Baptism and the Sense of Place in Flannery O'Connor’s "The River"
© 4 March 2004 Stephen Sparrow
In two lectures delivered in the year prior to her death, Flannery O'Connor told her audiences, "Somewhere is better than anywhere." O'Connor was emphasizing the importance of place for both the fiction writer and his subject, and she pointed out the danger inherent for the writer who "cuts himself off from the sights and sounds that have developed a life of their own in his senses." Flannery O'Connor grew up and lived in the American South. Her home state Georgia provided the setting for all her published fiction but her character specialty lay with portraying people attempting to abandon or escape the fundamentalist style Christian influence of the region. Typically, O'Connor characters find themselves facing the dilemma of either living with the anger and fear of spiritual dislocation or returning in humility to their faith origins. This dilemma is chillingly highlighted in O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood in which the protagonist Hazel Motes preaches a nihilistic sermon: "Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it." Motes' conclusion that human existence is basically devoid of all purpose is a mindset used repeatedly by O'Connor to theme her stories. In
"The River", this theme takes the form of a young innocent boy attempting to escape the fallout of 20th Century nihilism.
Little Harry Ashfield lives with his parents in what amounts to a loveless household. The Ashfields can't face reality and most of the time they're either drinking, or recovering from the effects of their drinking. The Ashfield apartment is a bleak environment filled with sardonic laughter, and all that passes for humour is drenched in cynicism: very confusing for Harry since everything his parents say or tell him comes across as a joke, a joke that always ends in emptiness, as if this world were meaningless.
The story itself is a powerful one and of all O'Connor's shorter fiction, is probably the best in terms of economy of prose style combined with near flawless imagery. However before digging too far into it, I think we need help with some tenets of religious faith plus an explanation of baptism.
Judeo Christianity with its doctrine of original sin has a built in curb on human pride, something other faiths lack. Original sin presumes the need for salvation, which inside Christianity is satisfied by Christ's redemption. All other beliefs reject original sin and hold that man is ultimately perfectible by his own unaided effort, which inevitably leads on to human natural selection or survival of the fittest (fatalism). Judeo Christianity breaks that circle of fatalism, enabling the believer to start on a journey of freedom, knowing his spiritual destiny lies in his own hands and that God can do everything except deny him that freedom. In typically down to earth style Flannery O'Connor summed it up by saying. "Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live."
Two thousand years have elapsed since Jesus Christ announced that He had come "not to abolish the law, but to fulfil the law" (Matt. 5:17). Christ taught that the kingdom of Heaven was open to all who desired it, be they Jew or Gentile, freeman or slave, man or woman or child. The new faith Christ proclaimed was truly universal and, by the end of the 1st Century A.D., the Roman authorities had begun using the Latin word Catholicam (meaning everyone) as a label for the followers of Christ and within three centuries, the name was in general use wherever Latin was spoken.
For those wishing to be numbered among the Catholicam; the first step was (and still is) the sacramental rite of baptism, which confers spiritual equality and significance. The ancient Jews purified themselves with water before either touching food or entering the Temple, so nothing could have been more natural than that Jesus Christ should have completely transformed that custom by proclaiming baptism as a sacramental and once only initiation during which the candidate is cleansed from all sin both actual and original. Baptism of infants usually doubles as a naming ceremony for the candidate. Adult candidates often adopt an additional name signifying their public decision to become a follower of Christ
So now, let's return to the problem little Harry Ashfield is facing. Mrs Connin, the babysitter has come straight from night shift to take Harry away for the day. Harry's father is dressing him and puts his coat on wrong; a detail noted by Mrs Connin who says plainly, "He ain't fixed right." Ashfield senior snarls back, "Well for Christ's sake fix him." There's latent prophecy in that exchange, which should hit the reader as Harry's day unfolds. O'Connor here uses the father's irritable retort to highlight the importance of baptism in the overall scheme of Christ's Redemption and the truth is, little Harry's never been baptised (he ain't fixed right), and who else but for Christ's sake does Harry need fixing (baptism). Harry's father is only interested in collapsing back into bed after getting his wife an ice pack for her hangover. He impatiently listens to Mrs Connin's explanation that because she's taking Harry with her to a riverside healing, they'll be late home and that she doesn't want to miss out on hearing the highly regarded Reverend Bevel Summers preach. As Mrs Connin and Harry turn to leave, Harry's father, almost as an afterthought, sticks his head out the bedroom door and calls, "Goodbye old man. Have a good time." No hugs, no kisses, just a brief, careless and indifferent farewell. And from Harry's mother? Nothing at all.
