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Essay/Term paper: Norman mclean"s a river runs through it

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Composition

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Norman Mclean"s A River Runs Through It explores many feelings and

experiences of one "turn of the century" family in Missoula, Montana.

In both the movie, directed by Robert Redford, and the original work of

fiction we follow the Mcleans through their joys and sorrows. However,

the names of the characters and places are not purely coincidental.

These are the same people and places known by Norman Mclean as he was

growing up. In a sense, A River Runs Through It is Mclean"s

autobiography. Although these autobiographical influences are quite

evident throughout the course of the story they have deeper roots in the

later life of the author as he copes with his life"s hardships.

The characters in the movie and book are taken straight from Mclean"s

life. From the hard working, soft centered, minister father, to the

drunken, "down on his luck", brother-in-law, Neil. The character of

Paul appears the be the most true to life member of Norman"s family.

The audience quickly becomes familiar with Paul and his quick-tempered,

always ready for anything attitude. This is evident in the beginning of

the story with Paul"s frequent phrase "...with a bet on the to make

things interesting (Mclean 6)." "It was almost funny and sometimes not

so funny to see a boy always wanting to bet on himself and almost sure

to win (Mclean 5)." Unlike Norman who was rigorously home schooled

every morning, while Paul seemed to escape this torment. The boys

would spend their afternoons frolicking in the woods and fishing the Big

Blackfoot River. The differences that developed between Paul"s and

Norman"s fishing styles become evident in the published versions of

Mclean"s life as well as his real life. Norman followed the traditional

style taught by their preacher-father, ten and two in a four -count

rhythm, like a metronome.

The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes

the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them

seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father"s way of

saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat

of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count

means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach

ten o"clock-then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the

line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing (Mclean 4).

Paul, on the other hand, was less controlled by their father. Therefore

he was able to develop his own style of casting. This new technique in

which he dubbed "shadow casting" was able to draw the fish to the

surface using only the shadow of the fly. "...That the fish are alerted

by the shadows of flies passing over the water by the first casts, so

hit the fly the moment it touches the water (Mclean 21)." Among other

things, Paul was also grew up with a bit of gambling and drinking streak

in him. Paul"s habits did not just exist in the book, these

characteristics of Paul were carried over from Norman"s real life

experiences with his brother. "...Paul lived mostly by instinct and

bravado, learning early on to gamble, drink and fight (Eastman 54)."

Paul"s tendancies of to get into the high stakes poker games without a

clear head and then try to fight his way out of debt was what eventually

leads to his demise; both in real life and in A River Runs Through it.

Although the documentation of Norman Mclean"s life is very similar to

his real life, there are some subtle differences that exist. In the

wide screen version of A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert

Redford, the middle part of the movie is taken up with Norman"s courting

of Jessie, his real life wife. This is different from the book because

as the book progresses, Norman is already married to Jessie. One other

difference between the movie and the author"s real life is a small scene

in which the Mclean boys "borrow" a rowboat and run the rapids of a

nearby river. Although untold in the story these parts are part of the

creative license taken by Redford in order to make for a better movie.

These two segments appeal to both the adventurous and caring in the


Another difference between the documented versions of A River Runs

Through It and Mclean"s life is concerning where he lived. In the book

and movie versions, Norman and Paul spend all their lives in Montana

except for when Norman and Paul both attend Dartmouth. In reality,

Paul had followed Norman to Chicago, where Norman was teaching at the

University of Chicago. It was Norman who got a job for Paul in the

university"s press relation"s department. Perhaps what happens next in

the deviations from the story is one of the most disturbing. Instead of

dying while fighting in his own home territory, Paul died in the

unfamiliar streets of Chicago, a victim of several severe blows to the


It is disturbing to hear of the real life death of Paul Mclean, however

it soothes his brother Norman to write that Paul died fighting with all

of the bones in his right hand broken. "Like many Scottish ministers

before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that

his son had died fighting (Mclean 103)." This line near the end of the

story not only tells how Preacher Mclean must have felt in the book, but

it symbolises the fantasy that Norman has that his brother did die

fighting and not in a simple robbery. This gives him the piece of mind

knowing that Paul"s soul will rest peacefully.

There are other issues that writing of a different death for his

brother helps Norman over come. Norman Mclean was by no means a settled

man. He was known to drink particularly stiff drinks at parties and

after his retirement spoke of his neglect as a parent. "Norman, like

his father before him, was notorious for deflecting personal

discussions, although after he had retired from teaching he was

surprisingly open about his parental shortcomings. "It"s a real sorrow

of mine. I feel that I never picked up my children at the age when I

should have."...(Eastman 100)." The illness of his wife was severely

disheartening because her death took almost ten years. She suffered

from emphysema but continued to smoke up until shortly before her

death. This time was extremely hard for the Mcleans, "...Jessie"s

illness seemed to have stretched on forever, spreading a pall over the

family for years (Eastman 101)." When he finally did receive news of

his beloved wife"s death, Norman was in the hospital battling one of his

bouts of depression and alcoholism. The times to follow were not any

better. His daughter Jean explains, ""The five to seven years after my

mother died were incredibly tumultuous [for my father]," Jean admits,

"when he was down as far as a person can get down" (Eastman 101)." With

encouragement from his family, friends, and especially his son-in-law

Joel, Norman Mclean was finally able to overcome his tough times and

begin his writings.

After all the joys of the first half of his life, Norman Mclean was

overcome with severe sorrow. In his writing of A River Runs Through It,

these joys are evident as are a hint of the sorrow. But in order to see

the important autobiographical influences in his work, one must look not

at the feelings of the time being described, but at the feelings of the

time the story/biography is being written. It was written at a time

when Norman Mclean was feeling deep sorrow for the loss of his loved

ones and in order to help him cope without returning to drinking and

depression, Norman wrote stories. In these stories he was able to

remember the people he loved the most in their glory days. Paul in the

Big Blackfoot shadow casting for trout and Jessie at home in Montana

where everyone felt at ease with her warm hearted love and sense of

humor. In addition, Norman was able to use his own creative influence

in order to adjust events to a manner that made him feel a little more

at ease about the passing of his and others" lives. So as it turns out,

it appears that Norman Mclean wrote his stories not for the reader, but

for himself. 

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