In the chapter "On the Rainy River" in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," what does the pig plant symbolize?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his quasi-autobiographical book about his experiences in Vietnam, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien relates the memory of the day he received his draft notice, specifically, on June 17, 1968.  While contemplating injustice of being drafted despite his fervent opposition to the wary, he diverts our attention to his summer job that year, working in a meat-packing plant in his hometown of Worthington, Minnesota.  His responsibility was the removal of blood clots from the necks of the dead pigs [“My job title, I believe, was Declotter”].   In describing the requirement of his job, spraying hard streams of water at the insides of the pigs’ opened chest cavities to dissolve the blood clots, O’Brien compares the experience to experiencing “a lukewarm blood-shower.”:

“At night I’d go home smelling of pig.  It wouldn’t go away.  Even after a hot bath, scrubbing hard, the stink was always there . . .”

At the beginning of this chapter, O’Brien appears to be making a tortured confession, explaining that

“this is one story I’ve never told before.  Not to anyone. . . Even now, I’ll admit the story makes me squirm.  For more than twenty years I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away. . .” 

One prepares for a detailed long-overdue recitation of a war crime on the scale of the My Lai massacre.  As the chapter progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that the deeply-held secret to which the author is ashamed involves not a crime against humanity, but about his aborted decision to escape to Canada rather than comply with his draft notice.  While rooming at an old rustic inn with its elderly owner, O’Brien begins to describe his duties at the pig plant to the old man:

“I told him about wild hogs squealing in my dreams, the sounds of butchery, slaughterhouse sounds, how I’d sometimes wake up with that greasy pig-stink in my throat.”

The images of the pig plant may be a metaphor for the horrors of war.  Certainly, that would be logical.  For the author, however, the awful memories and sensations associated with the slaughterhouse evoke memories not of combat, but of moral cowardice: 

“I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.  I was a coward.  I went to the war.”

Read the study guide:
The Things They Carried

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