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In Kent Meyers' The River Warren, the reader can detect many examples of symbolism. The basic theme throughout the novel focuses on the river. The River Warren, in its past and present state, means different things to each character in the novel. Many important scenes take place on the river and its banks emphasizing its importance. As the river winds through the land around Cloten in the story, its symbol winds through the lives of the characters and the lives of readers. Meyers stresses the river's significance to members of the community through each character's testimony and story. In the novel the river represents- symbolizes- is fear.
Everyone has some type of fear, and for each character in the novel this holds true. To Angel Finn, a dream of the river's past is admittedly exciting. On one specific night, Angel's fears are clearly presented on the river. He says, "I ain't been afraid on that river for a long time, spooked but never afraid...but I was surely afraid when I come around that bend...my heart kinda shriveled"(143). Angel has found his fear on the river. It is odd, though, that Angel usually goes to the river to escape from his fears. He says, "on the night river, everything seems far away, so far away it's come back around to being close, and a man can need nothing and want everything, and wonder what his life's all about at the same time that he knows"(3). Angel wonders about the meaning of life, but in reality, he knows what it's all about. Angel never mentions any family. All we really know about him is that he is a lonely hardware store owner who loves being on the river. Who is he really? A lonely old man finding escape from life and loneliness fishing on the river. While on the river Angel meets and befriends two young boys, Luke and Jeff. To him, they seem to understand how highly the river should be valued. The three men treat the river as if it has a personality and holds some kind of dignified or sacred value to them. Angel explains himself when he says, "I know I don't know myself on the river, but I swear that it knows me.
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The river also holds Jeff Gruber's fear. He escapes from his regrets about the past and his relationship with his father while on the river. When Jeff was eleven, he witnessed his seven-year-old brother's death in five inches of water, and failed at rescue attempts. This part of his past haunts him through a dream. In the dream, Jeff is with his younger brother, Chris, on the plow. The ground seems to be like water, curling and crashing, and swallowing Chris before Jeff can reach him. The dream is recurrent for Jeff, and shows his helplessness and anxiety about the past. He feels uncomfortable sharing his dream with anyone, but while on the river he gains enough strength to tell Ellen(52-53). Jeff releases his fears, and in essence gives them to the river, hoping they'll flow away forever. Jeff thus has an eternal bond with the water because it is a deep part of his past and because he enjoys fishing. Totally immersed in the moment of his biggest catch, Jeff says, "it seemed for a moment to be the river rising out of itself, immensely old, and I felt the fear of something elemental and sacred..."(128). Jeff finds his peace, his 'element' on the river, a comfort he has never before felt. He opens up a fear of losing that feeling, at least with his father. After Chris' death, the two have never spoken of the event, and its fear has been shoved into the depths of the past. Later, when Jeff is an adult, they go back to the scene together, and Jeff explains, "'There was nothing we could do, was there?' I asked. After long moments he replied: 'No, Jeff. Just things we could've done'"(267). Jeff's father finally regrets all the moments and conversations he has lost with Jeff, and out of fear of a totally lost relationship, invites him back(268). But Jeff has no desire to return, because the land and water of his childhood holds too many memories for him. Through his experiences on the water, Jeff matures and develops intuition...and with maturity comes admittance, or realization, of fear.
Jeff and Luke experience fear through the river together. They were in high school, and they went out on the river in Angel's boat and almost drowned (152-154). A tree had fallen into the bank and was rolling down the current when the boys passed. Jeff recalls, "the river just ate it away"(153). The underbrush of the tree is underwater, and when it churns the boat topples over, and Luke and Jeff get tangled in its branches. We learn of Jeff's fear of death when he says, "I nearly screamed, but clamped my mouth upon it"(156). The experience was good for the boys' relationship as friends. They both admit that they were scared and realize how close to death they were. Jeff clearly values the episode when he says, "having this connection to someone else was almost more important than life"(157). The experience gave the two boys an additional tie to each other and the river. They not only had a shared memory but laid all their fears out for each other to see. The event ultimately defined their fears, which had been 'eating away' at them throughout their lives.
Luke's personal fears are brought to life through the river. His main fears can be traced to what his father instilled in him while he was growing up. Instead of blatantly showing his fear, Luke tries to slide past it by analyzing his father. He says, "Dad could always turn what was into what wasn't and what wasn't into what should have been, and what should have been into some reason to get drunk"(120). The passage implies that Luke's father is an alcoholic, which leads to assumptions of abuse. Luke is scared to death of his father, and of becoming him. But deep down, he doesn't even know who his father is. "He didn't know squat about who he was...because there's nothing there...figuring out there's a hole in a pail don't make it full of water"(130). Luke spends his whole life trying to figure out who his father is, and trying to get some sign that his father cares about him. But finding out that there's nothing to his father doesn't mean he can make or shape a father, because nothingness is the absence of fear.
Two-Speed Crandall did have fear(225-240). But he was so afraid to admit it-to become vulnerable- that he wholeheartedly denied everything. What Luke was really searching for on the water with his dad was a tie to him.
Other ties Luke had in his life began and developed on the water: with Angel and Jeff and with Ellen. When Luke keeps the cattle prod, an obvious symbol of pain and violence, he keeps it for nothing else but a reminder(263). All Luke really wanted out of life was to find someone who thought as deeply as he did- and who really wanted to share their fears with him. A boy usually looks to his father for a support structure or role model, but for Luke nothing was there. So he found what he needed on the river. The absence of the relationship with his father creates another fear for Luke- a fear of failure in his own fatherhood. He describes a situation where this type of fear is visible: "What did I know about being a father? Ellen said, however you're a father it'll be the best, because it's you. Of course. But of course not, too. Dad was afraid of being afraid"(216). Luke's biggest fear of all is that he'll turn out just like his father. He feels that he failed as a son, in not being able to change his father. Luke thinks children want to feel that their being changes their parents, and he fears not being able to change for his children(182). In his eyes, that is just what he despises in his own father, and he justly fears his children's hatred. While on the river, Luke decides he's going to live beyond his fears and start his own life. Now that his father is gone, nothing can be done about the relationship they never had. Luke, like the other characters, recognized fear on the river but also realized his fear of the past on its banks.
The river in Meyer's novel can be connected in many ways to fear- it defines the characters' personal fears, becomes a haven for escaping those fears, and is a place of release. I find it ironic that comfort was mainly found on the banks of the river, while at the same time the river created fear for those characters at one point or another. Just like in the novel, in our lives comfort is found in fear. The familiarity of fears gives us something to rely on when everything else is constantly changing, like the river after a flood. Many people today enjoy being on rivers, and, as one character reminisces, "It was good times. I swear, it changed my life"(122). And whenever we feel lost or alone, we always know that fear- and water- will be there. The river is a fear of strength because Jeff and Luke grow up and realize they have to rely on themselves. The river is fear of truth in that Luke has trouble coming to terms with his fathers' death. The extreme sadness of the truth that he never really had a relationship with Two-Speed consumes him in its honesty. The river also represents fear- and is the fear of fear itself. The characters, as well as the readers, want everything to just turn out. We don't want to deal with life's problems, or fears, so we fear the future's fear. The river could be both good and evil in the novel- but is was also simply a river. And fear- in the character's lives as well as our own- is both good and evil. But it is still conclusively just fear.
Meyers, Kent. The River Warren. Saint Paul: Hungry Minds Press, 1998.