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The final paragraph of Tim O’Brien’s story “On the Rainy River” (a chapter in his book The Things They Carried) will catch many readers by surprise. In this chapter, the protagonist wrestles with a huge decision: should he go to war in Vietnam, as he feels pressured to do, or should he flee to Canada to avoid military service? Toward the end of the chapter, the protagonist does leave his hometown in Minnesota and does head north toward Canada. Along the way, however, he stops at an old fishing camp and spends a few days there working for the old man who owns the camp. The protagonist continues to debate his decision. He knows that many people consider going to Canada a sign of weakness and fear. In the next-to-last paragraph, the protagonist gets in his car and drives south, “toward home.” The final paragraph of the story reads as follows:
The day was cloudy. 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. I was a coward. I went to the war.
The brevity of this paragraph is stunning. By describing so quickly the decision he made and the time he spent in Vietnam, the narrator achieves a number of effects, including the following:
- The very brevity of his reference to Vietnam implies that things happened there that are difficult to discuss. Instead of congratulating himself for having gone there and survived, he ironically seems almost ashamed. He seems modest and truthful.
- Normally we think of cowardice as the avoidance of war. The narrator, however, ironically presents cowardice as a failure to avoid war.
- Many people would have considered survival in Vietnam a piece of great good fortune, but the speaker’s conscience is troubled by his decision to go to war. The paragraph implies that the speaker’s values are his own – that he thinks for himself.
- Ironically, it is precisely because the speaker does pride himself on thinking for himself that he feels ashamed of having capitulated to social pressures.
- One effect of the brevity of this paragraph is to imply a significance that the narrator does not feel comfortable, at this point, discussing at length.
- Rather than trying to elaborately justify his decision, and rather than trying to apologize for it at any length, the speaker restrains himself in both ways. His reticence, in both respects, makes him seem a thoughtful man rather than a man who feels any need to change the minds of others.
- By concluding the chapter so abruptly, the narrator forces his readers to think for themselves as well. He doesn’t tell them what to think; he merely reports, as briefly as possible, how he behaved, and lets us come to our own conclusions.
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