Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
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 other feels. In general, the novel’s numerous flashbacks leave the reader with the impression that at least three characters are here collaborating on the creation of a family mythology and that they all exist beyond time, whether alive or dead.
One of O’Connor’s major themes is the power of mystery. The kind of rationality promoted by such characters as Rayber and Meeks, with its intelligence testing, its laws, and its economy tied to the machine, is consistently ridiculed by the novel. In O’Connor’s world, almost anything is valuable if it turns off the common sense of the brain. Idiocy is good as a protection from education. Liquor may be endorsed as a way to shut down consciousness. Violent acts are essentially unreasonable, but they may be necessary to break through the mind’s reasonable defenses.
O’Connor’s love of mystery also relates to the religious themes in the novel. Tarwater and Old Tarwater both have problems with forming overly sensible expectations about what a moment of religious insight would be. They expect elaborate visions of exotic divinity; what they get is much more homespun—revelation through images of water and fire, fish and bread. One of the major tasks O’Connor sets for herself in this novel is to make interesting for the modern reader the sacrament of baptism, a ritual in danger of becoming boring through familiarity. To force the reader to investigate the meaning of baptism, she makes it new by having it performed on an idiot by an unenthusiastic Tarwater, who kills at the same time he baptizes. O’Connor makes religion intellectually interesting by making it painful rather than comforting. Old Tarwater says, “The world was made for the dead,” a sentiment O’Connor seems to endorse. O’Connor is also interested in making fresh for modern readers the idea of the prophet. Her prophets are individualistic, anti-intellectual, destructive, and suicidal—so driven by unconscious forces as to seem insane.
One of the paradoxes of the novel is that while the characters pursue intensely eccentric personal paths, they ultimately seem remarkably similar. For all its rejection of the city, O’Connor’s novel hints at the possibility of building a good community. Although the four main characters are white, there are indications that Tarwater at the end of the novel will also minister to African Americans, and Buford Munson, a black man, is arguably the novel’s most religious character. There may be less reason to be confident that Tarwater will someday bring women into his community; he has been taught to consider women whores, and the acquaintance of Lucette Carmody, the female who most fascinates Tarwater, may do little to move Tarwater out of his adolescence. Another of the novel’s surprises is how little family seems to have to do with the building of community. Relations between parents and children are always strained and sometimes violent in O’Connor’s work, and the conscious rejection of family often seems necessary for an O’Connor character to find the right path.