Part of the way we come to know a thing is through its’ death.
Norman Maclean’s cryptic words have left profound implications concerning the capacity for our hearts to forgive and be forgiven. With but few, restrained words, Maclean’s discreet statement has touched on a question that we will inevitably wrestle with for the entirety of life: whether or not we will ever truly know a person in this life, or whether we only come to know a person upon their death. In A River Runs Through It, Maclean depicts a relationship between a father and his two sons, Norman and Paul, as being tethered by a common reverence for the Big Blackfoot River, a place where silence pervades but all together binds the three in perfect unity. Maclean’s subtle proclivity to depict the lives of the father and his sons within a Trinitarian complex leads the reader to believe that the author has willed our hearts to become attune to death, specifically the memory for which we were not present but of which we have a recollection today; the crucifixion.
At the start of the novel, Maclean describes the poignant relationship between the father and his two sons as being formed and preserved by their fishing outings out on the Big Blackfoot River. The father’s commitment as a Presbyterian pastor and similar love for the river ultimately allows for the association of the river as level with their faith. For the three there was “no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (1); time spent within the walls of the church paralleled their time spent on the river. It was here on the river that Norman and Paul learned about God’s nature; through their father they “received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as [they] did in all other spiritual matters” (2). The father describes the art of fly-fishing as a four-count rhythm compatible with the order of the universe. Their father believed God to be the ultimate timekeeper and was “very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe- To him, all good things- trout as well as eternal salvation- come by grace…” (4). Fly-fishing in this manner is described as an art form that does not come easy but of which inspires beauty. Learning the art of fly-fishing and walking along the banks of the river, Norman and Paul gain scriptural understanding of their Savior. The father recites sermons to his sons in an effort to refresh his mind and prepare for the upcoming church service, which similarly instills the boys with biblical knowledge. It is within these first few paragraphs that we are shown a discernment of the Trinity as understood through scriptural pursuit as well as experientially, which will subsequently foreshadow Norman’s own relationship with his brother. While Norman’s life seems to mold to the expectations of his family’s convictions, the life of his brother, Paul, takes a perilous route, a dance with death that raises walls between himself and others. Paul’s personal choices create a divide that defines the way in which his father and Norman connect with him, through silence.
Throughout the novel, the father and his sons appear to communicate by means of silence. In myriad moments, words are left unsaid in the face of pain. However, this silence is depicted in two contrasting forms, shame as well as beauty. In one harrowing scene, after Norman discovers that his brother has been thrown in jail for his drinking habits, Paul seemed to hold his “right hand over his eyes so that in some drunken way he thought [that Norman] could not see him and [that]… he could not see himself” (27). Paul is ashamed of his choices and in an effort to conceal his remorse, he hides his face, an act reminiscent of our own unworthiness in the presence of our heavenly Father. Similarly, Norman continues to remain silent in the face of his brother’s poor decisions; although he desires to talk with him, his fear prevents him from speaking up. In few words, Norman confesses how one of the strains that smother their relationship is his own unwillingness to “hear too much” about his brother (23), a hesitancy to face his brother’s malign nature. In this way, silence serves a shameful purpose, a means of sinking into and coping with one’s own cowardice. Norman further alludes to the ramifications associated with having lost one’s voice. Instead of confronting pain, we retreat inside ourselves, fabricating a life where we choose our words carefully; crafting our outward identity in a manner that masks our brokenness. We accept to dwell in the unknown because lack of understanding shields us from the experience of suffering. This may suggest an overlooked theological understanding of silence as being evoked through the cross, if we had been witness to His death, would we have turned our face, the sight to painful to bear? However, we are also shown glimpses of a silence that is inherently beautiful. In subtle moments, silence appears to serve a contemplative means of exaltation. In few scenes, Norman’s description of the river and the meditative quality of the back and forth stroke of the rod awakens an experience of peace. The art of fly-fishing appears to elicit a reverent silence, presenting itself in the form of devotion. Comparably, upon describing the flow of the water through the walls of the canyon, Norman proclaims that the canyon is “glorified by rhythms and colors” (22), eliciting the notion that silence can also serve a transcendental purpose, a means of glorifying and communing with God. While the father’s relationship with his sons carries a shameful silence in the everyday underpinnings of life, when they come together on the river, a transcendental silence is drawn from the waters.
The depiction of silence as both shameful and beautiful also provides an alternate understanding of darkness and light. The shameful silence that pervades the novel depicts darkness as hovering over and preventing further growth within the father and son’s relationship. In one instance, Norman describes the sunrise on the river as a “time to feel that you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn’t think so” (28). This statement portrays Norman as being overcome with an urge to break the silence and offer his brother help. However, he continues by explaining the luminous quality of a sunrise shedding light but ultimately not allowing for clarity. In explicit moments, Norman seems to better understand his brother, but never fully. These glimpses of revelation, of light, always seem to fade. Similarly, while fishing with his brother one afternoon, Paul describes how Norman isn’t catching any fish because he is searching out in open waters where the sunshine falls down on the water. Paul explains to his brother that he will only catch them if he turns to the shadows. It is within the shadows that the fish are congregated in darkness, finding rest in hiding (42). Paul later asks Norman the eerie question: “What’s more obvious on earth than sunshine and shadow…?” (93). This question presents the idea that darkness and light aren’t mutually exclusive. This connection of darkness as holding life is also determined biblically- in Genesis, darkness is described as having an eternal quality; before the universe was formed there was darkness, and it is in this darkness where the Word exists.
In their final fishing trip together, we are given additional illustrations that provoke a plea to realize the weight of the cross, both scripturally and experientially. As Norman lays beside his father on the bank of the river, the two look out at Paul, hypnotized by the rhythm of his rod undulating back and forth (100). In this moment Norman sees that his father is reading the Bible. His father then recounts a portion of scripture in Genesis that declares the existence and nature of the Word. He describes how in the beginning was God’s Word, but how he used to think that water was formed first. Now, with Norman at his side, he emphasizes how if one listens carefully, they will hear that “the words are underneath the water” (95). Norman then responds by telling his father that Paul would disagree with his statement, in favor of the notion that the words are formed out of the water. Norman’s father then corrects him stating that Norman isn’t listening carefully and that if he was he would understand that Paul would tell him the same thing. With the father’s declaration of the Word as paramount and everlasting, hidden beneath the water, and the source of our life, one can only wonder if we will ever truly experience this life-giving Word. Connecting this final moment with the father’s statement from the beginning of the book, we realize that in the end “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever” (1). Just as Christ’ death has provided forgiveness, Paul’s death also provides clarity. In his final words, Norman declares: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104). We see that it was only through Paul’s death that Norman came to an understanding of his brother, accepting that the love that he expressed and experienced with his brother was pure, even if falling short of the surpassing Love that God bestows. Upon Paul’s death Norman becomes united with his brother fully realizing that the silence that defined their relationship ultimately served a beautiful purpose. In this moment Norman accepts that his brother has forgiven him, just as Christ has forgiven us upon his death.
With overarching Trinitarian themes, A River Runs Through It subtly guides the reader to a deeper understanding of words and silence as coexisting; darkness and light as equally life-giving, and forgiveness as attainable in this present life. With theologically complex illustrations, Norman Maclean welcomes the reader into a life lived fully in the presence and promise of death.