Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club Week 3: “The River”

Little Harry/Bevel, the main character of “The River,” has spent his whole life in a world where he doesn’t he doesn’t matter. He lives, in fact, in a world where nothing matters. Everything is a joke in his parents’ world. His father jokingly calls him “old man,” and he is compared to “an old sheep waiting to be let out,” but his parents are perpetually adolescent, refusing to take any responsibility for him.

From the boy’s first encounter with Mrs. Connin, he starts his exodus out of his parents’ world and into another. He gives himself a new name, affiliating himself with the preacher Bevel Summers (and it is worth noting that the narrator never calls the boy anything but Bevel thereafter). He doesn’t know what ails him, but something in him resonates when he hears that Mrs. Connin is taking him to hear a faith healer preach.

“Will he heal me?” Bevel asked.
“What you got?”
“I’m hungry,” he decided finally.

He’s talking about a physical hunger, but this is a story about a spiritual hunger that little Bevel doesn’t have any language for. His visit to another world stirs up in him longings he didn’t know he had and reveals to him things he had never had any way of knowing.

He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke. They joked a lot where he lived. If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damn” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.

O’Connor was a gifted ironist. And yet in this story she strikes a blow against a view of the world that is finally ironic. She admires the earnestness of those good country people, Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers. Little Bevel’s family represent a theme that we will see in many of the stories that we will read throughout the rest of the summer. They represent an urbanity and sophistication that is never adequate to support the weight of truth. Simple country folk–even ignorant country folk–always come closer to the mark than the sophisticated. That’s not to say that the ignorant and unsophisticated are always right in O’Connor’s fiction. They are wrong often enough. I merely suggest that their track record is quite a bit better than that of the educated and citified.

One of the many ironies of O’Connor’s career is that her reading audience shared much more in common with little Bevel’s parents than with Mrs. Connin and her ilk. But if any reader mistakes his own disdain for the earnest but ignorant Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers for any disdain on O’Connor’s part, he will soon find himself in the ditch like Bailey Boy’s car. On more than one occasion O’Connor made it clear that, Catholic though she was, she came down on the side of the backwoods pew-jumper. (I will offer up the specifics in a later post.)

But I digress.

When Little Bevel stands before the preacher whose name he has taken, he is offered a chance finally to be a part of something real and un-ironic:

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river. Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water. He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child. Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated. “You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.”

It’s a scary scene, with the boy being held under water and coming up gasping. But I don’t think O’Connor meant any of this ironically. The boy does count now in a way that he didn’t count–indeed, still doesn’t count–at the apartment. The Ashfields take offense at the fact that Mrs. Connin let the boy be baptized and had the preacher pray for Mrs. Ashfield, but they don’t offer any alternative meaning for him to grasp onto. The next morning, the boy is as abandoned as ever when he wakes up at home. It is no surprise that he returns to the river in search of the kingdom of Christ–the kingdom where he counts.

“The River” is a highly discussible story because it is more ambiguous than many of O’Connor’s stories. Here are a few of the questions that remain for me:

  • What do you make of the boy’s determination “not to fool with preachers any more but to Baptize himself”?
  • Why is Mrs. Connin twice described as looking like a skeleton?
  • What do we do with those hogs? It’s clear enough that the shoats in the pen are connected to the hogs that received the evil spirits that Jesus cast out of the man…but what are we to make of it? And is there any significance to the fact that Mrs. Connin got the story wrong? Jesus didn’t cast pigs out of the man; he cast spirits out and into the pigs. I just take it as evidence that Mrs. Connin is ignorant and confused; but does that in any way diminish her authority as a guide for the little boy?
  • I didn’t even touch on Mr. Paradise, who is obviously an extremely important figure. What’s he doing in the story? Why is is name Paradise?
  • Some of you may completely disagree with my reading and see some irony or something sinister in Bevel Summers. If so, let’s hear from you.
  • Madeleine’s husband

    Joining this book club a little late…
    It seems to me that Mr. Paradise is the only one offering true salvation to the boy, hence his name, though it’s too late to be effectual. Bevel’s family is ineffectual, as well-described above. And Mrs. Connin does come off better than the family, and she certainly is earnest, but in the end, she and the preacher don’t really help him either.

    Flannery appears to be attacking both sides of the coin. Urbanity and sophistication are awful. But how does false religion really help? The preacher said some of the right words, that it wasn’t the water which was healing, but the blood of Christ. And Christ’s blood does heal! But he didn’t back up the words with his actions. He acted as if it was just the water that was magical. That just by dunking the child’s head under water it automatically made him count. He didn’t really teach that Christ’s blood will redeem you and will change your life (not just get you wet).

    Did Mr. Paradise have the truth? Not really clear, but at least he tried to help the boy.

  • Amy L

    #2)  On her description as a skeleton, I assumed that O’Connor was criticizing her faith as well.  She did once have a life, but now her faith is mere bones.  She, too, isn’t a good parent, though she’s worlds better than the Ashfields.  She doesn’t desire to find the Kingdom of Christ.  She does have ideas about right and wrong – “you pervide” – but is still missing the meat of how suffering brings you to the Kingdom.  That was my guess.  She’s got the bones – no meat.

