The Violent Bear it Away: The Catholic Book Club's June selection

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? 

Peter Oxenhandler
4 years ago
Thank you for the review.
Susan Beason
4 years ago
Did the schoolteacher initially try to destroy Bishop to spare his wife the agony of raising the child and knew deep she would not stay in the marriage if the child was there? Did the schoolteacher try to avoid every possibility of showing love to Bishop, but when Bishop crawled upon his lap he broke thru the wall his father had established. The schoolteacher wanted to make Tarwaater into a fine young man as he knew he could not with Bishop. He felt a sense of failure with Bishop and changing Tarwater would be his exhonoration. Tarwater could not overcome his violence thus he was violent to all the characters. Burned his grandfather, totally ignored the schoolteacher's hopes for him, rebuked Bishop's love for him and used the excuse that he was baptizing the child to be rid of him. The grandfather in his twisted way tried to teach Tarwater of Jesus love but Tarwater was the violent one - who would bear all the love away.
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Susan, in reading your response, I was struck by your sentence that begins "Burned his grandfather, totally ignored..." Your sentence sets forth a series of destructive actions that Tarwater initiated and completed with no reflection on their consequences, his own motives, or what inspired such terrible ideas. I was thinking about the way that Tarwater expresses disdain toward the schoolteacher for being unable to "act" on his desire to murder Bishop. Tarwater expresses his disdain toward the schoolteacher's being unable to "act" several times- he (Tarwater) does not want to be like the schoolteacher and live in his head--Tarwater is not a thinker, he does not seem to have much of an interior life--he acts. In his destructive actions, which he does not give much "thought" to, he bears away the Kingdom of God. What do you think?
Susan Beason
4 years ago
Geneva, tarwaterwas violent in the common meaning of the word - harmful. His grandfather seemed to him to be harmful. Since he only acted on impulse he was harmful. But the truly violent - passionate - think about what it means to be part of the kingdom of heaven. He went back to the cabin, being alone, thus not being part of anything. The schoolteacher was not thinking of the kingdom of heaven, but did think one needed needed to be perfect as per his description to be able to live a good life. His son could not be perfect and he wanted to make Tarwaterperfect. The harmful bear away the kingdom of God not even thinking about what they are doing.
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Hi Susan, thanks for the helpful reply. I think I get the distinction you are making between the common meaning of violent and the "truly" violent who are passionate. So, would you conclude that most of Flannery O'Connor's characters in this book are "harmful" and the destruction they create is the product of impulse? Does that mean this book is not about evil? I am confused about the relationship of impulse that results in serious destruction to evil. Are the characters who are "harmful" and impulsive, but not deliberate or thoughtful about their actions "off the hook"? Seems like a lack of thoughtfulness and not making careful choices that support the kingdom of God results in evil? The inaction of the schoolteacher which allows Bishop to go out in the boat with Tarwater seems deliberate--he seems complicit in the child's death. The schoolteacher's actions seems to be planful.Tarwater's actions thanks for thinking about this, too!
Susan Beason
3 years 11 months ago
I am thinking that yes impulsivness is evil. God gave us a brain to use it. However, Tarwater was so mind warped (not the word I want but anyway) by his Grandfather. He was not given much of a chance to think for himself. Oncehis Grandfather was no longer there his thoughts were simply by instinct. He did have the instinct to join up with the schoolteacher. The schoolteacher led a good life or so it appeared to Tarwater. Besides, where else could he go. He had destroyed his living space. On impulse he needed to get rid of Bishop so the schoolteacher's life would seemingly be better. By this time he has been exposed to doing his own thinking just long enough to "think" about this. When Tarwater was at the pool with Bishop and the schoolteacher he saw drowning in the schoolteacher's face. Later in the book the teacher tells Tarwater that experience is a terrible teacher. In the beginning of the book Tarwater determined to "see no more than what was in front of his face." Act on impulse, don' think it through or it will eat you up.
