Norman Maclean began writing A River Runs Through It, his first novel, after he retired from a highly respected career as a teacher at the University of Chicago, where he was a noted Aristotelian critic. He received honors for excellence in undergraduate teaching three times. His knowledge of literature, his humanity as a teacher, and his critical expertise gave him the background to write about his life in Montana. The imagery of Maclean’s prose style and the subject matter of A River Runs Through It did not attract commercial publishers, however. The University of Chicago Press took on the book, the first fiction it had ever published, out of respect for Maclean’s university career.
The novel was an immediate critical success and went through printing after printing as word of its quality spread. It became a serious contender for the Pulitzer Prize. Critics compared the novel to Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and The Sun Also Rises (1926) and to Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Maclean’s novel attracted many film offers, none of which suited Maclean, who wanted artistic control to a degree unknown in the movie industry. Finally Robert Redford, a respected advocate of Western literature and film, persuaded Maclean to let him direct the film version, but Maclean died before the film was finished. It was released in 1992 and received three Academy Award nominations, winning an award for best cinematography. A River Runs Through It is a modern classic, bringing increased recognition to the deep regard that Western American people feel for the land and its resources.
The River plays a significant role in this novel. It offers a setting in which the main characters escape from the shackles of civilization as well as a means to journey to a better place. The river also acts as an artery through which Huck passes in his transition from innocence to awareness. In this essay on “A River Runs Through It” I will explore the role the relationship between the symbolic importance of the river and the design and structure of the novel.
A river is at its weakest just as it begins to form. As the stream of water begins to flow toward the ocean it must develop and change, as it will branch off in many directions. After branching off, the flow of the river strengthens as it begins travel to its final destination, the ocean. Huck and Jim journey down the Mighty Mississippi has a very weak and fragile beginning. Neither character has any direction, they both know that they would like to have their freedom, but in different capacities. Just as the river strengthens as its flow picks up, so does the bond between Huck and Jim as their adventure down the Mississippi begins to reach their final destination of their adventure, freedom.
The river in a physical sense was Huck and Jim’s main source of how they traveled throughout the novel. The river also acts as a main artery through which Huck passes in his transition from innocence to awareness. Along the way, Huck encounters many situations that strengthen his character about the way things are and the way things should be. When Huck played that awful trick on Jim, Jim told Huck how awful that made him feel that he would do such a terrible thing especially when he cared so much for Huck. It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger- but I done it, and I warn’t sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that. (Twain 272) Huck recognized Jim for a human being with feelings and not just a slave. At that point in Huck’s life, the rules of society took the back burner to how he was feeling about Jim the slave and his friend.
In the novel, the river symbolizes freedom for both Huck and Jim. Freedom to move around without having to adhere to rules and restrictions of the southern culture. Huck took the river to Jackson Island. Huck acknowledged his passion for freedom his third day on the island. The next day I went exploring around and down through the island. I was the boss of it; and it all belonged to me, so to say, and I wanted to know all about it; but mainly I wanted to put in the time. (Twain 243) Huck expresses here that putting in the time to explore something that you want is well worth it.
The relationship between Huck and Jim becomes the mainstay of the novel. This relationship enhances and complicates the journey down the Mississippi. Jim’s role evolves from friend to parent. Although, the friendship is still very apparent throughout the novel. In chapter nine, when Jim and Huck came upon the houseboat, Jim took the initiative to protect Huck from what Huck thought was a dead stranger, when it was indeed Huck’s father, Pap. At the end of the novel, Jim reveals to Huck that it was Pap on that houseboat. (Twain 406-407) Jim wanted Huck to be assured that his money was safe from Pap. At the point that Huck and Jim meet up on Jackson Island, this is true symbolism. The meeting of the two is like a tributary (a smaller river joining a larger one).
They joined forces to take on whatever they would encounter on the way down the Mississippi. Jim and Huck became a team. They both collectively came up with the plan for Huck to dress up like a girl and venture into town. Huck practiced over and over the mannerisms of a girl, and Jim told him what he was and wasn’t doing right (Twain 252) It is clearly evident throughout the novel that when the two of them operated together they seem to master the inevitable. It was when they got separated, that their weaknesses stood out. Jim even becomes vulnerable. In chapter XV, Jim risked giving up his own freedom by looking for Huck. He called Huck’s name knowing that his distinctive voice could be heard and recognized (Twain 272)
In conclusion, I hope that I conveyed the symbolic importance of the river and the design and structure of the novel. It was very clear to what role that river played in this novel. However, it was slightly difficult to explore the relationship between the two. I attempted to do so by bringing in the relationship of Huck and Jim to the forefront, as they ventured down the Mississippi. This adventure was a coming of age experience for Huck. I attempted to use the Physical properties of a river to show that rivers start out weak and along the way it picks up strength in its flow, as does Huck’s maturity in the novel.
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