    #3 and 4) She said that Jesus cast hogs out of the man, but we all know Jesus cast demons out of the man.  So, I figured, hogs = demons.  The hog we met, we were told reminded Mrs. Connin of Mr. Paradise.  I went straight to Mr. Paradise = demon.  Was I making too simple of an assumption?  Then, because I thought that he was an evil character, the moment he picked up the piece of candy, I immediately assumed he was following the boy so he could lure him away and molest him.  My stomach churned at those few words (“picked out a peppermint stick”).  I thought, “No, O’Connor!  The boy is seeking Kingdom of Christ!  Don’t let him meet a predator instead.” Mr. Paradise is then described again as “something like a giant pig” and “some ancient water monster” with “dull eyes” – certainly not the phrases I’d use to describe someone who would be the boy’s savior.   I was RELIEVED when Bevel drowned instead of being caught by him.  Child molestation is one of the few things in the world that people will say is “a fate worse than death.”  Bevel is saved from that fate.

    But that reaction was completely based on my a=b, b=c, a=c assumptions.  So, if I’m wrong there, then I’m altogether wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Chapter 1 of Ralph Wood’s book _Literature and Theology_ is entitled, “The Scandalous Baptism of Harry Ashfield in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River.’”  His assessment echoes a lot of what you’ve stated above, particularly viewing Mrs. Connin and Bevel Summers in a basically positive light.  As to Harry’s determination “not to fool with preachers…” I think the remainder of the sentence is important, “and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river.”  Wood offers this: “Reasoning with the splendid consistency of a four-year old, he concludes that, because he had been made to count for so much by staying under the water so little, he would count absolutely if he stayed under the water permanently.  In theological terms, Harry Ashfield desires not partial but full salvation, not only baptismal grace but also confirming faith.  He also knows, at least instinctively, that to be reared by his parents would be to experience a living hell.

    “Since baptism is an indelible sacrament, it can be performed only once and never by oneself.  It’s important to note that Harry does not, in fact, baptize himself again.  He does not utter the triune baptismal formula at all.  Indeed, he almost fails to keep himself under the water, so resistant is the natural buoyancy of his body.  The boy himself fears, in fact, that the entire baptismal business may be a deceit, that there may be no radical newness of life, that the world of salvation may be no better than the hellish world of his parents – so near are faith and doubt, so close are salvation and damnation, in O’Connor’s world as in life itself” (10). 

    As to Mr. Paradise, “a sort of resentful Miltonian Satan who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.  That Mr. Paradise is in fact a Luciferian and nihilistic figure is made evident in his manner of fishing: he dangles his line in the water without a hook, convinced that there is nothing to be caught and nothing worth catching” (8). 

    “In Harry’s radically compressed commencement in Christian existence, there is no time for a positive performance of [the eucharist].  Yet the child instinctively recognizes and refuses an anti-eucharistic offering when demonic Mr. Paradise wields it as a phallic candy-stick of sexual seduction.  Though humanistic readers may want to see the old man as seeking to save the boy from drowning, O’Connor’s symbolism is unmistakable – if only by way of what nearly every schoolchild is taught: Do not accept offers from strangers wanting to give you candy.  And so in flight from this Luciferian seducer, Harry finally is able to remain beneath the water.  No longer angrily fighting it, he yields graciously to the river’s gentle pull…” (10-12). 

    Folllowing the positive view of Mrs. Connin, perhaps the two-fold description of her looking like a skeleton indicates that she’s learned to die to this world, that she understands that following Christ fundamentally requires a life of cross-bearing and self-denial.  Also, she may get the story of the Gadarene demoniac wrong, but to Harry’s ears its “good news” since his encounter with a pig was anything but pleasant.  This Jesus, according to Mrs. Connin, can deal with Harry’s greatest fear(s). 

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I’m leaning toward this interpretation of Mr. Paradise, hog-connections aside. It seemed in the end that his desire was to save little Bevel, and the day before he was the one poking some holes in the faith healing. Though, hmmm, depending on how symbolically we’re looking at this, maybe Paradise’s attempt to rescue little Bevel was like Satan trying to keep people out of the Kingdom of Christ. Somehow I think that idea is a bit farfetched.

    This was such a sad but beautiful story. I’m pondering a number of things that I’ll try to come back to later.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I first read this story last summer, and when Mr. Paradise started following Bevel, I worried that he was an evil man, but I also hoped he was curious about a four-year-old out in that place alone the day after the river meeting. I choose to assume that he was watching out for the boy, grabbed the huge candy cane as a lure because he is a scary looking man, and when he say him in the river tried to save him. But the imagery of sin, demons, and pigs is all over Mr. Paradise, the one vocal skeptic at the river, especially in that last description, like you say Amy. So I’d like to think O’Connor is being ironic here. On a human level, Paradise was trying to save the child. One a spiritual level, he was the embodiment of sin or the devil seeking to luring Bevel out of the river of life, the Kingdom of Christ.

    I didn’t know what do to do with this story when I first read it, but after looking at the other two stories with y’all on this site, I believe O’Connor is showing us real Christianity in a rather terrible way. The way of the world is dead. That apartment has nothing, not even love, for a four year old. He didn’t count. That country home may not be much better in that there were mean kids and lots of pigs, which may symbolize sin. And the way of everlasting life is to die to the world, to fully surrender to the world. When Bevel pushes into the water at first, something, like his sin nature,  holds him back. He has to fight with himself and run from sin embodied in Paradise in order to leaving his fear and fury in the water. That’s both scary and glorious.

