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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 4 Summary

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The fourth story of The Things They Carried is “On the Rainy River.” The narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains that he is about to tell a story that he has never told anyone before. It begins in 1968 while O’Brien is in college. O’Brien imagines himself as a hero that would certainly stand up to evil. Though he has not done anything heroic, he tells himself that he could save up his courage for a time when he might really need it, a theory that the narrator looks back on as “comfortable.” 

He is opposed to the Vietnam War and he has even written some articles in the school’s newspaper against it. After all, it was uncertain why the war should be fought, whereas it was certain that men would die. He could list any number of reasons, ranging from historical to political to philosophical, explaining why the war was wrong. However, looking back, O’Brien admits that his opposition was more like an intellectual activity because he felt no personal danger. On June 17, 1968, the narrator receives his draft notice. He is shocked because he was an excellent student, and had even earned a scholarship to Harvard. He was too good and too smart for the war, and he was a liberal. Why not draft a “back-to-the-stone-age hawk” that supported the war?

That summer, O’Brien works at an Armour meatpacking plant in Worthington, Minnesota. He spends his days as a “Declotter” of pork products, where he works a device like a gun. At night he goes home with the stench of pigs on him. It is difficult getting a date, and he spends the summer alone with his draft notice. At night he drives around town thinking about ways to get out of the war, but knowing that there is no option that he can take. By mid-July, he begins to think about going to Canada. O’Brien’s mind becomes split as he considers his fear of the war and his fear of exile. He fears the way that the people in his hometown, who support the war, will look down on him—even though they only understand it as a simple “war to stop the Communists.” 

Finally, O’Brien takes off, driving north toward Canada. He eventually stops at an old fishing resort called Tip Top Lodge. Rainy River is nearby and Canada waits on the other side. Elroy Berdahl, who is eighty-one years old, runs the lodge. He sees O’Brien and lets him have a cabin without question. They spend the next six days together, playing scrabble and working together at splitting wood or other chores, but otherwise not talking. When they discuss the bill, Elroy offers to pay O’Brien for the odd jobs he has done around the lodge. He puts the money into an envelop with “emergency fund” written on it, and O’Brien realizes that Elroy already knows what he is doing at Tip Top Lodge. The next day, they go out on the river, ostensibly to fish, and O’Brien looks at the far shore, Canada.

Although he tries to make himself cross the river, he cannot do it. He explains that he cannot make himself do the right thing: he cannot make himself go to Canada. He cannot face the “mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.” Instead, he begins to cry in the boat and he returns home before finally going to war. He would return from the war, but his return was not a happy ending. He concludes, “I was a coward. I went to war.”

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