Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away

As I mentioned, the Bad Catholic has been catching up on reading Catholic authors. I have previously read Wise Blood, the short story collection A Good Man is Hard To Find and dipped into the letter collection The Habit of Being. I have also read most of the lectures and non-fiction contained in the Library of America's Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works.

After visiting Graham Greene's West Africa, I decided to pay a visit to Miss Mary Flannery's South. I am aiming to stay for a while.

O'Connor's best writing is in her short stories and in her letters. She wrote two novels Wise Blood and the one under consideration, The Violent Bear It Away. Of the two, I think that the latter is by far the better book. Toward the end, Wise Blood became confusing and hard to follow, whereas, The Violent Bear It Away moves inexorably towards its inevitable, horrifying ending.

Following Jesus is never easy and you are liable to get maimed in the process. Jesus went to suffering and death, and if we are going to follow him then we must be prepared to go to Crucifixion and death along with Him.

The Violent Bear It Away refers to a quote from the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away." Matthew 11:12.

The novel is the story of a young teenager, Francis Marion Tarwater. Tarwater has been raised by his great uncle, Mason Tarwater, who kidnapped the orphan child away from Rayber, Mason's nephew and Tarwater's uncle, in order to raise Tarwater to do the Lord's work.

Mason considers himself to be an Old Testament prophet. Rayber, referred to throughout the novel as "the schoolteacher," marries a social worker known as "the welfare woman." Mason tells young Tarwater that the welfare woman was older than Rayber and only able to give him one child, and the Lord spared the child from their evil ways the only way He could by making him dim-witted. Mason believes that he has been chosen by the Lord to baptize Rayber's retarded child, Bishop.

Anyone wanting the rest of the plot summary can read the entire thing here. Otherwise, I'm going to assume that everybody knows the basic story outline.

The Bad Catholic is also probably a bad literature critic, because, if I'm honest, just like I didn't know what I thought of Greene's The Heart of the Matter, I don't really know what I think of The Violent Bear It Away either. However, I'm a real fan of the Southern Gothic style. Greene is good but he ain't no William Faulkner, or Flannery O'Connor for that matter.

It's pretty obvious that Mason Tarwarter represents the religious outlook on life and that Raber, "the schoolteacher", represents the modern secular world view. Tarwater must either choose the Lord or choose modern agnosticism. In O'Connor's hands there is a certain fanaticism on both sides. Old Mason had been committed to the mental hospital, but in their way, both Rayber and his absent wife are just as crazy. There is a lot to think about here. Why would a good God let there be retarded children like Bishop? If there is no God, is everyone better off if Bishop was dead?

This being an O'Connor novel, even without knowing the ending, when I read that Rayber had once tried to drown his son in the ocean but couldn't go through with it, I knew that Tarwater would drown Bishop while baptizing him. Thus the paradox. If Rayber had drowned Bishop, in Rayber's secular world view, Bishop would just be dead. When Tarwater drowns Bishop and baptizes him at the same time, Bishop becomes the Lord's and is born to new life.

O'Connor's sacramental theology runs throughout the book. As in the teachings of the Catholic Church, baptism operates as a channel of grace which affects the individual whether the person wants it to or not. You can reject the grace, like Rayber has, but you can't ignore it. It exists whether you like it or not.

I also don't know what I think about Tarwater's voice that he hears througout the novel challenging him to go against his destiny. Is it the devil? The evil side of himself? The rational side? Because we know that following the Lord isn't rational. You got to be a fool for God like all them prophets in the Old Testament was, and like Saint Francis was. After all, Jesus himself went and got his self kilt when all he would have had to done to avoid it was to keep his mouth shut and not be a raisin' the dead and healing the lame and a makin' the blind see.

I have to say that the homosexual child molester that gets Tarwater near the end of the book surprised me as much as the murder of the family by the Misfit in A Good Man is Hard to Find surprised me when I first read it.

Tarwater is destined to be a prophet of the Lord. No matter what he does he can't shake off the destiny that the Lord has for him. He can try to reject it, but he can't get away from it.

Well, the Bad Catholic has a got to get up from this here computer and quit bloggin' and git on with his bidnis of lawyerin' and makin' a livin' and fallin down and worshipin' the Great God Mammon and all like that.

The Violent Bear It Away is grotesque, silly, and profound all at the same time. I think that's a good definition of a masterpiece. Don't you?

Miss Flannery rocking on the porch.


  1. Hello Bad Catholic. I think your commentary on Flannery O'Connor's THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY is quite concise and insightful. You are able to convey the essence of the novel in very few words. I think you are an intelligent and thoughtful literary critic and interpreter, which means you must be a good Catholic (and Christian) too!
    A Canadian who very much appreciates the work of Flannery O'Connor.

  2. Thanks for the high praise Anonymous!

  3. Dear Bad Catholic:
    Since writing my comments on your review of Flannery O'Connor's second novel, I have begun to read Walker Percy (whom I was always encountering in references and quotations), and I am delightfully overwhelmed by the wit and wisdom and just plain superb writing and vivid imagination of this postmodern (as it were) Catholic writer and philosopher. I am reading a collection of essays: SIGNPOSTS IN A STRANGE LAND; the novel: LOVE IN THE RUINS; and the idiosyncratic and amazing LOST IN THE COSMOS. In some ways I have you to thank for indirectly nudging me to finally read the great Walker Percy. Paul Maurice (on the north shore of Lake Erie, the south coast of Canada).

  4. After reading this great novel, I would like to give my point of view, esp. concerning the episode with the child molesteer and your comment "I have to say that the homosexual child molester that gets Tarwater near the end of the book surprised me" We can understand it if we see that the whole novel is about a child's brainwashing or even violating his conscience by imposing a system of belief or superstition. Tarwater has always had this double attitude: refusing the grandfather's belief of becoming a prophet by baptizing the handicapped child (this is reason) and at the same wanting to baptize the child i.e. following the non-rational grandfather's belief. He can't fight against what has been put into his brain and soul while he was a little child and too young to think by himself. So his conscience has been violated and there is nothing to do to get rid of this crime committed against him. And the molesting by this driver at the end is nothing but this violation, this rape, made visible... it is the cruel symbol of what happened to him as a child. Whereas the teacher was able to live with this, to recognize the problem, because he had his reason to help him not follow the grandfather's crazy beliefs... Crazy because it is only a question of interpretating tvisible facts : e.g. Tarwater set fire on the tree at the end, but as he saw the burning tree, he took it for the burning bush and a revelation by God. The story is the story of « moral violation », « moral rape » of people, indoctrination...impossible or very difficult to escape from, and in this case, only with the strength of reason... Nothing else is happening now with young Muslim fanatics who make themselves explode and kill others only because they have been told thet by doing so, they go to Heaven...another and more cruel way of achieving rebirth... (sorry form my not too good English, as it isn't my mothertongue)
    So... O'Connor, very modern, and useful today, and ...a bad Catholic !!
    Lucien Putz