Theme of Conflicting Motivations in Tim O’Brien's Short Story 'On the Rainy River'

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In their lifetime, people can expect to make several choices and decisions. Some decisions may be small, simple, and to a degree, minor. However, there comes a time in one's life in which a decision must be made, significantly impacting their life. Often individuals will turn to a source of motivation that is personal, regarding their individual beliefs, perspectives, and ideologies to guide them in a certain direction. However, an individual may turn to society and find motivation there, one may be motivated to abide by certain stereotypes or to avoid feelings of regret and embarrassment. Once an individual commits to a source of motivation that drives them, they will align their course of action with those motivations. In the short story ‘On the Rainy River’, the narrator Tim O’Brien experiences opposing sources of motivation. Throughout the story, O’Brien describes the measures he takes in an attempt to escape his approaching dilemma. He faces conflicting motivations between his personal beliefs and maintaining his pride in the eyes of society. O’Brien concludes his story by describing the consequences he faces for allowing the wrong motivators to direct his course of action. Therefore, when an individual encounters a life-altering decision, they may accept the course of action that aligns with societal motivators and reject their internal motives, leading to future repercussions.

When an individual faces a situation where a substantial decision needs to be made, often their initial reaction is to follow their personal motivations. In the summer of 1968, O’Brien receives a letter drafting him the Vietnam War; a war he strongly opposes. O’Brien encounters a substantial life-altering decision with the arrival of this letter. He will need to decide how he will face this adversity, and the decision he makes will ultimately affect him and his future. The Vietnam War was one that he “hate[s]” (O’Brien, 2) as it contrasts with his personal beliefs, he feels as though “certain blood [is] being shed for uncertain reasons” (O’Brien, 2). Tim describes himself as an intelligent individual, who has recently been granted a scholarship to Harvard. He reasons that he can offer many contributions to society and is “too good” (O’Brien 3) to be fighting in this war, that he is “above it” (O’Brien, 3). O’Brien identifies these characteristics of himself to showcase his potential and all that he can offer to society. He is personally motivated to avoid the war and pursue other feats in the future. He believes that going to war would be a “mistake” (O’Brien, 3). These convictions motivate O’Brien in the direction of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft. For the remainder of the summer, O’Brien works at the “Armour meatpacking plant” (O’Brien, 3) where he must remove blood clots from the necks of slaughtered pigs. He despises the factory as the job is not “pleasant” (O’Brien, 4); he describes the stench of the factory as always lingering on him. He admits the “sight of blood made [him] queasy” (O’Brien, 3), affirming that he is “no soldier” (O’Brien, 3). Tim O’Brien finds himself struggling mentally throughout the summer, he experiences feelings of “isolation” (O’Brien, 4) and self-pity. He constantly thinks about the war and factory, feeling as though his life was crumbling before him. His “consciences and instincts” (O’Brien, 4) motivate him to begin truly considering leaving for Canada. His justifications and beliefs were prevalent enough to motivate O’Brien to not fight in the Vietnam War. He now finds himself motivated to flee to Canada to avoid drafting.

An individual’s personal motivations are often affected by the views and opinions of others. Tim O’Brien finds himself heavily concerned with the opinions and influences of society. Although he fears the war, he also fears “ridicule” and “exile” (O’Brien, 5). He fears the embarrassment his parents would encounter when he leaves. He can imagine the look of disappointment on the faces of his parents as he would attempt to explain himself over the telephone. He envisions the locals at the Gobbler Cafe in his hometown in Minnesota calling him a “sissy” (O’Brien, 5) and a coward who ran off to Canada. If he were to flee, he would risk losing respect, family, friends, and more importantly, his pride. O’Brien questions his beliefs which are originally his personal source of motivation, as he begins to consider the opinions of others around him. He faces two contradictory sources of motivation: his personal desire to not fight in a war he did not believe in and to maintain his pride and not face the ridicule of society. O’Brien encounters an inner conflict, a “moral split” (O’Brien, 5), as he begins to question his personal motivations. O'Brien describes this as a “sickness” or a “disease” (O'Brien, 5) within him as he struggles to decipher between his two sources of motivation. One summer day while O’Brien was working at the pig factory, he “cracked” (O’Brien, 5) and decided to drive north to Canada. O’Brien’s once firm and prevalent personal motivators are clouded by the opinions of others. The “blur” and the rush of “adrenaline” (O’Brien, 6) course through him as he drives. The thought of “no way out” (O’Brien, 6) passes through his mind numerous times as he realizes he has “no plan” (O’Brien, 6). This “mindless” decision was not a “happy conclusion” (O’Brien, 6) as the notion of embarrassment triumphs. O’Brien’s decision to go to Canada aligns with his personal motivators, however, these are questioned as is concerned with the judgment he may face. Tim arrives at the Rainy River with Canada in the near distance, scared and wary.

