On The Rainy River: Summary, Plot, Characters, Literary Analysis & More

“On The Rainy River” is a poignant short story by Tim O’Brien, first published in his collection “The Things They Carried” in 1990.

This short story was one of O’Brien’s notable achievements, exploring themes of moral conflict, courage, and the Vietnam War.

The story follows the inner turmoil of the author himself as he grapples with the draft notice during the Vietnam War and his decision to either go to war or escape to Canada, delving into the complexities of societal pressures and personal shame.

"On The Rainy River" explores the experiences of young men, like O'Brien, during the Vietnam War era, delving into their moral dilemmas and personal growth.

The Plot

In “On The Rainy River,” Tim O’Brien faces a moral dilemma when he receives a draft notice during the Vietnam War.

O’Brien refuses to accept the conventional path of going to war, but instead of evading the draft successfully, he ends up owing money to Elroy Berdahl, a stranger who takes him to the Canadian border.

This plot twist highlights O’Brien’s internal conflict and the unanticipated consequences of his decision to resist the draft.


Tim O’Brien introduces a cast of characters who navigate the tumultuous landscape of the Vietnam War era and its moral complexities.

Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien is the central character and narrator of his personal story, facing the agonizing decision of whether to go to war or flee to Canada to evade the draft.

His internal struggle with cowardice and societal pressure drives the narrative.

Elroy Berdahl

Elroy Berdahl is a mysterious and enigmatic figure who takes Tim to the Canadian border. He forces Tim to confront his moral confusion and plays a crucial role in the story’s development.

Jane Fonda

Though not a central character, Jane Fonda is mentioned in the narrative as a symbol of the anti-war movement, highlighting the external influences that shape Tim’s decision.

Jimmy Cross

Jimmy Cross is briefly mentioned, representing a peer who has already accepted the draft, emphasizing the societal divide and the weight of O’Brien’s decision.

The Old Man

An old man at the fishing resort where Tim works during the summer symbolizes a simpler life and offers Tim insight into his own choices, contributing to his moral introspection.

Key Themes

In “On The Rainy River,” a prominent theme is the internal struggle between personal integrity and societal expectations.

Elroy forces O’Brien to confront his choices by guiding him to the Canadian border.

O’Brien grapples with the theme of moral conflict as he must decide whether to conform to the societal pressure of going to war or to follow his own principles by evading the draft.

This theme is exemplified through O’Brien’s emotional turmoil and the ultimate decision he makes, shedding light on the complexities of personal ethics during times of war.

The Theme of Personal Integrity

The protagonist of the story, Tim O’Brien, is faced with a moral dilemma when he receives his draft notice to serve in the Vietnam War. He grapples with the idea of personal integrity, as he believes deeply that the war is unjust and that he should not participate in it.

Throughout the story, O’Brien’s struggle with his conscience and his inner moral compass is evident. He wants to maintain his personal integrity by not betraying his beliefs, which include a strong aversion to killing and the war’s purpose.

O’Brien’s internal conflict highlights the importance of personal integrity in the face of difficult choices. He wrestles with his sense of self and the idea of living up to his own moral standards.

The Theme of Societal Expectations

The story also delves into the societal expectations placed upon individuals during times of war.

O’Brien feels the weight of these expectations, particularly the pressure to conform to the traditional notion of patriotism and duty.

Society, represented by his family, friends, and community, expects O’Brien to answer the call to serve his country without question. This expectation conflicts with his personal beliefs about the war’s morality.

O’Brien’s experiences on the Rainy River serve as a microcosm of the broader societal pressures faced by young men during the Vietnam War era. The story raises questions about the conformity and obedience that society often demands, even when one’s personal values are in conflict with those demands.

Genres in On The Rainy River

“On The Rainy River” falls primarily into the genres of war literature and coming-of-age.

It explores the experiences of young men, like O’Brien, during the Vietnam War era, delving into their moral dilemmas and personal growth.

