Deconstructing Mysticism in the Bible Belt: A Postmodern Analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”
Introduction to Post-structuralist theory:
As any student of philosophy can attest, God met his untimely demise at the behest of Friedrich Nietzsche’s pen. Decades later, nihilistic furor, intoxicated with the death of the divine, birthed the conditions for post-structuralist Jacques Derrida’s iconic fixture of postmodernity: deconstruction. As the corpse of humanity’s celestial progenitor rotted away in an unmarked grave, existentialist-laced relativism primed itself to flood the vacuum of the godless landscape. One can envision the ghostly forebearers of Western civilization pacing restlessly, as Derrida delivered his provocative lecture, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” at John Hopkins University in 1966. In that address, Derrida expresses his dissatisfaction with the perceived epistemological restrictions of structuralism, and the semiotic mutations happening in the intelligentsia and beyond. Derrida reflects on the dissolution and gradual substitution of the “fixed origin” conjectured to be at the metaphysical nucleus of “structure” itself (495). In this lush intellectual frontier, impermanence and oscillation have superseded constancy and immutability in semiotics. More succinctly, Derrida’s remarks are a sermonic observance of the acceleration of relativity and an overt invitation to toast the diminishing influence of Western civilization’s staunch absolutism.
Deconstruction, the philosophical metamorphosis of Derrida’s thesis, is a means of interpreting a text that undermines, provokes, and contradicts the intended (implicit or explicit) meaning of a particular work. It is a predisposition towards skepticism and an overriding distrust of the numerous interrelated systems that generate meaning. Peter Barry, a distinguished fellow at Aberystwyth University, characterized deconstruction as a “war with [the text] itself…a house divided, and disunified” (69). This description by Barry illuminates the antagonism that underpins deconstruction. After all, if language itself is transient and aperiodic, then how might a text assure its reader of stability? Deconstruction is an irreverent quest for chaos, spurning the liberal humanists and lauding ambiguity.
“The River” by Flannery O’Connor, Deconstructed:
In a rural community, disenchanted by sickness and hardship, the Almighty is ripe for exploitation. Earnest believers, impassioned prophets, and wriggly sinners scrounging for grace might seem trite in the pantheon of literary discourse, but Flannery O’Connor demonstrates a particular flair for representing the well-worn religion of the south. Bristling with enough eccentricities to rival a Steinbeck novel, O’Connor’s short story, “The River,” explores the destructive consequences of a sacred pool that promises salvation. Harry Ashfield, later known as Bevel, is a pariah in his home, and, in need of affirmation, he attends a revival meeting with his babysitter, Mrs. Connin. Healing is the prevailing theme of the unconventional ceremony. At the behest of the minister, the river engulfs both Bevel’s sins and his profound insecurity. The community initiates Bevel into their troop of untamed God-seekers and aged morality. Nevertheless, Bevel returns home, still damp but not redeemed. Later, in an attempt to recreate the mystical “otherness” promised him at his earlier resurrection, Bevel drowns. Ironically, the same water that once liberated him now coursed through his lungs and deprived him of breath. While O’Connor might frame Bevel’s death as a form of salvation, it is his attachment to mysticism that damns him to premature death, expunging the moral advantage it might have possessed.
