(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A River Runs Through It compresses the events of several summers into one, the summer Norman Maclean’s brother Paul dies. In establishing background, Maclean explains the importance of fly fishing as the main activity through which the males of the family related to one another. Fishing also provided spiritual education. By describing their fishing trips and related events during the summer of 1937, a much older Maclean seeks to understand the tragedy of his brother’s death, to pay homage to him, and to show appreciation for his father’s love and wisdom.

A River Runs Through It is written in first-person limited narration. Maclean the narrator is the protagonist, his character derived from the author’s memories and reflections. He tells the story chronologically, often referring to characters in terms of their familial roles, as “my father,” “my brother,” “my mother-in-law.” In addition to the three male Maclean characters, there are two female Macleans: the mother, wife of the minister, and Jessie, Maclean’s wife. Jessie’s family provides two other significant characters, her brother, Neal, and her mother, Florence.

The story reads as if it were a highly stylized personal essay. As an introduction to the family members and their culture, Maclean begins, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Even though these are minister’s children, they receive nearly equal instruction in spiritual concerns and in fly fishing. Paul’s fishing ability...

(The entire section is 632 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Much of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is autobiographical, based on his family experiences as he was raised in a parsonage in western Montana in the early part of the twentieth century. Maclean is the elder son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. He and his brother, Paul, fish the wild Montana streams as often as possible. Much of the action in this story is set along the Big Blackfoot River. For the Macleans, fly fishing is religion. The Reverend Maclean taught his boys to cast a fly rod with the same discipline that he engendered in them concerning religious studies. The Reverend Maclean believed “man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace,” but he believed that “only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. ”As far as the Macleans are concerned, fly fishing in the beauty of nature fulfills the call to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

The joyful art of fly fishing is clearly depicted in Maclean’s writing. He recounts competitive but friendly experiences with his brother. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Maclean’s memory is troubled by a family tragedy. Something is wrong in paradise. Paul has difficulty controlling his drinking and gambling, and his stubborn refusal to be helped contributes to his demise. He also ignores certain hypocritical customs of his region. For example, he dates American Indians, which tends to put him at odds with his society. In one instance, Paul is taken to jail because he took vengeance on someone who had insulted his date. Norman is called to retrieve his drunken brother and Indian girlfriend from jail.

As the elder brother, Maclean conveys a frustrating sense of helplessness concerning Paul. Much of the action of the story details memories of his experiences with Paul and their father. The pleasant memories involve fishing trips where the brothers experienced the pure beauty of the wild rivers and various species of trout and wildlife. In these episodes, Maclean...

(The entire section is 833 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sources for Further Study

Browning, Mark. “’Some of the Words Are Theirs’: The Elusive Logos in A River Runs Through It.” Christianity and Literature 50, no. 4 (Summer, 2001): 679-688. Difficulty in human communication may be central to understanding Maclean’s novella.

Dooley, Patrick. “The Prodigal Son Parable and Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 58, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 165-175. Discusses failure within the Maclean family; yet the father, like God, unconditionally loves his wayward son.

Foote, Timothy. “A New Film About Fly Fishing—And Much, Much More.” Smithsonian 23, no. 6 (September, 1992): 120. Effectively tells of the novel’s unique origination, history, and transition to film.

Ford, James E. “When Life . . . Becomes Literature’: The Neo-Aristotelian Poetics of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 4 (Fall, 1993): 525. For readers who want to understand how Maclean’s background as a critic shapes his fiction.

Johnson, Don. “The Words Beneath the Stones: Salvation in A River Runs Through It.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 14, no. 1 (Fall, 1996): 301-307. Argues that Maclean broadens the Calvinistic view of salvation to consider the role of art. Provides background information and shows how Maclean fictionalized the story.

MacFarland, Ron. Norman Maclean. Western Writers Series, No. 107. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1993. Brief, authoritative introduction to Maclean as a Western writer.

MacFarland, Ron, and Hugh Nichols, eds. Norman Maclean. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1988. A chronology and collection of Maclean’s speeches and essays, two interviews, and criticism. Includes major essays in critical analysis and commentary by Wallace Stegner, Glen A. Love, and Wendell Berry.

Weinberger, Theodore. “Religion and Fly Fishing: Taking Norman Maclean Seriously.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 49, no. 4 (Summer, 1997): 281-289. Contrasts the Maclean family and their society. The prominence of fly fishing is foundational for interpreting the book.

Womack, Kenneth. “’Haunted by Waters’: Narrative Reconciliation in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 42, no. 2 (Winter, 2001): 192-204. Uses interviews of and lectures by Maclean to emphasize that art transcends tragedy.