The Violent Bear It Away

by Flannery O’Connor

Start Free Trial

The Battle Between Good and Evil

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2196

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 boy. He knows this to be true, because the old man had tried to do the same thing to Rayber. The old man had wanted Rayber to see the world as he saw it. And Rayber knows that young Tarwater is struggling in trying to decipher the world. He recalls his own challenges in trying to measure the meaning of life, on one hand, according to old Tarwater’s beliefs and on the other hand, on the personal experiences he was living through on his own. Rayber senses that young Tarwater is doing the same; and he wants to support him in his efforts, secretly hoping to convince him that the old man was wrong and Rayber’s vision of the world is right.

But Rayber, like old man Tarwater, has a very dark side. He admits to having tried to drown his son, Bishop, an act he had performed in order to rid himself of his emotions for the child. He could not pull it off, however, because in the midst of his attempt, he realized that the ache of not having his son in his life would have been as great as the ache of having him alive. But this insight does not prevent Rayber from secretly and passively allowing young Tarwater to drown Bishop.

Rayber lies on a cot in the hotel room, waiting “for a cataclysm. He waited for all the world to be turned into a burnt spot between two chimneys.” With these words, the reader understands that Rayber subconsciously wants not only young Tarwater but also Bishop to be somehow removed from his life. He wants there to be nothing but their ashes remaining, much as he believes that there was nothing but ashes left of old Tarwater once the house at Powderhead was burned down. He wants all memories of his kin, the people who rouse the most emotions in him, to be gone. This will give him peace, he concludes. So when he hears his son yell out in the night as Rayber stares out of the window that overlooks the lake on which young Tarwater is drowning Bishop, Rayber does nothing. He merely remains “standing woodenly” at the window. And in the end, when silence returns to the dark night, when the full impact of Bishop’s drowning hits him, Rayber feels no pain.

Finally there is young Tarwater. Who is this character? If old man Tarwater represents the emotional prophet of God, and Rayber represents the rational man of modern society, then young Tarwater might be the bridge between the two. Or at least that is what the reader is led to believe as the young boy begins his journey into town after the old man dies. Whereas the old man and Rayber are more definitely sure of where they stand, young Tarwater wavers. For instance, young Tarwater insists to Rayber that he is fully aware of how the old man has tried to brainwash him and has therefore risen above it all. “With me,” he tells Rayber, the old man’s teachings “fell on rock and the wind carried it away.” He believes he is unaffected, although Rayber points out that young Tarwater, if he were truly untouched by the old man, would not be so obsessed with baptizing Bishop. Young Tarwater ponders Rayber’s accusations about his obsession with baptizing Bishop and then denies it. Even when he relates the details of the drowning to a stranger, young Tarwater says, “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.” But it is not the drowning that he is referring to. It is the baptism. “The words just come out of themselves but it don’t mean nothing.” Young Tarwater has more remorse, at this point, for the so-called accidental baptism than he does for the premeditated murder. And it is the baptism and death of Bishop that creates the fork in the road that young Tarwater is traveling on.

Whereas previously, Tarwater had been exploring the secular world, bringing his strange concepts of the world to the city, he now begins his return to Powderhead and social obscurity. But O’Connor is not finished with him yet. She conjures up yet one more trial for the young boy. In a letter to Louise Abbot, O’Connor writes that as she interprets it, “hell is what God’s love becomes to those who reject it.” And since immediately after Bishop’s drowning, young Tarwater states that there is no sense in baptizing because one cannot be reborn, O’Connor drops the boy into another scene that resembles hell. She has him drugged and raped. Then to emphasize her symbolic language, she has young Tarwater set the scene ablaze.

So where does the battle between good and evil take place in this novel? And who represents which side? The old man is a self-professed prophet directed by God. This should put him on the side of good. But he commits crimes against society, which would deem him bad. Rayber, as seen through the eyes of modern culture, may appear confused but not evil. And young Tarwater, who commits the most serious crime would be, at the least, classified as corrupt. According to law, the old man, young Tarwater, and Rayber might all have spent time in jail. But is this a true accounting of good and evil? And more specifically, is this what O’Connor had intended?

In a letter to John Hawkes on September 13, 1959, O’Connor writes, “The modern reader will identify himself with the school teacher, but it is the old man who speaks for me.” With this statement, readers have the first clue as to where the author has placed her characters on the goodness spectrum. For O’Connor, old man Tarwater was the most natural of the characters and therefore the most “good.” In contrast, Rayber was a secular man, a man of the world. And not only was Rayber involved with social customs, he was at the leading edge. Rayber was a man of modern science, trusting the tenets of the new world of psychology as much as the old man trusted the laws of the Bible. But in O’Connor’s mind, as she states in a letter to William Sessions on September 13, 1960, Old Man Tarwater was true to “his own character.” In contrast, as O’Connor writes to Alfred Corn on July 25, 1962, Rayber fought “his inherited tendency to mystical love”; and when Rayber watches the drowning of his son, Bishop, by his not stopping the murder, he “makes the Satanic choice.”