O’Brien tells a powerful and introspective narrative, blurring the lines between fiction and autobiography, creating a sense of realism.

This genre choice adds depth to the story, allowing readers to connect emotionally with the characters and the profound themes of courage, shame, and the impact of war on the human psyche.

The War Literature Genre

“On the Rainy River” falls within the war literature genre as it addresses the Vietnam War, a central theme in the larger book.

The story explores the emotional and psychological impact of war on individuals, specifically the protagonist, Tim O’Brien.

Furthermore, It highlights the harsh realities of the Vietnam War and the moral dilemmas faced by young men who were drafted to serve. O’Brien grapples with the idea of going to war, and his internal conflict reflects the broader turmoil experienced by many during that era.

The story presents the challenges of war, both on the battlefield and in the hearts and minds of those called to serve. O’Brien’s decision to go to war, despite his reservations, illustrates the complex and often agonizing choices individuals had to make in the face of wartime pressures.

The Coming-of-Age Genre

This work also fits the coming-of-age genre, albeit in a unique way.

Rather than depicting the traditional journey from adolescence to adulthood, it explores a different kind of coming-of-age—a moral and emotional maturation.

The story is a pivotal moment in O’Brien’s life. He starts as a young man filled with uncertainty, confusion, and fear about his identity and his place in the world.

The decision he makes on the Rainy River becomes a rite of passage that forces him to confront his own values and principles.

O’Brien’s journey to the Canadian border is a metaphorical bridge between his old self and the person he will become. It marks his transition from a state of moral indecision to a more mature understanding of himself and his beliefs.

The story portrays the internal growth and transformation of the protagonist, which are central elements of the coming-of-age genre, even though it occurs in the context of a critical decision related to war rather than the traditional experiences of youth.

Language used in On The Rainy River

The author employs a rich and evocative writing style in “On The Rainy River” to convey a profound sense of introspection and emotional turmoil.

His narrative is marked by vivid imagery and poignant metaphors, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of moral conflict, fear, and shame.

The language used serves to intensify the story’s emotional impact, making it a powerful exploration of human emotions in the face of difficult choices.

Literary devices in On The Rainy River

In “On The Rainy River,” Tim O’Brien skillfully employs literary devices such as irony, symbolism, and foreshadowing to enhance the storytelling.

For example, the situation where O’Brien ends up owing money to Elroy Berdahl serves as both a literal and metaphorical burden, symbolizing the unexpected consequences of his choices.

This foreshadows the weight of his moral dilemma and adds depth to the narrative by intertwining symbolism with the plot’s development


When we see how O’Brien begins thinking about his options, the simile “like a compass needle swinging crazily” illustrates the turbulence of his thoughts, enhancing the reader’s insight into his internal turmoil.

Additionally, references to “graduate school” and being a “Phi Beta Kappa” member are used to describe O’Brien’s intellectual aspirations, comparing his path to those of typical American students. These similes add depth and relatability to his character, fostering a deeper connection with the reader.


The metaphor of “South Vietnam” represents the daunting reality of war, evoking images of chaos and conflict. Likewise, the mention of “American soldiers” metaphorically symbolizes the weight of societal expectations and the collective burden carried by young men during that era.

Furthermore, the idea that “Elroy pretends” serves as a metaphor for the facades people put on in life, concealing their true selves. These metaphors add layers of depth to the narrative, emphasizing the interconnectedness of personal stories amidst a larger historical context.


The analogy where Elroy ends up owing O’Brien money instead of the other way around serves as a powerful metaphor for the reversal of expected outcomes. This analogy helps readers grasp the complex idea that life often takes unexpected turns, highlighting the unpredictability of human choices and their consequences.

It underscores the story’s theme of moral conflict, illustrating how decisions can lead to surprising shifts in power dynamics, offering readers a fresh perspective on the narrative’s central dilemma.


