A River Runs Through It

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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A River Runs Through It, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon

While fly-fishing takes place in nature, the novel draws a clear line between the human skill and creativity that makes the craft an art, and the natural world in which people engage in that art. Nature is sublime and awe-inspiring in A River Runs Through It—it makes the characters feel small in comparison, but it is also a source of stability and relief. Influenced by his father’s preaching and the Bible, Norman compares the space of nature to God’s work throughout the book. At many points, the continuity and eternity of the natural world is contrasted to fleeting human affairs—whatever happens to humanity, however we might suffer, the rivers of Montana will continue on. But this point is not an occasion for fear or sadness at human insignificance. Instead, what Maclean emphasizes is the awe that comes from understanding nature’s almighty power. And those who are unable to grasp this power are depicted unsympathetically: when Neal and the prostitute, Old Rawhide, get drunk and fall asleep on the riverbed instead of fly-fishing with Paul and Norman, they are rightfully punished through a painful sunburn. A character like Neal is portrayed as arrogant in his desire to use Montana’s gifts for his own, selfish benefit, rather than acknowledging and admiring nature’s power. This idea of “punishment” also links to an environmental message, which acknowledges that while nature will always continue on, uncaring of human affairs, humans can still corrupt and destroy nature through greed and ignorance.

Even characters who acknowledge nature’s power cannot escape their own human frailty. Paul is more adept than anyone at remaining attuned to nature and respecting Montana’s might. But he is killed unceremoniously, almost trivially, with his body dumped on the ground. His death reminds the other characters that human life can be easily extinguished, in contrast to the mighty rivers that Paul knew and loved, which cannot so quickly be stamped out.

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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty appears in each section of A River Runs Through It. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Quotes in A River Runs Through It

Below you will find the important quotes in A River Runs Through It related to the theme of Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty.
Part 2 Quotes

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.


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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.

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

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.