    But I’m open to viewing Paradise the pure evil. He appears to be stalking Bevel at the end, not watching out for him, and Mr. Paradise is just the kind of sick name a pervert would have. And the story says he used an unbaited line, not a hookless line, if that makes a difference.

    Thank you, Jonathan, for clearing up what the preacher says at the end of the baptism. I thought he was saying Bevel would be able to count, whereas he could not before, and so the preacher was making up a miraculous healing of a sort the charlatans still do. I misread that. As for Bevel’s desire to no longer fool with preachers, I took that to mean he wants salvation, that he wants to know Christ and his resurrection personally, not through a mediator like a preacher.

    One more thing, is it ironic foreshadowing to have Bevel’s father say at the beginning, “Well then for Christ’s sake fix him,” when that’s the very thing the story is about?

  • Madeleine

    I can’t jump on board the idea at the drowning in the river
    was a good thing, a joining of the kingdom of God. As sincere and, perhaps,
    well meaning the folks at the river may be, they are misguided. Bevel Summers
    has a lot to say, and some of it sounds OK, but his misses the mark. He preaches
    on while people toy with their false beliefs and does nothing to correct them. And
    the one action he finally takes doesn’t work. Little Bevel knows that little
    dip didn’t do it. He went back to the apartment at the end of the day.

     To my modern
    Christian mind, this youthful preacher is a new gospel and a new church. It
    reaches out to the seekers, it wakens their longings, but at the end of the
    day, it doesn’t give them the meat of the true gospel to fill that spiritual
    hunger and bring about true growth and change. (Maybe similar to your “no meat
    on the bones” idea, Amy L.)

    Mr. Paradise to me is the old church. The old church holds
    the keys to paradise. It has the truth, but after all these years what has
    become of it? It’s an ugly old man with dull eyes who wastes his time heckling
    the newbies and offering no real hope to those who are lost. He will not act to
    correct those misguided souls splashing in the river. His criticism of the new
    church may be true enough, but his delivery turns away any who may have ears to
    hear.

    I pondered why Ms. O’C gives him the chance to save the
    child. I think it’s because he is the only one who could. This is his chance at
    redemption. He finally wakes up and jumps to action, but instead of being the
    sweet savor of life, he is a fearful image to the drowning boy. He is too late,
    his sudden striving fails, his eyes are too dull to see.

    No one saves Little Bevel. Like so many others he is lost
    while the church dabbles with muddy doctrine, ineffectively criticizes its
    failings, and finally frightens them away during the one last ditch attempt at
    salvation.

  • Madeleine’s husband

    Just a note: the above post and this comment are by Madeleine. My sweet husband did post the first comment and due to a posting snafu I am also tagged that way.  We will get this clarified for future posts. We are having fun doing this group together. It’s good to spend time thinking together about something new.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    I’m liking this very thoughtful discussion. So far we’re evenly divided between two opposite readings of the story’s conclusion. And it seems to come down to the question of whether or not Bevel Summers’ faith healing/baptism service can represent true faith. A man who opposes false baptism is a good man (or, in any case, has a decent chance of being a good man) whereas a man who opposes true baptism can’t be–or can’t be in a Flannery O’Connor story.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Amy L, your observations about Mr. Paradise are helpful. I buy your a=b, b=c, a=c scheme. I think it makes quite a bit of sense.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Philip, I’m interested in your suggestion that Mr. Paradise represents one thing at the human level and the opposite thing at a spiritual level. I’m not ready to buy into it, but I don’t think it’s impossible. O’Connor writes in at least one of her essays (her Introduction to a Memoir of Mary Ann) about a kind of well-intentioned kindness that is spiritually dangerous: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror” (Mystery and Manners” p. 227).

    Also, good eye catching that little moment of foreshadowing. I think you’re right.

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    I read this story at the end of last week, and I honestly still can’t get my head around it. Maybe because it’s so different than O’Connor’s other stories. I kept waiting for some twist, sort of like watching a new M. Night Shyamalan movie. I was trying to latch onto the characters but they eluded me. I couldn’t sense any pure “black hats” vs. “white hats” in this tale–although to say that O’Connor’s other tales contain such stock characters would be to insult her subtlety. I find it interesting how many of the commenters seem to feel something positive about little Bevel’s drowning at the end. To me it just felt to disturbing and sad to attach any spiritual positive to it–but maybe I’m just thinking about it in the wrong way.

  • yankeegospelgirl

     ”a phallic candy-stick of sexual seduction…”

    *face-palm*

    Lord, save us from modern literary scholars.

