Sunday, July 31, 2011

413. The Violent Bear it Away – Flannery O’Connor

History: This is a novel published in 1960 by American author Flannery O'Connor. It is the second and final novel that she published. The first chapter of the novel was published as the story "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead," in the journal New World Writing, volume 8 in October 1955.
The title is taken from a verse of the Douay 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.
There are various explanations for the use of this passage as a title, the most accepted being that violence constantly attacks God and heaven, and that only those violent with the love of God can bear it away. This is best shown when Tarwater drowns Bishop, he commits a violent act, but the “accidental” baptism is an equally powerful act of violent love for God, bears the previous wrong away.
Another possible meaning is that, specific to O'Connor's theology, both secularism and fundamentalism (that is the Protestant functioning outside of the Roman Catholic Church) are basically heresy, which blinds their adherents to God's pure truth. When God's grace comes into contact with an errant life, a form of violent revelation occurs where falsehood and heresy is burnt off and the individual then sees with startling clarity. Those who undergo this spiritual violence take "the kingdom of God" with them as they go through the world.
Plot: The novel begins when old Mason Tarwater dies. Prior to his death, he had asked his great-nephew, the teen-aged protagonist, Francis Tarwater, to given a proper Christian burial, with a cross marking the grave so that his body would be resurrected on Judgment Day. Young Tarwater starts to dig the grave but suddenly hears a "Voice" in his head telling to him to forget about the old man. Tarwater obeys and gets drunk instead. When he returns from drinking, he sets the house that he and his uncle had lived in on fire, with his great-uncle's body still inside. He leaves for the city and gets a ride from a salesman, who drops him off at his uncle Rayber's door.
Rayber is amazed to see young Tarwater, who he had given up on a long time ago after the young boy had had essentially been "kidnapped" by the boy's great uncle to live in the country and be brought up a Christian. Tarwater is also greeted at the door by Rayber's young son Bishop, who (it is implied) has Down's syndrome. Old Mason Tarwater (the great uncle) had commissioned the young Tarwater to baptize Bishop at some point, in order to save the little boy's soul. Tarwater is immediately put on edge when confronted with Bishop, but decides to stay with Uncle Rayber anyway. He doesn't think of Bishop as a human being and is revolted by him.
The three begin to live together as a family for a while, and Rayber is excited to have his nephew back in order to raise him like a normal, educated boy. But Tarwater resists his uncle's attempts at secular reform very much the same way he resisted his great uncle's attempts at religious reform. Rayber understands what Tarwater is going through. When he (Rayber) was only seven years old, old Mason Tarwater kidnapped him in order to baptize him, but Rayber's father rescued him before the old man could fully corrupt him.
After many attempts by Rayber to "civilize" Tarwater, and many attempts by Tarwater to figure out his true destiny (be it as a prophet, which was his great uncle's wish, or as an enlightened, educated modern man, which is his Uncle Rayber's wish), Rayber devises a plan to take Tarwater back to the country where the damage had been done in hopes that confronting his past will allow him to leave it. Under the guise of taking the two boys out to the country to a lodge to go fishing, Rayber finally confronts Tarwater and tells him that he must change and must leave the crazy, superstitious Christian upbringing that his great uncle corrupted him with. Tarwater, however, is not so easily convinced. While at the lodge, he meets up again with the "Voice" (the devil) who tells Tarwater to forsake his great uncle's command to baptize little Bishop and instead, drown the boy. One evening, Tarwater takes Bishop out on a boat to the middle of the lake, with Rayber's reluctant blessing. Rayber cannot see them on the lake but can still hear the voices faintly. Tarwater ends up drowning Bishop while at the same time baptizing the boy, thereby fulfilling both destinies simultaneously. Rayber realizes what has happened and faints, not out of fear for his son's life, but because he feels nothing at his son's death.
Tarwater runs away into the woods in order to go back his great uncle's house to confront his demons once and for all. He eventually hitches a ride with another man, who entices Tarwater to get drunk. Tarwater takes the man's offer and passes out, eventually waking up naked against a tree, his clothes neatly folded beside him.
