Empire Falls Essays and Criticism
by Richard Russo

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The Knox River as a Metaphor

“Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?” Francine Whiting asks Miles Roby in Empire Falls. Apparently the idea of the river as metaphor has occurred to Richard Russo, because the Knox River comes to symbolize not just life in this novel, but God, death, and wealth.

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Readers are first introduced to the waters of the Knox in the prologue, when C. B. Whiting discovers the river’s irritating tendency to deposit “all manner of other people’s s——” on his lawn. Whiting comes to the conclusion that God is doing this to punish him for abandoning his true calling, the poetry and painting he left behind in Mexico. At one point he imagines that he hears the waters of the Knox calling to him, inviting him to commit himself to its depths (apparently the Knox knows who C. B. is destined to marry and is hoping to save him some grief). Rather than take the hint, C. B. Whiting decides to go to war with God and brings in experts who advise him to blast away a spit of land called the Robideaux blight.

Like God himself, the Knox giveth, and the Knox taketh away: Whiting achieves, at least temporarily, his goal of redirecting garbage from his doorstep, but in the bargain he gets Francine Robideaux, a far more formidable obstacle to his future happiness than any mere piece of land. Like the land she comes from—where little will grow and farming is next to impossible—Francine is a woman nearly barren of normal human emotion. When Francine gives birth to a daughter, motherhood does nothing to improve her drought of feeling; her newborn daughter is described as “writhing and twisting at her mother’s meager breast.” Later, Cindy’s struggles to elicit a few drops of affection from her mother are met with the same frustration. If the river represents God and also love, then Francine’s soul is in serious need of irrigation.

The name of the river presents other metaphoric possibilities. In building his hacienda, C. B. Whiting became the first Whiting to distance himself from the source of his wealth, namely, the people who worked in the mill and factory. By putting the river between himself and the rest of the town, he created a fortress—his own Fort Knox. This metaphor becomes even more appropriate with Francine Whiting in charge, given her tendency to hoard her wealth, meting it out to the town in small parcels with many strings attached. “When the woman was dead, it was hoped, the money would flow more freely,” Russo writes, just like the Knox River after the Robideaux blight was blasted away.

Another interesting comparison suggested by the name, and also by Grace Roby’s frequent use of the phrase “crossing the river,” is the similarity between the Knox and the River Styx. In Greek mythology, souls of the dead had to cross the River Styx to enter Hades, the underworld. A ferryman named Charon took the souls across the river, for which he required payment; the Greeks would bury their dead with a coin in their mouths to pay for their passage. Souls who came to the river without their fare at hand—or in this case, at mouth—had to wander the banks of the river for a hundred years before crossing. Once in Hades, souls were required to drink from the waters of the Lethe, another river, which made them forget completely their mortal lives.

The first time that Grace crosses the Knox River, she wears “a dark dress that Miles hadn’t seen her wear since the funeral of a neighbor,” to visit Francine Whiting and beg her forgiveness. It is not until she begins working for her on a regular basis, though, that Grace Roby begins dying by degrees. “During the years that Grace worked for Mrs. Whiting, Miles saw her lose the last bloom of her womanhood,” the narrator states, and then later, “With each passing season, she grew more gaunt, more ghostlike .” As if she has drunk the waters of the Lethe, she becomes increasingly forgetful and distant with her family on the “living” side of the river, and...

(The entire section is 8,200 words.)