The author’s descriptions of the Canadian shore and the summer job at the Tip Top Lodge create sensory experiences, allowing readers to feel the tranquility of the landscape and the weight of O’Brien’s choices.

The image of “Elroy tacks” towards the border, contrasted with the notion of North Vietnam, creates a palpable sense of conflict and uncertainty.

These images enhance the emotional impact of the story, making it more relatable and immersive.


The interrelated stories within the narrative symbolize the interconnectedness of human experiences and the broader scope of the Vietnam War era. The Canadian shore symbolizes a potential escape from the turmoil, representing freedom and a fresh start.

O’Brien’s summer job symbolizes a brief respite from his moral dilemma, a temporary escape from reality.

Elroy’s tacks towards the border symbolize O’Brien’s pivotal decision, while grad school represents his aspirations for a different future.

These symbols contribute to the exploration of themes like choice, conflict, and personal growth.


O’Brien continues to personify his internal struggles, transforming them into a tangible presence that haunts him.

The Lone Ranger” metaphorically personifies O’Brien’s sense of isolation and individuality amid societal pressures. When O’Brien sees, it’s as though his perception itself takes on a life of its own, reflecting the intensity of his introspection.

These instances of personification enrich the characters and setting by externalizing emotions and thoughts, making them palpable elements within the story, and deepening the reader’s connection to O’Brien’s inner turmoil.


Hyperbole is used to accentuate the emotional weight of Tim O’Brien’s predicament.

When he contemplates the draft, he exaggerates the notion of being “politically naïve” and the sense of being separated from Minnesota (they even use Rainy River as a symbol that separates Minnesota from Canada), amplifying the enormity of his moral conflict.

These hyperbolic expressions serve to emphasize the overwhelming social pressure and the immense impact that the draft has on his conscience.


The story employs situational irony when O’Brien, a “summa cum laude” graduate, ends up working at a meat packing plant instead of pursuing a prestigious career.

This contrast highlights the irony of a young man with intellectual potential being ensnared in a seemingly mundane job due to the societal pressures of the Vietnam War era.

It underscores the theme of choices and their unexpected consequences, adding depth to the narrative.


Juxtaposition is evident in the contrast between the seemingly ordinary, like playing Scrabble and draft cards, and the extraordinary, such as the profound “moral freeze” and the looming prospect of war.

These contrasts create thought-provoking scenarios, highlighting the stark disparity between the mundane aspects of life and the life-altering decisions that individuals like Tim O’Brien must face during the Vietnam War era.


The story contains a paradox in Tim O’Brien’s decision to evade the draft by seeking refuge in Canada, a place of physical safety but also one that symbolizes moral and societal rupture.

This paradox illustrates the complexity of human choices during times of conflict, where safety and morality are often at odds. It invites readers to contemplate the contradictions inherent in the character’s decisions and the consequences that stem from them, adding depth to the narrative.


There is a subtle allusion to the iconic Vietnam War-era protests, particularly when Tim O’Brien references the “water gun.”

This allusion invokes imagery of anti-war demonstrations, including the famous incident involving a water gun at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966.

It signifies the broader societal backdrop of protests and dissent against the war, adding historical depth to the story’s setting.

The mention of the meatpacking plant alludes to the harsh realities of working-class life, reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” drawing parallels to the struggles faced by everyday people in times of war.


While “On The Rainy River” primarily functions as a personal narrative, it can be interpreted allegorically to represent the broader themes of moral dilemma and the human struggle with choices during times of societal conflict, particularly the Vietnam War.

Tim O’Brien’s internal turmoil, choices, and the consequences of his decisions can be seen as allegorical elements representing the moral quandaries faced by many young Americans during the era.


Repetition is subtly used in the story to emphasize key themes and emotions.

The repetition of words like “fight,” “truth,” “coward,” and “wrong” underscores O’Brien’s internal conflict and the moral ambiguity he faces.

It reinforces the emotional impact of his decision-making process and the societal pressure he grapples with.

