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BlogNovember, 2009
Flannery O'Connor's "The River"

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” John Wesley is an “eight-year-old boy” (2). In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” Ruby is thirty-four and her brother Rufus “is fourteen years younger” (67). In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Joanne and Susan are fourteen – two years older than the story’s nameless child (80). In “The Artificial Nigger,” Mr. Head is sixty and Nelson “ain’t but ten” (100).

But in “The River,” Harry Ashfield is “four or five” (24).

The uncertainty of “or” – conspicuous given O’Connor’s usual precision with age – suggests, at bottom, that the third-person narrator of “The River” takes breaks from omniscience. God is one subject of this tale, yet the storyteller does not spin the yarn with His authority.

Even the name of the protagonist is no sure thing. In the story’s opening pages he has no appellation save the generic (“child,” “little boy”), the ironic (“old man”), and the playful (“Sugar Boy”). Only when he has left his parents’ house with his babysitter, Mrs. Connin, does the child get a chance to introduce himself:

"'What’s your name?' she asked in a drowsy voice. 'I don’t know but only your last name. I should have found out your first name.'

His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought at any time before of changing it. 'Bevel,' he said (26)."

This passage is the lone time “Ashfield” appears in the story. In subsequent scenes, the narrator and Mrs. Connin call the child Bevel. The name Harry reappears merely for an overnight interlude, when the child returns home from his day with Mrs. Connin.

But in the morning, when the boy wakes and walks through the hung-over household, he is anonymous. The names Bevel and Harry do not appear. For eight consecutive paragraphs, the sole referent for the boy is the pronoun “he.” Read the story aloud, and the effect is stunning. “He” is the first word in six of those eight paragraphs. On one occasion, six consecutive sentences begin with “he” (43). On another occasion, four consecutive sentences begin with “he” (44). 

The boy’s name changes depending on whom he is with. He is Harry to his family, Bevel to strangers, and an anonymous “he” when alone. His identity depends on your point of view. In this respect, the narrator’s treatment of the boy is analogous to his treatment of Jesus Christ. For even Jesus is anonymous, depending on the perspective from which you view Him:

“When he had asked Mrs. Connin who the man in the sheet in the picture over her bed was, she had looked at him a while with her mouth open. Then she had said, ‘That’s Jesus,’ and she had kept on looking at him” (31).

From the point of view of a boy raised in a secular household, Jesus has no visual identity. He is nameless. He is simply “the man in the sheet in the picture over her bed.” The boy in “The River” does not recognize Jesus by looks alone. The boy merely sees an anonymous man: “He had long hair and a gold circle around his head and he was sawing on a board while some children stood watching him” (28).

The man in the picture only becomes Jesus after Mrs. Connin names him thusly. This is not the first time in “The River” one character fails to grasp the value of another’s picture: In the opening scene of the story, Mrs. Connin is baffled by an abstract watercolor hanging in the Ashfield household. “I wouldn’t have paid for that,” she says (24).

Whether you see Jesus or just a man with long hair depends on perspective; whether a watercolor is worth paying for also depends on perspective; in “The River,” even the color of the river depends on perspective. The first time we see the river, it is “a broad orange stream where the reflection of the sun was set like a diamond” (33). The next few times we read a river description, it is not orange but red (34, 35). Toward the end of the story, it is “shimmering reddish yellow” (45). At no point does the narrator use conventional colors of river water – brown or blue or gradations thereof.

Throughout the history of literature, authors have treated nature with narrative omniscience. Rain pours, wind blows, and clouds drift. But in "The River," even objects of nature are subject to perspective. What color is the river? It depends who is looking at it. What's your name, son? It depends who is asking. It is widely accepted that one man's bath is another's baptism. The magic of "The River" is its power to push this relativism one step further -- to put the lie to the concept of universal truths in general and sacred names in particular.

Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

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Ilan Mochari