Compare Tim O'Brien's short stories "On the Rainy River" and "The Things they Carried."

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Things they Carried" and "On the Rainy River" are both short stories in Tim O'Brien's novel, also called The Things they Carried. The short story "The Things they Carried" is narrated by O'Brien about what the soldiers in Alpha Company in Vietnam carry as they fight in a senseless war. Much of what they carry is excess physical baggage, such as pantyhose worn as a good luck talisman, chewing gum, and the Bible. They also carry reminders from home, such as the love letters that Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries from Martha, a girl back home. They carry marijuana to calm their nerves. Finally, they also carry psychological burdens, such as the guilt that Jimmy Cross feels when one of his men, Ted Lavender, is shot and killed. This story can be read on a literal and a symbolic level, as what the men carry stands for the larger burdens they bear.

"On the Rainy River," like "The Things they Carried," can also be read on a literal and symbolic level. Unlike "The Things they Carried," it takes place before (rather than during) the Vietnam War, as the narrator, Tim O'Brien, decides whether to fight in Vietnam or escape to Canada. He is literally on the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, while he makes his decision. This story concludes as O'Brien decides to fight in the war, largely out of shame. Like "The Things they Carried," much in this story is symbolic. The river stands for his indecision as he chooses between fighting and escaping to Canada. Like the characters in "The Things they Carried," he also struggles with shame, which motivates his decision to fight in Vietnam. Most importantly, both stories emphasize the senselessness of the war.