The Catholic Book Club seeks to right a wrong with this month’s selection. Since its inception in 1928, CBC has never chosen a work by Flannery O’Connor. This month, we will read and discuss O'Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away.
On April 15, 2013, I was walking home from a Red Sox game with a good friend when we heard a loud bang about a block and a half away. Less than a minute after the noise, we saw police and fire vehicles driving wildly, and then we saw people running. They seemed frantic, grabbing at their children. Some were crying. We walked calmly toward the South End and then to Dorchester. We had become aware that there were two explosions and people were hurt badly. As we walked toward BC High, the title of Flannery O’Connor’s final novel kept coming to mind: The Violent Bear it Away…the violent bear it away. I had never read the novel, but I knew the title came from the Douay Rheims version of Matthew 11:12. The novel’s epigraph reads: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The RSV renders the verse: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” The original Greek of the second half of the verse reads roughly, “the kingdom of the heavens has suffered violence and those who are violent (perhaps ‘the forceful’ or ‘they who are the antithesis to the meek’) are taking it away.” The violent take away—they seize the kingdom of God in their effort to diminish or distort it. The violent took away the ebullient atmosphere of a sunny marathon Monday. The forceful shattered the peace of a city and inspired fear. The violent took away limbs, and, most crushingly, they took away lives. The dead were all young. Among them was a boy from Dorchester. The violent took him away and diminished our sense of God’s kingdom. At eight years old, he sought peace. He wrote about it. He sought spontaneously to build the kingdom, and he was borne away by violence.
Flannery O’Connor’s novel is dark and serious. It is a meditation on faith, the refusal of call or mission, religious authenticity and violence. At the heart of the novel, there is a 14-year-old boy who is haunted by the two clear missions given him by his great-uncle: bury the great-uncle properly upon his death and baptize his "retarded" cousin. After the old man’s death, the boy, Francis Marion Tarwater, rejects both missions. There is a powerful passage toward the middle of the story that captures the swirl of violence and fate and refusal of mission that rages inside the boy. Flannery describes Tarwater’s first meeting with his cousin at his schoolteacher uncle’s house in the city:
Tarwater clenched his fists. He stood like one condemned waiting at the spot of execution. Then the revelation came, silent, implacable, direct as a bullet. He did not look in the eyes of any fiery beast or see a burning bush. He only knew, with a certainty sunk in despair, that he was expected to baptize that child he saw and begin the life his great-uncle prepared for him. He knew that he was called to be a prophet and that the ways of his prophecy would not be remarkable. His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf. The Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire to baptize one idiot child that he need not have created in the first place and to cry out a gospel just as foolish. He tried to shout, “NO!” but it was like trying to shout in his sleep. The sound was saturated in silence, lost. (91-92)
The sight of the “dimwitted boy,” Tarwater’s cousin, brings about the realization of Tarwater’s mission. The boy is mute and seems only able to cling to his father and love to swim. He bellows and bleats in fear and delight. Tarwater is as revolted by him as other characters in the novel seem revolted by Tarwater’s rough, hard look. The retarded child’s name is Bishop. Bishop’s father, Tarwater’s schoolteacher-uncle who thought the great-uncle to be dangerously mad, also feels a sense of revulsion at his son. As Bishop’s presence brings Tarwater to confront his mission, it triggers feelings of love in the schoolteacher that he desperately tries to avoid:
He was not afraid of love in general. He knew the value of it and how it could be used. He had seen it transform in cases where nothing else had worked…None of this had the least bearing on his situation. The love that would overcome him was of a different order entirely. It was not the kind that could be used for the child’s improvement or his own. It was love without reason, love for something futureless, love that appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all demanding, the kind that would cause him to make a fool of himself in an instant. And it only began with Bishop. It began with Bishop and then like an avalanche it covered everything his reason hated. He always felt with it a rush of longing to have the old man’s [the great-uncle’s] eyes – insane, fish-colored, violent with their impossible vision of a world transfigure – turned on him again. The longing was like an undertow in his blood dragging him backwards to what he knew to be madness. (113-114)
Bishop’s mild, mute presence stirs violence in Tarwater and the schoolteacher. The violence is stark and final and Bishop is borne away. Yet, there is the sense throughout that God provokes violence as well. Part of Tarwater’s mission in baptizing Bishop is to burn the schoolteacher’s eyes clean. The prophet himself must be burnt clean through struggle. There is a great deal of burning and a great deal of struggle. Children, including Tarwater, are subjected to violence, while, at the same time, children proclaim the kingdom of God.
Flannery O’Connor’s novel stirs question upon question in me. Flannery anguished over its composition. I anguish in trying to interpret it thoughtfully. It speaks of violence toward children and violence as the fruit of some refusal of faith or refusal of love. There is also the sense of violence in assenting to faith. There is the presence of the devil. A devilish voice erupts in Tarwater just after the great-uncle dies: “there ain’t no such thing as a devil. I can tell you that from my own self-experience. I know that for a fact. It ain’t Jesus or the devil. It’s Jesus or you.” (39) Perhaps faith itself is in some way violent and ugly. The prophet—the faith-filled one—is unwashed and odd and isolated. The devilish voice slyly remarks: “That’s all a prophet is good for—to admit that somebody else is an ass or a whore.” (40) Perhaps faith can seem hideous. Tarwater certainly sees Jesus on the cross as hideous. Even the endless Eucharistic banquet in heaven seems ugly to him. And so, I ask you to help me with these questions:
1. Please help me to understand Flannery’s title. How do you think it relates to the novel? To which character does the title apply? Who is most violent? Are all the characters instruments of grace even with the violence that seems to originate in them and from them?
2. Is Tarwater’s destiny to be a prophet a violent fate in and of itself? Are prophets always proximate to violence? Must the prophet’s message involve violence? Does love involve a certain violence? Help me to understand the conclusion of the novel.
3. What of Flannery O’Connor and your faith? Does her fiction, particularly this novel, affect your faith? Does it force you, as it seems to force me, to avoid dishonest, sentimental aspects of faith? Does this novel bring you to reconsider the violence of Scripture, Old and New Testaments?