Reader Response

When there’s no bridge over troubled waters: An empathetic reading of “River Run”

By Erica couch

Photo by Erica Couch. Used by permission.

In the short story “River Run” by Anthony Doerr, the vivid and moving descriptions of the natural world serve as symbols and metaphors for the inner world and interpersonal relationships of the story’s protagonist. There is an ambiguity to the story in how the reader is asked to identify with a character who has broken a profound societal norm and who may offend their moral code, and yet the poetics of the story suggest it is written for thinking, feeling, intellectuals; those who are compassionate and can find the beauty within everything. By using the lens of the reader’s response, I will explore how the story’s narrative and language affect whether readers of literary fiction can empathize with a character who, by most accounts, society would treat as irredeemable.

The story opens with the protagonist, a retired fly fisherman named Mulligan, who leaves his sleeping wife and heads out to fish the Rapid River. Immediately, it is established in the first paragraph of the story that there is a lack of intimacy in the marriage. “Since that fine and giddy wedding night, when he held her long after she slept and told her things, she did not wake up” (Doerr 321). The reader learns from the beginning of their marriage that Mulligan does not confide in his wife, and she is not available, perhaps emotionally or intellectually, to receive it.

By the third page of the story, the narration reveals that Mulligan is having an affair, and the way he and his love interest communicate is through letters left in a shared mailbox at the post office. Doerr does not share the thoughts and inner world of Mulligan. Instead he uses a technique many minimalist writers, including Raymond Carver, use. “The seemingly “deadpan” or “catatonic” quality of Minimalist works results from an adherence to reportorial objectivity, to the direct conveyance of mundane experience without an accompanying explanation of its significance. The narrator’s focus tends to be upon the senses, particularly vision, rather than thought” (Clark 106). In the text, Mulligan reads the letter three different times. He “again takes the letter, reads it in the daylight, his finger rewriting each sentence, tracing the route of her pen, his lips mouthing each word. Then he returns it to the envelope and slides it back inside the folded newspaper” (325). The reader can tell, only by his actions and what is observed, that he is thinking of his time with her and longing to be with her. There is an intimacy with the affair partner that we don’t see with the wife.

The reader is never shown whether this is attempted to be solved within the marriage, instead starting the story with a lack of intimacy between the married couple, and then making the reader privy to an intimate letter from the affair partner to Mulligan. In an article from Psychology Today, exploring why people cheat, “those who reported less emotional connection in their primary relationship had more intimacy with their affair partner, perhaps as a way to seek out missing fulfillment. The key motivation for greater emotional intimacy with affair partners was lack of love in the primary relationship. Similarly, when the affair was prompted by lack of love, individuals found the affair more intellectually and emotionally satisfying” (Lewandowski 2021). It is important to note that while the affair might assuage Mulligan on certain levels, it is almost certainly doomed from the start. Due to the cheating aspect, trust has been broken within the marriage, the affair, and within the characters themselves. In a study conducted with 495 people who had cheated on their primary relationship, “affairs rarely resulted in real relationships with only one out of 10 of the affairs ultimately turning into a full-fledged committed relationship” (Lewandowski 2021). Doerr never comes out right and tells the reader this, though he cleverly makes the reader witness to the insecurity of the letter’s writer, “You say you feel the same way as I, yet you glide along with your life, your fishing—and her” (323); the rise and fall of emotions in the letter, “…maybe I will wait forever, you do make me happy” (323); and at the end of it, their questioning, “If you married me and left to go fishing, would you really go fishing” (324)? We can see at the end that she is already questioning whether he would be faithful to her, or if he would only be lying to her as he has his wife.

When we look at why the story’s protagonist, an individual we are asked to identify with, who is making such damaging choices, we learn that the affair is a symptom of something deeper within Mulligan. The reader is not directly given the reasons, though the story alludes to it through the reportorial narrative Doerr provides. After Mulligan leaves his house and heads out to go fishing, he enters a convenience store where the clerk looks at him and asks, “You? Mulligan nods. Like a goddamn alarm clock… You go up there every day. With a newspaper and coffee… I thought retirement was for sleeping” (322). We get a glimpse into the life of a retired man nearing the winter of his life, going through the same motions, day after day. We also learn that he is not content to just retire and sleep away what time he has left.

The narration reveals an introspective trait of the protagonist hidden from the reader when he notices a swallowtail buttery at the river, “A swallowtail, cold, born too late, alights frantically on a thistle and pauses, flexing its wings. Mulligan blows gently, and it flies, wandering dangerously low over the river, and is gone” (326). Drifting off to sleep, he is awakened to two people standing over him. “Did you see the swallowtail? Mulligan asks. The bearded man gives him a leer. Swallowtail? [Mulligan] The butterfly. I saw a swallowtail. The bearded man gives the niece a look. [Niece] How’s my aunt? the niece barks. There is jerky in her teeth” (326-327). If the clerk at the convenience store, the bearded man and the niece are symbols for his contemporaries, Mulligan is surrounded by simple-minded and unpleasant people who cannot see the beauty around them that he sees and appreciates, instead making fun of him or thinking him strange when he remarks upon it.