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Hi Susan, thanks for the helpful reply. I think I get the distinction you are making between the common meaning of violent and the "truly" violent who are passionate. So, would you conclude that most of Flannery O'Connor's characters in this book are "harmful" and the destruction they create is the product of impulse? Does that mean this book is not about evil? I am confused about the relationship of impulse that results in serious destruction to evil. Are the characters who are "harmful" and impulsive, but not deliberate or thoughtful about their actions "off the hook"? Seems like a lack of thoughtfulness and not making careful choices that support the kingdom of God results in evil? The inaction of the schoolteacher which allows Bishop to go out in the boat with Tarwater seems deliberate--he seems complicit in the child's death. The schoolteacher's actions seems to be planful.Tarwater's actions thanks for thinking about this, too!
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
The first question captures my attention. The novel's title, " The Violent Bear It Away" applies to the Great Uncle, Tarwater, and even the schoolteacher--and perhaps more of the characters in the novel, as well. It applies to those who claim to be prophets (Great Uncle) and those who refuse the title--Tarwater and the Schoolteacher. Violence takes many forms in this novel. Violence, in its most obvious form, is found in the episodes of kidnapping, shooting, drownings but also in the acts of the Schoolteacher when he fails to "love" Bishop and Tarwater. In all cases, violence diminishes the world in material and spiritual dmensions, Yet, all of these characters who are violent also exhibit moments of love--I think they are instruments of grace as suggested in Question 1. Please offer thoughts!
Peter Eisner
4 years ago
Thanks for pointing to this book. It is complicated. The story and the title called to mind David Berkowitz, Son of Sam. Jimmy Breslin, I think it was, said that when Berkowitz walked down the street, the very birds fell from the trees as he passed by. It was as if the violent one created a force field of violence around him. I tried to look for the Breslin quote, but instead found this eerie report about Berkowitz: http://nymag.com/news/crimelaw/20327/; it seems to recapitulate some of the themes O’Connor is dealing with. The violent one generates and promotes generations of violence. Berkowitz believes he is saved. Can it be like this: the great-uncle "bears away" innocence--he destroys the children around him. He alters their senses--Rayber can no longer hear and Tarwater hears voices, even when the old man is physically gone. The only one beyond the old man’s reach was Bishop--damaged as a person but eternally and purely innocent. The old man's madness reaches beyond his own death; his influence and power find a way indirectly to destroy that innocence, the last vestige, bearing it away.
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Peter, If the violent create a force field around themselves, then do those who are "good" create a force field around themselves? If the forces of "good" and "evil" are in battle for dominion of our world, then where were the forces for good in this novel? Was Bishop the primary force for good? The most broken of the characters in the story? If Sam Berkowitz caused birds to fall from the trees, then surely there are individuals who make the flowers bloom? Where were these "forces for good" in O'Connor's novel? Another candidate as a force for good was the poor man who buried the Great Uncle and put a cross on his grave--Bishop and the man who buried the Great Uncle seem unlikely to be capable of battling the force field of violence created around them. Where is the force field of goodness in this story?
Peter Eisner
4 years ago
Geneva I think you're right. We've all met people that do the opposite. Might be religious figures, might not. People who inspire and nurture. It is hard to find a force for good in this book. The best is that Tarwater at some points seems to hear a healthy alternative-or maybe we're hoping that he hears-- but all goodness gets perverted and overtaken. The schoolteacher knows the difference, but he's tortured by the memory of his time with the great-uncle, who does the opposite of nurturing. For me, this book is so troubling because it portrays almost total violence. Yes, I think that the man who buries the uncle -- not knowing the details -- does the humane thing but he exists mostly beyond the story. I wonder if Bishop is the most damaged though. Mentally, yes, but otherwise he's in a state of innocence. when he touches and grabs on to Tarwater's leg with innocent love, he's being naturally good, although who knows from what recesses.
