A River Runs Through It

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Rivers Symbol Icon

The Elkhorn and Blackfoot rivers are not only where Norman, Paul, and their father fish, but these bodies of water structure their sense of place and lend Norman, in particular, a way of thinking about life’s metaphorical course. Norman often marvels at the geological origin of these rivers, how they were formed with the release of a massive glacial dam that used to spread over the entire Pacific Northwest, cutting their way through mountains as the glaciers receded and left their imprint on the lines in the surrounding mountains today. Rivers are far more ancient, and more lasting, than any human’s life. But Norman is able to find resonance between their sharp turns, deposits, and quiet pools and the similarly variegated paths of a human life. In terms of Paul’s life, in particular, rivers symbolize both life’s discernible patterns and the inherent mysteriousness of these patterns. The meaning of these patterns is not always readily apparent, and indeed, may not be discernible at all by a human mind. Norman can only wonder at and respect these patterns rather than seeking to reveal their inner workings.

Rivers Quotes in A River Runs Through It

The A River Runs Through It quotes below all refer to the symbol of Rivers. 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

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.

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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

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.

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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Rivers Symbol Timeline in A River Runs Through It

The timeline below shows where the symbol Rivers appears in A River Runs Through It. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2
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...the day after tomorrow, and the following day they’ll fish on the Elkhorn, a small stream. Usually the two are scornful of those who fish in small streams, but the Elkhorn... (full context)
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Paul proposes that beforehand, he and Norman take the day off to fish the “big river,” which they both know refers to the powerful Big Blackfoot with its many powerful fish.... (full context)
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Above the old Clearwater bridge by a canyon the Blackfoot River is louder than anywhere, roaring and intimidating small fishermen and small fish. The brothers begin... (full context)
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Norman watches Paul jump into the river and swim out to a cliff, where he climbs up and steadies himself to cast.... (full context)
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...follow the pothole-ridden road (making Neal even more uncomfortable) until the moment when the Elkhorn River empties into the Missouri. But Ken, who lives in Wolf Creek, is an expert with... (full context)
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...private land of a man named Jim McGregor and fish on his part of the river. The ranch road grows more and more rugged until it only consists of two ruts.... (full context)
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...partly because he spends more time in the water—he’s quicker than anyone to reach the river, change flies, tie knots, etc. Norman also imagines that Paul doesn’t want to give Norman... (full context)
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Ken says he’ll fish the beaver dams upstream. Jessie pinches Norman on the arm and repeats to him that she shouldn’t leave her... (full context)
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...one involves fishing for big fish in a small area where the willows on the riverside complicate things for the fisherman. This area, where Norman now is heading, holds “Brown monsters”... (full context)
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For Norman right now, the Elkhorn River, mythical Brown Trout, and the weather are all that exist in the world. The Elkhorn... (full context)
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...says it was in shallow, open water without bushes, since Browns usually feed along the river’s edge where grasshoppers and mice fall in. Norman is dismayed: he thought he had fished... (full context)
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...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 place to park the car. Norman... (full context)
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...look like they’re asleep. Neal rises up slowly and stiffly, and looking out to the river, asks if it’s possible to wade out to the sand bar. Norman says he probably... (full context)
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...when he was fishing and saw a strange creature trying to swim across the Blackfoot River—a bobcat—and thinks that this fly looks just like the wet bobcat. Slowly, a sign of... (full context)
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...so that he’ll have an even number. Now Norman doesn’t feel ashamed to walk back upstream and rest in the shade. He knows he’ll have to wait awhile, since Paul won’t... (full context)
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Downstream there is a dry channel where the river had once run. Norman notes that one... (full context)
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Norman notes that fishermen often think of the river as having been made with fishermen in mind, and speak of the “head of the... (full context)
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Norman shares the fisherman’s phrase to describe the study of a river’s patterns: “reading the water.” He suggests that telling stories involves the same. The problem is... (full context)
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...couldn’t have. With a sudden burst of energy the brothers roar and race through the river to the shore, propelled by frustration at the thieves. They catch sight of the car,... (full context)
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...when you could sleep naked next to a girl in the middle of a Montana river. Paul and Norman wade out to wake the pair up, though Paul pauses to take... (full context)
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...had taught them about fishing, and had drunk their beer in the middle of the river. Paul and Norman watch Old Rawhide race down the road. Then Paul says Norman’s in... (full context)
Part 3
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They catch sight of the river down a steep bank, next to red and green Precambrian rocks. Norman and his father... (full context)
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...day he is careful to let out enough line, even all the way across the river. Norman recalls a teacher who had told him it didn’t make sense to say “more... (full context)
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...of him, Norman realizes that Paul is raining down rocks on his side of the river, annoyed that Norman is catching so many more fish. Norman looks up to see Paul... (full context)
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...2 Yellow Hackle. Norman doesn’t, but Paul doesn’t hear him over the roar of the river. When Paul reaches him, he gives Norman his fly and says the fish are feeding... (full context)
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...peace that he’s found in old age. Norman contrasts the deep, profound voices of the river in the cliff’s shadows to the chattering, friendly sounds of the river in the sun.... (full context)
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...to think the water was first, but he realizes that if you listen to the river, there are words beneath the water. Norman says this is because he’s a preacher: Paul... (full context)
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Paul appears on the river and holds up two fingers, meaning he has two fish left to reach his limit.... (full context)
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...rather than the fish. Now, they watch Paul decide not to wade across the powerful river, but instead swim across, his cigarettes and matches in his hat. Norman and his father... (full context)
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The three of them sit on the riverbank and try to listen to what the river is saying, as the late afternoon sun... (full context)
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...the cool summer evenings. Again, all of existence merges into the sounds of the Blackfoot River, along with the four-count rhythm of fishing and the hope of catching a fish. (full context)
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Norman ends with a meditation on the ancient history of the river, a glacial flood among rocks spattered by eternal raindrops, rocks that conceal words underneath. He... (full context)