The River by Flannery O’Connor

The River - Flannery O'ConnorIn The River by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of faith, identity, connection, salvation and grace. Taken from her A Good Man is Hard to Find collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on O’Connor explores one of the main themes in the story, the theme of faith. This is noticeable when Mrs Connin tells Harry’s father that she intends to take Harry to a Christian Revival meeting to see the preacher Bevel Summers. 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 may also be important. On both occasions O’Connor describes Mrs Connin as looking like a skeleton. It is possible that O’Connor is highlighting to the reader that Mrs Connin is symbolically naked, which in turn may suggest that she is nearer to God. It is also possible that O’Connor may be suggesting that Mrs Connin is open or ready to accept God into her life. This is in contrast to Harry’s parents who appear to live their life having or going to one party after another.

O’Connor also explores the theme of identity. This occurs when Harry tells Mrs Connin that his name is also Bevel. This white lie may suggest that Harry longs to be someone else or at least his desire to be recognized as a person, something that the reader by the end of the story realises never happens for Harry while he is living with his parents. It is also possible that Harry longs to connect with someone or something else such is his unhappiness at home. 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’s lack of knowledge when it comes to Jesus may also be significant as it could suggest the lack of faith that Harry’s parents have. They may not have considered Jesus to be important. 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 for faith. When Harry is holding Mrs Connin’s hand as they are walking to the river to see the preacher, O’Connor tells the reader that ‘he (Harry) 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.’

It is when Harry is brought home by Mrs Connin that the reader gets a closer insight into Harry’s 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 (as per Mrs Connin) rather than how Harry’s day was. Mr Ashfield’s reaction or lack of concern for Harry being baptised mirrors his lack of care he displayed for Harry at the beginning of the story (Harry not being dressed properly). Later when Harry is in bed the reader again becomes aware of the true nature of Harry’s mother. She appears to be more concerned about what lies (about her) Harry may have told Mrs Connin. At no stage does the reader sense that Mrs Ashfield cares about how Harry feels. 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.

It is while Harry is walking back to the river on his own that the reader again becomes aware that O’Connor is further exploring the theme of faith. Harry is walking along the same path that he had walked the previous day with Mrs Connin and her children. Also when Harry walks into the river to baptize himself it becomes clear that O’Connor is again using symbolism to emphasis 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.’

There is also a sense of irony at the end of the story. It is Mr Paradise, who on seeing Harry in the water, jumps in to try and save him but he is unable to do so as the current drags Harry further down the river. However it is significant that Harry does achieve his goal at the end of the story (of getting to the Kingdom of Christ). Through striving for salvation, Harry has obtained Grace, albeit through death. In some way Harry has chosen a life with God, rather than living with his parents.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The River by Flannery O'Connor." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Why does grace come to Harry in such a harsh way?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lexy. I’m not really sure. Perhaps O’Connor is suggesting that some people only achieve grace when they die. That they have to sacrifice their life in order to obtain grace. Even though this may sound harsh.

  • Mr. Paradise is not healed and he is not able to save the child. What does this say about O’Connor’s faith? Or for that matter, what happens to Harry when he dies?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Carmen. I’m not sure that I’m qualified to answer your question. Though I’ll try. The fact that Mr. Paradise can’t save Harry could suggest that God’s will is stronger than any man’s could be. As to what happens Harry at the end of the story. He achieves grace in death. Which would most likely suggest he has found a place by God’s side.

  • I don’t know that Mrs. Connin is as near to the Christian god as this analysis and others online suggest. She’s gullible. She idolizes a traveling celebrity healer. She eagerly believes the lie of a five-year-old and the father’s facetious comment about his mother being sick because it fits into her storybook idea of faith; she’s so shocked when it turns out not to be true. She’s uncomfortable with and scrutinizing of others’ skepticism in a way that does not show compassion. She believes her husband’s stomach cancer would have been healed if only he believed. I think she is confused about grace and O’Connor is intentionally portraying her as so.

    This is only my second story by her, so maybe I’m wrong about O’Connor’s intentions, but the grace presented in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” doesn’t line up with earthly version Mrs. Connin is about.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a good comment Eric. You make a persuasive and legitimate argument. I find nothing in your comment that would be considered wrong. If anything you have taken more from the story than most people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *