Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The omniscient narrator often presents events and descriptions from Harry’s perspective; although the narrator and the reader are much more knowledgeable than Harry, his understanding of the other characters and of what happens to him is taken seriously rather than being treated as a joke.

As a result, the meaning of much of the most important symbolism in this story is revealed by watching Harry observe the new world he discovers. The river is meaningful to Harry because the preacher tells him that he can go there instead of going home—the Kingdom of Christ as a theological concept and traditional river symbolism mean nothing to Harry. He may simply want a place where he matters, instead of living amid parties for his parents’ friends.

When Harry is aware of a traditional meaning, he quickly learns to reject it in favor of a new reality. What he expects a pig to be from reading books at home—a pal in a cartoon—is rejected as soon as he sees the ugly pigs found in the Connins’ yard, in Mrs. Connin’s book about Jesus, and even in the form of Mr. Paradise. The story encourages the reader to think about what sorts of symbolism a child can understand. Harry knows the name Bevel is significant, but does he know a bevel is an angle that is not a right angle? Harry plays with ashes, but does he see the irony in his surname, Ashfield? Does he think Mrs. Connin is a con artist, or that Mr. Paradise longs for paradise? Do adult readers who catch these meanings have any real advantage over a character like Harry who does not understand jokes?

The story expresses skepticism about the value of many tricks of the literary trade. O’Connor seems to suggest that a simple, perhaps crudely drawn picture of Jesus can carry more punch than a watercolor in a modern art style can, and that she wants to write a story with a strength that comes, in part, from its lack of sophisticated artfulness. O’Connor is famous for her humor, but since Harry is tired of an excess of jokes, this story maintains, for O’Connor, a very serious tone.

The River Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Asals, Frederick. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Flannery O’Connor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Caruso, Teresa, ed. “On the Subject of the Feminist Business”: Re-reading Flannery O’Connor. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Lake, Christina Bieber. The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005.

O’Gorman, Farrell. Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Robillard, Douglas, Jr. The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Spivey, Ted R. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995.