This is a powerful, disturbing and almost eccentric novel. Certainly it is difficult to imagine its creation from any mind other than its author, and rooted though the narrative is in rural Georgia, I'm not quite sure how the novel fits into the Southern Gothic category. But then highly original writing transcends categories. As a Roman Catholic it may seem strange that Flannery O'Connor is here concerned with Old Testament fundamentalism, or something closely akin to it, and with what amounts to modern secularism. Indeed, what seems to me to give the book its special force is the battle between reason and passion, the latter often the more powerful because it comes from the mouths of those isolated from the mainstream of society and not unsurprisingly lacking fluent, articulate expression. This is a world very far removed from that of Graeme Greene another distinctive Catholic novelist, urbane and educated, but then his background could scarcely be more different from O'Connor's. Until well into her adult years it is claimed that her speech was all but incomprehensible to those brought up with standard, educated American. Is the title triumphant in meaning and spirit, or is some of that irony that readers see in her writing present here too? For me reading this book is a little like what I imagine experiencing some inexplicable force of nature to be. It defies explanation but makes its inescapable impact.
The teenage Francis Marion Tarwater lives with his great-uncle, a self-declared prophet, in a backwoods shack in America’s Bible belt. On the day his uncle dies, Tarwater is faced with a set of choices: Should he bury his uncle, as he requested? Should he go to the city and visit his only relatives? Should he take up the spiritual calling his uncle says it is his destiny to follow? O’Connor’s novel follows Tarwater’s exploits over the days following his uncle’s death, frequently looping back into the past, recounting moments in his relationship with his uncle, and with his uncle’s nephew, a schoolteacher, and the schoolteacher’s son. Will Tarwater follow the calling his fanatical uncle claimed he is destined for? Will he bow to the reasoning of the equally fanatical schoolteacher? With its gothic sensibility, we follow Tarwater with a growing sense of foreboding as he and the story head towards its violent conclusion. Told with great skill and containing moments of high comedy, this is a work of superb storytelling, especially in its handling of time, and a rueful look at American evangelical Christianity.
This is one of my favourite novels, up there with Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, another Catholic masterpiece about love, evil, destiny and redemption. The Violent Bear It Away is about the battle for a child's soul. The child is Francis Tarwater, a fourteen-year old boy raised by his great uncle Mason, who kidnapped him from his uncle so he could raise him as a Christian prophet. Francis' uncle is Rayber, a schoolteacher and staunch atheist. When Mason dies Francis burns down their house, neglects to give him the Christian burial he demanded, and arrives at Rayber's door. And so the battle begins, as Rayber fights to "save" Francis from religion and remould him in his own image. This novel's title is taken from Matthew 11:12: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away." The characters here certainly suffer violence, and whether they'll bear the kingdom of heaven away, at least in their own lives, provides this story's suspense. Rayber has a retarded son, ironically named Bishop, whom Mason tried to baptise when he was born. He failed, and since passed the duty on to Francis, who struggles against Mason's programming. Though Mason is unstable, controlling and a bit stupid, there's no doubt that O'Connor prefers his way of life to Rayber's. Rayber is uptight and repressed. To him everything is or should be a matter of logic. He can't allow himself to truly love Bishop because that love would be mysterious, based on a connection between parent and child which transcends logic. Bishop is a retard, and so can't be trained to share his father's coldly logical view of life. Why should Rayber love him? In a way he views Francis as another shot at parenthood. But Francis, bitter about both Mason's raising and Rayber's perceived abandonment of him, reacts to his uncle with disdain. What eventually happens to Bishop (and later Francis) is shocking and upsetting. The path to Francis' destiny is paved with horror and death. One could question how the ending works on a literal level, considering what Francis has done. Would people be willing to hear this boy's message, given what's on his conscience? But the literal level isn't really the point. Like all of O'Connor's stories this is a morality play, where action and symbolism are tied together. Her works were based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, so you could argue that they're almost fables. Even if, like me, you're not religious, this book is worth reading. It's a beautifully crafted evocation of religious and philosophical themes. I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy in later scenes where Francis wanders harsh country roads. There's also a hypnotic passage in which a small girl leads a sermon. The first chapter of this novel was originally published as a short story, "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead". That chapter's ending echoes the novel's, with Francis moving toward something.
