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“On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien thoroughly illustrates the emotional burdens of war, especially the fear and shame felt by many men who were forcibly drafted into the Vietnam War. When examining this text using a formalist perspective, through the usage of the plot, point of view, and the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, it is clear that a prevalent theme in this short story is the fear of shame.
The fear of shame is a notable theme considering it is visible at the very introduction of the story. O’Brien says the story he is about to recount is one he has never told out of fear of embarrassment and that he hopes that he can ease his shame by putting it into words. (O’Brien) This preface introduces the fear of shame as a dominant theme since O’Brien alludes that his purpose for writing and narrating this story is to convey a personal, shameful tale and pacify his fear regarding this shame. Considering this introduction expresses that the universal idea that will be explored in this story is the protagonist’s feelings of guilt and fear of embarrassment, it is clear that the fear of shame is indeed a prevalent theme in this story.
After the introduction of the theme in the preface of this story, the fear of shame is further depicted in O’Brien’s thoughts and feelings. He states that he does not want his family and community to be ashamed of him and says, “I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing.” This statement showcases that the only thing that was preventing O’Brien from following his conscience and fleeing to Canada was his fear of the embarrassment he might face from the people he knew and loved. He does not want to be shamed by those he is close to because he is afraid of being humiliated for his morals that lack courage and patriotism. Therefore, the fear of shame is a crucial theme in this story considering it possesses control over O’Brien’s thoughts and point of view.
The relevance of this theme is further exemplified through its extensive effect on O’Brien’s subconscious and decision-making. As he stands twenty yards away from Canadian soil, his mind conjures hallucinatory images of important people and events in his life. O’Brien states that he could hear them shaming him and says that he, “couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.” This hallucination and O’Brien’s inability to endure humiliation are testaments to the influence of the fear of shame and its pertinence as a theme. This theme is so compelling that O’Brien abandons his morals and goes to war. The protagonist’s guilt and fear of humiliation is far greater than his fear of death considering he is convinced that murder and potential death are better than being humiliated. Considering O’Brien’s fear of embarrassment induces hallucinations and sways him to value his integrity and image over his own life and wellbeing, it is palpable the fear of shame is a dominant theme of this story.
When viewing the formal aspects of “On the Rainy River,” it is evident that the fear of shame is a significant theme throughout the story. Holding authority over the emotions and subconscious of O’Brien, this theme greatly influences the plot, the protagonist’s point of view and even the author’s purpose for writing this story. The formalist analysis of this text truly shines light upon the power of fear, the danger of pride, and the vulnerability of humans when fear and pride are combined.
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