The story begins as Harry's father is sending him off with his babysitter, Mrs. Connin, for the day. His mother is in bed with an unnamed sickness, which turns out to be a hangover. She tells him that she is going to take him to a religious healing at the river with a preacher named Bevel, and when she asks Harry his name, he lies and says it is also Bevel. She tells him about her husband, who is not a faithful Christian, and who suffers from a "griping in his gut" and has had to have a third of his stomach removed.
They take a taxi to Mrs. Connin's home, where she introduces Harry (called Bevel) to her children, J.C., Spivey, Sinclair, and Sarah Mildred. The children all go outside to the pig pen, and after debating throwing Harry into it, decide that their mother would punish them severely so they better not. They do, however, talk him into lifting up a bottom board of the pen to look at the pigs, which results in letting one of them loose.
Mrs. Connin leads her own children and Harry to the healing at the river. As they walk, Harry reflects that he is glad he has been able to leave his own home with this babysitter: he has discovered that "he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ," a name he thought was a curse because of the way it was used in his own home. Mrs. Connin gave him a children's book about Jesus's life to look at, and he stole it by slipping it into the lining of his coat.
They arrive at the river, where Bevel the preacher begins to speak. He tells them that if they have come just to be healed and to "leave your pain in the river," then they have come for the wrong reasons. An old woman approaches him who has been suffering from a disorder that makes her arms flap and her head wobble for thirteen years. A man named Mr. Paradise, who suffers from cancer and who is skeptical of Bevel's ability to heal, yells out that clearly that woman has not been healed and that the preacher is only there for money.
Mrs. Connin tells Bevel the preacher that she has brought a boy from town who has not been baptized. Harry goes down to the river and jokingly tells the preacher that his name is also Bevel, but the preacher doesn't find it funny. He dunks Harry in the water, baptizing him. Then Mrs. Connin calls out that they need to pray for the boy's mother, who is sick. However, when Bevel asks Harry what his mother suffers from, he answers, "She has a hangover." This makes Mr. Paradise laugh, but everyone else falls silent.
Mrs. Connin returns Harry to his parents' apartment at the end of the day. When his father calls him by his name, Harry, Mrs. Connin corrects him, saying that the child's name is Bevel. Harry's mother in turn corrects her, and they get into a tense conversation about the preacher named Bevel and the healing Mrs. Connin has taken Harry to see. After realizing that his parents have no faith, Mrs. Connin leaves without taking their payment for babysitting. Harry's mother discovers the book he stole from Mrs. Connin's house in the lining of the coat and she and her friends make fun of it. Before Harry falls asleep, his mother comes in to say goodnight.
The next morning, Harry wakes up before his parents and putters around the apartment, making trouble by emptying ashtrays onto the floor. He decides to return to the river, and leaves the apartment to follow the path he and Mrs. Connin took the day before. He passes by Mr. Paradise's house, and the man gets in his car to slowly follow Harry as he walks down the highway. Soon Mr. Paradise parks and follows him on foot. Harry runs into the river to drown himself and discover the Kingdom of Christ the preacher had talked about. Mr. Paradise jumps in after him, but Harry is caught in the current and after drifting far down the river, Mr. Paradise gives up without rescuing him.
The Grace of God is the most important theme in this story. Grace is misinterpreted by Mr. Paradise and the young boy, Harry. Mr. Paradise has unrealistic expectations of Bevil the preacher, attacking him for not being able to perform any real miracles. Harry, having been brought up without religion, fails to understand Bevil's preachings and drowns himself in the River. However, he achieves Grace in death, since he chooses to strive for salvation rather than live in the atheistic household with his parents.
Mrs. Connin is compared to a skeleton three times: while she looms in the doorway waiting for Harry to be ready to leave in the morning, she is described as "a speckled skeleton;" as she naps in the taxi on the way to her house at the beginning of the story, "she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton;" and when she realizes that Harry's parents have no faith at all as she drops him back off at home, "Mrs. Connin stood a second, staring into the room, with a skeleton's appearance of seeing everything." This description could imply that she is naked before God, ready to be saved and open to Grace, or it could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Harry's death at the end of the story, brought on by her suggestion of Grace. As she leads her own children and Harry to the healing, "they looked like the skeleton of an old boat with two pointed ends, sailing slowly on the edge of the highway."
In contrast, other characters are compared to animals through similes. Harry is described as "mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out." Mrs. Connin's children's ears twitch slightly, like those of anxious animals, as they debate whether to abuse Harry. This seems to signify their readiness to be herded toward God by believers like Mrs. Connin. But when Mr. Paradise is compared to an animal at the end of the story, it signifies that he is still lost to God; he doesn't understand the meaning of Harry's suicide and has not achieved Grace. Harry hears a shout and turns his head to see, "something like a giant pig bounding after him." Mr. Paradise is as far away from Grace as the pig that broke free at Mrs. Connin's house the previous day.
The symbol of the sun is used to represent Christian faith: its reflection is "set like a diamond" in the river where Harry is baptized. The personification of the sun enforces the idea that hope and faith overcome the darkness of sin and lack of faith. As Mrs. Connin leads her own children and Harry to the healing at the river, "The white Sunday sun followed at a little distance, climbing fast through a scum of gray cloud as if it meant to overtake them." When Bevel the preacher tells Harry that after he is baptized he will "count," Harry looks over his shoulder "at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river." When Harry wakes up in his parents' apartment, "The sun came in palely, stained gray by the glass" of the window; it cannot shine brightly in that home because his parents have no faith. In contrast, as he follows the path he and Mrs. Connin took the day before to return to the river, "The sun was pale yellow and high and hot."
As in many of Flannery O'Connor's stories, the sky is an important symbol: here, it represents an openness to faith. As Bevel preaches in the river, his eyes follow the paths of two birds. They eventually settle "in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky." When Harry tells the preacher that his name is also Bevel, jokingly, the preacher's face is "rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky," in this moment before Harry's baptism. But when he is displeased, after Harry tells him that his mother is in fact only suffering from a hangover, "the sky appeared to darken in his eyes." As Harry runs into the river to drown himself, "The sky was a clear pale blue, all in one piece - except for the hole the sun made - and fringed around the bottom with treetops." Here, the sky represents Harry's mentality: he is focused and determined, and the only thought in his mind is faith, represented by the sun.
O'Connor uses the pronoun "she" to reflect a sense of Otherness, from Harry's point of view. As the story begins and Mrs. Connin is picking him up at his parents' apartment, she is only referred to as "she." The reader doesn't learn her name until Harry's father calls her by it as he is saying goodbye. Over the course of the day, Harry becomes more and more comfortable with Mrs. Connin and with the religion she represents. When she returns him to his parents at the end of the day, it is his mother who is only referred to as "she." Harry has redefined himself as Bevel, and when his mother corrects Mrs. Connin, "she" is italicized to emphasize her Otherness: "'His name is Harry,' she said from the sofa. 'Whoever heard of anybody named Bevel?'"