While waiting for the streetcar, Mrs Connin realises she forgot to enquire what Harry's first name is. Harry impulsively lies, saying his name is Bevel. Hearing Mrs Connin telling his father about the wonderful Reverend Bevel Summers has made Harry envious. In his short life he's experienced few signs of appreciation and admiration, but this preacher obviously has, and with Mrs Connin's build-up, Summers sounds like someone Harry would definitely rather be. So, why not adopt the man's first name and hopefully assume his lively persona. Maybe, the name Bevel did that for people. Anyway, it certainly worked with Mrs Connin who "stood looking down at him as if he had become a marvel to her," and so for the rest of the story, O'Connor's omniscient narrator uses only the new adopted name Bevel. Harry has become Bevel, a fact that later gains enormous significance at the riverside.
However, insecurity still dogs Harry and he asks Mrs Connin if the Reverend Summers will heal him. "What you got?" She asks and Harry pauses before admitting that he's hungry; he hasn't had his breakfast. However, something more than the lack of food is the problem since it's not as if Harry is materially deprived. Toward the end of the story we're told that in general the boy is well fed, well clothed and has plenty of books and toys, but that he periodically destroys his books. His parents react by merely replacing the torn up books with new ones instead of giving Harry the love and attention he so desperately seeks. In both places in the story, O'Connor is alerting us to the fact that hunger also has a spiritual dimension and that all human beings require spiritual nourishment in order to live well balanced lives, echoing what Christ said in the New Testament, "Man cannot live on bread alone" (Matt.4: 4).
After arriving at Mrs Connin's house, her three boys make Harry the subject of a practical joke involving an escaped hog; a joke that leaves Harry frightened and upset and needing to be cuddled by Mrs Connin. Life for the little boy seems full of jokes that are anything but funny.
Later the family start walking to the river. Mrs Connin is in the lead, and bringing up the rear
is her tall daughter whose role is to ensure none of the boys run out onto the road. “They looked
like the skeleton of an old boat with two pointed ends, sailing slowly on the edge of the highway.”
While walking, little Harry reflected on the day so far. He much preferred it when the sitter took
him away from the house. You found out more when you left where you lived. So far he’d discovered
from Mrs Connin “that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus.” Prior to that he’d always
assumed it was the family doctor who had made him. Realising Harry knew nothing of sacred scripture;
Mrs Connin read to him from a small illustrated child’s set of bible stories. To emphasise how
precious the book was, Mrs Connin had pointed to the date inside the front cover; 1832. When she
wasn’t looking, Harry had slipped the book inside the lining of his coat. There was nothing
valuable or important like this at his home and Harry wanted it because it told him who he really
At the river, Harry sees parked cars, tables laden with food and a crowd clustered on the edge of the orange coloured water. The Reverend Summers, a lanky raw-boned man in his twenties, stands knee deep in the water talking and occasionally singing. He tells the crowd, "If you ain't come for Jesus you ain't come for me…There ain't but one river and that's the River of Life, made out of Jesus' blood," and that was the river they had to lay their pain in; in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus' Blood. All the rivers came from that river and returned to it and they could lay their pain in that river and get rid of it because that was the river that was made to carry sin: a river full of pain moving toward the Kingdom of Christ. Summers talks about the gospel healings and how it is that same river that cured these people and how this old red river goes on to the Kingdom of Christ.
Mrs Connin is bursting to get involved in proceedings and calls out to Summers that she has this boy for the day who's mother is sick and adds that his first name is Bevel, just like his. Between Mrs Connin and Summers it's assumed Bevel has never been baptized. The preacher reaches out and takes hold of the boy and tells him that if he gets baptised, he'll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ; he'll be washed in the river of suffering; he'll go by the deep river of life. "Do you want that?" asks Summers. Bevel replies yes, thinking he won't have go back to the apartment; he'll go instead "under the river." Summers baptises the boy there and then and as the gasping spluttering child's head emerges from the river Summers tells him, "You count now. You didn't even count before." Unlike infants, Harry is at least aware that something momentous happened with his baptism but the real significance of it is completely lost on him. All he knows and has taken to heart is that the Reverend Bevel Summers has publicly told him how important he now is.
Mrs Connin calls out for Summers not to forget the little boy's sick mamma. Summers commences praying for her and asks Bevel what his mother's illness is and the little boy blurts out that she has a hangover. After a mocking guffaw from one bystander, an embarrassed silence ensues.
Back at the apartment the Ashfields are hosting another party. Mrs Connin tells Harry's parents, "he's had a long day." Mrs Ashfield doesn't get up off the sofa where she's lying but just says. "Hello Harry. Did you have a big day?" Confusion over the boy's name now erupts with Mrs Connin indignantly claiming his name is Bevel; the same as the preacher's and that furthermore, Bevel's been baptised that morning and as well they had all prayed for Mrs Ashfield to be healed. Harry's mother is furious and demands to know, "healed of what for Christ's sake?" Her husband facetiously asks about the nature of this affliction and in patronising style remarks, "healing by prayer is mighty inexpensive." Mrs Connin is so dismayed by all this apparent anger and callousness that she leaves without her sitter's money.
