The Third Bank of the River
Length: 4318 words (12.3 double-spaced pages)
Beginning shortly before the turn of the last century, there was a noticeable trend towards the ambiguous in modern Brazilian literature. Writers such as Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado have both explored the use of the unstated and the forced compromise between extremes that have grown to be so crucial to the modernist movement. No Brazilian author, however, has mastered the compromise quite like João Guimarães Rosa, a man who was once described as not only leading, but preceding the reader "to a place where there is discord and cacophony under which there is a strange harmony…the third bank of the river…the land every soul craves for." In his collection of short stories, Primeiras Estórias (1962), Rosa pays particularly close attention to ambiguity as a main theme in Brazilian backland writing. First translated to English in 1968 under the title First Stories, Primeiras Estórias, and in particular, "The Third Bank of the River," is in many ways the defining work of the Brazilian short story.
Carl Jung once said "the confrontation of the two positions [of opposites] generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing."1 In "The Third Bank of the River," João Guimarães Rosa does just that by first exploring these separate, symbolic opposites in the lives of members of the narrator’s family. He then crafts, out of the conflict, a third position which can be, at best, described as a compromise between the two extremes. Often times, these extremes are the very definitions of characterization we come to expect in a short story, and, by blurring these lines, Rosa is able to also blur "The Third Bank of the River" into a work of ambiguous and allegorical nature. By never exactly defining the third essence that is created, the author is able to explore this clearly important topic in greater depth. The importance of the crossing is that, in every case the author presents, it represents the journey from one position to its opposite, continuing until the characters reach their final destination: the third, intermediate situation. It is in this way that father’s crossing has a profound effect on the family (most notably the narrator) and the way they conduct the rest of their lives.
The important thing to recognize immediately about "The Third Bank of the River" is that it can either be read as a literal retelling of the events or as a metaphor concerning the death of a loved one.
The story begins with the description of the canoe father has made for himself. This canoe is the crucial element in the story because the literality of "The Third Bank of the River" hinges on exactly what this canoe is. There is a proposed likeness between the canoe and a coffin; "small…with a narrow board…only enough room for the oarsman"(189). Mother was terribly upset by the idea of father "buying a canoe" which could hint at the fact that he committed suicide or simply died if the canoe is to be read as being a coffin. There is, however, something strange about the making of this canoe. Father has it handmade from the finest available wood, and it is built to last twenty or thirty years. For a man who never called the shots in his own household, father’s purchase would have come as a shocking surprise because the canoe was presumably expensive and he continued with the project even after mother voiced her opinions, but this indicates he intended the crossing to be a permanent one – a journey from which he would never return.
There is much speculation that father was simply taking a journey of discovery and the crossing symbolized the necessary cutting of the familial ties that had held him down in the past. Not only did he have an overbearing wife, but also the responsibilities of caring for three children. For a weak man such as father, it would have been easy to lose oneself in the shuffle of other duties. The separation for the journey symbolized father’s ways; "neither happy nor excited nor downcast" is how he left his family, and with one simple goodbye (190). Even as father is leaving, there is a sense of disbelief and bitterness at the presumptuousness of father. Mother forcefully declares "if you go, don’t you ever come back" (190), and that’s exactly what father did. This sets up later episodes in the story about emotions the family has when they determine that father never is coming back and that they will have to live without him. For the family, however, it was only after father’s crossing that they realize just how much they do need him. According to Frank O’Connor, this is how we are supposed to feel. He claims "there is in the short story, at its most characteristic, something we do not find in the novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness."2 All characters involved are completely transformed after father crosses into his new existence, a result of their sense of pity towards father’s perceived loneliness.
