Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722
Francis Marion Tarwater
Francis Marion Tarwater, a backwoods teenager who is perversely proud to have been born at the site of a car wreck in which his unmarried mother died. His father was a divinity student who later committed suicide. Kidnapped by his great uncle Mason Tarwater and taught to be a prophet, he struggles to reject his indoctrination, creating internal voices to express his own doubts and even equating strangers he meets—especially his rapist—with these voices. As much as Tarwater rejects Old Tarwater, he equally rejects the citified and superficially rational ways of his uncle George Rayber, finally simultaneously rejecting and accepting his prophetic calling when he baptizes and drowns his cousin Bishop Rayber. He consistently claims that his ability to act makes him superior to the thoughtful, talkative Rayber, but Tarwater’s unconscious drives and the words he speaks to perform a baptism are crucial to his story.
George F. Rayber
George F. Rayber, a high school teacher, about forty years old, who specializes in testing. Like Tarwater, he has a strong interest in the role of prophet and the teachings of Old Tarwater. At the age of seven, he cooperated with his abduction by Old Tarwater. Rayber fights the attraction of prophecy by pouring his energies into rational methods for analyzing and changing others’ lives. He is not interested in his son Bishop except as a means to draw the line on love, but he does like the idea of remaking Tarwater. He ends up as much of a bully as Old Tarwater. After he allows Tarwater to drown Bishop, he may find himself unable to recover without becoming even more like the two Tarwaters.
Mason Tarwater, called Old Tarwater, dead at the age of eighty-four. He was a backwoods prophet and haunts the other characters. Institutionalized for four years, he learned that he could be considered sane if he stopped talking about religion. Once released, he kidnapped children to give them a fundamentalist upbringing. His nephew Rayber’s plausible theory that he called himself to become a prophet earned only his disgust. Old Tarwater resembles Rayber in his eagerness to pigeonhole other people.
Bishop Rayber, a mentally retarded child about five years old, who innocently wants to be friends with others. An old-looking child, he has white hair, and his eyes bear a strong resemblance to those of Old Tarwater, suggesting that, as he presents Tarwater with opportunities to perform a baptism by regularly rushing toward bodies of water, he is carrying on Old Tarwater’s legacy. When Rayber tries to drown him and when Tarwater does drown him, his struggle to survive makes him seem a symbol of an elemental life force.
Bernice Bishop, whom Old Tarwater called the “welfare woman.” She went with Rayber to recover the kidnapped Tarwater, then gave up the attempt after Old Tarwater shot Rayber and she saw the cold look on the baby Tarwater’s face. Older than Rayber, she later married him and gave birth to their child Bishop, only to leave him, probably in part because she disagreed with his determination not to institutionalize Bishop.
Buford Munson, a black man who lives near Old Tarwater’s house in Powderhead. Buford appears to be part of a stable community of Christians who treat one another humanely; he knows to bury Old Tarwater without being ordered. He helps bring about the crucial turn in Tarwater’s life, but his own life is more conventional and comfortable than the tortured lives of the major characters.
T. Fawcett Meeks
T. Fawcett Meeks, a traveling salesman of copper flues who gives Tarwater a ride into the city. Meeks believes that the value of loving other people is that you can sell them things. He also values machines and hard work, and had he not had a rendezvous scheduled with a girlfriend, he would have pressured Tarwater to work for him.
Lucette Carmody, a child evangelist since the age of six. Now eleven or twelve years old, she has a physical disability in her legs. She travels with her parents, also evangelists. Her sermon focuses on the Massacre of the Innocents. Although Rayber thinks he can connect with her emotionally, she calls him damned. She may serve as a role model for Tarwater.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2058
Referred to by Mason Tarwater and his greatnephew Francis Marion Tarwater as “the welfare woman,” Bernice Bishop is mother to the mentally disabled boy, Bishop, and she is ex-wife to George Rayber. Bernice Bishop appears only in the past, in the novel’s many flashbacks. It is learned in one of these flashbacks that Rayber attempted to “rescue” the young Tarwater from his uncle, that his wife accompanied him, and that she was repulsed by the boy’s expressionless response to his greatuncle’s violence; she declared that she could not live with him. Although Bernice is trained as a social worker, Bernice Bishop left Rayber after the birth of their “dim-witted” son in part because the son reminded her of her husband’s uncle, Mason Tarwater. Rayber also recalls that Bernice has returned only once in the past two years, and only to ask that her son be institutionalized.
Lucette is the young girl of eleven or twelve at the Christian revival meeting who preaches the love of Jesus and the Second Coming. She sees George Rayber hiding outside the window and calls him a “damned soul” and echoes old Tarwater’s words when she says to him, “The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean.” Rayber believes she is exploited by adults, and her exploitation makes him recall his own childhood.
