Monday, February 2, 2015

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The River"

Flannery O’Connor’s “The River” stands as a classic slow build narrative. For the longest time, one struggles to know where it is going and what the payoff will be. Topically, the narrative revolves around Mrs. Connin serving as a babysitter for young Harry. Mrs. Connin is a commoner so to speak—she is poor, she has hogs, and she floats in the midst of faith healing common in the American South. The bible, the good book that Harry will later pilfer from her, stirs her soul and stands not just as her moral center, but also as the center of her life. She is entranced in the gothic nature of the religious revival—the river is where it is at, where she strives to be. Thus she looks forward to visiting the preacher by the river and taking part in the culture of healing and baptism, the center of the religious conservative base that still dominates the South today.

Harry for his part, denounces his name, opting to be called Bevel. He is a sad boy, victim to alcoholic, socialite parents who pawn him off on a stranger by day in order to sleep off their hangovers. Bevel doesn’t lash out per se, no more than any other young boy would. Yes, he will dump and ash tray over and rub the debris into the carpet, but he does so not for attention, but because he is little, ignored, and untamed. Thus he changes his name, thus he seeks new adventure. As Bevel, Harry steals the bible from Mrs. Connin, as Bevel, he confronts religion with a fleet of ignorance: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ” (163). Whether through alternate views on the religion of the poor masses or through the same absentee parenting that had made Bevel who he was, he had avoided religious instruction. Ignorant to such facts, desperate to belong, Bevel opts for Baptism in the river.

The preacher of choice, also named Bevel, views himself as a symbol of God, a character above all others through his ability to speak with Jesus: “‘If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus. You can’t leave your pain in the river … I never told nobody that’” (165). He will baptize, he will indoctrinate, but you, the individual are culpable for your actions and will thus either fall victim to your sins or pursue the light of God. Bevel greets this prospect, this chance to belong and feel as if he matters to someone, something, somewhere: “‘If I Baptize you,’ the preacher said ‘you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ … Do you want that?’ ‘Yes,’ the child said, and thought I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river” (168). A dip in the river gives him courage, gives him soul, gives him freedom.

It is here that we find the beauty and craft in O’Connor’s writing. Once confronted with the remains of another of his parent’s high class, drunken parties, Bevel longs for the river, longs to belong, and go under. Living a neglected life where breakfast consists of discarded crackers cannot appeal to anyone, especially this boy who has newly been welcomed into the religious light. The slow build explodes to the surface as Bevel returns to the river, gulps at the water, gasping for freedom, gasping to belong, and despite the best efforts of an onlooker to save him, Bevel willfully drowns to meet the kingdom he has been promised.

Favorite Lines:
  • “‘Didn’t you have your breakfast?’ ‘I didn’t have time to be hungry yet then” (159).
  • “‘You’ll see him today at the healing. He’s got cancer over his ear. He always comes to show he ain’t been healed’” (162).
  • “He shut his eye and heard her voice from a long way away, as if he were under the river and she on top of it” (170).

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

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