The narrator, Norman Maclean, relates that in his Presbyterian family in western Montana, fly-fishing and religion were considered of one piece. Norman’s father would tell him and his brother, Paul, all about the fishermen who were Christ’s disciples.
Already Maclean brings up several themes that will feature in the novella, such as divine grace and nature’s power, through the lens of his father, for whom these ideas were naturally related.
On Sundays, the young Norman and Paul have to spend the entire day in Sunday school, at services, and studying the catechism. Their father says that the most important part of the catechism is the first question, the question of what the chief end of man is: the answer is to glorify God. Their father often energizes himself by reciting his next sermon to them.
What could be a bleak remembrance of long hours spent at church becomes more inviting through the appealing character of Norman’s father, who seems to gain joy and strength from being focused not on himself but on the glory of God.
Their father was never an incredibly talented fisherman, but he is graceful. As a Scot and Presbyterian, Norman notes, his father believes that man has fallen from an original state of grace into sin. Only by getting in tune with God’s rhythms, including the four-count rhythm of fly-fishing, can one regain beauty. Their father uses the word “beautiful” often.
Norman’s father’s rod—he disdains anyone who calls it a pole—is made of split bamboo wrapped in delicate thread. For him, the art of fishing is sacred, rather than fun: it reflects man’s fallen nature in his inability to control the delicate rod. For Norman, it’s counterintuitive that artistry is needed to simply pick up a rod with line on it and throw it across the river.
Norman’s father will transmit to his sons this elevated sense of fly-fishing, not as a sport or distraction from life but as a part of life—even a spiritual metaphor for it. Norman concedes that it’s difficult for an outsider to see how simply throwing a line could be so complex.
As easy as the task seems, “unredeemed man” will always lean too far back with the rod, often getting it stuck behind a bush. Man’s natural instinct is also to flick the rod back and forth so that the fly falls out of the air into the water, instead of attempting to create a circular movement between line and fly and transparent leader (the line directly connected to the fly). As soon as the forward movement of these three elements begins, it has to be reversed so that the fish only sees the life-like fly.
Just as humans are naturally weak and unable to access divine knowledge except through grace, so they also fail to reach perfection in the most essential activity involved in fly-fishing. Norman shows how it is necessary to go against one’s “natural instinct” in order to achieve true skill, which already is linked here to the art of fly-fishing.
In fly-fishing, the four-count rhythm means that first, the line, leader, and fly lift off the water. They are then thrown into the air, and there needs to be one beat to allow the fly and leader to get behind the line. At the fourth beat, one must powerfully throw the line into the rod and coast to a landing.
Here, a musical analogy helps us understand the close relationship between fly-fishing and art in the novel: it is not a haphazard or random activity but rather a series of rhythms learned over time.
Norman’s father is always particular about these things, among others—he believes that eternal salvation is tied to grace and to art, though none of these things are easy. He teaches his two sons how to cast by using their mother’s piano metronome. Paul, who is three years younger than Norman, is already ahead of his brother in fishing-related matters. He reads the old book The Compleat Angler and tells Norman that the author didn’t even know how to spell “complete.” Paul says that he would have liked to place fishing bets with this author.
For Norman’s father, the musical rhythm of fly-fishing links it not only to art—an analogy further underlined by the possibility of improving one’s fishing ability through a piano metronome—but also to a higher power. Even as a young child, we see that Paul is obsessed with all things fishing. This obsession initially seems innocent enough, even when it is a small boy already wanting to cast bets.
Despite their difference in age, Norman knows even as a young man that Paul will be an expert fly-fisherman. Paul always loves to bet on himself, an interest that Norman never shared. Paul never seems like Norman’s “kid brother,” but rather an artistic master. Paul never wants help or advice, and ultimately, Norman (speaking from the present) says, he couldn’t help Paul at all.
Norman suggests here that he and Paul were already largely themselves from a very young age. This continuity in terms of identity makes us wonder if Paul really could be helped—rather than assuming that Norman simply couldn’t help him—since Paul’s character always held the seeds of what he would become.
The brothers already have different personalities before Norman starts working for the U.S. Forest Service at the age of fifteen, and begins to spend summers away from fishing. Paul had decided that fishing was the main thing worth doing in life, so his summer job is a lifeguard at the pool. He chooses this job so he can find girls for dates during the day and then fish in the early evenings. Paul’s chosen profession would be a reporter on a Montana paper.
Norman is portrayed as the responsible older brother here, although through his summers away he begins to depart from the carefully constructed moral framework of his father, one that Paul continues to cling to. Paul’s profession reflects his toughness but also his close ties to the local life of Montana.
The Maclean family is very close-knit. Norman and Paul are taught that outside the sacred walls of church and family, the world is full of “bastards”—more of them the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.
As much as the Macleans love each other, this love is clearly limited and exclusive when it comes to the outside world—as the world doesn’t hold the same values Norman’s father does.
Norman and Paul also have in common a certain toughness—Norman’s from working at the Forest Service, and Paul from pure internal stubbornness. At one point, as a boy, Paul wins a battle of wills with his father about eating oatmeal in the morning.
While Norman and Paul both share their father’s stubbornness, Paul’s is much stronger and more obstinate, foreshadowing his later reluctance to admit weakness or accept help.
Norman and Paul share a street fighting theory: if it seems like a fight is brewing, it’s important to be the first one to throw a punch, so that you’re one punch ahead from the start. The problem, Norman notes, is that sometimes you’ll preemptively hit someone who then makes it his stated goal to kill you.
The characteristics that will be seen as negative later in Paul’s life are initially shown to be values Normans shares with him. Early on, they serve to bring the brothers together while distancing them from the outside world.
The only time Norman and Paul ever fight, they don’t see their mother, a petite woman, come between them to try to stop them—until she is suddenly on the floor. Each of the brothers shouts that it was the other one who knocked her down. Meanwhile she staggers around without her glasses on, claiming that she just slipped and fell.
Norman relates this story almost humorously, as an example both of his and Paul’s supposed “toughness” and of their love for their mother—but when considering Paul’s later penchant for violence, the scene is more ominous.