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 of an article in an academic journal.
Young Tarwater’s feelings about Rayber are ambivalent. On one hand, he has nothing but contempt for his passionless uncle, who seems trapped in his own rationalistic view of the world. He also finds his young cousin Bishop (an interesting name for the child of an atheist) to be repellent, even while the child seems drawn to him. On the other hand, despite the whisperings of the stranger, it is clear that Tarwater feels his call as surely as Hazel Motes felt his. Rayber recognizes that nearly every time Tarwater and Bishop are near water, Tarwater considers performing the baptism. In fact, Rayber tries to defuse the issue by...
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offering to allow Tarwater to do the baptism in an attempt to make the sacrament meaningless, but Tarwater will have none of it.
Wandering the city at night in an effort to escape Rayber’s constant talk, Tarwater gazes for a long time in a bakery window. Later, he spends a long time at a revival, listening to a child evangelist. Tarwater is wrestling with his great-uncle’s promise to turn him into a prophet who will burn Rayber’s eyes clean, a calling he wishes to reject as completely as he rejects Bishop. Ironically, Rayber, the rational man, has also tried to reject his son by attempting to drown him, an attempt that failed when he lost his nerve. At Lake Cherokee, on a fishing trip organized by Rayber, Tarwater both baptizes and drowns Bishop.
From this point on in the novel, O’Connor emphasizes Tarwater’s hunger; it is a hunger nothing can fill. He vomits up the hot dogs he ate at the lake. Hitchhiking home, he accepts a sandwich from a truck driver but cannot eat it; his mind rejects food even while his body cries for it.
This hunger is part of the novel’s central metaphor. Eyes and vision dominated Wise Blood (they are important here, too), but in The Violent Bear It Away the central image is the “bread of life,” to which Tarwater refers again and again. The bread of life is a New Testament metaphor for Jesus and is the central image of the sacrament of Communion. That seems to be the bread Tarwater was gazing at in the bakery; that is the bread he concluded he did not hunger for when his great-uncle preached to him. When Tarwater first sees Bishop, however, he has a sudden vision of “his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at least he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”
Tarwater’s hunger is spiritual, and it cannot be filled by the drugged liquor in the satanic stranger’s flask that Tarwater drinks on his ride home, even though he exclaims that it tastes better than the bread of life. That evil stranger takes the unconscious Tarwater to the deep woods and rapes him. When he regains consciousness, Tarwater knows what has happened and somehow recognizes that the event is like the biblical Jonah’s being swallowed by the fish; it is God’s directing him into prophecy. He returns home and has a vision of old Tarwater’s feasting on the miraculous loaves and fishes. Suddenly he understands the source of his hunger and starts out for the city to begin his career of prophecy.
Aside from bread, fish fill the other part of the novel’s metaphoric structure. They appear not only in Tarwater’s vision but also in almost every mention of old Tarwater’s eyes. It is even on a fishing trip that Bishop is baptized, a baptism which O’Connor means the reader to take seriously, even though Tarwater has not yet accepted his calling, for the power of the sacrament exists outside the failings of the one celebrating it. The novel’s conclusion suggests that now Tarwater will turn his attention to Rayber and the rest of the city.