Wednesday, October 13, 2010

River Comparison -- "On the Rainy River" vs "The Return"

Inanimate figures in short stories can play a very empowering role and make a lasting impression on the characters that interact with them. For example, in stories such On the Rainy River by Tim O’Brien and The Return by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, rivers are used to bring forth new kinds of action and perceptions out of the main character, resulting in personal development of the individual. Though the two story’s rivers have some similarities in the impact they cause, much of how it is brought about is varied.

            On the Rainy River placed Tim O’Brien in the struggle of his life, causing him to run away from his mandatory draft into the United States army. Upon reaching the climax of the story, O’Brien finds himself drifting in a boat along the Rainy River, stuck in between a life of violence and regret, or a life in Canada, which he assumed would offer the freedom he desperately craved. However, something about Tim’s perception changed when he was forced to make a decision. For him, being on the water represented a point-of-no-return, as if the river itself was forcing him to come to terms with the reality of the choice he had to make. With the current moving swiftly and the winter steadily approaching, the Rainy River brought forth the ultimatum that O’Brien had to make. Though the river firmly conveyed the message, it also provided a clear outlook on O’Brien’s two options, allowing for him to choose whatever he believed was the most reasonable path to take. In The Return, the Honia River also brought forth the coming to terms in a portion of the life of the main character, Kamau. After being released from captivity after five years as a political prisoner, Kamau was eager to make his way back to his home village, expecting to reacquaint himself with his family and wife. Upon reaching his home, Kamau was faced with intense disappointment when he discovered that his wife had left the village with Karanja, a member of the same clan. Feeling worthless, as if he had nothing left to live for, Kamau contemplated drowning himself in the same Honia River that once provided him with unending happiness. However, when his small bundle of possessions rolled down the bank and quickly drifted down the river, his concerns began to do the same, almost as if the river had cleansed his sorrows and helped him begin to straighten things out in his mind. In the end of both stories, the river played a key role in allowing the main characters to move forward and face the realities they are given, despite the outcomes they were facing.

Though both rivers were responsible for assisting the lead character in the stories, each river took a unique way of providing such assistance. Taking more of a reactive role, the Honia River responded to the feelings that Kamau was expressing after the final outcome occurred, instead of being responsible for providing a push forward in the decision-making process like the Rainy River. However, despite the varying methods, both of the rivers provided support when it was needed most.

Regardless of what situation the stories may have held for their characters, it is unsure how the situations would have played out if they didn’t have the implied assistance from the rivers that guided them along their journey of life. Even though Tim and Kamau still could have possibly followed the same paths without any assistance, the fact that they had some form of aid to help shoulder their burden undoubtedly made their personal struggles signifnicantly easier.


  1. Yet O'Brien was unable to make the choice he believed to be right. Did the river, then, aid him?

  2. I think it's fair to say that the river may have indirectly been trying to point him in the direction with the more certain future. O'Brien had no idea what could be past the shoreline in Canada, it could be the freedom that he expected, or it could be worse than where he was at the time. Not to say the decision that he made was right or wrong, but at least when he faced reality on the river, he made the decision to take the path that actually gave him something to expect.