The River: A Story By O'Connor
The River is an interesting short story by Flannery O’Connor, one that boggled my mind when I first read it. I am grateful to GradesAver.com for their helpful summery of the story as well as sittingbee.com and Dermot’s helpful review of the story. I am still not certain that I have ascertained every aspect of its meaning, but I will here share some of my thoughts. Feel free to comment below or message me if you have any thoughts of your own.
The River begins with Mrs. Connin coming to pick up Harry, a young boy with partying parents who don’t have the time to watch their son. Harry leaves with Mrs. Connin and they travel to her house where Harry gets introduced to Mrs. Connin’s children and their wild pig. After Mrs. Connin tells Harry about Jesus she takes Harry and her children to the river to see a preacher named Bevel Summers.
A large crowd has gathered at the river to see Bevel Summers because of his fame for healing. Bevel Summers promises no healing to the crowd, however, and scolds them for not coming to the river to find Jesus. Bevel then baptizes Harry after Mrs. Connin pushes him forward.
Upon returning to Harry’s house, Mrs. Connin learns that the boy’s parents are drunks and unbelievers. An argument then ensues between Harry’s mother and Mrs. Connin, causing Mrs. Connin to leave in a huff. After she leaves, Harry runs to his room while his parents continue their party. The next morning Harry wakes up before his parents and decides to go back to the river to find the “Kingdom of Christ.”
On the way there Mr. Paradise (a skeptical spectator of Bevel Summers’s sermon) follows the boy. When Harry reaches the river he dives into the water a few times, trying as he may to get to the “Kingdom of Christ,” before he is drug away by the current. Mr. Paradise witnesses the boy disappear into the water, but is unable to save him.
I think this story could be interpreted in a few different ways, but in my opinion you can find the story’s meaning in Bevel Summers’s sermon. In The River Bevel Summers chastises the crowd of people who gather to see him perform a healing. Mrs. Connin herself says that this is why she is going to the river: ‘”We’re going to the river to a healing.’” Bevel Summers declares to the crowd that, “If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me. If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus.” In typical O’Connor fashion, I see in these words a critique of shallow faith, one that comes to Jesus for all sorts of reason except to find Him. Even though Mrs. Connin shares the truth about Jesus with Harry (something he did not find in his home where everything was a joke) she does not seem to be lifted up as an exemplary character. O’Connor describes her as a skeleton on three occasions, which I take to mean that Mrs. Connin has only a bare bones understanding of the gospel, a skeletal faith that has no flesh and blood; something handed down to her by her white garbed Ku Klux Klan family members, something she can use to judge others who think differently than she does. She went to the river not for Jesus but for a healing.
Harry, on the other hand, is a different story. He may have grown up in a home where Jesus’ name was used only as a curse word, but by the end of the story he goes to the river to find “the Kingdom of Christ." O’Connor describes the boy in the beginning of The River as, “mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out,” and I think this reveals that Harry, even if he doesn’t know it yet, is one of those sheep who will hear the voice of Jesus and follow Him (John 10:27). Admits the secularism of his parents world and the skeletal faith of Mrs. Connin, this little boy, against all odds, seems to find the true Jesus. He is like the demon possessed man in Mark 5 (a parable O’Connor refers to in The River) who is saved by Jesus and longs to follow after Him while the crowds simply urge Jesus to get back into His boat and sail away (Mark 5:16-20).
In this story O’Connor lays little Harry before us, along with the story of the man from Mark 5, and bids us to come and die, just as Harry dies in the end of The River. O’Connor begs us to not be satisfied with a skeletal faith, but instead to have one of flesh and blood, one which points to the grace of God written in our scars. We are not to shrink from the pain of this life, or the pain that comes with living for the sake of Christ. Instead, we are to lay our pain in the true River, a River “’full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow.'" Just like the man saved in Mark 5, we are to tell the world ‘”how much the Lord has done for’” us (Mark 5:19b), whether or not there is anyone who will listen. We are to be like Harry, who himself becomes Bevel Sunmers, crying out to come to “’the River of Faith’” and find there that we do not die alone, but that Jesus has gone before us, taking all the pain of this world into Himself and giving us back life in its place.
 The River, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 157.
 Ibid., 165.
 Ibid., 158.
 Ibid., 165.
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