Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Much of the power of A River Runs Through It derives from its unusual perspective that the Protestant Christian beliefs of the Maclean family present no conflict with nature. Maclean describes a seamless unity between his family and the environment in which they live. There is no reference to human dominion over the earth, nor is there a threatening wilderness. The characters experience emotional confusion and pain as a result of human interaction. The natural world in Montana is a sacred place, making Neal and Old Rawhide’s behavior especially mortifying. Montana’s ruggedness requires the chosen people, Maclean and his family, to be tough but moral in their own way.

When fishing, the brothers enter a “world apart,” one in which there are further worlds to experience. On one trip, Maclean explains how he is able to forget the tumult in his life, item by item, until he achieves oneness with the river. To further animate this theme, methods of fishing, the equipment used, and actual fishing activities are described in detail throughout the novel. Casting is always done in four-part rhythm, the trajectory beginning between two and ten o’clock. Instead of a fishing “pole,” fly fishing is done with a “rod” made of split bamboo with silk thread wrappings. In a scene where Paul’s artistry in shadow casting merges him with the supernatural world, the water creates a halo around him. Such detailed accounts of fishing, written with...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Fly fishing is the controlling metaphor in Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. The beauty and grace involved in this kind of fishing parallels Norman’s attempts at achieving the unity he desires with his brother. Fly fishing, for Maclean, is a way of ordering chaos, an attempt to momentarily return to Eden, despite the abundant evidence of a fallen world beyond their rivers. Additionally, it is through fly fishing that the Macleans enjoy and glorify God. For them, there is “no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

A Calvinist, Presbyterian theology is implied in the subtexts of this work, but the Reverend Maclean is somewhat unusual: “Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word ’beautiful.’” Most notably, he insists that Paul is beautiful and that his artistry is the means to recover lost grace. In other words, although humanity is a “mess” and “fallen,” the concept of beauty functions as Christian grace and counters any implied negative ramifications of the lost child.

A brother’s keeper theme is dominant in the book. This theme has haunted the narrator for nearly forty years. Though Norman was unable to protect his brother, his writing may be viewed as an offering of grace to his lost brother. In Christian imagery, Paul is obviously presented as the “prodigal son.” Fly fishing is a means of grace to receive the family prodigal.

The Christian notion of Logos also informs the text. Norman and his father discuss the passage in “The Gospel of John” in which Christ is presented as divine Logos and “the Word was in the beginning.” The Reverend Maclean believes that “words are underneath the water,” which is to say the word precedes water. This distinction is important for the Macleans, who recognize that a river speaks to each one individually. Like grace, understanding may be elusive, but each one may have his unique conversation with the words speaking through water. Further, the narration clarifies that Paul’s view of ultimate reality agrees with that of his father. Despite his tragic and perhaps reckless life, Paul’s theological and philosophical worldview is comforting to his father and suggests that Paul recognized beauty and reality in a way many may misunderstand.