The religious overtones of this work extend to the title itself, with its provincial reformulating of the ecclesiastical ceremony. No longer restricted to a basin in an elaborate basilica or regulated by a stiff-necked reverend, baptism occurs in a bespattered pool. Immorality and grime coagulate in its melancholy reflection. Baptism, once lectured on by those in elegant robes, is now performed in a crude repository of rainwater and sewage. Despite its claim of numinous influence, the obscene approximation debases religious piety. The same river that beheld the midnight dalliances of a few young rogues now ensures salvation to the faithful. Contradictions swarm in the consecrated stream. Following Bevel’s literal plunge into mysticism, Mr. Summers remarks loftily, “‘You count now,’ the preacher said. ‘You didn’t even count before’” (168). In this brief interaction, the reverend endorses all the toxicity inflicted upon young Bevel by his cruel guardians. Bevel’s turbulent psyche is further complicated by this moral sanctioning. Abuse, at least in this narrative, is a hallowed pathway to the Divine. The watery transition of Bevel from insignificant to valuable is perhaps the most shameful religious occurrence in all of fiction. The divergent images — a homely fishpond where God abounds, juxtaposed against the quirky evangelist who expresses his religious superiority through caustic sermons — are emblematic of the rampant inconsistencies in the text. Nevertheless, some commentators, such as essayist John D. Chapin at Calvin University (previously Calvin College), allege that these narrative incongruities form a network of soteriological significance: “Bevel has found a new purpose…a being besieged by hell and protected by heaven. If the sinner is not yet actually saved at this point in the process, he is only a step away” (33). The most succinct counterargument to Mr. Chapin’s claim of supernatural involvement lies in the eventual death of Bevel. If God is committed to the protection of Bevel, he should consider revising his apathetic approach. The homespun spirituality embedded in this work is often erratic and exposes the threat of liturgy detached from sacredness, unflattering and prone to manipulation.
Without Mrs. Connin’s conscientious indifference, Bevel might never have ventured out into the religious landscape that ultimately took his life. The well-dressed babysitter is certainly a non-traditional villain, but her participation in Bevel’s destruction is undeniable. At the start of the narrative, she is seen “looming [in the doorway], a speckled skeleton in a long pea-green coat and felt helmet” (157). Unpleasant and predatorial is the prevailing feeling aroused by her inaugural appearance. She is this narrative’s green-skinned serpent (in the tradition of Milton), luring the young Bevel towards death. In contrast to Milton’s cunning Satan, this villain is a pawn of religious fundamentalism. Her naiveté, masquerading as faith, is best demonstrated when she affirms the blatant lie submitted by Bevel about his name. At the meeting, without consulting the wishes of the boy’s guardians, Mrs. Connin advises Rev. Summers to baptize the squirrely sinner, “’I suspect he ain’t ever been Baptized,’ Mrs. Connin said, raising her eyebrows at the preacher” (167). Religious furor, disconnected from wisdom, leads her to exceed her obligations and snub the wishes of Bevel’s parents. Even in their inebriated state, Bevel’s parents are better suited for this sort of decision-making. Later, when Mrs. Connin informs Bevel’s mother of his spontaneous initiation into Christianity, his mother responds accordingly: “‘Well the nerve!’ she muttered” (169). The audacity of Mrs. Connin is unbelievable, and Bevel’s mother is right to be so appalled at this development. Mrs. Connin exits the narrative soon after, but her theological impulses have already begun modifying Bevel’s young psyche, and his pathway to hell is only a few hours away.
A lie unites Bevel to his newfound community. Author Joy Farmer writes: “…Harry is growing up warped. Already adept at lying and stealing, he tells Mrs. Connin the babysitter his name is Bevel” (59). His identity as “Henry” is promptly abandoned as he joins the faith-filled congregants, and his babysitter — who is remarkably unfamiliar with him — readily accepts his new name as a “coincident” (159). After suffering under a linguistic thrashing, Bevel adopts a name associated with prestige and spiritual wherewithal. Bevel Summers is a young minister described as a “healer” (169) by Mrs. Connin, and the young Henry quickly takes this title as his own. It seems logical, at least to Henry, that even a weak association with this figure might result in some goodwill. Whether it was to gain a degree of confidence or to sever himself from self-loathing, it reveals the tenuous connection Bevel had with his former identity. Spiritual liberation is prohibited unless he forsakes his former self. The central refrain in this narrative is this: mysticism is a route to shedding one’s self in favor of a collective identity. Therefore, even if his baptism is genuine, Bevel’s deception would eliminate any spiritual benefit he could have gained. Spirituality is typically contingent upon recognition of one’s true nature and the loss of any illusory notion about one’s underlying motives. Yet, Bevel bypasses this process in favor of corporate approval due to his semantic kinship to the well-respected evangelist. When his mother inquires as to what occurred during the revival meeting, Bevel’s response is fascinating. In three words, Bevel casts doubt upon the soundness of his divine encounter: “‘I don’t know,’ he muttered… ‘I don’t know’” (170). He repeats the declaration, as though the vacancy within might feel appeased due to his ignorance. Bevel’s parody of devotion ends in disappointment and uncertainty. Mysticism does not redeem Bevel, but only sharpens his negative emotions.