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Hi Peter, Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis of the characters in this novel. I agree with you that the book portrays "almost total violence." After I read your reply I tried to identify points in the story where "love" or "goodness" are present. Most of the moments where love is expressed, occur, as you suggest, in the innocent actions of Bishop. One episode that was particularly memorable occurs when the schoolteacher, Bishop and Tarwater visit the museum. The laces of Bishop's shoes are untied and the schoolteacher holds the child in his lap to tie his shoes. The schoolteacher has a moment when he is nearly overwhelmed by his own affection and love for Bishop. I found the sentences in the story, " Let's sit sit down," he [the schoolteacher] said, wanting both to take a rest and to observe the boy's agitation. He sat down on a bench and stretched his legs in front of him. He suffered Bishop to climb into his lap. the child's shoelaces were untied and he tied them, for the moment ignoring the boy [Tarwater] who was standing there, his face furiously impatient.When he finished tying the shoes, he continued to hold the child, sprawled and grinning on his lap. The little boy's white head fitted under his chin. Above it Rayber looked at nothing in particular. Then he closed his eyes and in the isolating darkness, he forgot Tarwater's presence. Without warning his hated love gripped him and held him in a vise. He should have known better than to let the child onto his lap." Clearly, you are correct, Bishop is not the most damaged character--he is capable of loving and being loved.Is Rayber [schoolteacher] lost? Rayber's heart is touched by Bishop, What of Tarwater? So, is Bishop the force for good--does he make the "flowers bloom"? /many thanks for considering my questions.
Peter Eisner
4 years ago
Geneva I'm with you on the sections you chose about Rayber expressing his love for Bishop. I can't say that Bishop is precisely a force for anything, He's the presence of innocence, and innocent, as such, I think, he can be the recipient and object of love. His existence, as he is, can remind the others; we direct love toward an innocent being. What happens after the curtain goes down? Tarwater and Rayber have some changing and atoning to do. Rayber tried to kill Bishop, Tarwater did kill him, and Rayber, I felt, was an accessory. Shouldn't he have known that Tarwater might do that? It feels, though, a bit artificial for me at that point in the book. The characters lose a bit of reality and become somewhat heavily manipulated, even metaphoric, as O'Connor examines these qualities in humanity.
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Peter, Do you think that "innocents" are only the object of love, but otherwise have no agency? Or are you attributing the lack of agency to Bishop, because, he is, in particular, very disabled? On reading your reply, I have to agree with you that Bishop is not a force unto himself. Perhaps I am using the wrong word when I ask if Bishop is a "force" for goodness--can he be an "instrument" by which goodness is introduced into the story? I confess, I had not thought of Rayber as an accessory to Bishop's murder--but, after reflecting on it, I believe you are correct. Talk about complicity in an abhorrent act! Rayber had responsibility for Bishop's day-to-day existence and had some experience of "loving" the child; Tarwater was assigned a "mission" to baptize the child, but seemed to lack compassion for the little boy. Tarwater prided himself on being able "to do" things--not just engage in impotent, intellectualizing (like Rayber). What kind of strange bargain did Rayber and Tarwater strike? You think Rayber might be an accessory, I wonder if Rayber should be assigned more responsibility than that of accessory--he planted the seeds and then set up the circumstances in which the murder could be committed--but his hands would be clean. What qualities do Rayber and Tarwater exemplify?
Kevin Spinale
4 years ago
I would like to reply to both Ms. Haertel and Mr. Eisner. Thank you for your discussion. First, it seems that Bishop absorbs violence from the others - an vicious act of violence from the boy, Francis Tarwater, and a violence of neglect on the part of Bishop's father, Rayber. Rayber's violence is inaction and refusal of love. Tarwater's violence is born out of a rejection. Yet, there is a depth, a seraching, a hunger, a lack that drives the boy Tarwater's violence. There is something sincere in his acts around fire and water. I do not condemn him. I have compassion for Tarwater. He makes me more honest about my own life of faith. I will try to offer two reasons for my opinion about the boy Tarwater. First, toward the end of her famous short story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," Flannery O'Connor writes the following in the words of a misfit who murders an entire family by a dirt road in Georgia: 'I wasn't there so I can't say He [Jesus] didn't [raise the dead],' The Misfit said. 