  • Anonymous

    Thinking and further reflecting upon the story and the discussion, I can’t help but wonder if “we” as the readers, aren’t the ones that are really being exposed here.  Our respective views of Connin, Summers, and Paradise are driven quite a bit by our presuppositions or suspicions or prejudices, and I think O’Connor uses that to draw us in expecting one thing, but then uses that against us, so to speak.  We’re suspicious of Bevel Summers, and are inclined to believe that Mr. Paradise is right to scoff that Summers is a fraud, but if we take Summers at his word, then why should we conclude that?  Summers makes orthodox statements regarding faith and salvation, and employs imagery similar to that of Cowper’s famous hymn “There Is as Fountain Filled with Blood.”   Furthermore, Summers never jokes about what he’s doing.  He’s serious, which contrasts to Harry’s world where “everything  was a joke.”  And then we read: “From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.”  Harry knows that Summers is not a fraud, and just moments before he instinctively grasped the back of the preacher’s collar when Paradise let out a loud laugh.  Is this evidence of Harry’s burgeoning child-like faith?  Finally, Harry perceives Paradise to be a “giant pig bounding after him.”  In the context, pigs = demons/devils, so through the eyes of Harry’s faith, he is rescued when “the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down.” 

    I think O’Connor expects us to be suspicious of the unsophisticated Mrs. Connin, but she’s not really “conning” anyone.  I think O’Connor expects us to think that Summers could be a fraud, but, via Harry, shows him to be sincere.  I think O’Connor expects us to initially agree with Paradise’s assessment of Summers, but, in the end, he turns out to be the serpent in the garden. 

    Anyone know what to make of Paradise being “empty-handed” at the end?  That’s hardly accidental.  What might be the significance/symbolism of that? 

  • Alex Vercio

    Bevel Summers, the preacher, really caught my attention in this story. My
    initial reaction when he’s first introduced as a faith healer is that he’s a
    sham like Mr. Paradise says, making his money from fake healings. Then his
    statements about Little Bevel/Harry not counting before his baptism but
    counting after it seemed a little bit false to me. Did he not count to Christ
    before the baptism? It obviously doesn’t change whether he counts to the people
    in his life. He clearly doesn’t to his parents.

     

    But there are some things that Bevel Summers says that have
    stuck with me. Before the baptism he’s preaching to the crowd and they’re
    expectantly waiting a healing he tells them “you can’t leave your pain in the
    river… I never told no one that.”  I’m
    not informed enough about O’Connor’s own health problems or emotional history
    but I wonder if she had come to the conclusion that she couldn’t leave her pain
    in the river. I’m sure you have more insight into that Jonathan. Bevel does say
    that you can lay your pain in the “River of Life made out of Jesus’ Blood” but
    he also says that it’s “slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river
    round my feet.” Looking at his sermon in general it’s full of beautiful,
    soulful diction and it doesn’t feel to me like O’Connor’s being ironic here, it
    feels like something beautiful and soulful is being said. Then just before
    Little Bevel/Harry is baptized the preacher tells him “If I baptize you… you’ll
    be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of
    life” and with the preacher coming back to the image of the river it brings to
    mind what he said about the slow nature of that river of suffering.

     

    People were asking for quick healing but what Bevel Summers
    doesn’t tell them what they want to hear. He tells them what I believe is a hard
    to swallow truth, that the river of the Kingdom is slow to wash you clean of
    your suffering. It doesn’t happen after one dip in a river. In my experience
    the paths that God lays out for our redemption are slow and difficult but I
    also believe that there’s so much beauty in “this old red suffering stream.” 

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    I’m afraid Ralph C. Wood isn’t as easily dismissed as that, YGG. He is an exceedingly insightful reader who has earned his place as one of the stalwarts of O’Connor criticism. There are literary critics who see a phallic symbol behind every bush, but Dr. Wood isn’t one of them. There’s nothing far-fetched about that reading.

  • Jess

    Aha, I have discovered the hindrance to my commenting. At least, as long as this comment actually posts. If it does, I will be back later unless an atom bomb hits my house.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    I suppose being empty-handed highlights again his wicked intentions. I didn’t want to see at first, but after reviewing the way Paradise is described noticing Bevel, following him, waiting for him mostly hidden on the riverside, and then the pig/monster/dull eyes description, I have to believe he is an evil man.

    Even though Bevel drowns in the river technically, the language is not horrible or that with which we would describe a horrible event like this. It’s “gentle.” The river takes away Bevel’s fear and fury. Doesn’t that show us O’Connor’s desire for us to read the end in an ultimately positive way?

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Glad to have you back, Jess. Tell us what solved your problem, in case it helps others.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

    Thanks. I wrote about the dual representation as my initial reaction, not wanting to see Paradise as an evil man, but on second thought, I think he’s every bit as evil as others have described him.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Alex and Joe, between the two of you I think you’ve done an excellent job of accounting for Bevel Summers. I’m always suspicious of faith healers, but as Joe has pointed out, judging from the sermon he preaches, he’s no farther out there than William Cowper…which isn’t far out there at all. And I agree with Alex that Summers’s sermon is so beautiful, it’s hard to imagine the author means us to look askance at it. That kind of lyricism is rare in O’Connor’s work; it catches one’s attention when it appears. 

    Alex, by the time O’Connor wrote this story, she was well acquainted with long, slow suffering. She had already been suffering from lupus for a year or two when she wrote it…and she had another twelve years of it before her. She would die from it at the age of thirty-nine.As for that “old red suffering stream,” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the rivers in Middle Georgia, but when they get high, they pick up that red clay and sometimes get so red that it wouldn’t take too much imagination to see the connection between being washed in the river and being washed in the blood of the Lamb. The Oconee River runs through O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville. Here’s a picture of it when the water is high; I’ve seen those rivers look redder than this.

