Reflections on Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”

I’m teaching “The River” today in an “Introduction to Literary Study” course.

BaptismRiverDemonstrating that we know what to do if we ever encounter such a little boy in real life won’t help us to understand O’Connor’s literary accomplishment.

From a Catholic perspective, the mysteries of God are beyond anyone’s understanding. Anyone who prays for God to help them win the ball game (“listen to my prayers, not the prayers of the opposing team”) or who blames God for a thunderstorm or a cancer diagnosis is just as naïve as this little boy. The Bible presents Jesus’s apostles frequently misinterpreting Jesus’s sayings, taking literally statements that Jesus meant to be instructional metaphors, thinking that Jesus was coming to establish a political kingdom in Jerusalem that would overthrow Roman rule, rather than a spiritual kingdom that overthrows sin in people’s interior lives.

This boy’s childish, literal interpretation of the spiritual message he hears emphasizes his vulnerability, his need for guidance. If you or I were there, we could easily set him right, whether that means teaching him faith in a better way, or at least keeping him from drowning in a mistaken search for love and attention that he isn’t getting anywhere in his life.  —Reflections on Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”