A River Runs Through It

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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.
Help and Helplessness Theme Icon

Norman Maclean, the novella’s protagonist, emphasizes from the start the self-sufficiency of his ancestors, Scottish Presbyterians who dissented from official church doctrine and had, by the turn of the twentieth century, journeyed from Europe to America and Canada and all the way to the rugged small towns of Montana. While the book does idealize self-sufficiency, it also questions its possibility, suggesting that characters are always interrelated—even if they may refuse or shrug off any help that is offered. Norman’s brother Paul, for instance, grows embarrassed when Norman tries to question his independence, asking if he needs money or another kind of “help.” Paul seems to be ashamed of asking for help, even when it is sorely needed. It’s also unclear to what extent Paul even wants to be helped. Indeed, Norman struggles to determine whether and how he can guide Paul out of his alcoholism and into a more stable lifestyle. Like Norman with Paul, Norman’s wife Jessie seems to struggle in much the same way with her disastrous brother Neal. The couple’s altruism actually begins to push them apart, as Jessie grows frustrated with Norman for not being able to help Neal, and Norman grows frustrated with himself for his inability to help Paul.

While fly-fishing, however, it is Paul who seems to hold greater control over situations, and his role and Norman’s are reversed. At these moments, Paul is able to guide his brother and allow him to relinquish his sense of worry and responsibility for a time. These moments even permit Norman to question whether Paul really needs his help at all. Nevertheless, after Paul’s death, Norman and his father are both haunted for the rest of their lives by a sense that they could have helped Paul—even if their attempts, while he was alive, never really worked. Reliance on another is never simple in the novella. It may be unwanted, but Paul’s death shows that it may well be necessary. And yet even so, the novella leaves us with the recognition that attempts to help may be doomed to failure, although this failure will perhaps inevitably be accompanied by regret.

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Help and Helplessness ThemeTracker

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Help and Helplessness 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 Help and Helplessness.
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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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.

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.

“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.