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
precision with age – suggests, at bottom, that the third-person
“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
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
The name Harry reappears merely for an overnight interlude, when
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
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
sentences begin with “he” (43). On another occasion, four
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
treatment of the boy is analogous to his treatment of Jesus Christ. For
Jesus is anonymous, depending on the perspective from which you view
“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
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
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:
long hair and a gold circle around his head and he was sawing on a
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
“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
perspective; in “The River,” even the color of the river
perspective. The first time we see the river, it is “a broad
where the reflection of the sun was set like a diamond” (33). The
times we read a river description, it is not orange but red (34, 35).
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
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.