Fish story: a deconstructive analysis of “River Run”

By rebecca young

“River Run” by Anthony Doerr is a short story published in 2001 that immerses the reader into the world of Mulligan, the protagonist, as he prepares for a day of fly-fishing in a remote area along a local river. Doerr, an Idahoan, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, 21st-century writer of fictional stories whose work is celebrated for its literary quality and depth. He is known for creating well-crafted prose that is intentional, imaginative, and engaging for readers from various backgrounds. His stories include themes of nature, complex character relationships, and vivid depictions of settings using rich language. On the surface, “River Run” appears to be a contemplative and reflective fishing tale revolving around a man and his wife’s journey as they navigate the challenges of their retirement. But as is typical of Doerr’s work, something darker lurks in the depths of the story. “River Run,” published later under the author’s preferred title, “A Tangle by the Rapid River,” examines themes of solitude, nature, and the intricate web of unfulfilled desires and emotions experienced by its protagonist.

Through the text, the unpredictable nature and moments of self-reflection are richly portrayed. Using concrete and sensory details, the author paints a vivid picture of Mulligan’s passion for wilderness fishing, juxtaposed with the backdrop of an unfulfilled marriage that ultimately leads to a secret love affair. These elements collectively highlight the complex human desires that entwine with the story, adding curiosity and layers of depth to the narrative.

However, upon a closer analysis through a deconstruction lens, “River Run” can be interpreted as a narrative that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, construed as a tale of dreams and storytelling involving a fantastical love affair and an imaginative fishing adventure. This narrative potentially serves to inject excitement into the protagonist’s otherwise stagnant and mundane life.

As conceived by Jacques Derrida, the deconstructive lens can unveil hidden tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities within the text that reveal oppositions that are not fixed truths. Challenging the stability of the story, Long asserts that it is essential to examine “traditional notions of stable meaning by examining how language inherently contains contradictions and opposing forces, dismantling binary oppositions and highlighting the instability of interpretations within a text” (Long 151). Through this critical approach, the essay will navigate the turbulent waters of Doerr’s narrative, ultimately arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the story’s underlying fluid nature. It blurs the lines between reality and fiction, emphasizing the protagonist’s imagination and the complexity of his emotions. Deconstruction theory suggests that texts are inherently unstable, and their meanings can be deconstructed to reveal multiple interpretations.

The text is layered with ambiguity, inviting readers to question the reliability of the protagonist’s account, starting with the title itself. What does “River Run” signify? Is it a literal reference to the flow of a river? Or does it symbolize the fish’s migratory journey? Perhaps it holds a deeper, metaphorical meaning—representing the passage of time. In 2002, the story’s title underwent a transformation and was changed to “A Tangle by the Rapid River,” which occurred when it was included in the short stories collection The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr. What was the significance of the name change? In a recent interview with the author, Doerr candidly revealed, “That was one of those situations where a senior editor said to change it, and I was like, sure, whatever. I don’t really like “River Run.” That makes me think of the Sun Valley Lodge at the base of Baldy, which is not what the story is about at all.” (Young et al.) The original title, “River Run,” evokes an image of a river flowing freely, hinting at a literal and metaphorical journey. However, when the reader encounters the revised title, “A Tangle by the Rapid River,” the word “tangle” introduces conflict—and complexity, suggesting knots, twists, and entanglements. Suddenly, the serene flow of the river becomes a place of hidden and unexpected experiences. This change in the title disrupted the fixed meaning and opened possibilities for alternative interpretations.

The story unfolds in late fall near the Rapid River in Idaho, where temperatures can fluctuate dramatically, shifting on any given day from below-freezing ice and snowstorms to warm, sunny afternoons. These radical weather changes highlight the instability in the text as the protagonist, Mulligan, engages in twenty hours of fishing in Idaho’s wilderness. By weaving instability into the weather and the narrative, the text fosters an atmosphere of ambiguity and opens the narrative for different interpretations of the story’s meaning. In the text, while Mulligan prepares to go fishing before dawn, he includes reflective thoughts about his wife’s sleep patterns, which add a perplexing element. He describes her slumber as “…like an ox…hard and vacant” (Doerr 321) as if she is being dragged into the night by a mysterious huntsman. These interior thoughts raise questions about the nature of their relationship.