Bevel’s death is not a blessed release from pain, but a veiled denouncement of dubious religious rhetoric. In Christian soteriology, it is common to link justification to the cessation of life, and due to this, many have interpreted this ending in symbolic terms. The death of a child is a prop to galvanize the faithful. Aside from the glaring moral puzzle of this interpretation, it lacks support from the narrative. Bevel’s terminal thoughts reveal a frightened child, unconvinced of his need for clerical guidance, and suspicious of all that he has been told thus far: “it’s another joke, it’s just another joke! He thought how far he had come for nothing and he began to hit and splash and kick the filthy river” (173). Bevel relates the process to a weakly-executed gag, which hardly seems like an apt depiction of such a sublime portion of Christian theology. Essayist George Toles disagrees:
He may be terrified briefly, while flailing to stay afloat and gasping for breath, but he is also being ministered to. Harry is met by a “long gentle hand” (the preacher’s hand metamorphosing into maternal river fingers) as the boy is swept along toward death. Surrendering his tiny will to the immersive element, Harry makes immediate, gratifying progress. (Toles 145)
Toles is mistaken in his assessment of Bevel’s final moments and his suggestion that the river “ministers” to the doomed child is laughable; Bevel is a reticent agnostic striving to recreate a sense of community, not a devout God-chaser collapsing into eternity. It would be unreasonable to place all blame on the Rev. Summers, but he certainly does have some culpability in Bevel’s tragic end. His lack of theological clarity — owing to his banal recitation of the ornate musings of King James — puzzles the young protagonist and prompts him to seek “the Kingdom of Christ” (173) in the titular pond. In an attempt to maintain an ethereal reputation, either for himself or the movement he is peddling, Rev. Summers offered a convoluted invitation into rebirth, leading obliquely to Bevel’s disastrous recreation of his preceding baptism. Well-intended or not, the mysticism of Rev. Summers had fatal consequences for one unambiguously mystified child.
Deconstructionists savor chaos. Influenced by Nietzsche’s’ proclamation of a godless society, Derrida alerted academia to the death of a unified intellectual universe. Instability, ambiguity, and inconsistency are hallmarks of a poststructuralist reading. Whereas Flannery O’Connor’s “The River” was viewed as a folksy metaphor for Christian soteriology, it is perhaps better understood as a vignette of conflicting motifs that climax in the horrific suicide of an adolescent. Incendiary rituals, superstitious caretakers, repressed individualism, and cryptic dogma are just a few of the troubling features of this gothic parable. Whether it exists on the page or in the backwoods of Georgia, mysticism, unbridled by tradition, can become toxic. It is not unlike relativism in that sense, and for that, both scholars (and devotees of religion) should be wary of coupling themselves to indecipherable babblings that are sure to be mocked by subsequent waves of literary and cultural critics.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction To Literary And Cultural Theory. 3rd ed., Manchester University Press, 2009, pp. 59–77.
Chapin, John. “Flannery O’Connor and the Rich Red River of Jesus’ Blood.” Christianity and Literature, vol. 25, no. 3, Spring 1976, pp. 30–35. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001653611&site=eds-live.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Criticism: The Major Statements. 4th ed., edited by Charles Kaplan, Anderson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000, pp. 493–510.
Farmer, Joy A. “Suffer, the Little Children: Child Abuse and the Violent Atonement in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor.” Texas Review, vol. 24, no. 1/2, Spring/Summer 2003, pp. 58–76. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=11712089&site=ehost-live.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The River.” The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, pp. 157–174.
Toles, George. “Drowning Children with Flannery O’Connor.” Raritan, vol. 31, no. 3, Winter 2012, pp. 142–157. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=vth&AN=88332875&site=eds-live.