Tarwater finally makes his way back to the old farm of his great uncle's, where the house has been burned to the ground. Tarwater had assumed that his great uncle had been burned up with it, but Buford, a black man who lived in the area, had actually rescued old Mason Tarwater's body from the house at the beginning of the novel when Tarwater had gone off to get drunk and given the old man a proper Christian burial, just as the old man had requested that Tarwater do. Tarwater realizes that his great uncle's two main requests (that he be given a proper burial and that the little boy Bishop be baptized) have been realized, which convinces Tarwater that he can no longer run away from his calling to be a prophet. The story ends with Tarwater heading toward the city to "Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy."
Review: First published in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away is now a landmark in American literature. It is a dark and absorbing example of the Gothic sensibility and bracing satirical voice that are united in Flannery O'Conner's work.
Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic, and The Violent Bear it Away reflects her religious beliefs. It is filled with religious imagery and themes, ranging from the power of passion to the dominance of destiny.
The most obvious theme of The Violent Bear it Away is the idea that destiny and religion will dominate over the secular. O'Connor illustrates this well, demonstrating the power of Tarwater's destiny as it dominates every obstacle in its way; the drowning of Bishop is transformed to a baptism, Tarwater's rape turns to revelation, and the secular Rayber fails in every way.
The importance of passion is linked with the power of religion. Tarwater is filled with passion; Rayber suppresses his. Thus, Tarwater succeeds and is redeemed, and Rayber is ultimately destroyed. This is shown when Bishop is killed; when he realizes that he has no love for his son, Rayber collapses.
The idea that everything that destroys also creates is evident as well. Nearly every symbol is gat and character in the book pulls Tarwater away from his destiny but also pushes him back. Rayber nearly succeeds in secularizing Tarwater, but he ultimately brings the boy back to Powderhead. The drowning of Bishop, the ultimate secular act, nearly destroys Tarwater's destiny, but the simultaneous baptism redeems it. Fire both destroys Powderhead and burns Tarwater's eyes clean. Water drowns and baptizes. Everything that destroys, redeems.
The novel's plot is simultaneously bizarre in event and puzzling in intent, and it is heavy with Old Testament imagery. At the opening of the novel, Old Tarwater has died, leaving Francis with the task of burying him. The boy abandons his assignment and flees to the city, searching for an atheistic uncle, George Rayber, who had spurned Old Tarwater's lessons decades earlier. During his life, Old Tarwater had been obsessed with need to baptize Bishop's mentally handicapped son, and Francis wavers between the need to complete his great-uncle's mission and his reluctance to follow in the old man's footsteps.
The bulk of the story, however, concerns the struggle between Francis and his uncle George--between metaphysical belief and secular knowledge. George is a parody of the arrogance of modern thinking; he is wedded to the belief that humans are shaped by their environment and by the atoms of which they are composed. Francis, on the other hand, is a portrait of the mysterious and even violent nature of religious passion.
Scholars and a legion of the author's fans have pointed out (correctly) that O'Connor did not mean Francis's character to be a satirical depiction of religious fanaticism. Yet the many critics and students who have mistaken both Francis and Old Tarwater as caricatures underscore the novel's greatest weakness; the social context has run away from the author. Even in 1960, when the novel was published, the two "hicks" seemed vaguely preposterous and dangerously harebrained to many reviewers (much to O'Connor's chagrin), and today's readers have an even more difficult time seeing these two-would be prophets as anything more than backwoods stereotypes.
Yet this tension between the author's intentions and the reader's reception hardly diminishes the power of O'Connor's vision; if anything, its accidental parody of fundamentalism offsets her deliberate (and undeniably unfair) satire of secularism. As in her other work, O'Connor is exploring the difficulty of seeking (and of finding) spiritual deliverance, especially since the path to salvation often leads the seeker away from the individuality of his or her own identity. The struggle that O'Connor portrays--between religion and secularism--is surely as present and relevant today as it is was fifty years ago.
Opening Line: “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave, and a negro named Buford Munson who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting, and bury it in a decent and christian way with a sign of it’s savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”
Closing Line: “But he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping
Quotes: "The old man's thought did not always move at the same rate of speed through every point in his story."
Rating: Very Good

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