Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The River” tells the unfortunate story of a young boy named Harry who finds himself searching for meaning in his life. Due to the neglectfulness of his parents, he is left to figure out his own morals and beliefs on his own. He struggles to find meaning in the world until one day he meets a pastor who gives him the hopeful message he had been longing for. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin explains that all humans are born with a sinful nature and we must make a conscious effort to choose to not fall into a sinful path. By understanding Augustine’s doctrine, one can better understand the underlying principles that can be found in the story that would otherwise go unnoticed to the reader.
Original sin in the story is most evidently found in the Ashfields’ household. The smell of dead cigarette butts, the emptiness of meaningless artwork, and the negative effects of alcohol plague their home with evidence of a sinful lifestyle. They are depicted as having fallen into the traps of several different sins because of their lack of religious beliefs. Their household represents the typical worldly, atheistic lifestyle that comes when people fail to realize their own total depravity and continue to live in their innate sinful ways.
The Ashfields prioritize their life poorly and have almost no concern with how they are raising their child. Harry’s parents view parenting as a joke. Flannery O’Connor writes, “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’” (O’Connor, 33). Unfortunately, this surplus of jokes could not fill the void where Harry lacked guidance, causing his open-mindedness towards the sermon by the river and his misunderstanding of the metaphorical message that Pastor Bevel had been attempting to instill in him through his baptism. “The Ashfield apartment is a bleak environment filled with sardonic laughter, and all that passes for humour is drenched in cynicism” (Sparrow). They obviously do not value anything, nor do they take anything seriously, especially the way in which they parent their young, impressionable son. In giving him everything by spoiling him, they ended up giving him nothing. They tried to use worldly possessions to fill the empty spot where he needed spiritual guidance.
Along with their flawed parenting, Harry’s parent’s sinful ways also cause them to neglect him. They do not bother to introduce him to his new babysitter or to even dress him correctly because they are rushing to get rid of him. His parents’ neglect leads him to the idea that there is something wrong with him and that he does not matter to the world causing him to act up in ways such as dumping ash on the floor and tearing up his books. “’He ain’t fixed right,’ a loud voice said from the hall. ‘Well then for Christ’s sake fix him,’ the father muttered” (O’Connor, 25). O’Connor uses this exchange to represent human brokenness and Harry’s need for saving from both his negative family atmosphere and his own total depravity. Furthermore, throwing Christ’s name into the scene deepens the allusion and contrasts with the dismissiveness of the conversation.
Another biblical allusion that highlights this theme of neglect and rejection is when Harry’s true name is revealed to be Harry and not Bevel. “’His name ain’t Harry. It’s Bevel,’ Mrs. Connin said” (42). His parents instantly rejected this new name and mocked it his new identity, deepening his resentment towards them and his feeling of being insignificant. Significantly, the idea of Harry having a new name holds symbolic weight because name changing was important in Bible times. Also, a “bevel” is a carpenter’s tool which relates Harry’s new name to Jesus since he was widely known to be a carpenter. Harry understood the importance of his changed name and of his baptism because he knew that he was born into sin and it was up to him to get himself out of it. His parents were stubborn in their ways and had no motive to change to be better which is why they rejected his newfound identity.
Even at Harry’s young age he realizes something that his parents fail to notice: his total depravity. He knows that there is something wrong in him that needs fixing, but he was never given guidance. When Harry hears of the preacher he asks, “will he heal me?” (O’Connor, 28). Harry is sick with a spiritual hunger that is caused by his social and familial deprivation. He seeks love and reassurance that can only be found through Christ. Unfortunately, he misinterprets the pastor’s message of healing which leads to his drowning in the river when he tries to ‘baptize’ himself to reach the Kingdom of Christ.
The doctrine of original sin is alluded to in almost every aspect of “The River”. It is found in the sinful home of the Ashfield’s, in the flawed parenting that shaped Harry’s development, and in the neglect and rejection that Harry faced throughout his life. Flannery O’Connor did not hesitate to implement her own religion into her writing. She obviously believed in the idea of total depravity, causing her story to reflect this in a relatable way. Harry’s fight for acceptance and love is a relatable struggle that connects the reader to the story. Works Cited
Sparrow, Stephen. “Baptism and the Sense of Place in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’ .” Getting Somewhere, 4 Mar. 2004, www.flanneryoconnor.org/ssbaptism.html.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Mariner Books, 1977.