  • Amy L

    Yes, I absolutely agree.  The “fury and fear left him” – that’s lovely. 
     
    Here’s what I think is our hang-up:  we seem to think that death is the worst possible option.  No!  Death is not a bad thing! 
     
    Bevel’s LIFE was awful.  What were his options?  Keep dumping ashes on the floor every day in the hopes that one day his parents would notice him and start treating him like a boy who mattered?  Go to Mrs. Connin’s house and be bullied by her kids every day?  Let the creepy Mr. Paradise lure him to the gas station?  How would any of those things be redemption? 

    Here are the choices:  “something like a giant pig bounding after him, shaking a red and white club and shouting.”  Does that sound like salvation?
    Or:  “the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and … all his fury and fear left him.”  I say that sounds a lot more like salvation.

    His drowning is his redemption.  Death is swallowed up in victory. 

  • Amy L

    I can’t see any reason for the candy stick other than as the lure of a sexual predator.  If he really wanted to befriend and help the boy, then why not just offer the drink he already had in his hand.  No, he finishes his soda first, slowly, while watching the boy walk away.  Super creepy.  He squints, wipes his mouth, then goes back and gets a grotesquely large candy stick.  Seriously, “a foot long and two inches thick”?  Calling it phallic is an absolutely fair statement.  Even if it had just been a regular candy cane, though, I still read that paragraph as a pedophile stalking his prey.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I like how you’ve put this, Madeleine. I have no idea if this was O’Connor’s intention, but it makes sense to me. I keep seeing Mr. Paradise trying to save little Bevel as something happening too little, too late.

    And the preacher Bevel speaks so much truth, but doesn’t seem concerned that the little boy he is baptizing really has no idea what he’s talking about.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    But Loren, for any denomination that practices infant baptism (as Catholicism does), the idea that a baptizee (is that a word) doesn’t understand what’s going on isn’t really a problem. If you’re, say, a Baptist, you would have a theological problem with that, but I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about O’Connor’s intentions from the fact that Harry/Bevel doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. 

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    See this is where I find myself trying to wrap my head around the story. You think Mrs. Connin is going to be a self-righteous prig (especially after she is critiquing the art in Bevel’s home), but she really isn’t. You think that Preacher Bevel is going to be a sham faith-healer, but he really isn’t. O’Connor continually upsets character expectations in this story.

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    Along the lines of the Mr. Paradise-as-Devil interpretation (which I’m not sure of, but seems somewhat plausible), could he also resemble Satan in his mocking from the riverbank? Similar to Satan in the wilderness with Jesus, “If you are the Son of Man…” 

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Madeleine (and Mr. Madeleine), thanks for jumping in and offering the counter view. This idea of Bevel representing the “new” church and Mr. Paradise representing the old is very interesting. I’ve been thinking on it, and I just can’t get there; I could possibly buy the idea that Bevel Summers and them represent some kind of new-fangled (and misguided) church, but I don’t see anything about Mr. Paradise that lets me accept the idea that he stands for the old church. Still, I’m really glad to get some countervailing views. Are you interested in making your case further re: Mr. Paradise?

  • Dan

    This paragraph regarding Mr. Paradise really stuck with me:

    Mr. Paradise has left his automobile back some way on the road (why so far back?) and had walked to the place where he was accustomed to sit almost every day, holding an unbaited fishline in the water while he stared at the river passing in front of him. (Appearing to be fishing but not really, is he waiting for someone to “attack” or is he the devil looking to “catch” a new believer?)  Anyone looking at him from a distance would have seen an old boulder half hidden in the bushes. (Why would you hide yourself unless you were planning something evil?) 

    I think he is called  Mr. Paradise to take us back to the garden where the serpent of old image is brought up.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Dan, what are you quoting? 

    Also, that’s an interesting observation, that the name might conjure up an image of the serpent in the Garden.

  • Anonymous

     Loren, to piggyback what JR mentions re: infant baptism, just because Harry doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have ANY understanding of what’s going on.  He has the faith of a four-year old.  It might be immature, but it’s still faith.  And, arguably, he gets “it” to the point that he chooses to walk away from a life of “ashes” to go to the River of Life. 

  • Scottsprinkle

    I am a little late joining the discussion here, but would still like to work through my opinions regarding this story. I read his for the first time a couple of years ago, but have always remembered it vividly. The tale of the young Bevel is heartbreaking, and though the ending might appear ambiguous, I think it is intended with more mercy than hopelessness.
    I don’t think the faith-healing Bevel hints at anything dark or sinister. His sermon is clearly not an exercise in self-promotion; he clearly claims no efficacy in the matter of healing. Instead, he points to Jesus as the source of any true healing. Also, I don’t think Mrs. Connin’s misinformation in relating the Bible story to Bevel negates her authority in transmitting the message of Jesus power to heal. I think of my own great-great grandfather, a circuit-riding preacher in the mountains of western North Carolina, who had little to no education available to him. Perhaps he wasn’t always entirely accurate in his factual information, but he was compelled to tell those around him (rural, uneducated folks, like himself) about the transforming power of Jesus.
    The “skeletal” imagery eludes me. The preaching Bevel is described as “bony”. At one point, Mrs. Connin and the children are described as (don’t quote me here) “the skeleton of a ship”. Maybe, as someone stated above, these people have the bare bones, the outline of what faith in Jesus Christ means.
    All in all, this is an unforgettable story. Can’t wait for more opportunities to discuss

