In "On the Rainy River," from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, why does O'Brien address the reader directly?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River,” from his book The Things They Carried, the narrator addresses the reader directly. Various effects of this kind of address might be described as follows:

  • The opening sentences of the chapter arouse great curiosity and imply that the reader is in an unusually privileged position:

This is one story I've never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife.

  • This kind of opening creates a sense of intimacy – a kind of bond – between the narrator and the reader.
  • The narrator makes common cause with his readers, implying that he and they share common values, common instincts, and also (perhaps) common failings:

All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit.

  • In explicitly asking himself a series of questions about the Vietnam war, the narrator inevitably poses those very same questions to his readers, encouraging them to think as he himself had to think:

Was it a civil war? A war of national liberation or simple aggression? Who started it, and when, and why? What really happened to the USS Maddox on that dark night in the Gulf of Tonkin? Was Ho Chi Minh a Communist stooge, or a nationalist savior, or both, or neither? What about the Geneva Accords? What about SEATO and the Cold War? What about dominoes?

  • When the narrator uses the word “You,” he is (ironically) obviously thinking primarily of himself, but he also implicates the reader as well:

You can't fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can't make them undead.

  • Later in the chapter, the narrator once again suggests that his present readers are in a kind of privileged position – that they are about to learn something that no one else knows:

Most of this I've told before, or at least hinted at, but what I have never told is the full truth. How I cracked.

By directly addressing his readers, then, the narrator encourages intimacy, suspense, moral reflection, identification, and empathy.