Throughout the text, Mulligan’s actions and emotions are ambiguous. He claims to go fishing regularly, but it is unclear whether he is using it as an excuse to avoid something or someone. Then, the narrator reveals a secret relationship through a letter the protagonist receives from a post office box he keeps in town. The writer of this letter expresses confusion, asking if his love is real or a lie. “It could hardly be more confusing… Isn’t love real…or was that a lie, too?” (323) The ambiguity rests in the writer’s uncertainty about Mulligan’s feelings and whether he is truly committed to her. The letter raises questions about the authenticity of their relationship, Mulligan’s feelings and intentions, and the truth of an affair.

One of the key aspects of this examination is the narrator’s reliability. In the text, Mulligan is characterized by his quiet and introspective nature. This interiority leads to moments where the boundaries between reality and imagination become blurred, with Mulligan’s narrative transforming into an exploration of his emotions. The story takes on the potential to be the inventive dream of the protagonist. The narrator describes the setting as a dark, cold, early winter morning with only a half-moon of light; Mulligan uses high beams while driving to see. He stops at the local convenience store at 4:30 a.m. and speaks with the owner. This encounter further blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. ” When you get to be my age, Bee, sleep is not so different than being awake. You just kind of shut your eyes, and you’re there” (322). Mulligan’s assertion in the text suggests that his dreams might be as vivid and immersive as reality itself. This comment hints at the protagonist’s propensity for dreaming to fill his time with adventure and excitement. The dialogue serves as a deconstructive element, blurring the boundaries between the states of wakefulness and sleep, inviting readers to question the stability of these distinctions.

Since he retired, Mulligan has visited the river regularly, “[m]ost every day” (322), staying from early morning till dark; his obsession with fishing and his ambiguous relationship with his wife suggests that these fishing trips may serve as a form of escapism from the banality of his retirement. His descriptions of the changing seasons and the river’s flow could also reflect a desire to escape the confines of life at home. The love affair, whether real or imagined, adds excitement and intrigue to his routine, further emphasizing this theme.

In the text, Mulligan has been fishing unsuccessfully in the outdoor wintery elements for almost six hours when he “steps numbed-legged out of the river… (325), sits against a tree, crosses his wrists in his lap” (325-326). Here, an adventure begins with the appearance of a swallowtail butterfly. This moment suggests that while napping, the protagonist dreams. “The butterfly. I saw a swallowtail.” (326) The emergence of swallowtail butterflies between late April and early June, as outlined by the Idaho Fish and Game (33), takes on a nuanced significance. The symbolic representation of change and transformation inherent in the swallowtail butterfly becomes a focal point of analysis. In the text, the awakening of the swallowtail serves as a binary opposite to the prevailing time of year, acting as a symbol that encapsulates themes of change, metamorphosis, and transformation. However, within the narrative framework, deconstructive examination reveals that the story does not undergo a transformative process, the protagonist is not afforded a new change in life, and the early winter season is less likely to support the appearance of the species, like a red herring. This absence of transformation deconstructs traditional notions of symbolism, challenging the purpose and reliability of the butterfly’s presence in the text.

Following the appearance of the swallowtail butterfly, the narrator describes Mulligan as experiencing a sense of unsteadiness as he enters the river, possibly due to his age and the cold weather. He “feels a bit unsteady” (329). He casts for fish alone, marking an immersion in the act of escapism, and a fantastical tale unfolds, hinting at the protagonist’s adventure as a dream, a more plausible interpretation than the alternative reality. As dusk descends on the river, the protagonist experiences improbable events. He discovers his secret lover’s letter has disappeared. In the text, he has endured the cold outdoor elements since dawn, bracing against the forceful freezing currents of the river for hours; his feet are numb. He is wearing fishing waders and, like a superhero, maneuvers through a muddy, cold ravine and runs along a trail surrounded by thickets in the “deep woods” (328). He falls multiple times, battling tree branches that have lacerated his face and, contending with biting wind, carries his flyrod spooling down the river. The fly line becomes entangled, and yet he “pulls at his reel” that further “cinches down the line more tightly,” making “hopeless coils of the line” (329). Then he sits on cold mud and untangles the line until well after dark when he stands “half frozen” in the river and begins fishing again.

