A River Runs Through It

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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.


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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.

Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brothers’ keepers,” possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean
Related Symbols: Scripture
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman is driving home from Helena, where he had gone to pick up Paul at the jail after a late night of drinking and fighting, and as the sun rises he considers his relationship to his brother. Norman is the older brother and has always been the more responsible one, while Paul, even though he is now grown, continues to get into trouble. Norman refers to the notion of "my brother's keeper," which comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible: after Cain murders his brother Abel, God asks Cain where his brother is, and he responds, "Am I my brother's keeper?". Norman is familiar with this tradition because of his religious upbringing, and this context helps us understand Norman's feeling of guilt. However, his guilt coexists with a sense of helplessness and futility. Throughout the book, Norman and his parents struggle with how to "help" Paul: their desire never goes away, even as they doubt that help is even possible, or that Paul would accept it if it was.

Something within fishermen tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart—I don’t know what it is or where, because sometimes it is in my arms and sometimes in my throat and sometimes nowhere in particular except somewhere deep. Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman has left Neal (his brother-in-law) out of sight and gone off to fish on his own. He knows this is a bad idea—Jessie has already warned him not to leave her brother behind—but Norman is impatient to get to the river. Neal has already done much to ruin a potentially idyllic day spent fly-fishing, and Norman muses over why he (and other fishermen) need things to be so idyllic, so perfect. Norman tends to think of fly-fishing as a refuge from life, a place where technical skill is the only goal to be sought after, but his experience with Neal reminds him that fly-fishing can be just as wrapped up in the petty trials and annoyances of daily life as anything else: it is not a world apart, but part of this world. In general, Norman realizes, people try to forge a perfect world out of their own partial and limited views of it, rather than accepting the world as it is, and understanding that it is greater than them.

The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only a floating ash.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman has, by this point, mostly forgotten about Neal, though it has crossed his mind where Paul might be, since Norman has only been able to catch small trout and imagines that his brother knows where the real catches are to be found. In general, Norman tends to treat fishing with the strategic, rational perspective that is typical of his outlook on the world. He tries to reason his way into succeeding at fly-fishing, even as he also accepts that Paul—who seems to "feel" his way into catching fish, rather than overthinking anything—is much more successful with an entirely opposite strategy.

Here, Norman briefly departs from his usual strategy and embraces the pure thrill of fly-fishing. At this moment, it becomes less important whether or not Norman will catch as many fish as his brother. Instead, he simply appreciates the beauty of the cast, describing it as a kind of gentle ash settling over the river. By distancing himself from this process—standing “apart from” himself—Norman implies that there is something inevitably graceful and even divine about this movement. The artistry of fly-fishing, he grasps, is on a broader plane than his own individual technical skill.

Poets talk about “spots of time,” but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman has just completed an epic battle with a massive fish, tearing through bushes and splashing across the river in order to try to hang onto it. The fish, however, has won, and Norman emerges empty-handed. However, the battle and loss give Norman an opportunity to reflect on the strange ways in which time and space get warped in the process of fishing. First, nothing else becomes as important as the fish, which one concentrates on single-mindedly. When the fish disappears, then, a huge void opens up in its place. Norman feels as though he has grasped at something bigger than himself, even glimpsed it for a moment, but now it has escaped him, and he is left only with the memory of it and the chance to meditate upon it.

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.

On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.
Even the anatomy of a river was laid bare. Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rivers
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Norman and Paul have gone fishing again, this time, reluctantly, with both Neal and Neal's new "girlfriend" Old Rawhide. It is so hot that they cannot hope for the fishing to be very good. Norman's tone in this passage is dream-like, almost mystical, as he personifies the river and the heat mirages "dancing" with each other. In a way, Norman's description bears witness to his deep knowledge of this area of Montana. His memory is what breathes life into places that are now entirely different from what they once were. Yet at the same time, Norman stresses here that natural phenomena like rivers, like  the weather, do not need him or his observations in order to exist. He is merely passing through, while the nature around him is unending.

It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean
Related Symbols: Rivers
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

It is sometimes difficult to remember that the Norman telling the story is distinct from the character Norman: the narrator is telling a remembered tale from many decades in the past. Here Norman-as-narrator muses explicitly on the ways that stories are begun, made, and told. He connects the narrative arc of a story to the path of a river, with its "turns" in action and "deep circles" where it becomes unclear where the action is leading, or why the story is being told. The "quietness" that lies ahead is one of many instances when the book foreshadows the tragedy that is to come. This passage suggests that when Norman began his story, he considered fly-fishing and rivers as one thing and storytelling as another: only over time has he come to realize how much they have in common, and especially how stories, like rivers, elude the human desire to master paths and systems beyond one's own control.

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.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rivers, Scripture
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

This, the book's last paragraph, broadens the perspective out from Norman's own family to a vast geological scale, before returning at the last sentence to his particular, individual story. Norman's words reveal an awe in the eternal workings of nature, workings that, he has been taught, are enacted through divine grace and divine will. He refers to the "world's great flood," another Genesis story about Noah's ark (though a similar story is present in nearly all the world's great religions). The tone of the passage is rhetorically powerful, recalling the intonations of Norman's father when he takes on the mode of the preacher at a sermon. 

But Norman's final words on the vast natural forces are also directly tied to his own, small story. In some ways, nature's greatness throws into harsh relief the fragility and fleeting quality of human life, even as it is also a cause for awe and respect. Norman continues to grapple with what it all means—not just his brother's untimely death, but also the relationship between puny human existence and eternal nature and divine life in general. The book ends without a happy ending or easy solution to these questions: Norman will continue to "haunted" by them. Without claiming to answer the unanswerable, the book instead takes refuge in the rhetorical and stylistic force of its prose as the best way to ask, rather than answer, such questions. 

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