In A River Runs Through It, was Paul a tragic hero?

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mlsldy3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A River Runs Through It is Norman Maclean's narrative of the summer he lost his brother, Paul. The brothers grow up in Montana, and their father is a minister who instills in them the love of fly fishing. The boys experience a spiritual stillness when they are fishing. Norman is always in awe of his brother's ability to fly fish. The two brothers are very different. Norman is a well-educated married man and is settled down in life. Paul, on the other hand, is a newspaper man who spends much of his time drinking and gambling. This problem of Paul's doesn't come to Norman's attention until the last fateful summer they have together. 

Paul, I think, is a tragic person. Whether or not he is a hero is really left to be seen. Paul drinks constantly, gets into accidents because of the drinking, and gambles all the time, therefore setting himself up for the outcome of that summer. I think one needs to know more about Paul's life to make the judgement about whether he is a tragic hero. Yes, Paul is an amazing man who so many people look up to, including his older brother Norman. Paul has a talent for fly fishing, but under the surface there is something on the inside of him that makes him act out the way he does. Paul never asks for help, yet Norman knows he needs it. In the end no one helps him and it is too late for Paul.

Norman sees Paul as a tragic hero. He idolizes his little brother, even after his death. Norman has spent many years living with the what ifs of that summer. If only someone could have helped Paul, if only Paul had asked for and gotten help. All of these questions haunt Norman for the rest of his life. Paul's life was as tragic as it could get, but was he a hero? To his brother, Norman, yes, he was truly a hero.

"Each one us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding." 

In this statement, we see the torment that Norman lives with. Norman Maclean didn't write this short story until he was well into his 70s, so we see these questions still haunt him. He still lives with the memory of his beloved brother.