'I wisht I had of been there,' he said, hitting the ground with his fist. 'It ain't right that I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would have known. Listen lady,' he said in a high voice, 'If I had of been there I would have known and I wouldn't be like I am now.' The Misfit's struggles with belief are real. His sincere suffering provokes a genuine and spontaneous act of kindness on the part of a wizenedly selfish grandmother, whose act of compassion, in turn, fractures the Misfit's belief that there is no pleasure in life but cruelty to others. Perhaps the Misfit and his violence are meant to provoke us to the realization that belief in God and love of the Christian God is a tremendously profound thing on the part of a human being. And, if one is somehow dishonest about the profundity of such a commitment and the claim such a commitment make's on one's life, the faith is somehow distorted or empty. Second, Paul Elie writes in his essay, "Love and Violence," in the recently published book, "Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience" (Harper One, 2013), "A moment of graced insight in a flurry of gunfire, a son's tenderness called forth at last during a mother's heart attack: O'Connor grasped that only in moments like these would her people - her characters, and her readers - 'feel in [their] bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts." (105) Elie goes on to explain the work of another bold religious artist, Caravaggio. In the course of his thoughtful essay, he identifies a reality in Christian life that seems more basic than the poles of saved and damned, good and evil. The more basic set of poles seems to be love and violence. Such a continuum - if this dyad represents a continuum - seems to me to be utterly scriptural, utterly Christian. Elie writes: "For Caravaggio love and violence - not faith and doubt, not salvation and damnation, not orthodoxy and heterodoxy - are the extremes of religious encounter. They are opposed so relentlessly in his work as to make those other dichotomies seem small and dry. The emphasis Caravaggio gives them is an act of fidelity and a mark of personal style." (104) Elie's essay is a helpful window into understanding the genius of Flannery's "The Violent Bear It Away." Elie's claims help me to realize first that there is such a thing as a religious artist and, secondly, that the religious artist is an essential, irreplaceable teacher who helps the world understand Christian faith and the Christian to think more deeply about his or her own faith. Please, continue the discussion. Kevin
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
Hi Kevin, Thanks for sharing your insights into the novel. I spent some part of this afternoon thinking about your comment that a commitment to God can make a profound impact on an individual's life. I thought about the Great Uncle---he believed in God. He was a misfit, like the character in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The quote you cited from "A Good Man is Hard to Find" illustrates how Jesus was on the mind of a man who had murdered an entire family. Why does the coupling of violence and an interest in God seem to go "hand in hand" in these stories? Perhaps violence and love are a dichotomy and distant poles on a continuum--but these characters(Rayber, Tarwater and the Misfit) seem locked in what appear to be fatal struggles between their violent sides and a desire to encounter God. The Uncle in "The Violent Bear It Away" recognizes or identifies God as a truly significant force in his life--but his life is filled with a variety of violent acts. The Misfit murders a family and then wants to understand whether Jesus could raise the dead. These characters are searching, but don't seem to be able to fully sense God's love for them--is that because they lack faith, is it ignorance of God, is it because they have had such horrible, unloving experiences in their lives? Each of them had some knowledge or "notion" about a God, but that wasn't enough to fill the void--what would have allowed Tarwater's life to turn a different direction? What is the role of grace in these lives? Need help to understand!
Beth Cioffoletti
4 years ago
I am reading this book now. I think I am about 3/4 of the way through, hard to tell because I am reading it on my phone (a first for me). The book was not available at the local bookstore or library. and I didn't want to wait for it to be special ordered. Like Kevin, I have layers of questions and reflections. In many ways I feel like I am in a dream, inside my own head and life, when considering the characters and dialogue. There is a sense of hopelessness, frustration and even disgust with the situation. These are carnival characters with deep emotional and irrational drivings. Like my dreams. I want to finish the book before I attempt to answer the questions posed -- but I am wondering where a comprehensive discussion of this book will take place. Here, on this America comment box? Or is there a CBC, Catholic Book Club, site where I should go to find it?