This is our first example of the antithetical nature of "The Third Bank of the River." Father originally has two options – staying with the family or abandoning them. However, by the end of the story, he has achieved a position somewhere in the middle of this loneliness/togetherness paradox. Ultimately, the family was never really alone, for father remained in the recesses of their minds, constantly affecting the way in which they lived their lives. For example, the son remained at home his entire life in order to not be lonely. He always had his father floating along the river so long as he never forgot him. For father, on the other hand, he was more towards the lonely nature because he never even acknowledged his family as existing after his departure, but the reader must obviously discern his staying in the river (which was close to the family’s house) as his way of maintaining togetherness. Gary Vessels attests to this intermediary position, even referring to it as torture, noting how "his semi-presence ruined their lives." 3
It is in seemingly insignificant events like these that we can interpret the exact meaning of the crossing that is occurring in "The Third Bank of the River." The family in the story does not appear to be strikingly well off, as we are told that she sent for her brother to help with money matters after father’s departure (192). However, she allows the boy to take food from the family every night and leave it for father, presumably to be eaten by wild animals. In one sense, she is simply aiding the son in getting over the loss of his father, but in another sense, she is finally acknowledging her own pain. The narrator tells us "mother almost never showed what she was thinking" (192), and it would not be inconsistent for her to hide her emotions in a time of loss. She had always led the family until father’s crossing, now she simply had to provide the sense of strength to her children for them to deal with the presumed passing of their father.
This is shown later in the progression of the story when she goes to great lengths to try to get father to return. Not only does she try an exorcism, but she also brings soldiers to the riverbank to haul him back. Naturally, father is nowhere to be seen when they come, another subtle allusion to the interpretation of his crossing as death. It is only the family that can see him, and even they have no ability to interact with him. Even the reporters come to try to take his picture, but he simply slinks himself to the other – the second – bank of the river. As mentioned before, the crossing is the utmost representation of this very ambiguity Rosa works to hard to establish.
Another series of conflicts Rosa creates is that between mourning and memory. Certainly, there is a fine line between when one feels negative effects from emotions after a tragic event (mourning) and the memory of that event that is forged in the minds of those whom it affects. For example, the son, our narrator, is clearly trapped in a period of mourning his entire life. He lives solely for keeping his father alive, the result being a great detriment to himself. On the other hand, the rest of the family is able to eventually separate themselves from father and proceed with their lives. The other two children marry, leave the town and begin families of their own. Mother also leaves and goes to live with her daughter because she requires care as a result of her deteriorating health. Because we are never given father’s perspective, we do not know whether he mourns the separation from his family, but judging that this decision was his alone, we can assume he does not. Therefore, we are given the son as an example of the unhealthy position of extreme mourning and the father as the apathetic representative of simply having a memory. The family then becomes the intermediate position and is symbolic of the crossing from either mourning or ignoring to a third position of memoriam.
As the time begins to pass, it becomes more apparent to the reader that father has actually died from what the narrator tells us. He claims that father never stepped on solid grass, never built a fire on land, and never even lit a match (193). These are all very basic connections someone who is alive must have and Rosa uses these examples to show that even simple human actions were out of father’s realm. He certainly could not have lived on the small amounts of food his son was leaving for him at the river’s edge, even if he was picking them up in secret. By giving this information, Rosa indicates that father has been away for far too long to be "alive" within the family. For all intents and purposes, to his family, father was dead but yet they proceed as if he were still with them.
What is meant by father’s crossing having a grave effect on the family is that they end up suffering infinite amounts because they can never escape the memory of their father. The river clearly plays an important part in this remembrance, so it is safe to assume that his death was indubitably tied to the river. This becomes more apparent later in the story, but even early on it is apparent. Not only do they consider the river to be the place of his residence since he left them and leave food for him there, but they also attach a mystical quality to the river and, in one scene, turn it into a demi-god.
While father is very much physically dead at this point, he is alive in the sense that they refuse to let go of him. Our narrator tells us "we only thought of him. Father could never be forgotten." (193) In this way, the family keeps him with them as if he had never crossed that fateful river and left them only to be "roused by his memory." (193) For a long time, they completely alter their own lives so as to keep the memory of father alive. This will play an important role later in the story, as we look further into the effects of the crossing on the narrator.
Upon the wedding of the daughter, we are told that there are no festivities. (193) This is mentioned in passing; right before the narrator describes how they remember father’s suffering when they eat a nice meal. The family is clearly still in a period of mourning and could not imagine a celebration in the wake of father’s crossing even though it seems ample time has passed. When the grandchild is born, they take him to the river and hold him up in the air, calling father to come and see. This act creates the image of a sacrifice to a god, whereby the offering is held towards the heaven. In this case, like so many before it, father never comes. This is just further proof that father has passed physically, even though he is still alive in the minds of the family. The crossing has not completely taken him away. They have made the river such an integral part of their life and, because of this, are unable to appropriately deal with father’s death. This is the most important aspect of the crossing and the one to which Rosa devotes the most exploration: the effect that such an event has on those who are left at either side.