Additionally, the repetition of “drafted” and “Harvard” serves to highlight the contrast between O’Brien’s academic achievements and the harsh reality of being drafted into the Vietnam War, emphasizing the theme of choices and their consequences.

On The Rainy River: FAQs

In this section, we provide answers to common questions relating to this work.

What is the short story on the Rainy River about?

“On the Rainy River” is a short story by Tim O’Brien about his inner conflict when drafted into the Vietnam War.

What are the main points of on the Rainy River?

The main points highlight his struggle with fear, societal expectations, and ultimately, his decision to go to war despite his moral objections.

Why is O Brien ashamed of his story?

O’Brien is ashamed of his story because he feels it exposes his weakness, as well as his cowardice for not following his true beliefs.

What does on the Rainy River symbolize?

“On the Rainy River” symbolizes the difficult choices people face when torn between societal pressures and personal convictions.

What role Vietnam War has in “On The Rainy River”?

The Vietnam War serves as the backdrop and catalyst for the story. It’s the war that triggers O’Brien’s moral dilemma and drives the narrative, symbolizing the societal pressure and moral conflict faced by young men during that era.

What happens when O’Brien refuses the money?

When O’Brien refuses the money, Elroy Berdahl, the stranger who took him to the Canadian border, insists on giving it to him as a gesture of understanding and compassion. This unexpected reversal emphasizes the profound impact of Elroy’s guidance on O’Brien’s decision.

What is the main message of “On The Rainy River”?

The main message of “On The Rainy River” is the exploration of personal moral conflict and societal expectations during times of war. It underscores the internal struggle individuals face when their values clash with the demands of society, inviting readers to contemplate the complexities of human choices and courage.

Summing up: On The Rainy River: Summary, Plot & More

As you now know from this “On The Rainy River” summary, this work is a profound exploration of the human psyche in the face of moral conflict and societal pressure, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War era. Tim O’Brien’s introspective narrative engages readers with its emotional depth and relatable themes of choice and courage.

The story’s impact lies in its ability to evoke empathy for its characters and prompt reflection on the complexities of personal ethics.

Its enduring appeal lies in its universal relevance, reminding us that our choices define our moral compass in a world where societal expectations often clash with personal convictions.

Other Notable Works by Tim O’Brien

If you are interested in “On The Rainy River”, you may be interested in other works by Tim O’Brien including:

  • The Things They Carried“: A collection of interconnected stories about the experiences of American soldiers during the Vietnam War, exploring the emotional and psychological burdens they carry.
  • Going After Cacciato“: A novel that follows a soldier named Paul Berlin who goes AWOL in Vietnam, embarking on a surreal journey to track down a fellow soldier who has decided to walk away from the war.
  • In the Lake of the Woods“: A novel about a politician’s mysterious disappearance in a remote Minnesota lake, intertwining his personal history and the secrets of his marriage.
  • If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home“: A memoir recounting the author’s personal experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War.
  • July, July“: A novel that follows a group of college friends as they gather for a reunion, reflecting on their past, the 1960s, and the changes in their lives.
  • Tomcat in Love“: A satirical novel about a self-absorbed and promiscuous college professor named Thomas Chippering and his tumultuous relationships.
  • Northern Lights“: A novel about a middle-aged man named Joe, who returns to his hometown in Minnesota to confront his past and make sense of his life.
  • The Nuclear Age“: A darkly humorous novel that explores the anxieties and absurdities of the Cold War era, following the life of a man named William Cowling.
  • Dad’s Maybe Book“: A collection of letters, anecdotes, and reflections by the author, written to his young sons, offering insights into life, love, and the complexities of being a father.

These works offer a range of narratives that delve into war experiences, morality, and the complexities of human emotions, all within Tim O’Brien’s distinctive storytelling style.

"On The Rainy River," a prominent theme is the internal struggle between personal integrity and societal expectations.