Essays and Criticism
The Battle Between Good and Evil
There has long been a discussion about the characters in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. This dialogue revolves around not just how the characters act and what their motives are but also includes an exchange of ideas concerning what each character represents. This is obviously a novel about the battle between good and evil, but on which side of this battle do the characters stand? And, maybe more importantly, which of the characters wins the battle? Is old man Tarwater a representative of good or evil? And where does that put Rayber, the character who stands diametrically opposed to the old man? And then there is the third main character, the young boy Francis Marion Tarwater who teeters somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of old Tarwater and Rayber. Does the young boy capitulate toward evil by the end of the novel? Or does he see his way clear to the bright light of goodness? And last but not least, just what is goodness? Or at least, how does this novel define this abstract quality?
The reviews were mixed when The Violent Bear It Away was first published. O’Connor believed that this was to be expected. She concluded that most readers would not be able to understand the concepts that she portrayed in this short novel. Not only were her ideas abstract, the beliefs that inspired her story were formed by an in-depth study of obscure Catholic dogma. But there are other reasons why readers might have had (and probably still have) trouble comprehending O’Connor’s attempt to define good and evil as well as the interior discourse that her characters face in trying to claim goodness in their fictional lives. One major reason for the confusion could be caused by the fact that her characters appear to be muddled in their own thinking. Or it might be that the author herself is unsure about what defines goodness and evil.
Take Old Man Tarwater, for example. In letters to her friends, as published in Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, O’Connor refers to old Tarwater as a natural man. In her way of thinking this is so because the old man does what he wants, when he wants, to whomever he chooses. Cultural or societal rules mean nothing to him. He is a man of very strong convictions, most of which come directly from his interpretations of the Bible. His analysis of this ancient text is unfettered by other historic accounts or by the outcome of intellectual study. Old Tarwater lives his life based on his instincts. And it is these personal intuitions that help elucidate the Biblical phrases that he reads. The Bible, for instance, says what it says because old Tarwater believes that is what it says. He believes himself to be a prophet— a man to whom God speaks directly. Therefore, accordingly, what Tarwater believes is what God wants him to believe. Old Tarwater’s actions, he believes, are directed by God, regardless of society’s judgment. In his mind, Tarwater ‘s motives, thoughts, and actions are all good.
In today’s world, however, old Tarwater would be hounded by the FBI until he was shackled and taken to prison. He kidnaps not just one child but two children. And he would have kidnapped a third child, Bishop, but he never gets the chance. He does, however, manage to steal his nephew, Rayber, when Rayber was just a child. Later, the old man takes the young Tarwater boy back to his isolated shack in the woods. When Rayber tries to reclaim the young boy, Tarwater shoots Rayber. Then, after Rayber abandons the idea of rescuing young Tarwater, the old man teaches the boy to lie to state authorities who come to register him for school. This is all done in the name of God, in the name of a religion that has only one member: Old Man Tarwater. He believes he is saving the young boy as he tried to save Rayber before him. And he instructs the young boy to continue his work upon his death.
Then at the other end of the social spectrum, there is Rayber. O’Connor has created this character as the antithesis of the old man. Rayber is all about society and the modern emphasis on science versus superstition. Rayber’s world is comprised of so-called facts. He is an intellectual, whose beliefs rely heavily on the results of very precise empirical tests. Whereas old man Tarwater gives free rein to his emotions, which in turn feed his intuitions and inspire him, Rayber confines his feelings, keeping them under control so they will not interfere with his reasoning processes. “To feel nothing,” O’Connor writes of Rayber, “was peace.” Rayber fears his emotions will drive him insane. “The longing [emotion] was like an undertow in his blood dragging him backwards to what he knew to be madness.” If he allows his emotions freedom, he is concerned he will turn out to be just like the old man. If he is to experience any emotion, he concludes, it will be under the rigid controls of his intellect.
On the positive side, Rayber raises his mentally impaired son, providing him with as much stimulating experiences as possible. He sees to the child’s needs and at moments admits to himself that he loves the child. Although this love is frightening, Rayber cannot escape it. And when young Tarwater wanders into town, Rayber takes him in without hesitation. Rayber’s hope and goal is to rehabilitate the young Tarwater. Rayber believes that the old man has brainwashed the young...
(The entire section is 2196 words.)