Conversion experiences are quite common in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Many of her characters realize personal emptiness and seek fulfillment in Christian rituals, hoping to discover a loving God who is more accepting and caring than the people who surround them. Such is the case of Harry (Bevel) in O’Connor’s “The River.” A little boy of four or five, Harry is used to being ignored in his home; his parents are self-indulgent, careless adults who satisfy their own needs before those of their child. When Harry’s babysitter, Mrs. Connin, provides him with a chance to attend a revival meeting at the local river, Harry’s life is changed forever. His trip to the countryside not only changes his name to Bevel (suggesting depth and complexity) but also changes his attitude and his goals.
Having learned well from his parents in the negative surroundings of the city, Harry initially is depicted as both a thief and a liar. He tells Mrs. Connin his name is Bevel (thus associating himself with a local preacher of Christianity), and he sneakily removes both a flowered handkerchief and a valued biblical storybook from her house. Her home in the isolated country, with its freedom and openness, stands in direct contrast to the cloistered prison of Harry’s city existence. Although Harry/Bevel is tricked by Mrs. Connin’s children into a scary encounter with a hog, his general impression of the rural scene is one of pleasure and contentment.
Especially exciting is his encounter with Jesus, both in a picture on Mrs. Connin’s wall and in the stolen storybook. These first encounters become second rate, however, after Mrs. Connin takes him directly to a confrontation with a savior at the baptismal site on the river, where the Reverend Bevel Summers is “winning over souls” and transforming lives so that people “belong.” Harry/Bevel’s desire for acceptance and love through his cleansing in the blood of the Lamb eventually results in his immersion in the “blood-red” river and in the preacher’s assertion that his life will now somehow be different.
After this conversion, Bevel returns to his home in the city. Its clutter and dirt suddenly motivate him to return to the river, which holds the promise of a removal of pain and sin.
Even the countryside, though, has its skeptics, its agnostics who reject faith. In “The River,” O’Connor uses the figure of Mr. Paradise, an obese old man who attends Bevel’s baptism, as a figure who would recapture the small boy and return him to a salvationless life. Mr. Paradise “mockingly” speaks of Bevel’s salvation and denigrates the value of his renewal. When Bevel returns to the site of the revival meeting, Paradise follows him menacingly and seems intent on preventing him from attaining his goal of acceptance and peace, of finally belonging.
Harry/Bevel, in typical youthful innocence, has taken the preacher’s words about the river literally. In his attempt to find a lasting kingdom of Christ and the promised love and care the Savior offers, Bevel once again enters the river and attempts to become one with it. Repeating his immersion, he is initially rejected by the strong current but eventually he welcomes and embraces the river, which, ironically, causes his death by drowning. Harry/Bevel offers no resistance to the powerful water as it encompasses and pulls him under. Suddenly he is “something” rather than “nothing,” two words that recur frequently in the story.
Unlike the earthly Paradise, who offers material possessions (a huge candy cane), Bevel finds in his conversion and his death the acceptance he was not afforded in life. As in most O’Connor works, in life humans see through a glass darkly, but in death they gain full understanding and are fully accepted despite their sins and blemishes. “The River” offers a grotesque commentary on both a dying society and a demanding God: In death, life flourishes, while living only creates hell, a deathlike state of suffering and isolation.