Meeks is the copper flue salesman with whom young Tarwater catches a ride into the city after he has set fire to his great-uncle Tarwater’s house. Meeks is described as a “stranger” and “friend”— one indication that he is among the several incarnations of the devil that the boy encounters (and one of the three that drive him). The salesman is driven by his love of money, but he claims he loves the people to whom he sells. His discussions about love and technology suggest that his views parody those of George Rayber. Meeks hopes to take advantage of Tarwater’s backwoods innocence for his own profit.
The first sentence of the novel introduces “a Negro named Buford Munson,” who buries the elder Tarwater because the old man’s great nephew Francis Marion is too drunk to finish the job. On his return to Powderhead at the end of the novel, the young Tarwater finds out from Munson that the old man has indeed been buried with a cross over him in anticipation of the Resurrection.
Buford Munson’s daughter, who, Francis Marion Tarwater learns, took care of George Rayber while Rayber’s mother, Mason Tarwater’s sister, “sat in her nightgown all day drinking whiskey out of a medicine bottle.”
Bishop, the mentally disabled and dumb son of the schoolteacher, George Rayber, and of Bernice Bishop, is innocent, uninhibited, and largely unaware of what goes on around him. It is not his actions, but rather others’ reactions to him, throughout the novel that are of most interest. His great-uncle Mason Tarwater had tried to kidnap and baptize Bishop as an infant, but his father rescued him and will not, on principle, allow his son to go through what he thinks as the meaningless ritual of baptism. Bishop’s mother leaves him in the care of his father. Bishop’s father struggles with his love for the boy, and at one point had tried to drown him but found he could not do it. Francis Marion Tarwater, the protagonist of the novel and the boy’s cousin, takes it as his mission to baptize Bishop. Bishop is attracted to water throughout the novel; at the end of the novel he is baptized, then drowned, by the younger Tarwater.
Referred to as “the schoolteacher” by his uncle, Mason Tarwater, and his great-nephew, Francis Marion Tarwater, George Rayber is the symbol in the novel of earthly knowledge, of rationalist belief that conflicts directly and violently with the Tarwaters’ spiritual understanding. According to Mason Tarwater, Rayber’s mother (Tarwater’s sister) was a whore who spent her time reading and drinking whiskey, neglecting her son entirely. His insurance salesman father was absent much of the time. When he was seven, Rayber was kidnapped by Tarwater and baptized. When his parents came to reclaim him four days later, Rayber did not want to leave. But Rayber later rejects his uncle’s teaching, returning when he is fourteen to tell the old man he no longer believes. Some ten years later, Rayber’s cousin dies in a car crash just before giving birth to a son, Francis Marion Tarwater, and Rayber takes the boy to raise him. Rayber’s uncle, newly released from a mental asylum, comes to live with him shortly thereafter, and Rayber studies him and writes a story about him in a “schoolteacher magazine.” Mason Tarwater, infuriated, kidnaps the baby and leaves Rayber with the warning: “THE PROPHET I RAISE OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN.” Rayber and his wife attempt to rescue young Tarwater, but give up after Mason shoots Rayber twice, leaving him deaf in one ear and suffering a permanent limp. Rayber has a young son, the “idiot child” Bishop.
Rayber is in charge of his school’s testing program, and he subscribes to modern rationalist and psychological theories that he believes can measure and evaluate human desires and motivations; he rejects the spiritual but is continually drawn by it. Logic tells him his dim-witted son is of no use to him or anyone else, but he feels an uncontrollable love for the boy. This is one of the reasons Rayber failed in his attempt to drown his son. Rayber wears thick glasses and uses an electric hearing aid that he can turn on and off—physical signs that he is the modern rationalist who has eyes but sees not and who has ears but hears not. Rayber represents not only the typical modern man but also the Pharisee and the devil, as he makes it his mission to convince Francis Marion Tarwater that he has been indoctrinated into false religious beliefs and tries to give him a proper, non-religious education.
The Stranger/The Friend
Throughout the novel, Francis Marion Tarwater is counseled by an “inner voice” of a stranger or friend who aims to steer him off the path of righteousness. This is the voice of the devil, who is also transformed physically into the man who rapes him at the end of the novel—the man in the lavender shirt and Panama hat who drives a lavender and cream-colored car.
