A River Runs Through It

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Scripture Symbol Analysis

Scripture Symbol Icon

Raised by a Presbyterian minister, Norman is steeped in the Christian tradition, and is particularly familiar with the Bible thanks to years of catechism and religious study. His father often reads the New Testament, and seems to continue to wrestle with what it says even after a lifetime devoted to its meaning. Scripture comes to represent, more broadly, the meaning-making act of narration, of setting down words on the page. It is Norman’s father who suggests that Norman write stories so as to understand his past and those he loves. For Norman, even his beloved rivers are a kind of narrative: under a river’s rocks, he says, are words. As particular words that (the Macleans believe) reach us from an all-powerful God, Scripture connects words to truth and meaning. “In the beginning was the Word,” Norman’s father quotes from the New Testament: Norman’s desire to use narrative in order to describe and attempt to understand his brother is anchored in a specifically religious intellectual heritage.

Scripture Quotes in A River Runs Through It

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

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.

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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.

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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Scripture Symbol Timeline in A River Runs Through It

The timeline below shows where the symbol Scripture appears in A River Runs Through It. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 3
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...by his father and wait for Paul. He’s certain that his father is reading the New Testament in Greek on the bank, in the peace that he’s found in old age. Norman... (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 was in the beginning. He used to think... (full context)