A River Runs Through It

by Norman Maclean

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What does it mean when Norman says, "I am haunted by waters" in A River Runs Through It?

What Norman means when he says that “I am haunted by waters” in A River Runs Through It is that he is haunted by memories which, like the waters, run deep. Indeed, the waters have always been so much a part of Norman’s life that they are inextricably linked in his mind with memories, both good and bad .

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In the final line of A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean tells us that he is haunted by waters. Earlier on, he’d told us just how important rivers have been throughout his whole life. When Norman lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Western Montana, his father, a Presbyterian minister, used to tell him that Christ’s disciples were fishermen. Not only that, but they were first-class fly-fishers. As Norman says, there was no clear line in his family between religion and fly-fishing.

This nostalgic reminiscence reinforces the sacredness of the waters. They are not just features of the natural landscape; they have deep symbolic meaning for Norman and his family and connect them to the land in which they live, move, and have their being.

Whatever Norman thinks about, whatever memory he dredges up from his past, a river runs through it. This is what he means when he says he is haunted by the waters. It’s not that the waters and the memories they invoke are necessarily painful; it’s just that they are always there, ever-present in Norman’s mind, ceaselessly flowing into each other to form a coherent understanding of the past and how it forms his character.

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This is the final sentence of the book. The author uses this memoir to recount how important the activity of fly fishing was to him, his brother Paul, and his father. In fact, Maclean opens the book with the line,

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.

The Macleans lived in Montana, and they fished as often as they could while they simultaneously dealt with the usual activities of daily life. Even though this story is true, we can see the recurring image of the river as a metaphor for the passage of time and for the course of a human life. Just as water hurries around rocks and sunken tree trunks, so do people meet and deal with challenges that they encounter along their way. There is no way to stop the progress. The river keeps flowing, just as the pages of the calendar keep turning.

A little past the middle of the book, the author references this relationship when he writes:

As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining with them. It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.

That something is this book. By the time Norman shares these memories with us, Paul has already been murdered under unusual circumstances. This...

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story is therefore a tribute to his fallen brother, his fellow fly fisherman. Even though one man has been lost, the river still runs; the water still flows. Time passes. Norman can still remember the times they fished together; he can go back to those places to fish again and to mourn the loss of Paul. The lives of the Macleans and the water of the river were always intertwined. Norman cannot change what happened to Paul. He can only remember, as he continues to go with the flow.

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This quote appears at the end of A River Runs Through It, after Norman has spoken of the death of his brother, Paul, and of his old age, when he fishes alone (though some people warn him he shouldn't). Norman sees in the waters the remnants of history, as the rocks at the bottom of the river are from "the basement of time." Atop these rocks are "timeless raindrops," which are also ancient. Norman is haunted by waters, just as he is haunted by the ancient unanswerable questions, such as why he couldn't help his brother Paul in his suffering and why he couldn't prevent Paul's death. The waters remind Norman of the ancient sources of the river and rocks, and they also remind him of the eternal mysteries of the earth that make it hard for him to understand the ways of people, including his brother. 

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