New Criticism

Scenes and Symbols of the great outdoors: a new criticism analysis of “River Run”

By Ava King

Supplied by Karbyn. No changes made.

Anthony Doerr’s “River Run” is a story of regret and relationships as the main character, Mulligan, essentially chooses to end his marriage before attempting to rectify his mistakes. On the surface of the story, the audience is shown Mulligan receiving a secret letter from his mistress, which he loses while fishing on the Rapid River. In fear of his wife and family finding out, he frantically searches for the lost letter. On a deeper level of the story though, Doerr uses a lot of symbolism to show depth to the characters and plot, as well as grammatical choices and language. He uses weather as a symbol to convey Mulligan’s emotions and feelings, the river to show the ebb and flow of a relationship as it can swallow and overtake a person emotionally, and the flyrod to show the complexity and fragility of a relationship. Using this technique, Doerr expands and deepens the overall meaning behind the story.

A review on Doerr’s short story collection The Shell Collector says, “Similarly, the characters swell and recede from the effort of living, creating their own stories. Subtle linguistic self-consciousness, fluid and eddying plots and characters, and brilliant description and simile mold these stories, each as individual and complex as seashells.” (Rosdahl). While this review does not specifically mention “River Run”, it is still applicable to Doerr’s writing style as the characters in this story do in fact show humanistic feelings and tendencies through his writing and descriptions. Doerr presents a way of describing the normal in a way that makes the ordinary seem magnificent and this is what makes the short stories he produces such fantastic pieces of literature. He writes “River Run” with a sort of gray haze over the words that make the reading of it have a somber and slumberous pace until Mulligan reaches the river, when the story really takes off, showing how Doerr used the beginning of the story as background and small insights into Mulligan’s life, with the intention of drawing the audience in and sympathizing with him before Doerr reveals the affair.

Symbolism has been used throughout history to connect an object and a situation to each other. One article titled Representation, Symbol, and Semiosis. Signs of a Scholarly Collaboration states, “The English word symbol is based on the classical Greek word symbolon, which literally means ‘thrown together’. It was originally used to describe two things, once part of a unity, broken apart, and then reassembled to constitute a unity again.” (Parmenter). Doerr uses many forms of symbolism in “River Run” to help the audience connect, or relate, to Mulligan and his situation and his emotions. Doerr uses Mulligan’s flyrod to show the current state of his marriage, the river to exemplify the current state of Mulligan’s life and the balance he is trying to keep and finally the weather to show Mulligan’s feelings to communicate with his audience the strength and regret losing a relationship, or a marriage can take.

While the weather is only discussed in the story less than a hand full of times, it is noticeable that as Mulligan’s mood changes so does the weather. In the beginning of the story Doerr writes about Mulligan watching his wife sleep before leaving to fish for the day. Doerr has not yet revealed to the audience that Mulligan is having an affair so noticing the symbolism of the weather would not be obvious to someone fast reading the story. Upon further examination of the narrative, it becomes clear that the weather serves as a symbolic representation of Mulligan’s internal emotional state. It is not written but rather implied that Mulligan and his wife have a loveless relationship and the first implication of this is in the beginning of the story. Doerr writes about how Mulligan’s wife is sleeping then continues the scene with, “This, he thinks, might as well be winter: stony skies, crows tearing apart old trees, the ravening question of owls, the round faces of ponds filmed with ice. Soon the trout and salmon will retreat to the deepest pools, hang over the pebbled bottoms, motionless, unblinking, while the iron river kinks in icebound channels and quiets the knives of their bodies.” (Doerr 1). It seems as if Doerr is truly just describing the weather as a description method but out of all the types of weather he could have chosen he chose to describe a cold, dead, lifeless season meant to symbolize the state of Mulligan’s marriage.

Then there is the symbolism of the river as Mulligan’s life and the balance he is attempting to keep between the relationships and life. Relationships are wonderful things, whether they are romantic or platonic. They can make a person feel amazing, wanted, and loved when handled correctly but they also involve negative feelings such as insecurity, sadness, and frustration. Just as a river has the capability to sweep things away so does a relationship. It is easy to get trapped, stuck, and drowned in both a river and a relationship. Doerr expresses this in his story as Mulligan sits on the riverbank and simply observes the river. “It brings him pleasure when the river funnels a leaf well and quickly, delivering it downstream without complication. Everything runs into the river, he thinks. Not just the leaves, but beetle corpses and heron bones and expired worms. Everything that starts on the hills eventually slides into the river. And the river spills it into the sea.” (5). Just as Mulligan allowed himself to get swept into the current of a relationship, Doerr shows that everything has the ability to get swept up and spit out in the end of any type of relationship. Something that can “start on the hills”, or in other words, start in a healthy way, can be “spilled into the sea”, something larger than originally expected and big enough to where there are unknowns, just like life.

Another way Doerr uses symbolism is when he connects Mulligan’s Flyrod to show the state of Mulligan’s marriage. The flyrod stays in the background of the story for the most part in the beginning, signifying that Mulligan is not focused on his marriage or his wife, he does not think of her often or fondly but rather he likes to keep her in the background of his life, leaving her home during his long “fishing” days whether he is actually fishing or is off with his mistress. The main part of the story, when Mulligan realizes he lost the letter his mistress wrote him is when the flyrod really is noticeable as a symbol of his relationship. “His flyrod snags on brambles, the green flyline suddenly miserably tangled. How do such things happen; how do such horrific tangles suddenly emerge from thin straight lines?” (9). This scene and the questions Doerr has Mulligan asking himself, reveal the symbolism as Mulligan’s marriage seems to be unraveling and his deceits are beginning to become entangled in one another.

When Mulligan accepts his fate and the loss of his letter and begins to fish again, Doerr writes, “The backing comes free, it was not tied on—who would think a fish would run out a hundred yards of line?—and the line slips through the guides on Mulligan’s rod, and he lunges for it and catches it between his palms, the line free of the flyrod altogether, and the fish swimming far downriver pulls at the line between Mulligan’s hands, and he can feel the fish yard down against its tether, rise up and leap and smack the water, and the line slips through his hands, and the fish has broken free, and Mulligan is left, hands outstretched, a penitent with an imploring gesture.” (10). This scene implies that Mulligan fought to keep his lies hidden, as the fish signifies the letter and his mistress, wanting everything to stay the same, and even as he lost stability and ease, he tried to hold onto them and keep them from his wife even though, for a little bit, he seemed to have given up on keeping the letter secret.

In conclusion, Doerr uses his talents in writing bold characters and vibrant plots while also adding rich symbolism to communicate the strength and regret involved in trying to hold on to and still losing a relationship. Mulligan is an example of what can happen to a man and the feelings and actions they will take to try and hold on to a woman they think they potentially will lose or have already lost. Doerr uses the weather to show Mulligan’s feelings and to communicate with his audience the strength and regret that comes with losing a relationship, the river to exemplify the current state of Mulligan’s life and the balance he is trying to keep and finally Doerr uses the flyrod to show the current state of Mulligan’s marriage.

Works Cited 

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

Parmentier, Richard J. “Representation, symbol, and semiosis: Signs of a scholarly collaboration.” Signs and Society, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–7,

Rosdahl, Lyle D. “The Shell Collector (Book).” Library Journal, vol. 127, no. 1, Jan. 2002, p. 156. EBSCOhost, direct=true&db=ehh&AN=5881354&authtype=cookie,cpid&custid=ns149246&site=ehost-live&scope=site




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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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