Big Two-Hearted River

The River Symbol Icon

The river symbolizes hope, life, and the comforting permanence of nature that Nick turns to in order to soothe his restless mind. The town of Seney to which Nick returns has been completely devastated by a fire, and all familiar signs of life and habitation have been destroyed. Nick turns away from it and heads to the river, which offers a welcome contrast. “The river [is] there,” a comforting presence, while everything familiar in the town has disappeared. Also, the town is abandoned and desolate while the river is teeming with trout. Nick watches them for a long time and finds them “very satisfactory.” After spending time by the river and the trout, Nick feels less anxious about the burned town, and he concludes that “it [does] not matter. It [can] not all be burned. He [knows] that.” This suggests that the river gives Nick hope to face his challenges, knowing that he will eventually find some respite from them. As he hikes to the meadow, Nick doesn’t need a map because he uses “the position of the river” to guide him. Its permanence comforts Nick and orients him in a world that he finds hugely changed. When he hikes down to the spot where he intends to set up camp by the river, he is greeted with the beautiful scene of the trout rising—they are jumping out of the water to eat the insects that have landed on the river’s surface. Nick sees them “making circles all down the surface of the water, as though it were starting to rain.” Water, and particularly rain, symbolize rebirth and regeneration, which is exactly what Nick needs to begin his process of healing, and the time he spends fishing in the river gives him this.

The River Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River

The Big Two-Hearted River quotes below all refer to the symbol of The River. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Simon & Schuster edition of Big Two-Hearted River published in 1987.
Part I Quotes

The river was there. […] Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
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He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow. At the edge of the meadow flowed the river. Nick was glad to get to the river. He walked upstream through the meadow. His trousers were soaked with the dew as he walked. After the hot day, the dew had come quickly and heavily. […] Nick looked down the river at the trout rising. They were rising to insects come from the swamp on the other side of the stream when the sun went down. The trout jumped out of water to take them. […] As far down the long stretch as he could see, the trout were rising, making circles all down the surface of the water, as though it were starting to rain.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part II Quotes

His mouth dry, his heart down, Nick reeled in. He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. […]

Nick’s hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too much. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.

The leader had broken where the hook was tied to it. Nick […] thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw. […] The hook would imbed itself in his jaw. He’d bet the trout was angry. Anything that size would be angry. […] By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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The River Symbol Timeline in Big Two-Hearted River

The timeline below shows where the symbol The River appears in Big Two-Hearted River. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part I
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...buildings, have been burned to the ground. He then heads to the bridge over the river and notes that the river is there. (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick watches the trout in the river for a long time, paying close attention to how they “hold steady in the fast... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...are the same height as Lake Superior. To his left, he catches glimpses of the river, its water glinting in the sunlight. Nick takes a break and smokes a cigarette. He... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...He uses the sun as his guide as he makes his way over to the river. He plucks some ferns and puts them under his pack straps, where they smell sweet... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
...and his pack feels too heavy as he continues to make his way to the river. (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick reaches a meadow that borders the river, and he is “glad to get” there. He watches the “trout rising”—they are leaping out... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
...not been unhappy all day,” but it was still “a hard trip” to reach the river. Nick is tired after a long day of hiking, and now feels like “nothing can... (full context)
Part II
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...warms up the tent. Nick crawls out and looks around him at the meadow, the river, and the green swamp that has birch trees in it. The river is clear and... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick is very excited about heading over to the river to fish. He feels almost too impatient to eat breakfast, but he knows he must,... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick goes to the river to wash his hands and is “excited to be near it.” By the time he... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick heads to the river, holding his fly rod, with the bottle full of crickets dangling from his neck on... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
...He smokes his cigarette with the sun warm on his back and looks at the river, “shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods, shallows, light glittering […]; slowly the... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick enters the water by the logs, where it is not too deep. The river cuts into the shore by an uprooted elm, and he casts his line there, between... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...some water. Then he lights a cigarette and sits smoking and looking out at the river. “Ahead, the river narrow[s] and [goes] into a swamp,” which looks “solid with cedar trees,... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...back to camp, Nick looks back and notices that he can just about see the river through the trees. He thinks there are “plenty of days coming when he [can] fish... (full context)