In The River by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of faith, salvation and grace. Taken from A Good Man is Hard to Find the story is narrated in the third person and begins with a young boy called Harry Ashfield being dressed by his father as his mother lies in bed with a hangover. Harry is to spend the day with Mrs Connin who has agreed to babysit him. Mrs Connin has told Harry’s father that she plans to take Harry to a Christian Revival meeting (faith) later in the day to meet a preacher called Bevel Summers. Later the reader will find that Mrs Connin’s lifestyle is contrary to the life that Harry’s parents live (always drinking and partying), if anything Mrs Connin is a religious woman. Also O’Connor’s physical description of Mrs Connin, when she is in the apartment collecting Harry and when she is falling asleep on the tram is important. On both occasions O’Connor describes her as looking like a skeleton. This description is important because it is an example of O’Connor highlighting to the reader that Mrs Connin is naked (nearer to God, again the idea of faith).
While on the tram Harry tells Mrs Connin that his name is Bevel just like the preacher that Mrs Connin is bringing him to see later in the day. This white lie is important because it suggests that Harry longs to be somebody else (unhappy with identity) or at least to be recognised, something that the reader by the end of the story realises never happens for Harry while he is living with his parents. The idea of identity resurfaces again when Harry asks Mrs Connin about a picture in her house. It is a picture of Jesus with some children and though Harry had always thought that Jesus was a swear word he now, through Mrs Connin, realises that he was made by Jesus. Previously he had thought that it was Dr Sladewall who had made him. Harry is so impressed by Jesus that he takes the book that Mrs Connin read to him (The Life of Jesus Christ for Readers Under Twelve) and hides it in the inner lining of his coat. The book is significant because later when Harry goes home his mother takes it from him and one of the guests in the apartment tells her that it is valuable because it is so old (1832). At no stage does Harry’s mother realise that it is more valuable spiritually to Harry (mother has no faith).
When Mrs Connin takes Harry and her children to see Bevel Summers there are several incidents where O’Connor uses symbolism to emphasise faith. The first is when they are walking along the side of the road; O’Connor again uses the symbolism of a skeleton to describe Mrs Connin, Harry and her children. Previously we have seen this to represent a closeness or readiness to accept God. O’Connor also utilises the sun as symbolism of faith when Harry is holding Mrs Connin’s hand as they are walking to the river to see the preacher, ‘he began to make wild leaps and pull forward on her hand as if he wanted to dash off and snatch the sun which was rolling away ahead of them now.’ Likewise when Bevel Summers tells Harry that he counts and is about to baptise him, Harry looks over his shoulder ‘at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river.’ There is a sense of clarity through the symbolism of the sun, the light leads the way.
After Harry has been baptised he is brought home to his parents by Mrs Connin. It is now that the reader gets a closer insight into Harry parents. His mother is displeased that he has been baptised by Bevel Summers and the father is only interested (possibly for humour) in hearing about his wife’s affliction rather than how Harry’s day was, mirroring his lack of care for his son that the reader noticed at the beginning of the story (Harry not being dressed properly). Also when Harry goes to bed and his mother comes into the bedroom, she isn’t concerned about how Harry feels rather she wants to know what lies he might have told Mrs Connin about her. How unhappy Harry is at home with his parents can be seen the following morning when he wakes up. His parents are in bed hung over and after he makes himself some breakfast he rubs cigarette ash into the carpet. The reader also finds out that when Harry breaks some of his toys, his parent’s just replace the toy rather than showing any interest in their son. Disillusioned Harry makes his way back to the river, following the same path (path of faith) that he had travelled the previous day with Mrs Connin. When Harry walks into the river (to baptise himself again and be led to the Kingdom of Christ) O’Connor again uses symbolism, this time the sky is used to emphasis an openness to faith. As Harry is in the river O’Connor describes the sky ‘as clear pale blue, all in one piece – except for the hole the sun made.’
The River ends with Harry realising that nothing has happened him (not being brought to the Kingdom of Christ) and kicking out at the river in frustration. Still in the water Harry hears a shout behind him and turns around only to believe that a giant pig is bounding after him. In reality it is Mr Paradise (irony) who has followed Harry and has jumped into the river to save him from drowning but before Mr Paradise can reach Harry the current takes him down the river. The reader left aware that by the end of the story, Harry has drowned but that in his final moment, through striving for salvation, he has obtained grace through death. He has chosen God over a life living with his parents.