In "The River" and
"The Lame Shall Enter First" Flannery O'Connor sustains
her theme of human sinfulness and the possibility of redemption.
At the heart of this structure rests the problem of Faith. In
both stories that problem is embodied in three ages of humanity:
childhood, adolescence and adulthood. While her realistic narrative
resists a purely allegorical use of these three generations,
correspondences between the two stories' characters align childhood
with inarticulate desire (a precondition for faith), adolescence
with articulate and dogmatic faith, and adulthood with varying
degrees of doubt. (Mrs. Connin in "The River" is a
notable exception to this last category.)
Since both stories culminate
in the death of a child, this essay will explore the uses of
those children in relation to adolescent and adult characters.
There are such striking parallels between the stories that we
may accuse O'Connor of merely rewriting "The River"
from an adult's viewpoint; but, in fact, this shift offers a
unique chance to explore the nature of evil and accounts for
the unrelenting ironies of "The Lame Shall Enter First"
as we move from the effects of human sinfulness (the suffering
of the child Bevel) to its source (the blind agency of the adult
A child stands at the center
of each tale. The viewpoint of Harry Ashfield (hereafter Bevel)
illuminates and limits all that we see in "The River".
Norton, in "The Lame Shall Enter First", is just as
central, but he operates more as a presence than as a focal consciousness.
In this story what we know of the child we must surmise through
the distorting and diffracting vision of his father, Sheppard.
The silence and relative passivity of both Bevel and Norton help
to establish them as calm central poles around which the other
characters (mainly, but not exclusively, adults) cavort with
their anxieties, cruelties, minor kindnesses and moral "expertise".
The two boys might also be likened to bare screens upon which
the adult world projects its own fantasies of sin and redemption.
Sheppard sees Norton as selfishness incarnate, and both Norton's
and Bevel's parents are painfully aware of their sons' failings.
This attitude is perfectly embodied in the apparently simple
events which open "The River".
This passage typifies one of
O'Connor's most effective techniques: the use of emblematic comments
or double entendres to create another plane of meaning within
the story - a "meta-realistic" narrative, or prose
narrative which approaches the density of poetry. Through these
representative moments, words, actions and observed details serve
the realistic needs of the narration (Bevel's coat isn't on straight;
his father is apathetic or inattentive) and focus the reader's
awareness on strong thematic concerns (the world's moral disarray).
That the child needs to be
"fixed" suggests another analogy for adult-child relations
in these stories. The home has become a workshop or laboratory
in which the modern human consciousness is engineered. We sense
that both Bevel and Norton have been tampered with, have been
used as guinea pigs beneath the rationalistic and secularized
glare of the parents. For if the parents cannot accept or save
the entire world, they might at least create a working model
and microcosm in their children and their homes. This frustration
surfaces in the Ashfields' dark cynicism and Sheppard's unconsciously
cruel and manipulative messianic delusions. The Ashfields' moral
vision is clearly incorporated in the art they hang on their
wall: "black lines crossing into broken planes of violent
color." Is this the vision they hope to pass on to their
son? The child-sitter, Mrs. Connin, supplies an alternative to
such negativity as she concludes, "I wouldn't have drew
it." And, in fact, the art Bevel sees in her home ("pictures
and calendars") is directly emblematic of that lady's family
That the child needs to be
fixed "for Christ's sake" introduces the text's typically
skewed approach to religious themes. The father's profanity unwittingly
expresses a deep and disturbing truth: the universality of human
imperfection. Not only does the child need fixing, but so does
The "divided" kitchen
and the "individual" cereal box attach themselves to
Sheppard in a way that implies his seriously alienated spirit.
This image and the first paragraph's final one of "a narrow
brush halo over his (Sheppard's) pink sensitive face" (in
which we may see "narrow" as a telling modification
of "halo") sandwich Sheppard's moralistic judgments
of Norton. Here again, the explicitly religious "halo"
establishes an ironic distance between itself and Sheppard's
severe criticism of Norton.
The laboratory/home in each story may have different objects in mind; but both end with the same product; a dead child. The Ashfields' neglect of their son is such that we might decide that their only intention is to keep him out of sight, hair and mind. We learn in the story, however, that Bevel has believed he was created by "a doctor named Sladewell" rather than some divine force. We read,
Harry Ashfield has been raised
into a world in which nothing is serious, nothing matters, except
perhaps the grim and comical awareness that nothing matters.
His parents might justify their neglect of him as a continual
lesson in "life without illusions," but nothing is
explicit. These adults are shadows. Sheppard has tried to raise
his son in an illusion-free atmosphere; "he could not allow
himself to bring him up on a lie." Concerning Norton's dead
mother, Sheppard can only say,
But this truth is sterile;
it means nothing and offers no hope to Norton who, as a child,
needs the simple security of Rufus Johnson's heaven and hell.
Sheppard's "truth" of nonexistence is as barren and
threatening a gift as the sinister art on the Ashfields' wall.
His attitudes, though they are superficially value-oriented ("All
he wanted for the child was that he be good and unselfish.")
and perhaps designed to spare his son some disillusionment in
later life, are actually deadly.
Sheppard is as deeply involved
in denial as Norton is. Both are "closeted". Norton
has, as we might expect from a child, wrapped himself in an unconscious
but strikingly clear expression of his (and his father's) central
problem. Sheppard "pushed it aside but it didn't move."
He can rid himself of neither the pain of his wife's death nor
the problem of his all too present son. Norton in the cocoon
of the coat in the closet confronts Sheppard "with a possibility"
- as all good prophetic symbols do - but Sheppard retreats from
consciousness by dragging Norton out and proposing to Rufus (satanic
sign) that he help him save his terribly selfish son.
In the "confessional"
of his office, Sheppard believes that "he explained, he
did not absolve," - a phrase most indicative of Sheppard's
problem. An explanation is a rational and relatively easy process.
There is something mechanical about it: if you understand human
psychology, resistances and defense mechanisms, you can easily
interpret the actions of others, point out problems, and "fix"
them. Absolution, on the other hand, suggests a cleaning up,
a healing interaction of human and divine powers, a restoration
of hope which is beyond Sheppard's vision. Later he upbraids
Rufus' bible reading with, "You don't believe it. You're
Sheppard has tried to forge
a Faustian alliance with Rufus against Norton, but Rufus will
not be "saved" any more than Norton will surrender