Geneva Haertel
4 years ago
I have the same question as Beth--will there be a comprehensive discussion of the book? I would enjoy that and it would be helpful to me. Will we do something like that? Geneva
Kevin Spinale
4 years ago
Ms. Cioffoletti, Greetings. I will respond to comments today and through the next few days. I would like to have a substantive conversation here. I welcome all other participants. I thank Ms. Haertel and Mr. Eisner and others for their thoughtful comments thus far. The book is stimulating and frustrating and haunting and beautiful all at once. I urge you to finish the novel. I will respond to comments here, in my initial introduction to the novel, and I want to continue the conversation next week when the magazine posts a podcast of a conversation that Mr. Paul Elie and I had last week about the novel. Mr. Elie wrote the book, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," which portrays the lives or Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery. The podcast should be posted Monday or Tuesday. I also want to discuss Mr. Elie's recent essay about Caravaggio and the vocation of the religious artist entitled: "Love and Violence." The ideas put forth in the essay are quite relevant to our discussion of Flannery. Thank you, Kevin Spinale, SJ
ELIZABETH MALONE
4 years ago
Violence vs. the goodness of God has been a longstanding issue of faith for me. I read a lot of Flannery O'Connor years ago and have forgotten most of it but remember being deeply impressed in two ways. One was the impression that, in her work, ugliness often seemed to be a mask over the face of God and the other was that violence sometimes seemed to be a vehicle for grace. What could be uglier or more violent than a crucifixion? And yet when Jesus rose from the dead, he returned to the very people who denied, abandoned, doubted, and ultimately crucified him. Does he not keep coming back to us as well? Could it be that our author is asking us not to despair over the violent world of Tarwater and relatives. Is she asking us even to love them..to remember that we, like they, see only darkly through a looking glass?
Joan Clancy
4 years ago
A few thoughts...Flannery's use of the motif of baptism mediated by the actual abuser seems, if not prophetic, at least apropos to the clergy abuse and accountability problems currently afoot. I noted she has few female characters and those are not just peripheral but ineffective if not inept. Examples:The wife refuses to rescue the teenage boy upon seeing in his eyes what could probably be seen at any Theory of a Deadman concert today and the lodge lady handles the physical and emotional abandonment of Bishop at dockside with a popsicle. There is perhaps a veiled indictment in making Rayber a psychologist. Rather than offering post-religious answers science "...knows everything...but that doesn't keep him from being a fool. He can't do nothing. All he can do is figure it out." I loved the portrayal of Tarwater as an unconvinced prophet with an uncomfortable vocation foisted on him. Catholicism has felt like that to me at times in my life.As I see it the issue for believers, convinced or not, is that like Rayber we have inherited the whole property and have to figure out whether we want to build on it, sell it, till it, abandon it, or set fire to it.
edward mcgoohan
4 years ago
I read this book too long ago to say anything more than how depressed it made me as it resuscitated my childhood experiences which would have been similar to Ms O'Connor's that is to say we both came through the fire of a Catholic Church in its full bloom of power and unquestioned authority over the laity and blind obedience from it. The experience had clearly left her haunted by phantoms..
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 12 months ago
I agree with Geneva. Need help to understand! I have finally finished the book and feel like I have been drug through some deep psychical experience which borders on insanity. Scripture on steroids. Bishop was the character in which I found some semblance of hope and mercy, and he was killed (like Christ?). I kept thinking that Flannery was exploring the essence of violence itself and at the end I would have a better understanding or insight into what violence is, but I don't. (Or, at least, I don't have an intellectual understanding) The writing itself is undeniably brilliant - her ability to make REAL the setting and mood: time actually stands still and the reader is as involved in the story as characters themselves. The story she creates with her words is a masterpiece, but it feels almost too big for me to hold (or know what to do with). I'm unsettled. The image that stays with me is that of Tarwater's hunger. What IS this? I'm looking forward to the podcast with Paul Elie. I think that I have his book about O'Connor around here somewhere, and will look at it first.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 12 months ago
And what about Buford, the negro, who buried the Old Man, who has harvested his corn and is plowing his field. Isn he some kind of redeeming grace? A prophet is one who can see things as they really are, "cut through great tangled knots of lies" (as Merton says). O'Connor's characters take this to a whole new level, surely involving a certain oddity at being so out of step with the status quo, but must they be so "freakish"? The mental issues in Tarwater, Rayber and the great uncle were so exaggerated that, though I can find similar thought patterns in myself, I definitely didn't want to identify with them. I wanted to keep my distance.
