Summary and Analysis "The River"


In this story, which is one of O'Connor's early works, her use of color imagery and her use of symbols are already well developed. The story is told from an omniscient point-of-view and covers a two-day span in the life of the main character, Harry Ashfield. Harry is about four or five years old, and he is the only child of an urban family which has little time to spend with him. His family occupies their time by giving parties and sleeping late the following day.

As the story opens, Harry is being prepared by his father to go off with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is a backwoods religious fundamentalist who believes in faith healing. Harry's mother is suffering from a hangover and remains in bed. Because his father is hardly awake at six o'clock in the morning, he pushes the boy into the hall without having properly dressed him. When Mrs. Connin complains that Harry "ain't fixed right," his father replies, "Well then for Christ's sake fix him." Little does he realize that that will be just what Mrs. Connin will do — that is, she will "fix" Harry "right," for Christ's sake.

As Harry and Mrs. Connin are riding the trolley to the outskirts of town, she tells him about the faith healer they are going to see, an itinerant preacher named Bevel Summers. Harry, starved for affection, succeeds in gaining Mrs. Connin's attention by claiming that his own name is also Bevel.

When Harry arrives at the Connin farm, he discovers that the world of the farm is quite different from the world he knows at home. "You found out more when you left where you lived," he realizes. Almost immediately, the Connin boys trick him into letting a pig out of the pigpen, and it knocks Harry over. He quickly learns that real pigs are not pink with curly tails and bow-ties, but, instead, that they are gray and sour looking. He also discovers that he "had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ" and not by a doctor named Sladewall. Harry concludes that the Sladewall story must be a joke because his own family "joked a lot." The pictures on the wall of the Connin home are of real people — not the abstract watercolor he knows at home. He is even convinced that the pictures in a book called The Life of Jesus Christ for Readers Under Twelve must be accurate because it shows pictures of real pigs — not drawings of cute, storybook pigs.

While the Connin family goes off to the river to attend the healing service, they take Harry/Bevel along with them. He is then taken from Mrs. Connin by the preacher, and Harry realizes that "this was no joke. Where he lived everything was a joke." After Harry is baptized, the preacher tells him that he now "counts."

Mrs. Connin returns Harry to the city that evening, and when they arrive, another party is in progress. This section of the story is designed to reinforce the feeling of alienation from which Harry/Bevel suffers because of his family life, and it also provides much of the humor of the story. Particularly telling is the scene in which his mother puts him to bed, and he hears her voice coming from a long way away as if he were under the river and she on top of it."

On Monday morning, Harry awakens, finds something to eat, and entertains himself by dumping a few ashtrays onto the floor. His parents are still asleep, and he is convinced that they will "be out cold until one o'clock." When he notices that his shoes are still damp, he begins to think about the river, and suddenly "he knew what he wanted to do." He takes a trolley token from his mother's purse, leaves the apartment, and returns to the river. There, determined to baptize himself and "to keep on going . . . until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river," he jumps into the river and drowns.

A number of critics have difficulty with this story because they feel Harry's death serves no purpose. O'Connor, however, was careful to create a character whose youth places him below the age of account-ability — in the Catholic faith, that age is seven years old. Since Harry has been baptized and cannot be held accountable for his actions, he dies a good death. O'Connor, in fact, once noted that Harry "comes to a good end. He's saved from those nutty parents, a fate worse than death. He's been baptized and so he goes to his Maker; this is a good end."

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