The Factors Leading to Harry’s Demise in O’Connor’s The River

The Factors Leading to Harry’s Demise in O’Connor’s The River

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The Factors Leading to Harry’s Demise in O’Connor’s The River           


In O’Connor’s story The River a young boy takes his own life in order to travel to the Kingdom of Christ. The boy lacks structure in his life, is neglected, and is bored. He lives with his parents in an apartment in a "city that rose like a cluster of warts on the side of the mountain". (P.35) There is not one particular incident that leads him to "baptise himself" (p.45), but a conglomeration of many. From his apartment and his parents, to his treatment as an adult, the only place in which he can find sanctuary is in the River of Christ’s blood. His new faith paired with his longing for acceptance is what will ultimately led to Harry Ashfield’s demise.

Descriptions of the apartment throughout the story introduce the reader to the world in which this young boy lived in. In the beginning of the story the reader is told of how the apartment’s air is stale with the smell of smoke. It is so bad that Mrs. Connin tells Harry that she will not be able to visit him in the apartment if she has to "smell those dead cigarette butts long". (p. 24) Yet another "flaw" Mrs. Connin addressed in the apartment is the picture on the wall. It is full of "black lines crossing into broken planes of violent color". (p. 24) The abstract picture in the apartment is symbolic of the life that Harry lead. He lives in a chaotic world without much guidance or many rules. Harry’s life up to the point of meeting Mrs. Connin lacks structure. The very fact that the family lives in an apartment rather than a house represents a lack of permanence. There is no commitment when living in an apartment. There is no mortgage to pay or yard to tend to. Because Harry had lived in this world of concrete for probably all of his life he has never really experienced nature. Nature represents permanence in a world that is anything but. When he was walking with Mrs. Connin down to the river, he walks through the paths as if he’s "never been in the woods before". (p.32) Nature is preferable to an urban setting and a character that is not one with nature can be seen as lacking. This lacking is visible in Harry throughout the story.

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The day after Harry has gone to the river with Mrs. Connin he wakes up in the apartment. There is no food in the refrigerator and the apartment is described as being damp and dark. All that he can find to eat are two crusts of bread, and a little bit of pop. "There was very little to do at anytime but eat". (p.43) Harry dumps a couple of ashtrays on the floor and rubs them into the carpet. He does this because he knows that his parents will think that they knocked it over at their party the night before. This act shows a definite lack of respect towards his parents and towards his home. The reader is also told that Harry’s room is a mess of broken toys and ripped up books. He does not value his possessions because he knows that if he breaks them they will be replaced with new ones. It is quite obvious from the way that Harry behaves in the apartment, and the environment of the apartment itself, that it is no place for a child.

The second home that the reader is introduced to is Mrs. Connin’s "tan paper brick" (p.27) house. It is not much to look at, with its "porch across the front of it and tin top"(p.27), but it represents a permanence that Harry is not accustomed to in the apartment. It is small, but home for the family of five. On the walls are pictures of Mrs. Connin’s family, a calendar, and over the bed is a picture of Jesus. The calendar is important because it keeps track of time. In the apartment, there is no sense of time. Everyday is the same. Every night there would be a party. The picture of Jesus on the wall is important because it contrasts the abstract painting in the apartment. While the abstract represented chaos, the picture of Jesus represents faith. That day Harry learns "that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ". (p.31) This is the catalyst for the coming events.

The characters in the story are important because they represent the tainted world in which Harry lives. One of the most important characters in the story is Mr. Paradise. Mr. Paradise represents people that Harry had to deal with on a day to day basis. His name alone is important because he represents a false paradise that many of the adults in Harry’s life live in. Their idea of "paradise" is smoking, drinking, parties, and most importantly, money. Money plays a huge part in the story because it is what fuels most of these characters' actions. Harry’s babysitter once forgot him at the park and he was beat up. This shows that the babysitter did not care about Harry at all. The babysitter was so preoccupied with going back to the apartment to receive her pay that she’d forgotten all about the young child. Harry’s parents’ friend took Mrs. Connin’s bible because it is worth a lot of money, and Harry’s father remarked that "healing by prayers is mighty inexpensive" (p.40) upon Harry’s return from the river. Money seems to rule the world in which there was no faith. It is where the most importance was placed.

In order for one to understand why Harry chooses the fate he does, one must first examine Harry as a child. The life he leads in the story is not typical of a child his age. In the story, Harry doesn’t even have a set age: he is "four or five". (p.24) It is as if noone had bothered to keep track. His parents are too self-involved to care that he is a child. Throughout the story his parents often refer to Harry as "old man". This is most evident in his name: Harry Ashfield. There is nothing childlike about his name at all. Right from birth Harry was viewed as an "adult". At one point in the story Harry is compared to "an old sheep waiting to be let out". (p.25) This seems to be comparable to Christ who is known as the Lamb of God. In the story, Mrs. Connin acts as a shepherd when she brings Harry to the river. It is important that Harry is not referred to as a lamb, but as an "old sheep". He lacks the innocence of a lamb, but has lived the life of an old sheep: He has no childhood. He has had noone to tend to him until Mrs. Connin. When he is at her house she "let him sit on her lap while he ate". (p.30) This act is probably the most babying that the young boy has ever received. After being baptised in the river, Harry truly believes that now he "counted". (p.38) Up until that moment he had no place in the world, he was just another person who had no faith.

The pivotal moment in the story is Harry’s journey to the river. The river represents everything that is missing in Harry’s life. The river represents a sense of belonging. After being baptised by Bevel Summers in the muddy waters of the river, Harry, for once in his life, counts. Down at the river, he finally feels that he belongs. When Bevel asks Harry if he wants to go into the river of life and be led to the Kingdom of Christ, Harry says " ‘yes’… and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river". (p.38) Harry believes everything the preacher claims about the river leading one to the Kingdom of Christ. He has not realised that the river is merely a metaphor for a life of devotion to Christ. Harry really thinks that if one should go into the river, they will be taken to the Kingdom of Christ. The next afternoon, Harry travels to the river alone and "baptised himself". (p.45) At first the river does not accept him, and he fights with the force that is keeping him afloat. He is not able to immerse himself in the river until he sees the "giant pig bounding after him". (p. 45) This "pig" is Mr. Paradise. Mr. Paradise represents the life that Harry is trying to escape from. The fact that he is described as a pig shows that he represents an evil. It is at that moment that the river accepts the child, and he is whisked away by the currents. No matter how hard he tries (Mr. Paradise), the "water monster" (p. 45) will not be accepted into the river; He does not belong there.

The reason that Harry is able to go under the water of the river and Mr. Paradise is not is because one must "testify to one or the other". (p.36) Those who do not believe in Christ will not be accepted into his kingdom. Harry is a boy who is neglected, and this is what ultimately leads him to take his own life in the river. Before he was baptised he had nothing to believe in. He resented his life (there was "nothing he wanted to keep"[p.44]) and the people in it. He took everything that Bevel Summers had preached about as the truth, and believed that he now counted. There was not one isolated event in the story that led to the child’s demise. Harry expected to find salvation in the river, and as long as he believed, he would.
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