Suspense in Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”
By Alyson Mosquera Dutemple •
Long before we discover that the main character, a little boy named Harry, will drown in the final moments of Flannery O’Connor’s “The River,” we are unsettled while reading the story. On the surface, the main actions before the drowning are not particularly threatening (Harry visits with a new babysitter, takes a trolley ride, and attends an informal religious service down by the river), but O’Connor makes specific choices that turn these ostensibly mundane activities into ones that seem rife with potential danger. Using setting, characterization, and pacing, O’Connor infuses even the smallest moments of Harry’s day with heightened suspense, building piece by piece to the cathartic but fatal final moments in the story.
The setting of “The River” provides one of the first sources of suspense in the story. The world in which we meet the characters in the opening pages has a creepy, fun-house distortion to it. The living room of the opening scene is “dark,” and the characters within it are described using details that feel physically awkward, or even disjointed: arms hang suspended in coats, voices call out from undisclosed locations, hands reach out from doorways. Right from the start, O’Connor creates tension from the way she situates her characters in physical space. There are no metaphoric (or actual windows) to lighten the atmosphere and the resulting darkness creates a world in which the non-threatening reach of a babysitter can become “a pale spotted hand…stuck through the half-open door.” Though the facts of the situation presented through the dialogue of the opening scene are not particularly alarming (Harry’s mother is sick and Harry’s father needs a babysitter to watch him for the afternoon), the details O’Connor uses to describe the setting are meant to alert the reader that something is amiss, and in this way, she is able to create a sense of apprehension from what would otherwise be an ordinary situation.
Moreover, when Harry and the sitter, Mrs. Connin, emerge from the unsettling space of the apartment and onto the street, O’Connor establishes the world beyond the apartment as an equally unnerving place, and the suspense, rather than diminishing by the light of day, is increased. Though Harry and Mrs. Connin wait for the morning trolley car on a city street, O’Connor’s description of the street infuses it with details that subvert our expectations of bright public spaces. The sky is dim; the street is deserted: “Outside the gray morning was blocked off on either side by the unlit empty buildings.” Even when the trolley car eventually arrives, Harry and Mrs. Connin are the only passengers on it, and immediately after boarding, Mrs. Connin falls asleep, leaving Harry, in effect, unattended in the eerie, unpopulated world: “She lay her head back and gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton. There was no one in the car but themselves…” We can’t help but wonder at the end of passages like this not only where all the other residents of the city are but what will become of young Harry. Because of the way O’Connor paints the setting, suspense is heightened as our concern for Harry deepens.
O’Connor uses Harry’s age, and corresponding lack of agency, to her advantage in other ways to create and sustain suspense in the story, especially in the way she handles narrative distance. Though “The River” opens with a distant third-person narrator aloofly observing the scene with such lines as, “The child stood glum and limp in the middle of the dark living room while his father pulled him into a plaid coat,” at other times, the narration moves into a close third from Harry’s perspective, allowing us to experience the already unsettling details of this world through the eyes of a child. In such movements, O’Connor can take advantage of a child’s limited understanding of the world. In the scene in which Mrs. Connin’s three boys trick Harry into opening the hog pen, we see an example of such a closing in of narrative distance: “[Harry] had never seen a real pig but he had seen a pig in a book and knew they were small fat pink animals with curly tails and round grinning faces and bow ties. He leaned forward and pulled eagerly at the board.” The introduction of Harry’s private thoughts about pigs here reveals an innocence that compounds the suspense of the moments leading up to the release of the “gray, wet and sour” pig. The scene is darkly comic and tragic at the same time. Our sympathy for the boy being bullied is heightened because O’Connor has allowed us a glimpse at his charmingly ignorant notions of what a pig is and because of those ignorant notions, the tension between the moment when we learn what he is expecting and the moment when he removes the board from the pen is palpably taut and suspenseful.
Harry’s age and youthful sensibilities shine through even in the moments of the more distant third person narration. We see a childlike fascination with the appearance of “skeletons,” for example, a word that appears no fewer than four times in the story (“a speckled skeleton,” “a musical skeleton,” “the skeleton of an old boat,” and “a skeleton’s appearance of seeing everything”). The repetition of this image, and its different incarnations, creates suspense too. The skeletons turn more sinister by dint of their repeated appearances in the story and serve to both increase the reader’s apprehension and to color the narrative with Harry’s innocence. Even the lie that Harry tells Mrs. Connin in the story, claiming his name is “Bevel,” points to a certain youthful and innocent arbitrariness. And yet this youthful impulse, we discover, is the very thing that eventually leads to Harry being baptized in the river, a ritual that so mystifies him that when trying to replicate it the next day, he drowns himself. In this way, O’Connor presents the innocent and the sinister as two sides of the same coin because, as the story progresses, we come to realize that Harry’s lack of experience in the world is a dangerous liability.
Finally, O’Connor compresses and elongates time in her story to vary the pace and to heighten the suspense in key places, for example in the elongation of the moment between our realization that Mrs. Connin’s sons will trick Harry into opening the hog pen and the moment Harry does open the pen. We have already seen how O’Connor uses Harry’s perceptions of pigs to create suspense, but the pacing of the scene also increases the tension:
They started off through a field of rough yellow weeds to the hog pen, a five-foot boarded square full of shoats, which they intended to ease him over into. When they reached it, they turned and waited silently, leaning against the side.
He was coming very slowly, deliberately bumping his feet together as if he had trouble walking. Once he had been beaten up in the park by some strange boys when his sitter forgot him, but he hadn’t known anything was going to happen that time until it was over. He began to smell a strong odor of garbage and to hear the noises of a wild animal. He stopped a few feet from the pen and waited, pale but dogged.
Here O’Connor once again gives the reader a glimpse of Harry’s thoughts in the memory of another time that he was ambushed. But she also lingers in the moment through the introduction of this memory and through the details that allow us to experience the smells and the noises that Harry perceives as he marches toward a potentially threatening situation.
O’Connor teases out the suspense by elongating the narration and continues to do so into the next paragraph, where our expectations are not met, but surprisingly subverted:
The three boys didn’t move. Something seemed to have happened to them. They stared over his head as if they saw something coming behind him but he was afraid to turn his own head and look. Their speckles were pale and their eyes were still and gray as glass. Only their ears twitched slightly. Nothing happened. Finally, the one in the middle said, “She’d kill us,” and turned, dejected and hacked, and climbed up on the pen and hung over, staring in.
Though in this passage we are told “nothing happened,” the reader still perceives the moment as heavy with dread. This strange suspended beat of an other-worldly sort, one in which the boys appear to be in the presence of something almost supernatural, has an unsettling haunted quality to it. But O’Connor follows the moment with a refusal to unleash the eerie, unspecified threat, giving the scene an even more powerful sense of suspense. It puts one in the mind of that classic moment in horror films in which a character hears a noise that proves to be nothing just before encountering something else dreadful.
Moments later in this story, Harry does indeed encounter something dreadful when getting charged by the pig. Yet by slowing the narrative down in the moments leading up to this chase, we can see how O’Connor uses pacing to its fullest advantage. Our expectations are raised, then dismissed, and then raised again before the pig eventually charges. In all this modulated pacing, and in the details of the setting and the closing in on narrative distance, O’Connor can hold the reader in the thrall of sustained, carefully crafted suspense.
ALYSON MOSQUERA DUTEMPLE is a writer from New Jersey with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She is a fiction reader for CRAFT and has been longlisted for PRISM international‘s Grouse Grind Lit Prize for Very Short Forms. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pigeon Pages, Fiction Writers Review, Unbroken, Flock, CRAFT, Emrys Journal Online, and elsewhere.