Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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A story of such open-endedness, in which characters have no names and nothing is explained, is naturally one that invites a great variety of interpretations. The story’s lack of specificity is complicated by its title, which calls for the reader to identify a third bank, a process that would require an evaluation of the extant two to determine which is the first and which the second.

The easiest procedure for approaching the third bank phenomenon is to consider the story in the context of the volume in which it was published, which in the original Portuguese was entitled Primeiras estorias (first stories), although it was João Guimarães Rosa’s fourth book. Although nothing more than authorial perversity may be the reason, it is true that ordering, numbering, and ranking are rational procedures that depend on a grasp of the external configuration of things, a perception of the real. However, the author is demanding a perception of essence, not subject to ordering, numbering, or ranking, because it cannot be seen with the eyes alone. The stories in this volume are all about human beings who are disconnected or alienated from the mainstream of social machinery; thus, their perceptions are not received community perceptions, which tend to be linear and symmetrical, but rather eccentric and individualistic, ranging from childhood wonder to second sight and across to the third bank.

When the father leaves in his canoe, he is doing so in response to some imperative that remains a mystery to the community. The only one who approaches an understanding of that imperative is the narrator, who never explains, at least not in any ranked or ordered fashion, his understanding of it. The narrator’s perception is that the father had waited all that time for the son to take over the task of staying in the canoe in the middle of the river, and that when he turned and fled he somehow failed. However, it is also apparent that when the offer is made, the ordeal, with whatever outcome, is over, for the father is never seen again.

It is probably possible to interpret this story in a psychological fashion, or as a problem of family communication, or even as a religious tale, but that would reduce it to allegory or treatise, in which the force of the tale is at least partly derived from the evanescent nature of the imperative. The characters in other stories in the volume are eccentrics, madmen, murderers, and children, who share with the father of “The Third Bank of the River” a distance from received community perceptions that allows them to see things that normal people cannot see, and their gift of perception leads them into a state that transcends the literal and the ordinary.