A River Runs Through It Characters

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A River Runs Through It Summary & Study Guide Description

A River Runs Through It Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

Norman Macleanappears in A River Runs Through It

Norman Maclean is the writer of these stories as well as the main character. Norman is a man who grew up in Montana and has lived a life close to nature. In A River Runs Through It, Norman is approaching middle age and still finds fly fishing to be an enjoyable pastime with his brother, Paul. Norman and Paul spend a great deal of time fishing together even though their lives run in different directions. Norman admires Paul's expertise at fly fishing and finds himself often overshadowed by his brother's skills. Paul does not try to criticize Norman's shortcomings as a fisherman, however, which makes it difficult for Norman to discuss with Paul his behavior outside of the world of fishing. Norman knows his brother needs help as his drinking is beginning to interfere with the rest of his life, but Norman cannot speak to Paul about it because he feels that he does not know his brother well enough to criticize. When Paul dies because of a fight, Norman feels as though he let his brother down.

In Logging and Pimping and 'Your Pal, Jim', Norman is a young man in his early twenties spending the summer lumberjacking in order to make money to continue his education. Norman has agreed to team up with a lumberjack named Jim who works fast and has the potential of helping Norman earn a great deal of money. However, Norman quickly discovers that Jim is a competitive person who works at a pace much too fast for Norman to keep up with. Norman refuses to slow down, however, wanting to prove to himself and Jim that he can take whatever Jim dishes out. In the process, Norman learns a great deal about himself and human nature.

In USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, Norman is a seventeen year old boy working his third summer for the Forest Service. Norman greatly admires the Ranger and wants to impress him, but finds that the Ranger admires the cook, a man Norman does not like. Norman goes out of his way to impress the Ranger but fails. When Norman finally stops trying to impress and begins to work with the crew, he achieves what he had wanted to do alone, impresses the Ranger. However, by this point Norman finally realizes that he does not want to impress the Ranger any longer. Norman achieves a great deal of character growth in this story.

Paul Macleanappears in A River Runs Through It

Paul Maclean appears in A River Runs Through It. Paul is Norman's brother. Paul is an expert fly fisherman who often manages to fish difficult waters with a great deal of success while everyone else struggles. Paul is also a reporter for a small newspaper, spending his days working and his nights drinking. Paul often finds himself getting into fist fights. Norman learns of this behavior one night while staying with Paul after a day of fishing. Norman wants to speak to Paul about this behavior and to perhaps help him to change his dangerous behavior, but cannot find a way to do so.

Norman feels as though he does not know his brother. Norman knows all about Paul's love of fly fishing and watches him fish often. However, Norman feels he does not know his brother outside of the river. Norman is afraid of overstepping boundaries by helping his brother in a way that he knows is necessary. Perhaps this is why Norman never does discuss Paul's drinking after one failed attempt. When Paul is found beaten to death in an alley, Norman feels as though it is his fault for not doing something to help his brother. Norman's parents never do anything to take this guilt from their surviving son, going so far as to imply that Norman's guilt is properly placed. However, from the way Norman writes about his brother, the reader is given the impression that not only does Norman know his brother well, that Paul would not have blamed Norman for his death.

The Reverend and Mrs. Macleanappears in A River Runs Through It

The Reverend and Mrs. Maclean are Paul and Norman's parents. The Reverend is a strict father who spent a great deal of time preaching to his children about not only religion but also fly fishing. Fly fishing is a passion of the Reverend's and he passed this on to his children. Paul became an expert fly fisherman, having great success throughout his fishing experience. Norman, however, found fly fishing to be a difficult pursuit and never became as proficient as his brother. In this way, Norman also felt inferior to his brother.

Mrs. Maclean is a typical reverend's wife, quiet and obedient. However, Mrs. Maclean does not hide the way she feels about her children. Mrs. Maclean admires Paul over Norman, treating him to special meals and giving him special attention even while Norman is sitting at the same table. Mrs. Maclean may not realize how her behavior affects her sons, but it is clear that she feels more affection for Paul. When Paul dies, Mrs. Maclean does nothing to help Norman forgive himself for what he sees as his letting Paul down. It is the relationship between these boys and their parents that shapes the men they are as adults, thus making the Reverend and Mrs. Maclean important characters within these stories.

Jessieappears in A River Runs Through It

Jessie is Norman's wife. Jessie only appears in A River Runs Through It, even though she is briefly mentioned in one of the other stories. Jessie has a brother, Neal, who is also an alcoholic, perhaps worse than Paul is, and causes Jessie a great deal of worry. Jessie puts pressure on Norman to help keep Neal out of trouble when he comes to Montana for a visit, causing some tension between Jessie and Norman. Norman wants to make his wife happy so he enlists his brother Paul in helping him by making him promise to take Neal fishing. However, this fishing trip does not end well and causes what Paul believes is added pressure between Jessie and Norman. In truth, however, Jessie recognizes the kind of man her brother is and comes to appreciate Norman's truthfulness in his relationship with Neal.

