Themes and Meanings
Flannery O’Connor sees a world full of social, familial, economic, and even medical problems, and one of her themes is how to rear a child in such a troubled world. At first, it may appear that Mr. and Mrs. Ashfield are terrible parents and that Mrs. Connin does an excellent job of attending to Harry’s physical and spiritual needs. O’Connor complicates this theme by showing that Harry has turned out to be a clever and courageous boy, either despite his parents’ neglect or because they leave him alone, while Mrs. Connin’s sons are mean boys. More than once, Mrs. Connin is described as resembling a corpse. Such comparisons may foreshadow a happy death for Harry; alternatively, they may call into question the value of the ideas to which she introduces Harry. The child-rearing theme becomes more complex at the river; although the Reverend Summers may seem to be a good substitute father for Harry and Mr. Paradise may seem like an abusive parent, at the end of the story, when Harry returns to the river, he wants nothing more to do with preachers. It is Mr. Paradise who gives Harry the needed push to take him where he longs to go.
O’Connor is noted for her stories about religion. This story presents fundamentalists, blasphemers, people with no interest in religion, and, in Harry, a character living in perfectly ignorant innocence about religion. In other O’Connor stories, both fundamentalists and blasphemers can earn her respect, but a major concern for O’Connor in this story is religious ignorance and the extent to which an individual needs to understand the complexities of religious dogma to be considered religious. If Harry has a sense of religion, he appears to create his own religion from scratch in the course of this story. Even when he does receive religious training, from Mrs. Connin’s book or from the young preacher’s sermon, Harry seems to leave these teachings behind. When he reaches the river at the end, Harry means to baptize himself—without a preacher. In Harry Ashfield, O’Connor depicts either a character pathetically destroyed by his ignorance and his misunderstanding of religion, or one saved by the religion that he, as a free, autonomous individual, constructs for himself.