This element of the crossing becomes the main focus of "The Third Bank of the River" for the rest of the narrative. We are quickly shifted to the son, now living alone in the house by the river. "Times changed" (194), he tells us, and by this he means everyone else has put the memory of father behind them. The son, however, remained there with justification that father "needed" him. He’s still wandering up and down the river, if only in the son’s mind, a constant reminder of a man whom he idolized. He suffers from sorrow and guilt on account of the father who has left. Perhaps it’s sorrow for always failing to appreciate his father while he was around; perhaps it’s guilt for not ensuring father’s memory stayed with the family until they died. One thing is for certain though; he has been so conditioned by the forced acceptance of his father’s crossing that he has never fully been able to put it behind him. For example, the last part of the story is the narrator’s somewhat coherent ramblings and there is even dialogue with himself where he tries to tell himself he is not crazy.
It is at this point in the story that we have father’s first interaction since his crossing. The son sets himself on the bank and tells his father "you’ve done your part…I’ll take your place in the canoe." (196) All of a sudden, he imagines father is gesturing to him and his heart swells with fear. He runs away, pleading for forgiveness. This scene is difficult to analyze because it seems that his inability to escape the pain of his father’s death has prescribed his own suicide – following in the same path his father has laid. Then, for absolutely no reason at all, he decides against it. Immediately, he asks "can I be a man, after having thus failed him?" He has become the unspeakable.
Two additional antithetical aspects become very important towards the end of the story. As we see, there are separate situations, that of the narrator’s "obligation" to his father, and that of his own sanity, which Rosa sets up both as extremely ambiguous and frighteningly ironical. It is in this way that the reader is better able to explore the crossing – no longer that of the father, but of the son.
The first of these conflicts is that of freedom versus bondage. This is highlighted in how our narrator describes his father in terms which relegate him as a slave to the river and the life which he has chosen. "Father was stuck to the river" (191), he tells us, and was victim of a "sad obsession" (192). Not only that, but the inability or unwillingness of father to come to land has made him a slave in the sense that he is no longer a part of civilization for he cannot light a match or touch solid ground as we have highlighted earlier. These distinctions between the father’s existence outside of society has indeed made him bound in a sense according to the narrator.
However, as the story progresses, we become aware of the actual freedom of the father and the relative servitude of the family. The family cannot even enjoy a nice meal or the marriage of the first child, let alone escape thinking about the father. In a more accurate depiction of the condition of the characters in the story, it is they who cannot escape the very idea of this enigma who was once their father. This is especially true for the son who declares himself "burdened down with life’s cumbrous baggage" (193). In explaining why he never married, he offers the excuse that "father needed [me]" (194), but in reality, he is saying that he needed his father.
Contrary to the son’s description, father has become free, but it is a unique, compromised freedom. While he has no earthly bounds as evidenced by never setting foot on solid ground after he left, he has a deeper tie to himself and, inherently, to the river. James Romano describes this as father’s "inner conviction" and his commitment to whatever made him go to the river in the first place.4 Ironically enough, he must fulfill his new responsibility that he acquired while leaving his old responsibilities behind. This fusion of bondage and freedom is the necessary outcome of commitment to any conviction. No longer responsible for anything earthly, he becomes even more so responsible for himself – freedom in the truest sense.
The final element of ambiguity caps an already intentionally ambiguous story and the reader is left pondering what "unspeakable thing" the son has become. Earlier in the story, he tells us that they "never talked about him" (193) but he has also said "the word crazy was not spoken" (195). He certainly seems to have become crazy in the final years, but he has also in a sense become his father. He has determined himself ready to take his place in the canoe – whatever place that may be – ready to make his crossing. However, he envisions a far different ending for his story. He importantly uses the phrase "to the body" when talking of his own death, indicating that ever important distinction between the dual natures of death that were so crucial in his own life. He hopes to be pushed "down the river, away from the river, into the river" after he makes his crossing, past the banks – both the two physical ones and the third, "unending" bank (196) which his father has created for him as a constant reminder.