  • April Pickle

    What a wonderful discussion! I am eating this up!  I read The River for the first time just before the reading club was announced, and felt the need to read it again before reading yesterday’s post along with the comments. I can identify with little Bevel here. Felt “The River” calling me back in!
    The first time, I didn’t recognize Mr. Paradise as evil, but the second time I saw through him. I didn’t like the preacher the first time (I think because he doesn’t seem to show much kindness toward little Bevel), but the more I think about him, the more I think that he may be a mouth-piece for truth that just speaks (often in metaphors) and lets the chips fall where they may, which tells me that there is a possiblilty that he may even be Flannery O’Connor! What he says is misunderstood by everyone and he just keeps on preaching.
    But I am curious about his reaction here:
    “…She has a hangover.” The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water. The preacher looked angry and startled. The red drained out of his face and the sky appeared to darken in his eyes.”

    Is he angry because the crowd is passing judgment? Is he just embarrassed to have prayed for someone with a hangover and not a regular-type of illness? Or is he angry that this child is lacking the care he needs? Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m baffled by this, which just reinforces the idea that he could be Flannery O’Connor herself! Isn’t it just like her to leave us baffled by some things without an explanation? It’s a fun idea to entertain, even if I’m dead wrong.
    I’m also seeing a pattern with the idea of escaping.
    “While he preached, Bevel’s eyes followed drowsily the slow circles of two silent birds revolving high in the air. …Behind, in the distance, the city rose like a cluster of warts on the side of the mountain.”
    1) Little Bevel’s first encounter with a hog leaves him wounded, but the next time a hog (Mr. Paradise) comes after him, the river carries him away from that monster.
    2) The first trip to the country provides a temporary escape from his sad environment, but it’s the second trip that provides a permanent escape.
    3) The first trip down into the water leaves Bevel “too shocked to cry.” But on the second trip “all his fury and fear left him.”

  • Jess

    Disqus was blocked on my computer. Once I figured that out, all I had to do was unblock it. I should have thought of it earlier, but I’m not really what you’d call a computer whiz. Anyway I’m glad I’ll be able to chime in on the next discussion, although in all honesty I probably won’t have anything intelligent to say. I loved reading the last two stories and loved even more everyone’s thoughts on them. I haven’t had a chance to read “The River” yet (I didn’t read this post either, so it’s not spoiled) but I’m looking forward to tonight when I do. :-)

  • Dan

    The bracketed text are my observations and questions. The rest is from Flannery O’Connor The Complete Stories page 173 except for my observation about the garden and the serpent.  The serpents promises were empty much like Mr. Paradises hook.  Reminds my of the witch in the Chronicals of Narnia with “Turkish Delight—rose-flavored candy dusted with powdered”
     
    Thanks for your kind words. 
     
     

  • http://www.bryanajohnson.wordpress.com/ Bryana Johnson

     Yeah, I felt the same way, Chris.

  • Madeleine

    On Mr. P. My thoughts on him came from working backward. I agree with Chris that this story was puzzling to me. I get to the end and there’s a neglected  4 year old who drowns in a river because his little concrete-thinking brain thinks that the real river will actually take him to a real kingdom where he counts. He mistakenly believes the magic is in the water like many of the others at the river that day. And the other person at the end is an ugly and cynical old man who belatedly tries to save him. My two questions were this: Why is Mr. P the one that is left to try to save the kid? Why is the bad guy called Mr. Paradise?
    As to why is he the potential savior? I wanted it to be Mrs. C. She’s the only who cared about him at all. Why doesn’t she try to save him? I think the answer is that she thinks that she has saved him. She took him to the healer and he was baptised. She got him fixed in spite of his crummy parents. So she can leave him in good conscience.
    Mr. P isn’t fooled by magic water. He knows a dip in the river doesn’t do a thing for the kid. I imagined he was curious when he saw the kid pass by again and decided to follow him to see what he’d do. Maybe he felt sorry for the kid with the drunk ma and the deluded sitter. (Maybe he even vaguely thought he should try to help the kid, hence the candy.}  But Mr. P isn’t one to get actively involved. He likes to sit on the sidelines and watch his unbaited hook. So that’s what he does. I think he was surprised to see the kid launch himself into the water and once he realized what was going on he knew he could no longer just sit by and make snide comments. But by the time he awoke to the severity of the situation it was too late.
    Question 2: Why is this despised guy called Mr. Paradise? Clearly everyone dislikes him. He has an ugly disease he wears like a badge. He teases the local hero. He makes jokes when everyone else is serious. I think that’s the irony. He has the truth but he has been corrupted physically and in the opinion of his neighbors. How does the world view the church? Do they sometimes see our sins on parade? Do they see us being cynical? Are we just raining on their sincerity and being a nuisance? Are we hard-hearted and ineffective? If we ever do get around to trying to save someone, do we come off as an angry hog using the word of God as a club instead of the sweetness of life? I think the true church could be accused of all these things. Even though we have the true gospel to give we are still fallen and sometimes we make no effort at reformation. Like Mr. P, we need a wake-up call.
    I am looking for redemption in this story and I don’t see it in Little Bevel.  He drowns in the river and, like the pigs of the Bible story, he is lost. There is only one Way to get into the Kingdom of Christ and it’s not muddy river water. No matter how sincerely he believes and how peaceful he feels about it, he won’t get there if he’s not on the Way. Where I see the potential for redemption in Mr. Paradise as he stand there dripping, staring dully down the river. What are you going to do now, Old Man? That little boy died in part because you acted too late. Will you continue to sit by squandering the truth you hold, or will you be prompted to action? I noticed that he is a pig who does not drown, and indeed he can’t. God will not let his true witness die, no matter how corrupted he has become. God will continue to woo him, call him, dunk him in the river and show him what a monster he has become. Redemption calls you Mr. P, will you follow?

