I am haunted by waters

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

— Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

20 thoughts on “I am haunted by waters

  1. This is one of my favorite films. We are all haunted by waters, by memories. Just as the river, the memories run deep. And we see ourselves in the water’s reflection – our faces – they change, they get old – but the memories are always new….

  2. I can’t help but have my eyes well up each time I reach this passage, and I read it often. The power from Maclean’s simple words continues to amaze me.

    Maclean wove many themes of three into this story. His brother Paul’s brilliance balanced by
    his dark side along with their day-to-day reality together is one triplet. Another is treatment of the art of fly fishing, starting early in the story with the basic four count rythym, later expanded to flies and casting styles, and finally at the end with Paul’s giant fish. Also, his life (particularly as it relates to Paul) starting as childhood stalwart best friends, separating later by college and marriage, rejoining at the end together with their father on their final day of fishing together.

    It is the eventual melding of all these layers of three-sided elements that framed his life that I believe Norman Maclean was thinking of when he said “all things merge into one and a river runs through it”. The Big Blackfoot formed the canvas on which that life took place.

    This is truly one of America’s great classics.

    • hello jerry,
      it seems from your comment that you really enjoyed this book, however after reading it, I am still somewhat confused as to what the whole meaning/main point of this novel was.
      I know it’s supposed to be an amazing book, however it’s hard for me to enjoy it when i can’t seem to make sense of any of it….especially how the last line pertains to the whole book.
      would love if you could clarify it.


      • Dianne,

        The story speaks to the ardently different lives of the two brothers, and the father’s complete love and acceptance of each and their differing lifestyles. Watch the movie again, it should all come together near the end with with the father in the pulpit expressing “We can love completely what we cannot completely understand.” referring to the ones sons dark side and subsequent death and his own inability to help him.


        • Scott,

          While that is certainly the main point of the novel, as it is so neatly laid out, the purpose of this passage encapsulates the impact those dead and gone continue to have on our life.

          This is my favorite passage in all of literature. I can still hear my grandmother–her words are etched under those rocks, and they continue to guide my life, much like Norm’s father’s words continue to live with him as he tries to cope with his brother’s passing and everything that happened to him on the Big Blackfoot, even as an old man.



  3. I’m not sure if you know this, but I have always liked a river runs through it. it was one of the few books i brought with me from home (I know, shameful compared to you).

  4. ‘I am haunted by waters’, is both a simple yet powerful metaphor. It seems that we can look at it as having many different meanings, which has and always will be the basis of all great metaphors. I agree with the former writer, whom basicly says, this is all he has left in his life. All his family is from his early life are dead. He may have moved to Chicago to become a teacher, but in the end, he was drawn back to the river, which has always held a special physical and spiritual meaning for him his whole life, and to which he had returned. Being back there at the Blackfoot, he was surrounded by the memories so deeply, he was haunted by all those people that were gone, but still their memories he could not escape. He doesn’t seek escape, death, or meaning. He is an old man in a new world, haunted by the waters of the river of his life.

    • Todd, this is an amazing summary. I have seen the movie about 10 times over the last 20 years and I finally took the time to read the book. It is a favorite of both my dad and myself. I think you express perfectly what I have felt about the ending. I also think, being of Scottish ancestry myself, that dark waters, and water itself, plays an important role in the mythology of Scotland and its ancestors. So for me, when Norman says, “I am haunted by waters”, he is talking about both his own life, but also alluding to this Scottish mythology, whether consciously or unconsciously.

  5. Dianne,

    My take on the book is one of a painfully open admission by Norman Maclean of his perceived weaknesses and failures during his life. The loss of his brother, the emotional distancing from his father, the physical distancing from Montana for much of his life, all weigh on his spirit, but despite that there’s a quiet nobility in his acceptance of it, all done with the Big Blackfoot as the backdrop.

    I live on the Blackfoot, not too far upriver from where his brother Paul in real life hooked that last monster trout. Norman was friends with the man who owned my property at the time, and they would often sit on the porch sipping whisky and generally being curmudgeonly.

    While I felt the draw to this story long before I moved here, what I’ve since learned from the older locals about Norman’s personality help to fill out my mental canvas of his persona.

  6. The last passage of A River Runs Through It wells tears in my eyes upon every reading. This beautiful novella played a significant role in inspiring my personal journey into Christianity. The story set before me the concept of grace in an understandable and human form and presented to me the Trinity on an enduring human level. Grace is achievable for us in our everyday lives… as the Trinity is before us. And as imperfect beings, we ultimately fail to achieve grace, or sometimes to even witness it’s display before our own eyes. Hence we are haunted by the ever-moving and unstoppable waters of our lives.

  7. As an old man fishing the Blackfoot, Norman reflects on his life while fishing. All the memories of those long gone, flood down, and engulf him in a reverie of the whole of his life. Through that wholeness runs a river of grace, peace, and acceptance of the inevitable course of human existence.

    He looks upon the rocks and ponders the enormity of time. Then, as his consciousness probes deeper, his mind sees beneath the rocks, revealing the verbal memories of his entire life. Included in those memories are so many words spoken by his Father, Mother, and brother. Like so many of us, he is indeed haunted by waters.

  8. Jim’s comments are the most relatable…..AND the older one gets the more clearly this passage is understood.

    • “The thoughts of a man’s heart are like deep waters. A man of insight draws them out”. The Book of Wisdom (AKA Proverbs) Chapter 20, verse 5

  9. For me he is an old man now looking back. All of the people close to him are now passed and the river was the thing that connected of them together. He hears their words in the ripples of the river and it replays parts of his life whenever he hears it. ” I am haunted by waters”

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