Geneva Haertel
3 years 12 months ago
Hi Beth--you and I are moving around the same mental space on this novel! I would like to know what Tarwater's "hunger" is, too. There was that interesting episode in which Tarwater goes to the "revival" and Rayber tries to catch up with him and then is peering in the window at the evangelist--in that episode, I thought, there was a glimmering of insight into Tarwater and his interest in Jesus. There was a moment when Rayber and Tarwater are walking home when you feel like Tarwater's guard was down--he could have been open to the experience of love--but Rayber, after chasing after Tarwater (barefoot, no less), fails to take advantage of the boy's openess to connect with him. The moment is lost. I could use some help to understand what is propelling Tarwater and Rayber. Bishop is easier to understand (I think), Tarwater and Rayber both appear to be moving along the continuum that Father Kevin described-- a continuum extending from violence to love. Seems like they both move back and forth between impulses of openness and defensiveness--but can't get synced up. I still need help, Beth! I am looking forward to the podcast, too. I will get the book about O'Connor--I've never read it. Thanks for the ideas!
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 12 months ago
After sleeping on this some, I'm sensing that this is really Tarwater's story (and mine, and everyone's). At the end, when he sees his "friend" and lights the fire between him and the "friend" is when he finally becomes united in himself and is able to become who he is - embrace his destiny. It seems to me that love takes the form of compassion. Tying Bishop's shoes, despite the revulsion that both Tarwater and Rayber have for him. The characters are ultimately pitiful, stumbling over themselves and each other, and I feel like someone is going to have to carry them. Are they us??? Are these small acts of kindness all we have going for us? Like you, I'm starting to get some glimmers of insight, but I have to stay with the story and struggle with it some. That's interesting about Rayber changing some as well, and coming to an understanding of sorts about Tarwater's drawing to the Jesus story. (But wasn't Tarwater rejecting, or trying to reject the Jesus story after visiting the temple) I could see Rayber's evolution more clearly at the end. It's as if both Tarwater and Rayber have different manifestations of the same disease. Yes, Bishop is easier to understand because he is simple, so unaffected by the demons that plague Tarwater and Rayber. He becomes a scapegoat for them, the one to carry their suffering/sin (like Jesus?). Both Tarwater and Rayber are almost compelled to kill him. It is Tarwater (the one who "acts") who finally does it. The Paul Elie book that I have is "An American Pilgrimage: The Life You Save May Be Your Own". I started reading last night on page 189 and seemed to be finding something that could help me navigate these waters better. It seems to me that "The Violent Bear it Away" is not the usual kind of book that you can read and then objectively analyze and come away feeling entertained or enlightened. Flannery is exposing some inner landscape that is unsettling. I don't have a clue what the title means. Or even how to define Violence.
Geneva Haertel
3 years 12 months ago
Just a quick comment about Beth's reflections on June 29th. I've been thinking about the symbolism of 'shoes" in the story--Bishop's shoelaces need tying, Bishop's shoes get wet and need to be changed; Rayber goes out to find Tarwater barefoot. Shoes in a weird way symbolize the "state" of the character--Bishop is in need of help (typing shoelaces and removing "wet" shoes. Rayber is vulnerable (chasing Tarwater) without his shoes....to me the shoes, water and fire give us clues as to the state of the characters. Pretty interesting material, but hard, for me, to interpret. Any other ideas?
