Terror in Tim O´Brien´s on the Rainy River

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“How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free...How many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn't see?” The lyrics of Blowin’ in the Wind strike the painful feeling when our dignity is smothered by unbearable fear. In the short story “On the Rainy River”, Tim O’Brien explores the idea that we cannot follow our heart in the face of terror. Through his experiences, O’Brien suggests that when our insecurity clashes with our self-respect, our moral conscience is often torn into pieces until we are left with no choice but to accept the ruthless reality with a desperate heart.

A society, a place, an attitude, an expectation---all of these contribute to a character’s response to threatening forces. Tim’s insecurity ignites in the Cold War, where the world tatters into two extreme ideologies, and “certain blood [is] shed for uncertain reasons”. Tim remains “politically naïve” until one day a draft notice flies into his pocket. He is conscripted to “fight a war he [hates]”---the Vietnam War. Confusion, rage, exasperation freeze his mind: Why me? I am not a hero! I am too good! I hate wars! But all of them melt into a “silent howl” inside his head. Tim’s summer job in a meatpacking plant allows him to envision himself as a soldier. “Standing for eight hours a day under a lukewarm blood shower”, holding a massive water gun, he “[removes] blood clots from the necks of the dead pigs”. The carcasses and the gore evoke the disturbing images of brutal and merciless battles in his mind. His body shivers and sweats run down in his face, as if he is torturing the political enemies, and their blood is splattering everywhere for absurd reasons. When he goes home, Tim is irritated by the obnoxious smell that “...

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...er, leaving only a tranquil mind to believe that life burden is more important than his dignity. He manages to conquer his insecurity and accepts the obligation to go to Vietnam. Tim calls himself a coward---a soldier that finds courage to fight in the “wrong war”.

Through his own experience, O’Brien develops the idea that self-respect erodes like a pebble in a river of insecurity. No matter how hard O’Brien tries to convince himself that he must listen to his conscience, he is unable to retreat from his burden. He might die in the wrong war! He might become one of the carcasses in the slaughterhouse! But he must do what he should do. In life when we believe that our self-respect is right, we are determined to follow our heart. However, when we encounter oppressive situations, we will not swim away from our insecurity, because “[we are] cowards, [we go] to war”.

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