Critical Introduction

Casting the Currents: Reading Anthony Doerr’s “River Run”

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In this edition of Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition, we will embark on a literary journey to explore the intricacies of Anthony Doerr’s short story “River Run.” The story depicts the life of Mulligan, a retired man, heading into the winter of his life and marriage. Through a series of events that take place over the course of a fishing trip, Mulligan must come to terms with the consequences of his choices. Utilizing the lenses of new criticism, reader response, deconstruction, and psychological, we examine this story’s central themes that continue to capture audiences’ imaginations with its poetic and captivating language.

New Criticism

Ava King uses the New Criticism approach to examine the short story “River Run” by Anthony Doerr, breaking down its complex and layered meaning to an audience that may not understand what Doerr is trying to communicate through his characters and symbolism. King explores the writing style and intricacy Doerr uses, showing how his advanced style adds to the strength of the story. King also draws on the interwoven themes and how they further the plot and add depth to the characters’ emotions and circumstances. 

Reader Response

Erica Couch takes an empathetic approach to a story that, on the surface, would evoke little empathy from readers. “River Run” tells a story about a retired fly fisherman who, in the making of certain socially unacceptable choices, finds himself not only figuratively but quite literally in a tangle. This analysis looks at how the author beautifully and poetically narrates a story brimming with vivid, concrete details of the natural world and how these details serve as symbols that mirror the intricate inner world and interpersonal relationships of the protagonist. Couch analyzes how these techniques might impact the reader and their feelings towards the story’s protagonist and his choices, particularly his choice at the end, where the reader finds out if the fisherman becomes the kind of character the reader hopes for or if he flops belly up.


Rebecca Young’s analysis of “River Run” dives into the depths beyond the surface of Anthony Doerr’s masterful blend of vivid imagery, intricate narrative elements, and exploration of the human experience within the short story. Young’s analysis discovers hidden meanings using a critical lens that reveals a narrative that transcends conventional storytelling boundaries. “River Run” immerses readers into a single day in the life of its protagonist, initially presenting itself as a contemplative fishing tale that revolves around the challenges of retirement. However, as Young navigates the text’s currents, she draws upon the critical lens of deconstruction theory, developed by Jacques Derrida, to highlight the instability and differing interpretations derived from inherent binary oppositions, ambiguities, and contradictions. Beneath the surface, Young’s analysis uncovers a narrative that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, inviting readers to question the reliability of the narrator and the authenticity of the events described. Young asserts that multiple interpretations of the story are realized by examining the protagonist’s narration of dreamlike imagery, fishing, and ambiguous relationships, which becomes a vehicle for exploring the complexities of his inner world. 


“River Run,” written by Anthony Doerr during his time in graduate school, draws on a fragmented structure that is vague in its use of grammar and dialogue. The story’s protagonist, Mulligan, does not touch on their internal feelings or partake in sentimental musings to elaborate on their circumstances. Instead, the story heavily relies on concrete detail to describe the environment Mulligan is in. The use of these details, when interwoven with Carl Jung’s psychological theory of the unconscious, serves as symbols to give insight into Mulligan’s psychological state. In addition, Mulligan’s relationships take a dominant role in the story and are constructed in ways that leave more questions than answers. Freud’s Dream Theory touches on the unconscious but in a way that is different from what Jung proposes, believing the dream state represents unconscious thoughts and desires. Both theories serve to illuminate Mulligan’s mental state in a way that is not articulated outright through typical uses of dialogue or monologue. These psychological insights provide a single message to the reader in which the story suggests that we cannot escape our unconscious; our hidden desires, feelings, and needs will come to the surface in ways that affect our external world.

In conclusion, our collective examination of the four essays aims to shed light on the significant themes and meanings uncovered by analyzing a fisherman’s story as he navigates the complexities of fly fishing and interpersonal connections. By casting his line too far, the protagonist inadvertently complicates the relationships in his life.  With the story occurring in the natural world, along the Rapid River, Doerr becomes the fisherman, throwing out a straightforward line that immediately hooks the reader with its rich, concrete details and imagery. As the narrative unfolds, Doerr propels the reader down the Rapid River, guiding them through obstacles and immersing them in the sometimes-murky depths, offering a sublime literary experience that engages all senses.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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