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 12 months ago
I think that I need to read the novel again, Geneva. It seems chock full of symbols to me. I've often heard Flannery O'Connor described as an authentically Catholic writer, and have been trying to figure that out. My freshman year at Spring Hill College (Jesuit school in Mobile Alabama) I had an English professor (Fr. McGown SJ) who was a personal friend of Flannery. He introduced us to Flannery and had us read many of her stories. I found her writings unusual but as an 18 year old I didn't know what to make of her. I see her celebrated in many Catholic settings - conservative Catholics like to bring up what she said about the Eucharist: "if it's a symbol, to hell with it". So, is she using fire and water and shoes as a symbol for something else in this novel? Or is she inviting us into a strange land where symbol/reality fuse - like liturgy and sacrament? Her writing is definitely no stranger to mystery. I'll see what I think after going through the book again. This is from Paul Elie’s book, An American Pilgrimage pp.288-289, describing Flannery’s struggle to write (and finish) this book: “She was calling it The Violent Bear It Away, and the title suggested the struggle of writing it. She saw it as a book about baptism, and thought the challenge was to get the reader to see baptism as a matter of life and death. She had to “bend the whole novel” so that the baptism carried “enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. “So she bent the novel toward what she supposed were the modern reader’s sympathies. It would be a novel of initiation, about the boy’s entry into manhood, a motif the reader would recognize. It would begin and end with a religious ritual: in the beginning the ritual of death, the boy’s burial of his grandfather [sic – he is described in the novel as probably his great uncle], who is a prophet, and in the end the ritual of life, the baptism of his nephew, who is retarded [this is nit picky, but wouldn’t Bishop be Tarwater’s cousin?]. It would lead the reader to see these rituals in the way that she saw them herself – baptism as the initiation into the life of grace, and burial as the initiation into the life of eternity. “Thus described, her approach has a Jamesian elegance, but in practice it proved so unwieldy that simply keeping the story straight became her biggest challenge. The novel opens like a piece of student fiction, with a boy alone in “the farthest part of the backwoods.” His mother is long dead. His father is long gone. His grandfather [great uncle], who raised him, gives up the ghost over breakfast on page one. His home, Powderhead, is a “gaunt two story shack” in a deserted clearing. Alone, he faces two adversaries: an invisible stranger who whispers in his ear, and his only relative, the schoolteacher Rayber, a dullard enlivened only by his interest in psychology, a field O’Connor disdained without knowing much about it. The action takes place in flashbacks; the point of view wanders from one character to another. There are two Tarwaters, two Raybers, two nephews, two loose women, and in each correspondence – between old Tarwater and young Tarwater, between the prophet and the prophet in the making – appears and disappears like the trail to Powderhead. “She finished in January 1959, nearly seven years after she started. “I am more and more satisfied with the title and less and less satisfied with the rest of it, she told Hester. “To the Fitzgeralds she wrote, “I cannot see it any longer and the only thing I can determine about it is that nobody else would have wanted to write it but me. “Although it is a novel of initiation, the sense of an ending in the book is strong. The style suggests the Old Testament. The setting is the oldest part of the Old South. The drift of the action is not forward but backward, and this fact, no doubt, made it even harder of O’Connor to reach the end of the novel, as did the slowly gathering suspicion that she would not write another."
Geneva Haertel
3 years 12 months ago
Hi Beth, You gave us some wonderful ideas to work with--many thanks! I see the import of the baptism and the funeral--somehow in my reading of the novel, I didn't think about the fact that the book opens and ends with the two sacraments. I am puzzled by your comment that there "two Tarwaters, two Raybers, two loose women..." I am not sure how there are two of each of these characters. Could you explain? Also, I wonder about the characterization of Rayber as a "dullard"--I am not sure what Rayber represents--I think he is trying to bring control to his very unhappy life--he does express a desire to help Tarwater--and for awhile, he included Bishop in his life. I am bewildered by Rayber's hunger and Tarwater's hunger--where are these two souls going in their very difficult lives? Thanks for all your help--I am going to look at the Paul Elie book!
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 12 months ago
Hi Geneva - that comment about the 2 Tarwaters, the 2 Raybers etc are not mine, that is quoted from the Paul Elie book. I thought I had all the quoted portions of that post marked with a " ... I too was confused by that comment. My sense is that they are characters that are inwardly divided. For example, Tarwater has his "friend" talking to him, watching him, commenting on his thought. At the end of the book, Tarwater draws a line of fire between himself and the "friend". I don't think that Flannery has as much compassion for Rayber as she does for the other characters. Rayber is the secular, "modern" man, who has to figure everything out, do things "right". It's as if he thinks he has the answers to life. Tarwater, on the other hand is blindly following something, not having a clue as to where he will end up. I too am bewildered by the hunger. It seems to have to do with the bread of life. In so many ways Flannery comes across to me as her own version of an Evangelical preacher. She shocks us with her grotesque imagery. I often feel as if she is trying to ram something down my throat and I reject it, just like Tarwater couldn't get anything down. But something tells me that she is opening the door to a whole nuther level of awareness, if I could get over my fear and grossed-out-ness. And this isn't a matter of figuring something out, as Rayber would do. This book is art. You look, you feel, you come away seeing and knowing things differently. Flannery is able to do this art with the characters and descriptive details of her story. It seems to me that the only way to read the book is the look and to feel, and to let the art do its thing in the bowels of your consciousness. I'm still puzzled with the title: The Violent Bear It Away. Who are the violent and what do they bear away? Or is that the wrong question? Thanks for keeping me engaged with this discussion.
