Flannery O’Connor is widely considered one of America’s greatest short-story writers as well as one of the best religious writers of the modern era. Although her collected works comprise little more than two dozen stories and two novels, and although many of her works replay similar plots using similar sets of characters, she did a masterful job of investigating the specific issues that obsessed her. O’Connor’s fictions are filled with humor as well as with profound insights into the eccentric, sometimes tortured strategies human beings use to create meaning.
O’Connor’s people are sometimes considered flat, almost cartoonish, but The Violent Bear It Away uses several devices to emphasize the complexities of psychology. For example, the conflicting sides to Francis Marion Tarwater’s mind are given voices in the form of strangers and friends who talk to him. Although Tarwater consistently refuses to confess his thoughts to other, real characters, he does carry on conversations with parts of himself, allowing O’Connor to analyze his simultaneous attraction to and rejection of the religious and nonreligious paths his various parental figures have planned for him. In addition, O’Connor draws numerous parallels among Old Tarwater, Rayber, Francis Tarwater, and even Bishop, encouraging the reader to assume that what one character thinks or feels, the others might experience in some form.
Each of the characters arguably contains parts of the others. Although Old Tarwater is dead when the novel begins, the reader receives so much information about the old man’s stories and opinions, and the other characters are so haunted by him, that Old Tarwater seems clearly alive. When Tarwater marches off toward the city at the novel’s end, the reader knows that he carries the other characters with him. Even at times when O’Connor’s intent may seem to be to distinguish between characters, as when Rayber and Tarwater remember in separate chapters their trip to the city park, the reader can assume that each character feels much of what the...
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