  • http://www.bryanajohnson.wordpress.com/ Bryana Johnson

    Both excellent points — well put!

    And a man who embraces “false baptism” with humility and the simplicity of a child, convinced that it is true? Well, for such a man as that, so-called false baptism might even be made real, don’t you think? Maybe that is a central message here – regardless of whether or not the preacher was a phony and only speaking snippets of truth in the midst of a pack of lies, Bevel (the child) heard truth and pursued it with childlike faith.

    Paul says something about this, I believe….Philippians 1:18: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way,
    whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of
    this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.”

    Just a thought.

  • Madeleine

    Death IS the ultimate bad thing if it is death outside of Christ.

    I think the hang-up is that some of us see that Little Bevel gets salvation and thus his death is one of a believer who imediately enters into glory. Others of us are not convinced of his salvation and thus his death is into eternal damnation.

    A lousy life is better than eternal damnation, you may yet be redeemed. Also, I would submit to you, even with the promise of imediate glory, death is not something a Christian ought to seek as an escape from the horrors of life. God sends us sufferings for a purpose and I think the beauty of suffering is hugely lost in our culture. This is one of my big soap boxes and I’ll get off it now.

    Lastly, I am especially chilled to make the judgement call that death is preferred to life. Cries of euthanasia activists and abortion proponents have a similar ring in my ears.

    Or maybe I’m just being too concrete here.

  • http://www.jonathan-rogers.com Jonathan Rogers

    Hey, Madeleine (or Madeleine’s husband, as the case may be), I do think you may be getting too concrete, or too literal. Baptism is a dying to one life and a rising to another one. T0 see that truth enacted as literally as it is enacted in “The River” is jarring, but I don’t think Amy L, in remarking on it, is in danger of becoming a euthanasia activist. 

  • Jeff Brown

    In coming late to this discussion, I first want to say that I’m glad that there is a Reading Club devoted to this great author.

    Concerning “The River,” I have little doubt that Harry/Bevel is saved by the end of the story.  The occasions of salvation in O’Connor are never what we would consider ordinary, and they usually come at the end.  There is a sudden appearance of “positive” words, though not overly so.  In this one:  “For an instant he was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.”  In her novel, “The Violent Bear It Away,” there is another confluence of baptism and drowning in the death of a child that I believe is to be seen positively.

    To go a little off subject:  There is a 1967 film called “Mouchette,” by French director Robert Bresson (1907-1999), that has some remarkable similarities to “The River.”  It was based on a novel by Georges Bernanos.  I have never read anywhere that Bresson was influenced by O’Connor, but many of his films have the concerns and the “feel” of her work, especially the ones that take place in rural locations, “Diary of a Country Priest,” “Au Hasard Balthazar,” and “Mouchette.”  He was a Catholic, but not the kind O’Connor was; however, his view of God’s grace was very similar to hers.  As his films grew more pessimistic near the end of his career, he eventually identified himself as an atheist.  I would have loved to read her reviews of his films that he made before his death, assuming that she saw any, which I doubt.

    Sorry for the digression.

  • Madeleine

    This is Madeleine- we haven’t figured out the tagging yet. Yes, I know I tend to the concrete, literal, and pragmatic. I get worried when people get all theorectical and wonder if theyconsider how their ideas might be worked out pragmatically. I do not think Amy L. is ready to go euthanizing the ghetto (or the inane urbanity in this case-wow, what a job that would be these days..) Oh yes, and did I mention I can be pessamistic too? ha. And that’s why God gave me Mr. M to keep life a little lighter around here. He did have a better comment to offer, but it got deleted before posted and life got in the way after that. Once we get this tagging trouble figured out you all will love his balanced insights as much as I do.

