A River Runs Through It


Norman Maclean

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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.

Familial and Brotherly Love

Families are the main social structures in A River Runs Through It: apart from a few minor characters, all the people we meet belong to Norman’s family or to Jessie’s. Norman and Paul have even been taught to trust people less and less the further they get from their family home of Missoula, Montana. Steeped in the Biblical tradition, Norman’s family treats Paul as a kind of “prodigal son,” one who may…

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Help and Helplessness

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…

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Skill and Art

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…

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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty

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

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Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will

The sect of Christianity followed by Maclean’s father, a “Scot and a Presbyterian,” teaches that humans are a species fallen from an original state of grace. In this religious framework, which is threaded throughout the book, it is believed that only God can restore grace to people. Though human beings can develop specific skills, even reaching the realm of art, it may be impossible for them to ever truly recover grace while still alive…

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