Between the layers of the conscious, the dreaming, and the subconscious: a psychoanalysis of anthony doerr’s “river Run”

By adrianna monsivais

Pop Art Cubism Mind in Cave by David S. Soriano.

“River Run” written by Anthony Doerr is a short story featuring dense landscapes and vivid concrete detail with a deceivingly simple plot. The setting for this story offers significant insight into the inner workings of a troubled man’s psyche which pairs well with Jung and Freudian psychology. The environment is an external reflection of the psychology of the protagonist, Mulligan, and through a psychological lens it conveys the message that the deeper repressed parts of our being will eventually come to the surface.

Throughout the story, there is a stark contrast between the observations and actions he makes towards his wife and his mistress. This contrast instills tension within the narrative and offers insight into Mulligan’s subconscious. In the beginning of the story, Mulligan describes his wife as being, “bulk rounded under blankets” (Doerr, 321) and having “rotten ankles” (326). Whereas he displays a suppressed sentimentality towards his mistress which he seems to refuse to acknowledge. This suppression is reflected in his external environment in which his observations appear to coincide with what he feels, “…its blue and windy space angles in weakly and lights the hills and muddy clearcut to the east” (325). Just after this description, Mulligan takes out a letter his mistress had sent him and rereads it; touching the sentences and retracing them with his fingers (325). This contrast works well with the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud in which he believed our subconscious continuously found ways to impact our physical lives. Often in ways that would cause problems for the individual (Spielman et al. ch. 1).

As previously stated, the author uses concrete detail to describe Mulligan’s physical environment but fails to elaborate on his internal state of mind. One symbol Mulligan continuously touches upon are small creatures he comes across in the forest which give insight into his wellbeing. One creature being a swallowtail, “…cold, born too late, alights frantically on a thistle and pauses, flexing its wings…wandering dangerously low over the river and is gone” (326). Linking the swallowtail with Mulligan’s subconscious, he could view himself as this creature in which he finds himself neglecting to confront his emotional state.

Elaborating further, Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, was a protege of Freud and proposed his own psychological theory referred to as analytical psychology which focus is defined as, “working to balance opposing forces of conscious and unconscious thought, and experience within one’s personality” (ch. 11). The tension caused by Mulligan’s environment and his internal wants, needs, and desires is a physical manifestation of this hidden persona. The swallowtail represents his urge to entertain activities which could cause trouble in his life. The river can be viewed as his emotions towards his mistress and the reason why the swallowtail pulled away from the river. Mulligan is fascinated by the mistress and what she can offer him, but his physical limitations and morality force him to look the other way.

The confusion Mulligan feels within himself is reflected in the letter the mistress sent him in which she states, “It could hardly be more confusing. You say you feel the same way as I, yet you glide along with your life, your fishing–and her–as if all was well and good and this were normal” (323). After Mulligan reads the letter, he describes going to the river as, “…plunging along the mazed and moss-bottomed trail through thickets, weeds, brambles, fungus-wrapped trunks…” (324). The emotions he feels towards the mistress have a direct translation to his surroundings, specifically the river.

This translation is a symbol and displays the interconnectedness which exists between Mulligan and the sanctity of the forest. A part of Jung’s focus is the concept of self-realization which he explained through a concept called individuation. In a journal article entitled “Existential Perspective in the Thought of Carl Jung” he goes onto explain, “Individuation means becoming an ‘in-dividual,’ and, in so far as ‘individuality’ embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness; it also implies becoming one’s own self” (Shelburne, 63). In addition, Jung insists that the individual must absorb the unconscious self in order to reach the status of being a true individual. This is the very concept Mulligan struggles with. He cannot embrace his inner impulses due to the restraints of his reality. However, this does not stop these impulses from arising in his external world.

On page 324, Mulligan slips the envelope into his newspaper. After getting distracted by a conversation with some relatives, he mistakingly gives the newspaper to one of these people. It isn’t until he goes back to fishing that he realizes his mistake, “He splashes onto the rocks, and the river pours off his waders, and with trembling hands he snatches his knapsack and begins to stumble-run along the tangled riverbank” (328). This is a critical turning point in which he has to confront the inner desires he has carried with him up until now. He has to acknowledge the confusion, his feelings, and the potential consequences of avoiding his subconscious desires. The intensity of this scene is symbolized through a fish, “…the line slips through his hands, and the fish has broken free, and Mulligan is left, hands outstretched, a penitent with an imploring gesture” (330). Again, Mulligan’s persona is being physicalized through a creature. In this case, it is a fish which has been let loose into the river and represents Mulligan’s feelings.

The naturalistic theme emphasizes these primal instincts which are represented through the creatures Mulligan comes across in the forest. He finds himself trapped between the loyalty he wishes to give his wife due to their history together and the primal urges he feels with the mistress. However, the intensity of this scene, although relieving for the protagonist, depicts this extramarital affair as being abnormal and something to be condemned. But according to the textbook entitled Our Sexuality, written by PhD psychologists who specialize in relationships, extramarital affairs can be common given certain circumstances (Crooks et al. 380). The reasons why vary and involve complex emotions which are made clear in the many descriptions of the forest (i.e. “Branches lash his cheeks” [329]). As one psychologist writes, “‘We are pair-bonding creatures–like swans or geese. We can also be promiscuous as baboons or bonobos. Those are the two extremes of human sexuality, and there are all gradations of chastity and sensuality in between’ [2003, p. 48]” (380).

