An Analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


According to Flannery O’Connor, the real value—the ONLY value—in life is God’s grace. This is dramatically shown in her short story “The River,” where a small boy chooses life in Christ over life in the physical world.


In this story, Harry, whose affluent parents have little interest in him, goes to a religious revival meeting with a babysitter. There he hears that he has a Father in Heaven who cares for him, and when he is dunked into the river he’s told that now he “counts” among the roster of the saved. In the Catholic church, one’s christening is the occasion for officially receiving one’s name, and Harry re-christens himself Bevel—the name of the revival preacher —signifying his intention to serve as a messenger to the unbeliever. With his new name, little Bevel “counts,” just like his namesake, in the eyes of God.


When he returns home, however, the little boy finds his parents having another party, and he realizes that at their house he does not count at all. When his mother tucks him into bed, “he heard her voice from a long way away, as if he were under the river and she on top of it.” The child’s mother is outside the Christian experience, and he is immersed in it.


In the morning the little boy awakens to a silent house, remembering how wonderful it felt to be under the river where he counted. He leaves the house, returns to the spot where he had been baptized the day before, and plunges in, aiming to find “the Kingdom of Christ in the river” —and drowns. While more secular-minded people might see this story as depressing and morbid, the entire structure of “The River” shows what O’Connor feels a perfect Christian life-journey should be. Those who read this story through secular eyes might see Bevel’s death as suicide, committed because he was not loved. But that was not actually what O’Connor meant at all. From O’Connor’s point of view, Bevel looked around him and saw the tawdriness of life in the physical world compared to life in Christ. With the innocence of a child, he left his earthly parents to join the Father who welcomed him with open arms.


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