Francis Marion Tarwater
Francis Marion Tarwater, usually referred to simply as “Tarwater,” is the protagonist of the novel whose journey to the city to baptize his cousin constitutes the novel’s central action. He is a dour, often silent teenager, but a sense of violence lurks beneath his expressionless surface. Tarwater was born in a car wreck in which both his parents died. He was taken to be raised by his uncle, the schoolteacher George Rayber, but his great-uncle Mason Tarwater, a self-proclaimed prophet, stole him. Mason raised his great-nephew in the isolation of Powderhead, a clearing deep inside the woods in Alabama, with the idea of his great-nephew being a prophet as well. Before Mason Tarwater dies, he instructs his greatnephew to give him a proper Christian burial and tells him that his mission is to baptize his cousin, the mentally defective boy Bishop. But an inner voice of a “stranger”—later a “friend”—counsels Tarwater to reject this duty. Instead, Tarwater burns down his great-uncle’s house and leaves for the city.
In the city, Tarwater struggles against the impulse to perform the baptism his great-uncle has ordered. He also resists the psychological-rationalist teachings of his uncle, Rayber, and finds himself repulsed by and drawn to Bishop. Tarwater slowly recognizes that he has come to baptize the boy after all. But he continues to listen to the counsel of his “friend,” who tries to talk him out of his mission. This is the voice of the devil, and throughout the novel Tarwater wrestles against his temptations. In the end, Tarwater drowns Bishop but, just before he does so, he baptizes the boy. Tarwater flees to Powderhead, where he has a vision, then returns to the city to fulfill his mission as a prophet of God.
Tarwater is complex and hard to define, mirroring the complexity of the novel’s theme and handling. The name “Tarwater” links two disparate elements, one black and impenetrable, one cleansing. The boy is at once a prophet from the wilderness and a confused backwoods boy who is spiritually hungry (the constant references in the book to his physical hunger underscore this). He appears naive, but his rejection of the modern world and its trappings is clear and articulate. He attempts to reject his uncle’s spiritual legacy, but he cannot. He struggles between doing the devil’s work and God’s, finding that the latter’s teaching is fraught with violence and unreason. He is violent, and a great deal of violence is done to him—he sets fire to a house, he murders a boy, he is raped. He is the prophet Elisha who succeeds his great-uncle, a latter-day Elijah; he is St. Christopher as he baptizes, then drowns, his cousin; he is John the Baptist come to show the way. At the end of the novel he unwittingly performs the action that confirms his status as a prophet, and he finally accepts his role as a messenger of God.
Mason Tarwater, the “old man” who reckons himself a prophet, is the great-uncle of, and spiritual guide to, Francis Marion Tarwater, the novel’s protagonist. Mason charges his great-nephew Tarwater with the task of baptizing his cousin, the idiot boy Bishop. The novel opens with Mason Tarwater’s death. It is soon learned in a series of flashbacks how the old man kidnapped his great-nephew Tarwater from his nephew, the schoolteacher George Rayber, and raised Tarwater to be a prophet and continue his work. The young Tarwater also recalls how the old man had been committed to an insane asylum for four years by his sister. After returning from the asylum, Mason stayed with his nephew, Rayber. But it turned out that Rayber was studying Mason to write an article about him in a “schoolteacher’s magazine,” characterizing him as a fanatic, a specimen of a breed “now all but extinct.” Infuriated, old Tarwater, who had also kidnapped Rayber when he was young and baptized him, stole Francis Marion to raise him as a prophet to “burn [Rayber’s] eyes clean.” When Rayber attempted to rescue the boy, the old man shot him, impairing Rayber’s hearing and leaving him with a limp.
Mason Tarwater, for all his crazy ways, is God’s representative in the novel and one of the two forces that wrestle for Francis Marion Tarwater’s soul. Francis Marion struggles against his great-uncle’s teachings but cannot reject them. Old Tarwater is repeatedly contrasted to Rayber, who represents the devil, as Mason rejects modernity and rationalism, embraces fundamentalist religious principles, and believes in actions over words. Old Tarwater, it is recounted, viewed himself as the prophet Elijah and his great-nephew as his successor, Elisha. He shielded the boy from what he viewed as the evil influences of the city—modern life, and secular, rationalist thinking. He has little time for those who do not heed the word, labeling most people “asses or whores.” Young Tarwater remembers the old man disappearing into the woods for days on end and on his return looked “as if he had been wrestling a wild cat, as if his head were still full of the visions he had seen in his eyes. . . .” Mason is an authentic prophet of the wilderness who recognizes the violence and unreason inherent in any truly spiritual understanding and undertaking.
The Truck Driver
One of the three drivers in the novel that represent the devil, the truck driver gives Francis Marion a ride back to Powderhead after he has murdered the boy Bishop. The truck driver is indifferent and needs someone to talk to so he does not fall asleep at the wheel. His indifference echoes that of George Rayber, the novel’s main representative of the devil.