Essay On The Rainy River (Free English Essays)

Essay On The Rainy River

Outline of Essay:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Protagonist’s Moral Dilemma
  3. The Symbolism of the Rainy River
  4. The Role of Shame and Guilt
  5. The Power of Storytelling
  6. The Ambiguity of Truth
  7. The Consequences of Choice


In Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Rainy River,” the protagonist finds himself caught in a moral dilemma during the Vietnam War. This essay explores the themes and main ideas presented in the story, ultimately arguing that the protagonist’s struggle represents the clash between duty and personal beliefs. The story delves into the historical and cultural context of the war, examines the protagonist’s internal conflict, analyzes the symbolism of the Rainy River, explores the themes of shame and guilt, discusses the power of storytelling, explores the ambiguity of truth, and examines the consequences of the protagonist’s choices.

The Protagonist’s Moral Dilemma

The protagonist in Tim O’Brien’s “The Rainy River” grapples with a profound moral dilemma that lies at the heart of the story. As a young man facing the draft during the Vietnam War, he is confronted with conflicting values and beliefs. On one hand, he feels a deep sense of duty and patriotism, influenced by societal expectations and the pressure to serve his country. The weight of his family’s military history and the honour attached to military service further compound this obligation.

However, the protagonist is also torn by his personal beliefs and reservations about the war. He questions the morality of the conflict and the justifications behind it. He finds himself caught between the weight of his society’s expectations and his conscience. The decision to go to war or to resist the draft becomes an existential dilemma for him.

In his internal struggle, the protagonist considers the consequences of his actions. He contemplates the physical and psychological toll of war and the impact it would have on his life and identity. This moral dilemma is not just a matter of deciding between right and wrong; it involves the clash of values and the complexity of personal convictions.

Ultimately, the protagonist’s moral dilemma reveals the profound tension between fulfilling societal expectations and staying true to oneself. It raises questions about the nature of duty and the individual’s responsibility to uphold their own beliefs and values. Through his portrayal of the protagonist’s internal conflict, O’Brien prompts readers to examine their moral dilemmas and reflect on the choices they face in their own lives.

The Symbolism of the Rainy River

The river serves as a powerful metaphor that represents the boundary between duty and personal freedom. As the protagonist embarks on his journey across the Rainy River, he is essentially crossing the line that separates societal expectations from individual autonomy.

The river symbolizes the protagonist’s internal struggle and the pivotal moment in his life when he must make a difficult decision. On one side of the river lies the obligation to serve in the Vietnam War, driven by societal pressure and the sense of duty ingrained in him. This represents the weight of expectations and the sacrifices demanded by his country.

On the other side of the river lies personal freedom and the opportunity to escape the war. This represents the protagonist’s individual beliefs and the desire to live a life that aligns with his values and principles. The river becomes the physical and metaphorical threshold that he must cross to redefine his identity and choose his path.

Moreover, the Rainy River also represents the uncertainty and ambiguity of the protagonist’s journey. Just as the river’s waters flow and change, so does the protagonist’s perception of truth and the world around him. The crossing of the river marks a transformative experience for the protagonist, where he confronts his fears, doubts, and conflicting emotions.

The Role of Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt play a significant role in Tim O’Brien’s “The Rainy River” as they deeply impact the protagonist’s internal struggle. Throughout the story, the protagonist wrestles with intense feelings of shame and guilt for considering desertion and evading his duty to serve in the Vietnam War.

Shame emerges from the fear of being labelled a coward and the societal expectations that define honour and courage. The protagonist feels a deep sense of shame for even contemplating the idea of abandoning his responsibilities, as it conflicts with the values instilled in him by his family, community, and country. This shame stems from the fear of judgment and the potential consequences of deviating from the societal norms of patriotism and sacrifice.

Guilt, on the other hand, arises from the internal conflict between the protagonist’s personal beliefs and the pressure to conform. He carries a heavy burden of guilt for questioning the morality of the war and considering a different path. The weight of guilt stems from the sense of betraying his family, his country, and even himself.

These emotions of shame and guilt contribute to the protagonist’s moral dilemma. They weigh heavily on his conscience and impact his decision-making process. The protagonist’s experience demonstrates the power of societal expectations and the emotional toll they can take on an individual, highlighting the complexity of personal choice in the face of societal pressures.

The Power of Storytelling

In “The Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien, storytelling holds significant power in shaping the narrative and the protagonist’s journey. Through the act of storytelling, the protagonist not only recounts his experiences but also shapes his own identity and confronts complex emotions. Storytelling becomes a therapeutic process, allowing him to make sense of his internal struggles.

The power of storytelling lies in its ability to convey deep emotions and offer a means of self-expression. By sharing his story, the protagonist not only communicates his perspective but also invites the reader to empathize and connect with his inner conflicts. The act of retelling becomes a form of catharsis, enabling the protagonist to come to terms with the moral dilemma he faces. Storytelling serves as a bridge between past and present, connecting the protagonist’s experiences with the reader’s understanding. It allows for the exploration of universal themes and the sharing of collective human experiences. Through storytelling, the protagonist’s journey becomes relatable and meaningful, transcending the boundaries of time and individual circumstances.

The Ambiguity of Truth

“The Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien explores the ambiguity of truth, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War and its justifications. The story highlights the subjective nature of truth and the multiple conflicting narratives surrounding the war.

Throughout the narrative, the protagonist grapples with the elusive concept of truth. He is bombarded with different versions of truth from various sources: the government’s official narrative, the stories shared by fellow soldiers, and his personal experiences. This multiplicity of truths creates a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity.

The story underscores the fact that truth is often influenced by personal perspective, bias, and individual experiences. Each person involved in the war has their truth, shaped by their background, beliefs, and motivations. The protagonist’s perspective on truth evolves as he navigates through his internal conflicts and confronts the complexities of the war.

Ultimately, “The Rainy River” invites readers to question their understanding of truth and recognize that truth is often multifaceted, nuanced, and influenced by personal experiences and perspectives. It reminds us of the complexity and subjectivity inherent in the search for truth, especially in the context of war and its impact on individuals and societies.

The Consequences of Choice

The protagonist’s decision to go to Canada carries significant consequences. It impacts his relationships and sense of self. His actions challenge societal norms and expectations, leading to strained relationships with family, friends, and even himself. The broader implications of his decision are explored in the context of the story, shedding light on the individual consequences of resisting social and cultural pressures.


What was the on the Rainy River chapter about?

In Chapter 4, titled “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien recounts his emotional response to receiving his draft notice. He contemplates leaving the country and even travels as far as the Canadian border. On the river that separates the two countries, he grapples with shame, patriotism, and cowardice.

Who is the old man on the Rainy River?

The elderly owner, Elroy Berdahl, rents him a cabin. Elroy does not pry into O’Brien’s plans, though they are probably fairly obvious. O’Brien continues to feel nervousness and fear, and above all else, shame for running to Canada, but he joins Elroy in chores around the lodge to forget about his troubles.

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