Mona Villarrubia
3 years 11 months ago

The exaggerated nature of evil combined with the exaggerated, fundamentalist, religious piety - sometimes in the same character - make me want to run screaming from O'Connor's religious world view. And I wonder if that is the desired affect: to propel the reader towards hope and away from the darkness down into which one is drawn by her stories. Perhaps then her writing is not so much thematically about grace but un-grace, the antithesis of grace, and perhaps what we desire, crave even, after reading her stories is the pursuit of grace. And maybe that is why her writing is considered "Catholic." But it demands a strong stomach and a stronger will to experience her writings as a means of strengthening one's faith. It's all too dark and hopeless, and maybe just a little too real!

Dan Biezad
9 months 1 week ago
To delve into the meaning of this excellent work, it may be best to remember that Flannery O'Connor struggled for seven years with much that is in it except for the title. Thus, the title, "The Violent Bear It Away," (from Matthew 11:12), points toward the essence of her message. Although the title has varied religious interpretations, the Roman Catholic interpretive preference (from the New American Catholic Study Bible) is that it probably refers to Christian opponents who violently both prevent belief and who snatch the faith away from those who have received it. If this scriptural passage is taken in context with references to John the Baptist that both precede and follow it in the New Testament, the words imply that "prophecy and the law," once active and effective in society until the time of John, have "from John's time until now" given way to violence. It is clear in the narrative that the protagonist, fourteen-year-old Francis Tarwater, represents the negative reaction of youth to the demands of old Mason Tarwater (his great-uncle who dies at the novel's outset), who represents the exclusion and the seclusion of prophetic religious traditions from modern life. Modern life, in turn, is represented by Tarwater's rational uncle, Rayber --- himself kidnapped for a time as a child by the fanatical old Mason Tarwater, and who as a result is intent on keeping his dim-witted young son, Bishop, from being baptized (by either Old Mason or Francis). Rayber also intends to turn Francis Tarwater toward a secular life, away from what he considers religious fanaticism. I believe Flannery O'Connor puts Francis Tarwater forth as a character who is honestly seeking freedom, especially from the demands of religion. Tarwater is psychologically damaged by his great-uncle Mason, who calls him to succeed him as a prophet and to baptize his dim-witted cousin, Bishop, and damaged also by his uncle Rayber, who calls him to secularism. Francis is a misfit prone to violence and arson, lost in the modern world, but he is consistent in his belief in action and in rejecting the call to be a prophet made by his great-uncle. Thus, Tarwater is honest with himself, and Flannery respects that in her characterization of him. As Francis gets caught up in the violence of the novel, violence that, ironically, yields both good and evil, his experiences in his final reach for freedom at his inherited but burned-down farm at Powderhead show the fields there "peopled with multitude," with his resurrected Uncle Mason "lowering himself to the ground." The great hunger both Tarwater and Mason have rises "as a tide...through the centuries," rising in prophets like them to "shout the truth" to a disbelieving generation. Tarwater, his suffering endured, smears dirt on his forehead from his uncle's grave, accepting the task with passion and determination. At the very end of the novel, Tarwater "moved steadily on" to the "dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping." This novel, by Flannery O'Connor's own admission, is complex, so much so that it is easy for surface interpretations to be filtered and morphed into one's own a priori set of beliefs and opinions about religion and secular society. Viewed, however, consistent with her deep beliefs that emerge in this and in her other works, I believe this book is a trumpet blast from the Angel Gabriel, a blast to awake God's children entrapped in Dante's Inferno, a "Book of Revelation" for the literary set, clearly a work of high art, sublime and powerful. Thank you, Flannery!

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