Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Violent Bear It Away shares many qualities with Wise Blood. Francis Marion Tarwater is much like Hazel Motes in his efforts to escape what seems to be a divine call and, like Hazel, he at last must give in to God’s imperative. This novel is more tightly unified than Wise Blood. Although it lacks some of Wise Blood’s humor, it also lacks its loose ends.
Francis Marion Tarwater (named for the Swamp Fox, the Revolutionary War hero) has been raised in the woods by his great-uncle Mason Tarwater, a bootlegger and prophet. Mason has assured young Francis that he will inherit his great-uncle’s call and that after Mason’s death, the young man’s first task will be to baptize Bishop, his retarded cousin, the son of Tarwater’s nephew Rayber. When Rayber was seven, old Tarwater had kidnapped him, taking him to the backwoods and baptizing him, though he kept him only a few days. Years later, old Tarwater had kidnapped Francis Marion, the son of Rayber’s promiscuous sister; this time he managed to keep the child. He has raised him to be a prophet who will carry on his own tradition by rescuing young Bishop from his father’s godless life.
Young Tarwater has doubts about his calling, however, from the very beginning of the novel, and when his great-uncle dies, he quickly rejects his first task, which is to bury the old man according to his carefully rehearsed plans. Instead, the boy (he is fourteen) gets drunk, and, rather than digging the decent grave his great-uncle expected, Tarwater burns down the cabin with, as he supposes, his great-uncle’s body in it. Only much later does he learn that a neighboring black man, shocked at the boy’s faithlessness, buried the old man while the boy was unconscious.
In this early section of the novel, O’Connor introduces a character called “the stranger,” who is actually a voice in young Tarwater’s head. Tarwater and the stranger have a series of dialogues in which it becomes clear that the stranger represents a version of the kind of rationalism that Rayber displays—perhaps an even more cynical kind, as it actually rejects the old man’s religion, while Rayber mostly ignores it.
Having disposed of his great-uncle, Tarwater decides to go to the city to see his uncle Rayber, whom he saw once, years before. At Rayber’s house, Tarwater discovers that his uncle intends to reverse the kidnapping. Just as the old man once tried to save Rayber, Rayber now intends to save Tarwater from what he can see only as religious mania. In his sterile, academic way, he believes that Tarwater and his uncles are mere relics from a superstitious past. Old Tarwater himself had once stayed for a while at Rayber’s house, hoping to get access to his soul, but he gave up in horror and disgust when he realized that Rayber had made him the subject...
(The entire section is 1168 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Mason Tarwater, great-uncle of Francis Marion Tarwater, has died at the breakfast table one morning. The old man had spent years training his nephew, with whom he lived in a backwoods spot called Powderhead, how to bury him properly. As young Francis Tarwater begins to prepare for the burial, he recalls events from his life with Old Tarwater and the various reasons he does not want to follow in the old man’s footsteps. Young Tarwater recalls that the old man had kidnapped him from the home of his uncle, George F. Rayber, and provided a fundamentalist education quite different from the education the boy would have received in public school. Young Tarwater also recalls the old man’s stories about his life as a prophet and his failed attempts to save relatives other than his great-nephew, notably Rayber, whom Old Tarwater kidnapped at age seven; Rayber rejected the old man’s preaching and later tried to get young Tarwater back. Old Tarwater would tell his great-nephew that he shot Rayber in the leg and ear to prevent the boy’s being taken away by Rayber and the woman who became his wife, Bernice Bishop.
Old Tarwater was pleased that Rayber and Bernice had only one child and that the child, Bishop Rayber, was an idiot, for idiocy would protect the boy from Rayber’s foolish ideas. Young Tarwater remembers that he had been ordered by Old Tarwater to accept the mission of baptizing little Bishop. He also remembers a trip to the city with Old Tarwater, who found out from lawyers that he could not take Powderhead from Rayber and give it to young Tarwater; it was on this day that young Tarwater got the only glimpse of both Rayber and Bishop that he could remember while living with Old Tarwater.
As Tarwater starts to dig the old man’s grave, he hears a stranger’s voice. When two black people, a woman and Buford Munson, interrupt Tarwater’s digging to have him fill their jugs with liquor, Tarwater goes to Old Tarwater’s still and gets drunk. The stranger’s voice encourages young Tarwater to go his own way. After being scolded by Buford, Tarwater falls asleep, and Buford buries Old Tarwater in accordance with the old man’s wishes. When young Tarwater awakes, he burns down the house, thinking Old Tarwater’s body is still in it, and...
(The entire section is 925 words.)