The last, and perhaps most well developed crossing, is that between sanity and insanity. With this comes the distinction between reality and fiction, and the new reality father has forged for himself and the narrator. The son repeatedly denies that his father was mad, and in fact, the family never even considered it a viable option to explain his disappearance. That made his action all the more inexplicable. He went from being introduced as a rather ordinary man to being the mystical figure we see at the end of the story. The canoe was planned specifically, he deterministically left the family on his own terms, and in a sense, he made himself what he wanted to be after he left. What this means is that he directly engineered the memories his family had of him and his "interactions" with them by the way he acted. Surely, these are not the actions of an insane man.
Because he cannot be described as insane, it is equally as important to note that he is not exactly "sane" in the clinical sense. What he did, if the story is to be taken literally, is beyond explanation. To float senselessly up and down the river with no clear purpose is problematic for anyone to accept as reasonable. The son is therefore left to accept the "strangeness of the truth" (190), which is to be thought of as the minor climax of the story. By accepting this truth, the son assures his own insanity. Clearly, by the end of the story, the narrator no longer appears rational as he believes himself to have spoken to his father, claiming that he was ready to take over for him. We must not be so quick to the narrator for the truth is not sanity or insanity, but rather a sort of transcended rational that can be described as "supra-sanity." 5
The actions of both the narrator and the father have ascended to beyond the realm of ordinary distinctions between sane and insane. No longer can we judge either one of them because they have crossed into the third entity that is created upon conflict of two norms of society. We are left asking just what sanity really is. Is it defining one’s own existence like father has done, or is it being at the mercy of others’ existence (i.e. living within society)? This distinction can be further demonstrated in the transformation of the innocent son asking naively if he can go on in the canoe with his father into a man who "was guilty of [I] knew not what" (195)
If father is, as suggested, forging a new existence for himself, one in which he is completely in control of his own nature and destiny; the story contains another series of conflicts. Luiz Valente, in his article "Against Silence: Fabulation and Mediation in João Guimarães Rosa and Italo Calvino," suggests the significance of the narrator being both afraid and unable to take over for his father at the end is that "No matter how appealing the father’s experience may be, it is something that can be contemplated but cannot be duplicated."6 In rejecting the objective view of what life is and should be, father has rebelled against the limitations that the socially normative life he was living had placed upon him. In an even greater sense, this is Rosa’s way of not merely providing father as an example of how to escape from reality, but rather using him "as a means of questioning the very definition of reality. 7
How, then, do we deal with the character of father, and in that same vein, to what greater good can we ascribe his crossing? In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell lays out his definition of a hero, which may or may not bear striking resemblance to the character of father in "The Third Bank of the River." Among his ideas are that there are three stages of conventional heroism – separation, initiation, and return – and that "a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won." 8
Surely father created his own separation and was a sense initiated by life on the river (or by death if we are reading the story allegorically). However, the question of whether or not father has returned is on what the meaning of his journey hinges. An insightful reader looking to make sense out of the ending of the story must discern the relinquishing of the canoe to the son as a way of father returning. Not in a physical sense, but in the metaphorical sense, father has ended his journey in the son’s failure to take over the reality of the canoe. As mentioned earlier, he cannot take over for father, and therefore, his father has taught him a very valuable lesson; that one must determine his own existence for they can never lead the life of another. The crossing, then, takes on an entirely new meaning when we are dealing with the crossing back from the river. It is the final stage in father’s Aesopic saga, complete with decisive victory and moral vindication.
The theme of the crossing plays a decisive role in "The Third Bank of the River" in that it serves as the fulcrum on which the characters balance themselves in and among the options at hand. Not only does it physically separate the family from each other, but it also creates a distinction between bodily and spiritual death, sanity and insanity, existence and nonexistence, loneliness and togetherness, reality and fiction, and, finally, between the death of a loved one and the emotional journey that must ensue on behalf of the survivors. By brilliantly weaving together all of these intricate parts of the same theme, João Guimarães Rosa is able to tell the full story, from causes to effects of the death of one man – a man who doesn’t even have a name. This universality we can derive from the son’s response is an important aspect of the crossing inasmuch as it reflects the personal compromises we all must struggle to achieve within our relationships. "The Third Bank of the River" highlights this very struggle of a young man trying to balance between the desire to become his father and the fact that he ultimately cannot do that.
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