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.
Skill and Art Theme Icon

A River Runs Through It is full of lushly described scenes of fly-fishing in Montana—in Maclean’s hands, the effort to figure out which fish are biting and how to best angle oneself in relation to them becomes almost a minor epic. Some might distinguish between a technical skill that involves separate, learnable tasks, and a kind of artistic genius that simply cannot be learned, but the novella collapses this distinction—for Maclean, technical skill is not in opposition to sublime artistic genius, but rather a necessary aspect of art.

Thanks to Maclean’s descriptions, the reader gains an amateur knowledge of the vocabulary and technique of fly-fishing. The four-count rhythm is one well-tested skill revealed to us as essential to the task—a task that is alternately described as an art or as a skill. Sometimes, this craft is a matter of expertise developed over time, but in other cases it is a matter of individual creativity, even genius. Paul’s “shadow casting,” for instance, a wrist-based technique that makes the fish believe there are flies flitting over the water, is an idiosyncratic technique rather than a standard rule of fly-fishing. Paul’s seemingly natural gift for fly-fishing is a source of admiration for Norman and their father. It almost compensates for Paul’s weaknesses in other aspects of life, though the tragedy is that fly-fishing is the only way Paul can ever truly feel at home and in control. By describing fly-fishing as an art developed through skill, the book elevates the sport to the level of more classical arts like painting, sculpture, and poetry. In the novel, fly-fishing becomes an art particular to the American West, one whose secrets may be shared with the readers, but which remains in the possession of a lucky few (as Neal’s disastrous attempts to join in make clear).

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Skill and Art 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 Skill and Art.
Part 1 Quotes

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. 


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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.

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.