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.
Help and Helplessness ThemeTracker
Help and Helplessness Quotes in A River Runs Through It
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.