The narrative’s credibility further unravels as the protagonist finds himself in untenable conditions after nearly twenty hours, “[n]ear midnight” (329) in the wilderness; snow is falling, his feet and hands are numb, and he is experiencing back pain. The text underscores the darkness of the river. “It is well after dark.” (329). The outdoor conditions sharply contrast with the narrative’s assertion that the protagonist can witness a fish delivering a fantastic performance, leaping, flying a yard above the water, twisting, and charging around a corner in the darkness, running over 100 yards “downstream” until it “runs the line to the backing” (330). The final fishing tale is as slippery as the fish as Mulligan emerges from a grueling twenty-hour pilgrimage fishless. In Doerr’s interview, he said, “Occasionally, you can feel insecure about those more complicated narrative structures and think, can I just do the basic fundamental storytelling of “So and so wakes up; so and so has an interesting day; so and so goes to bed.” Can I pull that off? I think that was one of the challenges I was giving myself in this story. It was semi-exercise, semi-finished story.” (Young et al.) The narrative concludes with the protagonist empty-handed. The absence of fish could mirror the absence of fixed truths that invite readers to be open to differing interpretations.

The final scene stretches the boundaries of believability, challenging the reader’s acceptance of the narration as the most reasonable depiction of events. Zerweck offers a reader-centered approach to the reliability of narration. He explains unreliability as “an interpretive strategy” shaped by “readers’ cognitive processes, a projection by the reader who tries to resolve ambiguities and textual inconsistencies by attributing them to the narrator’s unreliability…. Instead of relying on the device of the implied author and a text-centered analysis.” (Zerweck 151) Is it reasonable for the reader to accept certain elements of the narrative as truth while regarding others as fantasy, especially when this ambiguity invites diverse interpretations?

Is the narrative a credible portrayal of a man in his retired years having an interesting day fishing on the river, or could this story be considered a myth, a dream? According to Roland Barthes, a renowned French literary theorist and semiotician, myths are not solely limited to ancient legends or religious stories. In his book Mythologies, Barthes explores how modern myths can be constructed around everyday objects, practices, or concepts. He suggests that myths are stories that serve to naturalize and reinforce dominant ideologies or cultural beliefs. In the text, Mulligan’s fishing tale is constructed in a way that could be considered a modern myth as it perpetuates certain cultural norms that reinforce traditional gender roles. The protagonist is the heroic provider, the hunter-gatherer staking his claim in the wild, while his wife at home is subordinate or hierarchical to her husband’s role. As a modern myth, the text adds yet another layer to the complexities within the narrative. The analysis reveals narration that challenges conventional storytelling norms and invites readers to question the boundaries between reality and imagination. Mulligan’s retirement life, portrayed as mundane on the surface, becomes a canvas for dreams of adventures and exploring desires.

The open-ended nature of the text emphasizes the fluidity of meaning and challenges readers to consider alternative interpretations. Or, perhaps, as Doerr states in his interview, “…the basic fundamental storytelling of “So and so wakes up; so and so has an interesting day; so and so goes to bed.” (Young et al.). In the intricate web of storytelling, where the threads of the implied author, the narrators, and the readers converge, the ultimate interpretation rests in the hands of the reader. Choose wisely, for within the reader’s perspective lies the true essence of the fish tale.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, translated by Richard Howard/Annette Lavers of Part II, Myth Today (1972); Hill and Wang, A division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, The Complete Edition, in a New Translation Paperback-March 12, 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing & Difference, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Doerr, Anthony. “River Run.” The Sewanee Review, The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 109, no. 3, 2001, pp. 321-330.

Idaho Fish and Game. “Idaho Species Publication,” Idaho Official Government Website

Long, Liza. “Critical Worlds: A Targeted Introduction to Literary Analysis.” Critical Worlds, Accessed 8 December 2023.

Young, Rebecca; Monsivais, Adrianna; Couch, Erica; King, Ava. “‘River Run’ by Anthony Doerr: Q and A with “River Run” Author Anthony Doerr.” Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition, Edited by Liza Long, Pressbooks, 2023 admin/post.php?post=1428&action=edit

Zerweck, Bruno. “Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction.” Style, vol. 35, no. 1, 2001, pp. 151–76. JSTOR, Accessed 13 December 2023.


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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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