‘The River’ by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'Connor

The River by Flannery O’Connor, 1955

The magic trick:

Gradually foreshadowing the ending with subtle incidents involving Harry and Mr. Paradise

Brace yourselves, folks. We begin a Flannery O’Connor week here at the blog, so get ready for five days of intense spiritual collapse.

We start with “The River,” which, while not my favorite O’Connor work, may rank among her most complex. I think I could read this 56 times and still have a hard time figuring out just who is the target of the author’s wrath. She’s throwing daggers from all angles in this one.

In some ways it recalls the terrible parents of a John Cheever story – “The Sutton Place Story” for example. The urbane, alcoholic parents of Harry are too self-absorbed to take care of him. But the babysitter they pass him on to for the day – Mrs. Connin – isn’t much better. Her children are mean and rude, and her idea of an appropriate activity (forcing Harry to participate in a revivalist baptism without his parents’ permission) is dubious at best.

O’Connor leaves it to Harry, only 4 years old, to sort out the good from the evil. His child instincts send off alarm bells when it comes to a neighbor of the Connin’s who attends the revival. It is a very neat trick at work here by O’Connor.

The foreshadowing begins subtly as Mrs. Connin first mentions Mr. Paradise as a man with cancer over his ear. Harry recoils and decides he doesn’t want to see this man, but to the reader at this point his decision only seems to be based on a fear of the cancerous tumor.

Next, we see Mr. Paradise at the revival shouting complaints at the preacher. Harry stares at him and retreats farther into the embrace of Mrs. Connin. Again, the signs are there for the reader, but the subtlety keeps us from making any broad assumptions yet.

A similar exchange occurs soon thereafter during Harry’s baptism. Mr. Paradise laughs at the child’s attempt at a joke and Harry clings tightly to the preacher.

Mr. Paradise, as we learn once and for all at story’s end, is evil. Harry, in spite of a mess of contradictory adult influences, had an innate ability to assess evil all along. And O’Connor made it clear for the reader all along, too. She just did such an excellent job of keeping the foreshadowing subtle that only the most careful of readers will pick up the hints.

Now all that said, one can make a very strong (and interesting) case that the revival preacher is a fraud, Harry is an amoral thief and liar, that his “Bevuuuuuuul” voice in the preacher’s face is not a joke but rather a sign that he is in fact the devil, and Mr. Paradise bless his soul is not the face of evil at all in this story but instead the hand of God sent to rid the earth of evil.

Yep. Like I said, this story is complex! And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.

The selection:

“Swang him over here,” the preacher said and took a stride forward and caught him.

He held him in the crook of his arm and looked at the grinning face. Bevel rolled his eyes in a comical way and thrust his face forward, close to the preacher’s. “My name is Bevvvuuuuul,” he said in a loud deep voice and let the tip of his tongue slide across his mouth.

The preacher didn’t smile. His bony face was rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky. There was a loud laugh from the old man sitting on the car bumper and Bevel grasped the back of the preacher’s collar and held it tightly.

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