The irony is the reality that healing by prayer is mighty inexpensive but still remains the only way to heal anyone afflicted with a heart of stone. Almost straight after Mrs Connin's departure, Mrs Ashfield gets off the sofa and goes into Harry's room where he's already put himself to bed. She hasn't gone in to wish him goodnight; she just wants to find out what lies her son told the preacher about her and what the preacher said in return. In the darkened room Harry tells her. "He said I'm not the same now, I count."
When Harry wakes the next morning, his parents are as usual out to it. It'll be after lunch before they surface he thinks, so he gets up and mooches around the lifeless apartment sampling left over food and drink and mischievously emptying a few ashtrays onto the carpet. His mind returns to the events of the previous day, especially to the unfulfilled promise of the Preacher about the Kingdom of Christ. It was as if he were
"gradually seeing appear what he didn't know he'd been looking for." He decides to return to the river by himself. He raids his sleeping mother's pocketbook for streetcar vouchers and heads off taking nothing with him since there was nothing from the apartment he wants. Where he's going he won't need a thing. That was the Preacher's message.
Harry finds the riverside healing place deserted. He bounds into the water, takes a gulp and stands there trying to decide what to do next. One thing for sure he isn't going to fool with preachers this time. He'll baptise himself and find this Kingdom of Christ where he thinks life will be so much better than it is back home. He ducks under the water and tries to stay there but the river pushes him back. He tries again,
"and the same thing happened. The river wouldn't have him." He decides it's just another joke. He gets angry and kicks out at the river and the next thing loses his footing,
"and the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he
was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting
somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him."
In a series of lectures published in Mystery and Manners under the title "On Her Own Work", Flannery O'Connor said that as a novelist she was interested in "the free act, the acceptance of grace particularly…the thing that will make the story work. In
"The River" it is the child's peculiar desire to find the Kingdom of Christ…none of these things can be predicted. They represent the working of grace for the character(s)" O'Connor's comments illumine the question of free will and its corollary Christian faith. Christianity is not just a theory or a scheme of morals. The Christian mysteries are guarded by dogma and flowing from dogma is doctrine and rituals, which are required to be taught by people imbued with
a sense of moral authority: and baptism is the ritualistic threshold for all who formally become followers of Christ.
Parents who swap faith for cynicism can only pass on travesties of truth, which even children using the God given natural law are capable of seeing through. Christ in The New Testament warns of the dire consequences for those who lead others astray; and that includes those who knowingly neglect to instruct children in faith (Matt. 18: 6-7). When parents default on that duty, the almost inevitable result is fatalism, which drags in its wake addictions of all sorts from reliance on alcohol or drugs through quack psychological theories to Tarot Cards and their ilk; all of which are in reality counterfeit religions highlighting the grim cost of being spiritually starved of the 'right food.' By the grace of God, (in the fictional sense) Harry was spared that misfortune. His parents would of course be totally bewildered about what happened to their little boy and why, but maybe some good would come out of that bewilderment. As O'Connor said in her lecture "Catholic Novelists And Their Readers",
"God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being."
In one of her numerous letters to Betty Hester (November 22 1958), Flannery O'Connor wrote, "We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness…It is better to be young in your failures than old in your successes."
For Harry this 'failure' meant blundering into the world of adult reality, albeit shrouded in mystery. Lacking the guidance of wise and loving parents he resorted to a 'do it yourself' solution to find the somewhere where all his pain would be washed away. The Ashfields had evaded the almost terrifying responsibility of ensuring their child had access to truth, couched in terms apposite to his level of maturity. Mrs Connin did her best in the time available to remedy the situation but unwittingly provided the conduit leading to Harry's premature death. However in the wider scene, Mrs Connin also opened the door for the boy's eternal salvation at possibly the one time in his life when Harry was both ready and willing to embrace it.
So what redeeming feature if any does this story exhibit? For an insight let's return to the lecture entitled, "Catholic Novelists And Their Readers" and this O'Connorism, "If you believe in the Redemption, your ultimate vision is one of hope, so in what you see you must be true to this ultimate vision: you must pass over the evil you see and look for the good because the good is there; the good is the ultimate reality."
Viewed in that light, "The River" may well appear as a story with an unhappy ending, but an ending nevertheless brimming with Christian hope in some place where there is neither death nor pain nor grief and where every tear is wiped away (Revs. 21:4). The only alternative viewpoint is the message of Hazel Motes from Wise Blood who started out preaching that anywhere is as good as somewhere, in a world totally devoid of meaning and purpose.