This is an excellent novel and a fine addition to the Southern Gothic canon . Francis Tarwater is an orphaned boy brought up on a lonely farmstead by a crazed uncle ,steeped in backwoods fundamental religion. The old man tries to model Francis' destiny to become a hellfire preacher but when he dies suddenly the boy is released into an indifferent and confusing world . He goes to another uncle , the scholteacher Rayber, in a nearby city and Rayber tries to save him from the trauma of his upbringing with his own brand of Freudian rationalism . Francis rejects all Rayber's attempts to help and marches dogggedly on to meet his destiny in his own personal Armageddon. The book is both tragic and sad but is imbued with O'Connor's characteristic brand of wry humour and ironic wit. She sympathises with her creations but lays bare their folly and conceit. This book is a neglected masterpiece by a very under-rated writer which analyses the perpetual struggle between rationality and religion .
While I greatly admire Flannery O'Connor as a master story teller, I don't care much for her theology. Fortunately there is little to no overt theology in "The Violent Bear It Away" (although there's plenty of Christian symbolism). Instead what we have is a most compelling tale of three southerners morbidly obsessed with baptism.
Francis Marion Tarwater, the central character, is a 14-year-old orphaned boy raised by his great uncle, 70 years his senior. The old man imagined himself a prophet and thought that he could raise young Tarwater to follow in his footsteps. To that end he stole the boy away from his uncle ("the schoolteacher," Rayber, who was the brother of the boy's mother and old Tarwater's nephew), and took the boy to his wooden house in a clearing in the woods where he raised corn and operated a whiskey still. Old Tarwater completely dominated the boy psychologically, keeping him out of school and filling his mind with the fear of the Lord and the need to be prepared when the Lord called upon him since he too would become a prophet.
The obsession the three had with baptism concerned Rayber's son, Bishop, who was mentally retarded. The old man desperately wanted to baptize the little boy but the school teacher saw baptism as a superstitious ritual and wouldn't allow it. The old man repeatedly ranted and raved to the 14-year-old Tarwater that Bishop must be baptized. But young Tarwater had a mind of his own and told himself he wasn't going to baptize the dim-witted boy. Yet so powerful was his great uncle's raving that Tarwater felt despite himself a great compulsion to baptize Bishop.
What makes this tale work is O'Connor's almost magical narrative control, her deep psychological understanding of her characters and a masterful command of the story-teller's art. I guess I should also add her incredible ability to create the kind of atmosphere that seems realistic and mythical at the same time. Her use of water and fire motifs brought powerfully the Biblical experience to the scene of the story, Powderhead, Tennessee and environs. She is also good at foreshadowing events so that the reader may realize at some unclear point what is going to happen next. I'm not sure when I realized what would happen to Bishop, but at some point I knew. (Perhaps it was just the lake and the hotel clerk's expressed fear that Tarwater would do something evil.)
Additionally, O'Connor's ability to reveal character through dialogue, interior monologues, and interior dialogues (especially young Tarwater's interior dialogue) compels us to turn the pages to see just what these people are going to do next. This narrative tension (which is primarily the result of believable and fascinating characters) grows and is what compels the reader onward toward the resolution.
Okay, here's the "flawed" part: first, the ending. The reader is left to imagine what will happen to Tarwater. That's the easy way out, especially after O'Connor has the boy do evil and confused deeds and then get raped--a scene that seems unnecessary and tacked on as though O'Connor just had to punish the boy immediately. Tarwater responds by burning up a bit of the forest. What next? One can suppose that he will pay for his crimes, but he is 14-years-old. One really wants a sequel in which Tarwater becomes a fire and brimstone preacher who possibly in his later years is a TV evangelist who is (say) a serial killer. (Just kidding.) But I don't think O'Connor was ready at the time to write anymore.
The main problem with the novel, however, from my point of view is O'Connor's symbolic and heavy-handed condemnation of protestant Christianity and secular rationalism. The school teacher Rayber who fails in just about everything he does is the weakest character in the book. He cannot act. Tarwater is going to go one up on Rayber by acting. He says proudly, "I can act." Both the Tarwaters who represent a confused and violent Protestantism are superior to secularism in that even though they act violently they do act. Unmentioned but present in the character of the mentally retarded Bishop (yes, Bishop!) is Catholicism itself, pure and uncorrupted. Notice that even though Bishop is retarded he is innocence and good. And notice too that he, according to Christian theology, goes to heaven. He is an angel.
According to the Wikipedia article O'Connor said that the voice that Tarwater heard (in the interior dialogue) was the devil, and the rapist was the devil made flesh.
In the world of literal Christianity and Catholicism the world is infused with angels and devils (fallen angels). O'Connor apparently believed this theology. Regardless we can read this fascinating novel without sharing her beliefs and admire her purely as a gifted literary artist, which she was.
Perhaps the meaning of the title, "The Violent Bear It Away" (Matthew 11:12) refers to the fact that it was through violence and by the violent that Bishop was baptized.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Novels and Other Fictions"