A River Runs Through It

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Neal Character Analysis

Jessie’s brother and Norman’s brother-in-law, who is originally from Wolf Creek but now lives on the West Coast. Neal has returned for a visit to Montana in the summer of 1937. Neal is very much out of place in Montana culture, wearing preppy sweaters, unable to control his liquor consumption, and only interested in fly-fishing insofar as it will help him prove popular among the women of the town. Jessie is clearly worried about Neal, and asks Norman to take him under his wing—but for various reasons, some within and some out of his control, Norman largely fails. Like Paul, Neal seems to be struggling to find his place, but in the context of Norman and Paul’s relationship, Neal is more of a drag than a productive foil.

Neal Quotes in A River Runs Through It

The A River Runs Through It quotes below are all either spoken by Neal or refer to Neal. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the University of Chicago Press edition of A River Runs Through It published in 2001.
Part 2 Quotes

I asked, “Do you think you should help him?”
“Yes,” he said, “I thought we were going to.”
“How?” I asked.
“By taking him fishing with us.”
“I’ve just told you,” I said, “he doesn’t like to fish.”
“Maybe so,” my brother replied. “But maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.”

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean (speaker), Neal
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman had left Neal while he went off to fish, and now when he and Paul return to the bend of the river where Neal had stopped to rest, he's no longer there. Norman has been focusing lately on trying to help his own brother, so Neal doesn't figure highly among the important people in his life. Besides, Norman is skeptical that there's anything he could do to help, especially since Neal doesn't even like to fish.

Paul's suggestion is astounding to Norman. Paul always seems to deflect offers of help from his brother and his parents, if not actively discourage them. There is a chance that he is suggesting, if only indirectly, that he does appreciate Norman attempting to help him, even if he can't find a way to thank Norman directly. But it's also possible that Paul considers himself self-sufficient, not in need of anyone to lend him a hand. If there's anything Paul does believe in, it's in the power of fly-fishing, so perhaps he is suggesting to Norman that taking Neal fishing is more productive than Norman believes it to be. The fact that Norman cannot know precisely which of these possibilities is true only underlines one tragic element of the book: the fact that familial and brotherly love often can coexist with the failure to truly know the person loved.

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Neal Character Timeline in A River Runs Through It

The timeline below shows where the character Neal appears in A River Runs Through It. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
...morning, looking like he’s about to get a drink. Norman shares the news: his brother-in-law Neal is coming from the West Coast and wants to fish with them. Paul says a... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...time. Florence most likely was hoping that Paul and Norman, the “preacher’s kids,” would improve Neal’s morals, though most people in town knew not to hold Paul up on a pedestal. (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Paul agrees to fish with Neal, since Florence wants him to. Then Norman buys them both a drink. Norman says that... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...He’s woken up by his wife Jessie, who reminds him that they have to meet Neal at the train station. Norman is relieved to remember that his wife’s family has someone... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Neal descends from the train wearing white flannels and a red, white, and blue V-neck sweater... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
That night Neal tries to sneak out of the house, but Florence and Jessie see him. Norman, to... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Neal and Norman sit next to Long Bow, and after a few drinks Neal begins out-lying... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
...other brother, and the six of them pile in. They follow the pothole-ridden road (making Neal even more uncomfortable) until the moment when the Elkhorn River empties into the Missouri. But... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...on the arm and repeats to him that she shouldn’t leave her brother. Norman and Neal walk down a trail. Once they’re out of sight, Neal says he’s not feeling well,... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...without coming up with any answers. At one point he turns back to check on Neal, who has left the meadow and is nodding off on a rock, his neck nearly... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Norman knows he won’t catch fish if he keeps fooling around, so he leaves Neal behind and quickly reaches a hole packed with fish. At first, when a fish strikes... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Then Paul asks where Neal is. Norman is caught off guard, and has to think about it. Paul says Norman... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Paul tells Norman they should find Neal, and says he shouldn’t have left him behind. Norman should try to help him, Paul... (full context)
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
...sixteen Forest Service firemen were killed. Suddenly, the storm rides over them. They look for Neal all over the meadow, then realize he must be safe and dry—at the truck. (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...carving knives—they’ve been making sandwiches—and point them at Norman. Jessie accuses him of having left Neal. Florence says the “poor boy” was exposed to the sun for too long. Norman looks... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...the truck turns to vapor, and Norman can smell the vapor of alcohol rising from Neal’s body. He feels that he is half in a sweat bath and half in a... (full context)
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...road. Ken drives the truck and Paul and Norman push. Norman suggests to Ken that Neal get out and help, but Ken says he needs weight in the back of the... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...liquor, and strawberry soda. It’s Old Rawhide who has fallen out of the car, and Neal is nodding in the back seat. (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...need money—they just want to go fishing. Norman peeks into the driver’s seat and asks Neal if he wants to go fishing, even though it’s so hot. Neal repeats that he... (full context)
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...Paul that they turn away from the canyon, where the water is too rough for Neal, to another bend in the river with pine trees beside it, giving them a shady... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman peers into the back of the car, where Neal and Old Rawhide look like they’re asleep. Neal rises up slowly and stiffly, and looking... (full context)
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
...notes that in Montana beer doesn’t count as drinking—Paul counts out eight bottles, and tells Neal where they’ll bury them so that they’ll keep cold. Now, looking back, Norman as narrator... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
As Paul and Norman wander downstream, Paul remarks that Neal will one day realize he doesn’t like Montana and will leave. Norman says Neal just... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...get the beer. The reality of the day, of the beaver, of Old Rawhide and Neal, rushes back to Norman. Paul and Norman are both so thirsty that they find it... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...trudge up the trail, Norman apologizes, saying he wishes he could have stayed away from Neal, but Paul says he couldn’t have. With a sudden burst of energy the brothers roar... (full context)
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...Then she saunters back, and asks why the brothers have come back. Norman points to Neal, who groans. (full context)
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Paul separates Neal’s clothes from Old Rawhide’s. Norman says Neal won’t be able to stand the touch of... (full context)
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
As they arrive, Neal tries frantically to get into his clothes, though he keeps stumbling out of his pants.... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...can’t lie: part of Scottish faith means a complete foreknowledge of sin. He says that Neal didn’t feel like fishing with them, and when they got back he was asleep in... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Before Norman closes the door, Jessie tells him to wait. She says he doesn’t like Neal, does he—and Norman asks why he can’t love her without liking Neal too. Norman asks... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Jessie steps backward, then asks why Neal is so burnt. He repeats what he’d said to Florence. Then Jessie asks if he’d... (full context)