A River Runs Through It

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Norman’s father Character Analysis

A Presbyterian minister of Scottish background, who is fiercely proud of that past. “Father” educates Norman and Paul in both religion and fly-fishing—indeed, for him, the two are inseparable. He sees both as revealing God’s grace and mysterious workings in the world. He loves both his sons, but may have a softer spot for Paul. Along with Norman, he worries about Paul and wonders how to help him. Norman often notes how his father is one of the few men he knows to use the word “beautiful” casually, and this description underlines his father’s general attitude of wonder towards the world, even as that view is tempered by pain and confusion.

Norman’s father Quotes in A River Runs Through It

The A River Runs Through It quotes below are all either spoken by Norman’s father or refer to Norman’s father. 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 1 Quotes

As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. […] As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.”

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Norman’s father
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the novella, Norman sets the scene by describing the two pillars of his father's life: faith and fly-fishing. Although his father is a preacher, his faith is in some ways unorthodox. He, like other Presbyterians, believes that humans are lowly beings, disgraced ever since Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden of Eden. However, Norman's father is not as a result fundamentally pessimistic. He is not, for instance, wary of using the term "beautiful" like others of his faith who remain acutely aware of humans' sorry position. Instead, the preacher takes a more optimistic view of the world, one that still retains an awe in the face of God's creation, but that suggests that people can access some of this divine beauty—though only, of course, through God's grace and will. Norman suggests that the way people can pick up on such beauty is through formal techniques—that is, helpful techniques or tools that one can learn and then draw upon, as one uses language. Indeed, these techniques are described alternately with musical and mathematical language. Much of the rest of the book will show a fascination with the technical aspects of fly-fishing, which, for Norman's father, are closely tied to his faith in God.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other A River Runs Through It quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Norman’s father
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Again, for Norman's father, faith and fly-fishing are not two separate pursuits but are united, for him, through a belief in God's plan for humankind and for the universe. Norman's father is not as pessimistic as other Presbyterians, since he believes that regular people can access beauty on earth even though they are condemned to be sinful, but he still believes that everything worth achieving can never come easily. 

In some ways, this belief of Norman's father is not that different from lessons that most parents share with their children about working hard and struggling in order to achieve success. What is different here is that Norman's father is not as concerned with individual mastery as he is with pursuing what is good in itself. In addition, the skill that comes from becoming a great fly-fisher, for instance, is not simply a matter of repetitive tasks and practice, but is rather raised to the plane of art. Indeed, for Norman's father, art is not something that comes from one's own technical mastery; instead it is something given by God's grace through difficult striving, and therefore one should be grateful for it rather than proud of it. 

Part 2 Quotes

Rhythm was just as important as color and just as complicated. It was one rhythm superimposed upon another, our father’s four-count rhythm of the line and wrist being still the base rhythm. But superimposed upon it was the piston two count of his arm and the long overriding four count of the completed figure eight of his reversed loop.
The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean, Norman’s father
Page Number: 21-22
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman and Paul have gone fishing together on the Blackfoot River, and Norman, after going off by himself for a time, has paused to watch his brother fish. The process that Norman describes is called "shadow casting," a technique coined by Paul in which the fisherman manages the rod in such a way that the bait flits over the surface of the river, and its shadow attracts the fish to the surface. Soon, another couple will approach the brothers and marvel at Paul's skill.

The boys' father has taught them both certain techniques, including the four-count rhythm, but Norman remarks that Paul's skill has gone far beyond that baseline. As they watch Paul, the three observers are impressed not just by his ability to catch fish but by his very demeanor, by the beauty of his strokes. The language that Norman uses to describe the scene underlines the complexity of the task and the power that arises from the same. That the canyon is described as "glorified" reminds us that the way Norman understands fishing stems from his father's sense of a divine plan and of the connection between human skill and God's grace.

Part 3 Quotes

“Help,” he said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.”
“So it is,” he said, using an old homiletic transition, “that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.”

Related Characters: Norman’s father (speaker)
Related Symbols: Scripture
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Home for the night with his parents and Norman, Paul brightly declares after dinner that he's going to grab a drink with a friend. This disappoints his parents, who were delighted to have him back and who recognize that Paul hasn't changed. Here, Norman and his father are discussing what will happen to Paul, something we have heard from Norman's perspective before. His father attempts to broach the problem through his own tools: "homiletic" means "of a homily" or sermon, which Norman's father prepares for his congregation each Sunday. There are several layers of irony in what he preaches. First, he says that help is often futile, even within the context of a sermon that is supposed to help people act and live out their lives. In addition, though, Norman's father seems to suggest that the desire to give help is a positive good, even if it cannot work: he implies that he and Norman should not stop trying to be there for Paul in whatever way they can, even if on some level they know they are doomed to failure.