  • sarah j

    I agree whole-heartedly. While I was also initially suspicious of the traveling preacher with a reputation for healing, the way he is actually presented seems to ring true. When a woman interrupts his sermon to claim she witnessed a prior miracle, he does not react the way we would expect from a greedy sham of a pastor:
    “The preacher lifted one foot and then the other. He seemed almost but not quite to smile. ‘You might as well go home if that’s what you come for,’ he said.” Essentially, the pastor is not trying to exploit his reputation for healing to get larger crowds or even sums of money. Instead of whipping the crowd into a frenzy over the possibility of healings (which I think many of us expect as readers), he preaches a more simple, humble message: “There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood.”Seems pretty orthodox and true to me. A bit later the pastor cries out, “This old red river is good to Baptize in, good to lay your faith in, good to lay your pain in, but it ain’t this muddy water here that saves you.” Again, his message doesn’t appear deceptive or shallow to me. Rather, I see the pastor carefully and quietly avoiding the kind of showy religion that draws crowds. He is honest about the slow work of sanctification, the unglamorous work of moving toward a Kingdom that turns everything upside down.He isn’t promising anything dramatic. It’s a stark contrast against the instant gratification and quick fixes of our culture (and perhaps the culture in O’Connor’s time?). The scene at the river also reminds me of the way crowds, especially religious folk, interacted with Jesus as he walked the earth.Humanity brought its expectations to the table, and Jesus disappointed them all, in a way, because the magnificent plan of God for creation was more humble (and simultaneously much grander) than the mostly political expectations humanity held for their messiah.Jesus was somehow less and more than what they wanted, and this is why he was called the cornerstone, over which many would stumble.There is something of that in Bevel Summers’ message.

  • Amy L

    I think the disagreement here has left the realm of the story.  I just want to know what O’Connor intended the end of the story to be – and I think she wanted to paint Bevel’s death as a good thing.

  • Jess

    I don’t have a whole lot to add, ‘cept that I lean more toward the side that sees the ending as a positive one and that Mr. Paradise is a creep. ;-)

    I do have one thing to comment on, though. As I read the baptism scene, little Bevel’s behavior really struck me… When he grinned dumbly at everyone and “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.” My first impression was, “He’s possessed by demons.” And Mr. Pig-paradise (or Hog-heaven, ha) laughs maniacally and frightens him. Then he snaps out of it when he realizes that it “was not a joke.” It’s almost as if the whole life as a joke thing is represented as demonic. Do you think that might have any weight, or do you think it’s just me making assumptions based on feelings?

  • Dan

    In this story it is interesting the play on names.

    Harry wants to be Bevel
    Harry’s Dad appears to want him to be an “Old Man”
    And perhaps Mr. Paradise wants to be “Mr. Paradise”

    Harry’s Mom calls him Harry (maybe satisfied with him as he is)
    Mrs. Connin calls him “Sugar Boy” in the beginning and then Bevel after he tells her his name.
    I do not believe the preacher calls him anything but wants him to “count”
    At the end is appears that Harry is done being Bevel

    “He intended not to fool with Preacher’s anymore but to Baptize himself”

    It looks like he maybe had left the idea of who everyone wanted him to be including himself and forgets himself and seeksthe Kingdom. 

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Good point re: infant baptism from a Catholic perspective vs. Baptist, JR. I’d forgotten that, and so, yep, I’ve been hung up on Bevel Summers because of my theology. Maybe that theological perspective is what’s held me back from joining the anti-Paradise camp. I couldn’t stick with the truth Summers spoke because there was a par that wasn’t true to me.

    Joe, you’re correct, too. I know two of my kids definitely came to Christ before they were four; there was no question that the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to the truth of what Jesus did for them. It was awe-inspiring to see because up until that point I wondered if I would really know when they understood. Maybe that’s why I wondered (and worried–as much as one can for a fictional character) if little Bevel grasped enough :) .

  • joy c.

    My knee jerk response when Paradise grabs the candy stick was the same as Wood seems to  indicate  it should be — geez, here we go, the old candy-from-a-stanger maneuver.  My instincts were for the boy to run away, and fast.  And I suspect that is exactly what O’Connor intended.  I also agree with Amy. L.  I can’t see any hope of something redeeming about Mr. Paradise, or his “baptism” of little Bevel.  All the imagery around him seems intentionally creepy to me.  Perhaps he might have been better named Mr. Paradise Lost.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mosessupposestwo Rebecca Reynolds

    Jess, I had a thought on the eye rolling, but I included it in the comment I just made on today’s post. :) Becca

  • Abby Pickle

       I read the story a second time, and was noticing the mentions of Mr. Paradise before he follows Bevel to the river. He is always shown in a negative light, compared to a hog or a “humped stone”, and Bevel is afraid of him:
       Just after Bevel is chased by the hog: “‘That one yonder favors Mr. Paradise that has the gas station,’ she said. ‘You’ll see him today at the healing.’… ‘I don’t want to see him,’ Bevel said.”
       At the river listening to the preacher: “…The shout directed out to the boy in the river, came from a huge old man who sat like a humped stone on the bumper of a ancient gray automobile…Bevel stared at him once ant then moved into the folds of Mrs. Connin’s coat and hid himself. …From time to time Bevel stared at him again from around Mrs. Connin….”
       After the preacher prays for Bevel’s mother: “…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….”
       Three times before his actions at the end, we are told that Bevel wants to stay away from Mr. Paradise. I think we as readers are supposed to be very afraid when he begins to follow the little boy to the river. And all the suspense, makes the river’s gentle rescue so much sweeter.

  • http://benjamindmorrison.blogspot.com/ benjamin

    really enjoying reading this blog.  i started reading o’conner a couple years back.  at first i was completely bewildered by her endings that often seemed unresolved till i started to appreciate the fact that she wants you to resolve it yourself.  anyway, i’m really hoping that “the turkey” is on the list for the summer!

  • Mvvmoran

    Very thoughtfully expressed. Thank you.