the will of his conscience against that of his mind. He explores the idea of how his conscience devoted against the advent of the war, forces him to run and how he is “ashamed to be doing the right thing”. Tim’s thought has a distinct impact on the reader as it not only describes Tim’s state of mind but differs to the utopian realities that have become a commonality of our generation. In this way, Tim questions the most idealistic choice and contradicts the prevalent moral understanding that ‘we must always act as per our values’. This shows the increasing value of pragmatism in Tim’s thoughts that remains as prevalent until the end of the story. The state of being caught between two contrasting forces prevents Tim from taking a concrete decision and further degrades his mental state which causes him to hallucinate his capture. In this passage, Tim also reflects on the sense of shame that he experiences and how it is the underlying force even beyond his family and other social pressures, compelling him to Vietnam. Tim’s shame and guilt are recurring themes throughout the story that become more significant as the story progresses. The use of intra-personal words such as “my, ” the contrast in word complexity between the sentences comparing conscience and shame and the mention of specific places are effective tools that contribute to the text’s flow. The writer personifies shame as “stupid” to signify its importance to the story and to convey the intensity of Tim’s emotion. Tip Top Lodge allows Tim to contrast the will of his conscience, and his mind which then enables him to take a step forward towards renouncing his decision of running off to Canada.
Even though, Tim warms up to the idea of returning home, he does not fully embrace it. It is when Tim remains non-committal that Elroy Berdahl’s role becomes significant. Berdahl’s role in this story is one that can be likened to a Christ-like figure, showing the paths not the direction. By showcasing the paths that Tim can take, Berdahl forces Tim to come to a decision and put an end to his mental trauma. He essays the role of a proper foil, acting in the opposite to Tim and yet, being hailed as the “hero” (O’Brien 4) of his life. Berdahl does not question Tim about his actions and that is what sets him apart. He understands the delicate nature of Tim’s situation and makes him feel homely by playing scrabble with him and through domestic tasks. Berdahl does this as he understands that ‘individuals are more likely to make better decisions where they are comfortable’. Berdahl’s role is also significant as he seems to know the appropriate time to conduct each action. He knows when to take Tim out onto the Rainy River and even the ideal location for it, only twenty yards from the Canadian shore. On the Rainy River, Berdahl just leaves Tim on his own and this allows the protagonist, the opportunity to contemplate whether he should renounce his dreams or remain committed to them by running off to Canada. The Rainy River acts as Tim’s mirror, showcasing to him all the facets of his decision. It directly pits his conscience against his shame and sense of abandonment of having to leave his family behind. On the river, Tim experiences a “tight squeezing pressure” that marks the beginning of his emotional collapse. Tim also speaks of a “physical rupture” in his chest when he first decides to drive off to Canada and it is a symbol that the writer employs to indicate the figurative impact of pulling forces – external and internal – in Tim’s life. It is these forces that Tim experiences on the river which allow him to come to a decision. He reflects on these forces in the following passage: All those eyes on me — the town, the whole universe — and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head, I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was.
In the excerpt, Tim ponders on how apart from all the aspects of his decision that he had explored, it is his embarrassment that forced him to renounce his decision to run off to Canada. The only role of Tim’s embarrassment is that forces him to reflect on his ordeal from a more realistic perspective. In being realistic, Tim envisions all the scrutiny that he would have to face. The hallucinations that Tim experiences with “the whole universe” staring at him mark a resemblance to the delusions that he once had in the Tip Top Lodge of the RCMP, the FBI, and the draft board all chasing after him. The contrast between these images marks an end to the mood of urgency that had been in place in since Minnesota. Until the point where he comes to a decision, Tim dwells in an almost Hollywood-like world where he is the hero who is running away from “a war that is wrong”. As Tim grows more logical with the progression of the story, he further transitions into reality and understands the magnitude of the scrutiny that he would face in it, which adds to his sense of embarrassment. To mark an anti-climax to the story, the writer dawns upon the themes of mortality, courage and heroism, converging them into just embarrassment. As throughout the story, the writer’s causal yet reflective attitude contributes to his effectiveness. The casualness in the writer’s attitude is seen when Tim lists all the names that he would be called and the contemplative when he mentions his inability to be brave, presumably unable to tap into the “reservoir of courage” that he had once claimed to have. The hyperbole that the writer uses in the first line of the passage – “All those eyes on me…the whole universe” – also contributes to conveying the intensity of Tim’s emotion. The Rainy River is a setting that showcases to Tim: the different aspects of his decision and the potential embarrassment that he could face, which allows him to reconsider and ultimately renounce his decision of running to Canada.
Individuals who accurately balance their pragmatic nature with that of the commitment to their dreams and ambitions, generally tend to be more successful than those who do not. It is these individuals who realize the importance of renouncing certain actions and that the most idealistic choices are not always the best ones. This is best reflected in the short story, “On the Rainy River” by Tim O’ Brien. The protagonist is an intelligent individual who sets ambitious aspirations for himself including a Harvard graduate degree but lives in a period that requires him to make pragmatic decisions to be successful. Initially, Tim remains committed to the idea of absconding to Canada even disregarding albeit temporarily, the potential impact that this could have on his family and the societal pressures of the Minnesota town that he is from. In the Tip Top Lodge, after being left to his own, Tim examines the nature of his conscience which does not allow him to fight in a war that he does not agree with. He contrasts this with the pragmatism that his mind preaches. Still not able to come to a decision, Tim requires a certain Elroy Berdahl and the Rainy River to make up his mind.
It is in the Rainy River where Tim realizes that the embarrassment of running off to Canada is too great for him to continue, and he decides to return. In the end, Tim claims that “That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream” and this is the true nature of reality, where one cannot only act as per their conscience and must be pragmatic. The audience can well and truly believe that Tim is satisfied with the decision that he took to renounce his departure to Canada since he claims that Elroy Berdahl is the “hero” of his life. He would not have been regarded as a hero if he had not helped Tim to pursue a successful decision. Society has developed itself in a manner that it values only utopian decisions like in Hollywood where the lead always acts as per their values and morals – compared to real life where to be successful, an ability to renounce certain decisions and examine the most “idealistic” choices is required.
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