A River Runs Through It Symbols and Motifs

Norman MacLean

A River Runs Through It

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A River Runs Through It Symbols and Motifs

The Rivers 

In this novel, rivers have several meanings. On one level, a river represents the natural world. On another level, the arc of a river flowing through the rocks and canyons of Montana symbolizes the arc of a human life. Both meanings of the river inform the overarching pattern of the novel.

It is also significant that there are so many rivers named in the story: the Big Blackfoot, the Elkhorn, the Swan, the Missouri, Clark Fork, and specific canyons or places on these rivers. Each river is a specific terrain and contains specific types of trout. Maclean explains each river in detail, demonstrating that he is striving to master the language of the rivers and the fish, in order to understand life itself.

Fly Fishing

Part technique, part art, and difficult to master, fly fishing, its terminology and its methods permeate this novel. Detailed descriptions of the rod, the different flies used according to the weather, the river and the type of trout being sought, entwine with philosophical exploration of the meditative and spiritual dimensions of fishing. Fly fishing becomes an extended metaphor for man’s approach to life.

Mastery of the art of fly fishing is the path to grace in this novel. It is the vehicle through which man demonstrates his worthiness and understanding of nature, or God. For in this novel, God and nature, and man and nature, are one; therefore, man is one with God through nature. However, bait fishermen know no such grace, as Maclean makes clear, particularly through the example of Neal.


Two brothers struggle unsuccessfully with addiction in this novel. Neal and Paul are both alcoholics, and Paul also has a gambling addiction. Both men spiral out of control in the full view of their families. Paul dies as a result of his addictions and Maclean exposes the dangers and painful results of addiction.

Maclean also depicts the suffering of family members unable to help their loved ones. Though neither family is able to help, they continue to love and support their family members. Both families try to help, and discover that in order to be useful, help…

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