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How does Tim O'Brien develop his ideas about the effect or impact of a significant...

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connorcccccc | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 12, 2012 at 7:54 AM via web

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How does Tim O'Brien develop his ideas about the effect or impact of a significant experience on an individual's life in the short story "On the Rainy River"?

"Discuss the ideas developed by Tim O'Brien about the effect or impact of a significant experience on an individuals's life."
If you have ever read this short story and can think of some of the ideas developed by Tim O'Brien it would be a great help thanks

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tmcquade | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted June 12, 2012 at 4:59 PM (Answer #1)

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There are two sentences that especially stand out to me at the end of this story, both of which help to show how this experience impacted Tim O'Brien's life.  One involves a key realization he makes about human nature; the second, a truth he recognizes about himself. Either of these could serve as a great basis for an essay.

As O'Brien sits in the boat, looking out at Canada and contemplating his choices, he ultimately makes the decision to return home and respond to his draft notice.  As he does so, he realizes how often our actions are the result of us wanting to put on a "show" for others in some way.  He says:

"I would go to the war - I would kill and maybe die - because I was embarrassed not to" (186).

It is not his belief in the justness of the war that leads him to make this decision.  It is not that he believes he will gain something or learn something from the experience.  It is not that he thinks it is the right thing to do to serve his country.  His motivation is that he is "embarrassed not to" - he does not want to bring shame to his parents, and he does not want to have to face his neighbors and friends again if he doesn't take on this responsibility.  As he elaborates:

"All those eyes on me - the town, the whole universe - and I couldn't  risk the embarrassment.  It was 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.... It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment.  That's all it was" (186).

This leads him to the most powerful realization, I believe, in the story - his recognition and revelation of the truth about himself:

"I was a coward. I went to the war" (187).

This goes against most people's thinking.  Most at the time thought the "cowardly" thing to do was run - whether that be to Canada, or some other place that allowed a person to avoid this wartime responsibility.  O'Brien turns that all upsidedown, however, with these words.  His experience in the war haunts him and powerfully impacts him for the rest of his life, and he lays all the blame on his decision to do the "cowardly" thing and go to the war, even though it went against everything he believed and desired at the time. 

O'Brien didn't follow his own principles and conscience.  He didn't stand up for what he believed was right or just or fair.  He didn't refuse to yield and instead join the fight to end the war.  Because of his "embarrassment" to do otherwise, he leaves Elroy Berdahl behind at the lake and heads home:

"I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the Prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending" (187).

Clearly, this "experience" has a profound impact on him for the rest of his life.  This decision both haunts him and propels him into his undesired future.  He learns a lot about bravery in Vietnam, but it is this "cowardly" moment that determines his path, and which he does not talk about to anyone until he sets it down on paper in this book.

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