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Eventually, some individuals will succumb to society’s motivations and neglect their personal motivators. As Tim O’Brien reaches the Rainy River, he comes across an old resort called the “Tip Top Lodge” (O’Brien, 6), where he meets the owner, Elroy Berdahl. O’Brien stays at the lodge for a total of six days, completing chores in preparation for winter. He occupies the remainder of his time imagining the embarrassment his family must be facing and the degrading comments directed toward him. Throughout his stay, Berdahl does not insinuate or question O’Brien, however, on the sixth day he took O’Brien out fishing on the Rainy River. Once they reach the middle of the river, with the Canadian border only “twenty yards” (O’Brien, 12) away. O’Brien realizes it was now time for him to decide whether he would follow his desired motivation to reside in Canada and avoid drafting; or succumb to societal pressures to accept drafting, following his motivation to maintain his pride. Feeling overwhelmed, O’Brien begins to cry as he realizes his motivation to flee to Canada has become a “pitiful fantasy” (O’Brien, 12), one that was “silly and hopeless” (O’Brien, 12), leaving was no longer a possibility. Along the Minnesota shoreline, he envisions people from his past, present, and future. In his hallucination, O’Brien sees his younger self, a version of himself that was a “hero, a man of conscience and courage” (O’Brien, 13), his life “seemed to spill” (O’Brien, 13) into the river before him. He sees his family along with the townspeople calling out for him. Tim O’Brien also envisions historical figures of the past, such as Abraham Lincoln, Saint George, and dead soldiers, chanting him towards the shoreline. Next, individuals from his distant future rush before him, his future wife and children, drill sergeant Blyton, and “a slim young man [he] would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe” (O’Brien, 14). All of which were watching him while screaming “Traitor!” (O’Brien, 14) and “Coward!” (O’Brien, 14). The hallucinations on the Minnesota shoreline act as a tether, keeping him from leaving and willing him to stay. Tim was not able to be “brave” (O’Brien, 14) and follow his personal motivations, instead he “submitted” (O’Brien, 14) to go to war as the embarrassment, “mockery, [...] and ridicule” (O’Brien, 14) were intolerable. O’Brien neglects his beliefs and motivators and succumbs to society’s motivations as he fears embarrassment. Later that night, O’Brien prepares to leave, and Elroy “disappears” (O’Brien, 14). Tim O'Brien's motivation to avoid being labeled a coward dominates his motivation to live his life peacefully in Canada. He allows the opinions of others to direct his course of action, leading him to fight in the Vietnam War. He eventually took the opinions of society into great consideration leading him to make a decision based on societal judgment, rather than his motivations.

In choosing a course of action that relates to societal motivations, an individual may experience future repercussions. In neglecting his desires and motivations, O’Brien chooses the wrong path as his decision was influenced by external sources, specifically to avoid humiliation in society. Ultimately O'Brien's societal motivations to prevent feelings of embarrassment prevail and he finally concludes that he was a coward and went to the war. In allowing societal motivations, or the wrong motivators, to direct his course of action to participate in the war, Tim endures the repercussions of shame, regret, and embarrassment. Evidently, O'Brien regrets and feels shameful regarding this decision as he states that “this is one story [he’s] never told before” (O’Brien, 1). He explains that for twenty years he has concealed and hidden this from the people around him. Telling this story, or even thinking about it, is a difficult task as it causes him to “squirm” (O’Brien, 1). Even after two decades, he admits he continues to feel “shame” (O’Brien, 1) and “embarrassment” (O’Brien, 1) for fighting in the Vietnam War. The repercussions he experiences are strong as he insinuates he has nightmares regarding his choice, and telling his story would “relieve… some pressure [from his] dreams” (O’Brien, 1). Although O'Brien chooses to go to war and faces repercussions, therefore, making him a coward, he can admit his mistake and bear the consequences. Tim O’Brien learned to follow his personal desires and motivations rather than permitting external sources of motivation to determine his course of action.

Tim O’Brien finds himself in an inner conflict between his two motivations: personal beliefs and avoiding embarrassment from society. He chooses the latter as he could not endure the “mockery… and ridicule” (O’Brien, 14). By choosing his societal motivations and going to war, Tim realizes that it was a mistake. He used the wrong source of motivation to direct his choice between Canada and the war. In the years to come, he faces reverberations of his choice. When an individual experiences a situation that will inevitably change their life, they or must make a decision. Tim shares his story to shed light on the fact that individuals should choose wisely when allowing conflicting sets of motivation to direct one’s course of action. An individual may use motivations that are more personal or ones that align with society to aid in the decision-making process. Although, an individual should choose the course of action that best aligns with their personal motivators to avoid facing future repercussions. These consequences can negatively impact one’s life, causing an increasing number of issues.

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Theme of Conflicting Motivations in Tim O’Brien’s Short Story ‘On the Rainy River’. (2024, January 04). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
“Theme of Conflicting Motivations in Tim O’Brien’s Short Story ‘On the Rainy River’.” Edubirdie, 04 Jan. 2024,
Theme of Conflicting Motivations in Tim O’Brien’s Short Story ‘On the Rainy River’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Apr. 2024].
Theme of Conflicting Motivations in Tim O’Brien’s Short Story ‘On the Rainy River’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2024 Jan 04 [cited 2024 Apr 15]. Available from:

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