Considering the totality of Mulligan’s existence—the social disparity, the disconnection with his wife, and the fact that he is retired and no longer has work as a social or emotional outlet, the reader sees an isolated and lonely individual. Research indicates that when planning for retirement people within a partnership should “anticipate and prepare for changes to their identity and social networks. Many people experience acute declines in well-being and life satisfaction after retirement. These declines are associated with lost meaning and purpose in life, a disrupted sense of self, and increased interpersonal problems” (Lamarche & Rolison 2021). The reader is not asked to condone Mulligan’s behavior, only to look at what is going on underneath the surface before they cast judgment.

I would argue that Mulligans real desire is to have this connection with his wife, and for underlying reasons, he is unable to have it. Doerr provides evidence to support this. On the first page of the story we read, “He chews in the smooth-worn doorframe between the kitchen and bedroom and watches his wife sleep…Before he leaves he stokes the fire” (321). Later, after the reader has seen him open his love interests’ letter, and he has been at the river fishing awhile, he falls asleep. Sleep is a place people drift off to, often visualizing the things that bring them peace and comfort. Doerr, again displays this for us through his reportorial style: Mulligan’s mind goes to his wife, not his affair partner. “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, His wife bends, and he sees her wide back, her rotten ankles, her floured wrists. She covers the dough with a towel so it can plump” (326). A reader would note the unflattering way he describes his wife, though a long-married one might empathize a bit with a marriage that is long past the newness and has lost its spark in the day-to-day banality of life, and how there often is a more observational, matter-of-fact attitude; a noticing rather than a romanticizing of the way the person is. The author uses the visualization of the wife baking with strength and care as she attends to the dough, showing comfort rather than passion with Mulligan. The rotten ankles, merely a reporting of what he sees. The reader can see the draw Mulligan has to the lover, the person or the act sparking something long forgotten within him, causing him to feel alive, but also that his comfort and his life belong with his wife. Doerr shows this interplay between the affair and the wife, to show the reader that here is a man who has become lost in the bland, monotony of his life, though he still hungers for something more.

Doerr, again, shows the reader Mulligan’s attempts to chase this feeling, in his pursuit of time in nature. “He sits and feels the coffee warm his stomach and watches yellow leaves shuttle downriver, and makes wagers with himself about which leaves will pass him first and which will be trapped in eddy or snag. It brings him pleasure…” (325); and of feeling alive when next to this beautiful river in his fishing spot, “he feels an old feeling, the irresistible tug of moving water and his blood trundling with it, and weak joy splits his lips” (324). After Mulligan loses the letter, he makes a brief attempt to retrieve it from the niece, before giving up and returning to the river and the safety of his hobby, avoiding reality as he fishes into the night. It is nearly midnight when he catches a fish that causes his blood to rise in excitement until it runs him out of line- and Mulligan, who had not thought to tie the line onto the reel, notices this and thinks, “who would think a fish would run out a hundred yards of line” (330). He ultimately loses it, “the fish has broken free, and Mulligan is left, hands outstretched, a penitent with an imploring gesture” (330). Here the story symbolizes through the act of fishing, and Mulligan’s lack of foresight and preparedness, how the situation has gotten out of hand. The fish is representative of Mulligan’s desires and just as he lost the fish, he also lost the letter, control of the situation he created, and the ability to direct his own course. Doerr’s creation of these paralleling narratives of Mulligan fumbling for control in both his inner and external worlds leaves a two-fold impact on the reader where it is impossible not to feel frustration towards a fallible character that we are asked to identify with.

The story ends and the reader is left with the season changing. The snow is falling upon Mulligan and the river flows on, symbolizing how life has no choice but to continue, whether he is ready for it or not. Doerr has created ambiguity in his story, showing the reader a flawed, but very human character, surrounded by a raw, wild, stunning natural world along the Rapid River, and wrapped it all up in his stylistic poetic elegance. The reader knows it is not their place to judge because it is impossible to always understand what is happening beneath the surface in a person’s life. But ultimately, Doerr wants us to judge. In the story, Mulligan’s luck has run out. The niece is going to show his wife the letter, and choices are going to be made for him that he wasn’t ready to-or willing to-make. And in the unsatisfying end, Mulligan becomes someone who doesn’t rise to the occasion; someone who does not try to redeem himself to those he’s wronged. If the reader is being asked to put themselves in Mulligan’s shoes, this ending feels like an easy way out of a tough situation. One that attempts to leave an ambiguous ending, but does it really? We were shown the obtrusive, uncouth manner of the niece. We know what she will do. And so, in leaving Mulligan to avoid the consequences, and stay out and fish, we see a flaw in nature- human nature, the weakness in an already weak character, one who consistently chooses the easy way out.

Works Cited

Clark, Robert C. “Keeping the Reader in the House: American Minimalism, Literary Impressionism, and Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 36, no. 1, 2012, pp. 104–18. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Dec. 2023.

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

Lamarche, V. M., & Rolison, J. J. (2021, December 29). “Hand-in-hand in the golden years: Cognitive interdependence, partner involvement in retirement planning, and the transition into retirement.” PLOS ONE.

Lewandowski, G. W. (2021, March 22). “The 8 reasons why people cheat.” Psychology Today.



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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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