went to war
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O'brien had to work things out in his mind. He had to make a decision about serving his country in a war he wanted nothing to do with (and possibly die in it) or heading to Canada and becoming a draft dodger, a coward. “On the Rainy River” contains the main existential and moral crisis of the book. The turning point at the river is a classic Freudian scene. The boy wants to jump out of the boat, his ego and his id (his authentic desires) strain to go. But his superego (what society orders) constrains him. In this story, the superego is symbolized by O’Brien imagining large crowds of people watching him make his decision. The scene takes place on a river; water for Freud often symbolizes the unconscious, where the battle between the superego, id and ego takes place.
Ultimately others’ expectations of him are more powerful than O’Brien’s own moral compass. His deference to his superego is O’Brien’s tragic flaw. Tragic heroes in Greek plays also have a tragic flaw: the one shortcoming from which all of their other misdeeds flow. O’Brien’s tragic flaw is caving to society.