Given this information, it is possible Mulligan feels more alive with his mistress and allows him to forget that he is now in the final stages of his life. This vigor he is given from the mistress is like a gift he cannot help but appreciate and could be linked to his sentimentality he displays towards her. In contrast, the wife’s relatives are an extension of herself in which Mulligan detests them (i.e. “He is desperate for them to go” [327]). The contrast between how he views his wife in comparison to the mistress seems to suggest that his true urge is to be with the mistress. In this situation, he can only ask himself which one to take on: to be a swan or a baboon?

In order to amend the conscious and unconscious to create a coherent ideology which is consistent across all aspects of his personality, Mulligan must partake in the process of individuation. This concept is emphasized by Shelburne in which he states, “Individuation, then, involves a kind of self-discovery combined with an attempt to harmonize and work through the different elements that are uncovered as a result of the process” (64). Without the action of self-discovery, the process of individuation can be quite difficult. However, Mulligan is a huntsman who is well acquainted with his environment which is emphasized in the story. Mulligan’s trip into the forest to go fishing is an allegory of self-discovery to ultimately confront the root of his problems.

Furthermore, the structure of “River Run” can be quite vague, only offering substantial concrete detail for Mulligan’s environment. When I read this story initially, I found that it read very much like a dream. The lack of proper grammatical structure and the absence of monologue evoked a sense of confusion that was only further emphasized by the narrative being told in the third person. One of the only passages which was structured in a way which spoke to Mulligan’s experienced reality was his dream on page 326, “In his sleep he does not dream, but on the underside of his eyelids he sees his wife, fisting bread dough and planting it in a buttered bowl.” This section seems to call back to an earlier part of the story in which he tells the shopkeeper before venturing out into the forest, “`When you get to be my age, Bee, Mulligan says, sleep is not so different than being awake. You just kind of shut your eyes and you’re there’” (322). The connection of these two passages calls into question the validity of the narrative and what exactly constitutes as reality in Mulligan’s narrative.

One of Freud’s psychological theories stemmed from his belief that dreams offered insight into the unconscious. He proposed that the meaning of dreams can be obtained through the use of a psychoanalytic approach which can be referred to as dreamwork. One article written by psychologist researcher and educator, Saul Mcleod, defines the process of dreamwork as being composed of three steps, “displacement (shifting emotional significance from one object to another), condensation (combining several ideas into one), and symbolization (representing an action or idea through symbols)” (Mcleod). Examining Mulligan’s dream through the lens of Freud’s psychoanalytic approach offers significant insight into the repressed emotional state of Mulligan.

First, utilizing displacement, Mulligan removes the negative emotions he feels towards his wife and projects them onto the dream version of her. Compared to previous descriptions of her, he is particularly resistant to her appearance, describing her with “rotten ankles,” “floured wrists,” and a “wide back” (326). Furthermore, these descriptors are similar to a person describing food items that have gone bad which suggests that Mulligan looks at his wife as unattractive.

The step of condensation requires the individual to combine multiple themes and symbols which are similar in order to represent one idea (Mcleod). In Mulligan’s dream, his wife is making bread and he describes her like she is an expired food item. The bread, in the end, is covered with a towel. Considering this, the bread could be symbolic of his mistress who is new and fresh unlike his wife. His wife, on the other hand, is quite straightforward as a symbol in that she is only his wife.

Finally, we have the step of symbolization which requires the individual to dissect significant symbols and how they represent the unconscious and repressed desires (Mcleod). In this dream, there are two significant symbols: the wife and the bread. Combining the previous ideas, the wife is a symbol of age which Mulligan wishes to run from. She’s expired and battered which is representative of his own perspectives in regard to the final stages of his life. But, the bread, the symbol of the mistress, is something new. It is something to be excited about and something that can instill vigor in him once again. But the wife covers up the bread which can be seen as a symbolic action in which the loyalty he has to his wife prevents him from going after this desire.

In a word, Anthony Doerr’s “River Run,” when examined through a psychological lens, conveys the message that in examining the subconscious this can lead to the discovery of hidden aspects of ourselves. Mulligan’s confliction with accepting his repressed desires for the sake of loyalty and trust contradicts his initial action in which he ultimately liberates himself. This contradiction suggests that the action of repressing our subconscious does no good and will open doors in ways which can only bear consequences.

Works Cited

Crooks, Robert, et al. Our Sexuality. Revised ed., Cengage Learning, 2021.

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

Mcleod, Saul. “Sigmund Freud Dream Theory.” SimplyPsychology. 15 July. 2023.

Shelburne, Walter. “Existential Perspective in the Thought of Carl Jung.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 22, no. 1, Spring. 1983, pp. 58-73, 

Spielman, Rose, et al. Psychology 2e. Revised ed., Openstax, 2020.


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