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 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.
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.
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.