Nealappears in A River Runs Through It

Neal is Jessie's brother, Norman's brother in law. Neal is an unpleasant man who spends a great deal of his time drinking. Neal will drink any time of the day no matter what is going on around him. Neal crashes a fishing trip Norman takes with Paul, steals their beer, and ends up getting a terrible sunburn when he falls asleep naked in the middle of the river. Norman and Paul take Neal back to his mother's house knowing that Norman will be blamed for the entire situation. Norman accepts this blame and is surprised to find that his wife is not angry with him. Jessie knows what kind of a man her brother is and knows that Norman cannot be held responsible for his behavior. However, Paul assumes that Jessie is angry with Norman and treats him with kindness the next day, which turns out to be the last time the two brothers go fishing together.

Old Rawhideappears in A River Runs Through It

Old Rawhide is a drunk that Neal hooks up with when he comes to town. Old Rawhide is a horsewoman who has never been the type to be alone. Old Rawhide spends the winters living with one of two rodeo athletes, often starting the winter with one and ending it with the other. It is summer when Neal comes to town so Old Rawhide is alone, when not picking up men in the local bars. Old Rawhide attaches herself to Neal and becomes his drinking partner as well as his lover. Old Rawhide is with Neal the day he gets sunburned and is humiliated when Norman and Paul dump her off in the middle of the street, naked, when they reach town. It is because of this woman that Jessie sees the kind of man her brother is and does not get angry with Norman for her brother's sunburn.

Jim Griersonappears in Logging and Pimping and 'Your Friend, Jim'

Jim Grierson is a lumberjack that Norman meets while working during the summer. Norman finds Jim to be a bully, a large man that he would not like to get into a fight with. Despite this, Norman agrees to team up with Jim one summer in order to work per board cut rather than for a salary, hoping the two of them can make a lot of money. However, Jim immediately makes Norman regret his decision when he tries to prove his superiority by setting the sawing rhythm too fast, making Norman work harder than he would like. Jim also makes fun of Norman for wanting to clear the area around the trees before beginning. Jim and Norman soon find themselves so unhappy in the arrangement that they stop talking to each other. Norman believes he hates Jim and that Jim hates him. However, when the summer is over and Norman runs into Jim in town, Jim treats him as though they are great friends. Jim invites Norman to his home and then begins writing letters to him while Norman is away at school. Norman is puzzled by this behavior, but also finds it mildly amusing.

Bill Bellappears in USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky

Bill Bell is a Ranger for the Forest Service. Norman works for Bill Bell the summer he is seventeen and greatly admires Bill for his talents in packing horses. Norman wants desperately to impress Bill Bell, but finds that he has instead upset Bill by suggesting that he does not like the cook. Bill likes the cook a great deal and finds Norman's dislike of him offensive, so he sends him to work as a lookout on one of the hills surrounding their base camp. Later Norman decides to walk the thirty miles back to town in one day to impress Bill. However, Norman's attempt misfires when he becomes ill after achieving his accomplishment. At the same time, Bill, who is notoriously bad at cards, has decided that he wants to scam some local poker players. Bill enlists the help of everyone in the crew, including Norman, and arranges for the cook, who is a card shark, to play the local poker players in town. The game goes well, ending in an expected fight, and Bill manages to win the fight. Later Bill asks Norman to join him again the following year, and Norman accepts. However, Norman ends up doing something else the following year.

The Cookappears in USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky

The cook is a card shark who works as a cook with the Forest Service the year Norman is seventeen. Norman does not like the Cook because he goes out of his way to be rude and refuses to play cards with Norman. Norman later learns that the Cook refuses to play cards because he is a card shark and he does not want to cause bad blood with the men he works with. However, this does not stop Bill Bell, the Ranger, from talking the Cook into helping him scam the local poker players in town. Bill is bad at cards and always loses his paycheck to these card players so he is hoping the Cook can help him win some money back. The Cook agrees. However, after winning a great deal of money at the card table, the Cook is robbed by a prostitute and her pimp. Norman ends up having to help the Cook buy a ticket home.

Mr. Smith, Mr. McBride, the Redhead, and the Canadianappears in USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky

Mr. Smith, Mr. McBride, the redhead, and the Canadian are the other members of the Forest Service crew. Mr. Smith is an older man who takes Norman under his wing as though he were his child. Mr. McBride is a tough man who is a good street fighter, and the redhead, also an accomplished fighter, is Mr. McBride's son. The Canadian is a soldier who was injured when forced to breathe noxious gas and was sent to spend some time in the Forest Service in order to recover. These men all help in the scam against the card players, causing Norman to learn the importance of working as part of a team rather than as an individual. It is this experience that helps Norman achieves some inner growth.

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