Then he told me, “In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”
“That’s because you are a preacher first and then a fisherman,” I told him. “If you ask Paul, he will tell you that the words are formed out of water.”
“No,” my father said, “you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Norman’s father (speaker), Paul Maclean
Related Symbols: Rivers, Scripture
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman has gone fishing with Paul and his father, and Norman has stopped to sit beside his father, who is reading the Bible on the bank of the river. This passage is abstract and in some ways seems inscrutable, but its meaning relies on what "words" and "water" are made to stand in for—"words" for the will of God, written into Scripture, and "water" for rivers, fishing, and nature in general. Norman proposes that a preacher will always put God's will and writing first, while a fisherman will privilege the medium for his craft. But his father suggests that God's will underlies everything, including nature: even the "water runs over the words." The words of Norman's father underline his conviction that there is no contradiction between praising God and enjoying a small human activity like fly-fishing, as long as one keeps in mind that people are largely left out of this divine union. His father also seems convinced that Paul, for all his troublemaking, shares a sense of the divine source of fly-fishing.

“After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people that go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

Related Characters: Norman’s father (speaker), Norman Maclean, Paul Maclean
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

We have already learned that the book we are reading can be traced to an earlier fly-fishing expedition, mentioned by Norman at another point in the book. But this is the first time that a character explicitly suggests what Norman will go on to write. This conversation between Norman and his father takes place at an unspecified time after Paul's death. After discussing his death once, they never speak of it again, but Norman implicitly connects this conversation to the story of Paul's life and death.

Throughout the book, Norman and his father have struggled, both out loud in conversations as well as on their own, to come to terms with Paul's actions and with the extent to which they can help him or not. Now, they must also ask themselves if they could have done something differently—if their love for Paul and desire to help him was simply not enough, or if nothing more could have been done. According to the family's belief system, nothing is meaningless, but it is almost too painful for Norman and his father to try to believe that God could have wanted Paul to die. Instead, Norman's father suggests that understanding often lies beyond our grasp. In this passage, he proposes that perhaps the only way of understanding the past is by creating a story out of it: imposing a narrative arc in a way that might be artificial, but ultimately can be revelatory, or at least restorative.

Get the entire A River Runs Through It LitChart as a printable PDF.
A river runs through it.pdf.medium

Norman’s father Character Timeline in A River Runs Through It

The timeline below shows where the character Norman’s father appears in A River Runs Through It. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...his Presbyterian family in western Montana, fly-fishing and religion were considered of one piece. Norman’s father would tell him and his brother, Paul, all about the fishermen who were Christ’s disciples. (full context)
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...to spend the entire day in Sunday school, at services, and studying the catechism. Their father says that the most important part of the catechism is the first question, the question... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Their father was never an incredibly talented fisherman, but he is graceful. As a Scot and Presbyterian,... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman’s father’s rod—he disdains anyone who calls it a pole—is made of split bamboo wrapped in delicate... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman’s father is always particular about these things, among others—he believes that eternal salvation is tied to... (full context)
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...stubbornness. At one point, as a boy, Paul wins a battle of wills with his father about eating oatmeal in the morning. (full context)
Part 2
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Norman transitions in his memories to the summer of 1937, when his father had retired and was living with their mother in Missoula, while Paul was a reporter... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Paul loves Florence, partly because she, also a Scot, looks like his father, with blue eyes and sandy hair. Florence had said that Paul was the best fisherman... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...wrist and arm are far bigger than his left. Norman watches the multiple rhythms: their father’s four-count, Paul’s piston two-count, and the arcing four-count of his loop. A couple emerges from... (full context)
Part 3
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
...this was actually Norman’s favorite, but they never have the heart to correct her. Their father is in retirement now, and loves hearing about Paul’s real-world reporter stories. After dinner, Norman... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Norman isn’t sure how much his father knows about Paul, but assumes some things have reached him from the congregation. Now (after... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
As Norman’s father goes to the door, he turns and says that he is too old to help... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Their father can’t find his fishing tackle at first, so they leave later than they expected to.... (full context)
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...river down a steep bank, next to red and green Precambrian rocks. Norman and his father recall how they picked such rocks to build their fireplace. His father remembers how some... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Father says he’ll head down to the open water, while Norman and Paul stay by these... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
...he feels loved by the women in his life, Neal seems a distant memory, his father and brother are fishing with him, and he might even catch more fish than Paul.... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
One more hole lies between the brothers and their father. Paul yells across the river to ask what the fish are biting on, and Norman... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman says he’s going to sit by his father and wait for Paul. He’s certain that his father is reading the New Testament in... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman’s father says that in the part of the Bible he was reading it says the Word... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
...two fingers, meaning he has two fish left to reach his limit. Norman and his father get up, and Father throws a rock over to Paul’s side of the river, so... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Norman’s father, looking out at Paul, says there must be a big one where he’s casting, just... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
To Norman, the performance looks like children playing. Norman and his father reassure each other that Paul will get the fish. Paul works the fish into shallow... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
That would be the last fish Norman and his father ever saw Paul catch. When they would talk about it later, they thought it was... (full context)
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Norman’s father, who is shy in praise, tells Paul that he is a fine fisherman. Paul replies... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
After Norman tells his father the news, his father asks for more information. Norman says that nearly all the bones... (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
Once Norman’s father asks if Norman thinks he (the father) could have helped Paul. Norman responds, “Do you... (full context)
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Once, though, Norman’s father asks some questions that make Norman wonder if he eve really understood his father, whom... (full context)