40 pages 1 hour read

Jim Harrison

Legends of the Fall

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide


Legends of the Fall is a collection of three novellas by Jim Harrison, including “Revenge,” “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” and the titular novella, “Legends of the Fall.” First published in 1979 by Collins, Legends of the Fall remains one of Harrison’s most highly regarded works. Harrison wrote across a range of genres such as fiction, poetry, essay, and film and was the recipient of several awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work often explores the nature of masculinity in the context of the rugged landscape of the rural United States. “Revenge” was adapted into a film in 1990, and “Legends of the Fall” was adapted into a film in 1994 and won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

This study guide refers to the 2016 ebook edition published by Grove Atlantic.

Content Warning: The source material contains descriptions of physical abuse, sexual assault, human trafficking, drug use, and murder. In addition, it utilizes offensive stereotypes of Indigenous Americans and Black people. Characters are also frequently referred to by their ethnicity. These terms are replicated in the guide only in direct quotes from the source material.

Plot Summary

“Revenge,” the first novella in the collection, opens with a character named Cochran lying in the Mexican desert, badly beaten and barely alive. He is found by a local man, Mauro, who takes him to a Mennonite missionary who serves as the community doctor. As Cochran recuperates, the reader learns the story of how he has come to this situation. Cochran fell in love with and had an affair with Miryea, the wife of Tibey, a close friend. Upon discovering their intention to run away together, Tibey surprises them in Cochran’s cabin, cuts Miryea’s lips, and beats Cochran until he believes him to be dead. He dumps his body in the desert and, after torturing Miryea, addicts her to heroin and imprisons her, first in a brothel and later in an asylum at a local nunnery. After Cochran heals, he sets out to find Miryea by moving to Durango, where Tibey lives, and assuming a fake identity. After some time, he discovers that Miryea is in the asylum, and he confronts Tibey. Tibey demands an apology for the affair, which Cochran gives him, and together they go to the asylum. Miryea has contracted a fever and the doctor tells them that she will most likely not survive. Cochran stays by her bedside for three days. On the third day, she wakes, and Cochran tells her stories of their future together. Shortly thereafter, she dies, and Cochran buries her with Tibey looking on.

The second novella, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name, features a character named Nordstrom. The story begins with Nordstrom signing up for a dance class in college. He is the only male in class and is too embarrassed to dance, but he meets a student named Laura, whom he eventually marries. Nordstrom and Laura have a daughter, Sonia, and both develop successful careers in California. One night at dinner, Sonia tells her parents they are “cold fish,” and Nordstrom is struck by this assessment. He begins making changes to his life, including changing his career, and begins dancing alone in his house. After Sonia leaves for college, Nordstrom and Laura divorce, and he moves to Boston to be closer to his daughter. Nordstrom decides to give all his money to his mother and Sonia and to travel but, before he does so, he hosts Sonia’s graduation party in New York City. At the party, a man disrupts the celebration in search of his wife, who is a waitress at the restaurant. Nordstrom punches him. The man threatens to kill Nordstrom, which concerns everyone at the party but him. The next day, Nordstrom meets with the waitress, Sarah. They have sex, and Nordstrom concludes that she will try to blackmail him. She does so and, when he refuses, one of her husband’s friends breaks into his hotel room that night. Nordstrom pushes the man out the window. The next day, he has lunch with Sarah and her husband, who admit that they are not married. This is a scam they run on rich men. Nordstrom parts from them as friends. In the end, Nordstrom moves to Florida with just a few possessions and starts working at a seafood restaurant. He is quickly promoted to chef. One night, he goes to a local bar with two waitresses. He dances to the jukebox until the bar closes even after everyone else has stopped.

“Legends of the Fall” begins in 1914 with three brothers traveling from their ranch in Montana to Calgary to enlist in World War I. The youngest, Samuel, is then killed during the war, and the eldest, Alfred, is injured. The middle son, Tristan, is sent to a mental hospital in Paris, from which he escapes. He and Alfred return home less than a year later. Tristan marries Susannah but leaves soon afterward to work as a sailor with his grandfather. When they are informed that their ship will be seized for the war effort, his grandfather retires, and Tristan takes command of the ship. He operates the schooner for several years, writing to his wife to tell her to marry another. Eventually, he receives word that his father has had a stroke. Tristan returns to Montana and discovers that Susannah has married Alfred. Tristan marries another woman and settles into life at the ranch. He soon begins smuggling liquor from Canada. His wife is killed accidentally by federal officers, and Tristan expands his operation, using his ship to smuggle liquor from Vancouver to San Francisco. This continues until his company is attacked by a group of Irishmen who control liquor distribution. He returns to Montana, but the Irishmen follow him. He kills two of them in Saratoga, where Susannah and Alfred have a home. While he is there, he and Susannah have a brief affair and are discovered by Alfred. Tristan returns to Montana. When Susannah dies, Alfred sends her body to Tristan, who buries her on the ranch. Soon after, two more Irishmen arrive, pretending to be police officers. Tristan’s father Ludlow kills them. Tristan then takes his children to a ranch he owns in Cuba and remains there for 23 years. He leaves at the onset of the Cuban Revolution to live with his daughter in Alberta. Tristan dies and is buried in Canada even though everyone he loves is buried on the ranch in Montana.