“Sin is sin,” O’Connor writes to Dr. T. R. Spivey on August 19, 1959, “whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests, or lay people.” And yet she quickly dismisses the murder of Bishop and young Tarwater’s involvement in it. She writes to “A” on July 25, 1959: “Someday if I get up enough courage I may write a story or a novella about Tarwater in the city. There would be no reformatory I assure you. That murder is forgotten by God and of no interest to society.” So, according to O’Connor, young Tarwater follows in old Tarwater’s footsteps—along the path of goodness. If this is how O’Connor delineates the difference between good and evil, it is no wonder that is it difficult for readers to determine who has won the battle in this muddled novel.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1949

The Violent Bear It Away is about the fearsome nature of the Christian faith and calling, and about its strange, mysterious, and sometimes awful aspects. The novel tells the story of a young boy, Tarwater, who attempts to renounce his faith and his mission as a prophet, but is pulled back to God and redeemed finally through grace after he receives a holy vision. But the protagonist Tarwater’s spiritual journey is bizarre, and the manner in which he comes to acknowledge the divine and assumes his role as a prophet of God is nothing less than horrifying. He kills his mentally retarded cousin by drowning him, but just before he does, he unwittingly baptizes the boy. Soon after, Tarwater is raped by a man who is the incarnation of the devil; Tarwater sees for the first time what evil is, and turns back to God. After seeing a vision, he accepts the mantle of prophet and goes forth to preach this message to the modern world.

To many contemporary readers, Tarwater is certainly a most unlikely prophet, and his spiritual odyssey might appear to be one that leads to madness rather than salvation. But O’Connor, writing in a letter in 1962, insisted that “Tarwater’s call is real. . . . [H]is true vocation is to answer it. Tarwater is not sick or crazy but really called to be a prophet— a vocation I take seriously, though the modern reader is not likely to.” For O’Connor, Tarwater is not a parody of a religious fanatic. He is not a psychological study of a disturbed boy who plays out in his psychoses the indoctrination of his insane, controlling evangelical great-uncle. He is not a satirical portrait of an ill-educated boy from the backwater. He is, for O’Connor, a boy who first rejects, then hears and answers the call of God; he is a spokesperson for the Christian faith. Tarwater is someone who is aware of the truth of the divine. But how is a modern reader supposed to take this—and Tarwater— seriously? Why does O’Connor think that using an unlikable redneck hero, exploring his tortured psyche, and describing his insane-seeming actions will point readers to the truths of the Christian faith?

In her essays and letters, O’Connor frequently noted that her fiction was written with a Christian purpose—that she wrote as a Catholic. She thought of herself as a prophet of sorts, as an artist who could speak forth truth to her society. In fact, while she was writing The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor often signed her letters with variations of the name “Tarwater.” One of her main concerns as a Christian, which she writes about in her nonfiction and which is a major theme of The Violent Bear It Away, is that modern life and secular thinking stifle true understanding of the divine. O’Connor felt that most people viewed religion with apathy, that they thought lazily about morality and spiritual questions. She took it as her role to jolt them out of their complacency to face the harsh realities of God’s message. In her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” she declares:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

By using large, grotesque characters like Tarwater, and depicting his detestable actions and other horrific events, O’Connor presents a repugnant picture of modern society and the problems it faces. She does this to show to her readers that the faith she speaks of is no easy, comfortable path but one that sometimes entails suffering, violence and destruction. The truths in her vision of Christianity fly in the face of all that modern readers find reasonable, and she means to show that it cannot be ignored, nor sugar-coated. O’Connor uses Tarwater as her protagonist to illuminate two major concerns: that modern secular beliefs hinder understanding of God and that God’s message is mysterious, unfathomable, but not to be ignored simply because it is difficult to stomach.
By making the hero of her story an unsophisticated boy from the backwater, O’Connor underscores the idea that the beliefs of educated, rational intellectuals are seriously misguided. On a superficial level, Tarwater seems like a “backwards imbecile,” as his uncle, George Rayber, calls him. But Tarwater surveys the world that Rayber introduces to him and quickly finds it spiritually hollow. Tarwater’s spiritual guide and teacher is his uncle, Mason Tarwater, who “taught him Figures, Reading, Writing, and History beginning with Adam expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming.” Although the details of his education sound comical, Tarwater is no idiot; he has a sound understanding of religious teachings and a keen mind. His inner voice (of the “stranger”) articulates reasoned arguments about the limitations of religion—showing that Tarwater understands and anticipates rationalist objections to faith. Throughout the novel, Tarwater is drawn to Mason’s fervent evangelical beliefs even though he struggles to deny their truth. Tarwater goes to the city to seek out Rayber, the representative of reason, of modern humanistic rationalism, but soon Tarwater rejects Rayber’s views. It is old Tarwater’s vision, the vision of faith, that he embraces and which triumphs against secular ways of seeing. Tarwater’s rejection of Rayber’s belief—that reason and science can save the world and humanity—are spelled out in a humorous episode in which Rayber tries to impress upon the boy the achievements, such as flying, that humans have accomplished. To this Tarwater replies, “I wouldn’t give you nothing for no airplane. A buzzard can fly.” Tarwater articulates, in his unsophisticated speech and ultimate choices, that the trappings of modernity, secularism, and rationalism cannot show humans the light, but are a hindrance to ultimate salvation.

Tarwater is a sullen, unlikable boy who is not easy to sympathize with or identify with. The reaction to him by readers is likely to be similar to that of the woman at the Cherokee Lodge: that he is mean and that there is something evil about him. He exhibits no endearing traits that might attract readers to him. If anything, he seems like a troubled boy from a dysfunctional home whose behavior is the result of brainwashing and isolation, and we feel sorry for him. But O’Connor uses this complex, frightening figure to make a bold statement that, like other prophets before him, Francis Marion Tarwater has been chosen by God for reasons that are incomprehensible to people. Tarwater himself does not understand why or if he is chosen. O’Connor explores his confusion, anger, and defiance of his calling. She also examines the suffering he undergoes before he is finally redeemed. He is tortured by the need to be his own person, as Rayber would want him to be, and to be an instrument of God. He is tormented and tempted by voices inside his head. On the one hand, then, what O’Connor seems to be offering is a portrait of someone struggling with mental illness. But part of O’Connor’s genius is that she is able to paint Tarwater in such a way that this interpretation of him is perfectly reasonable, even probable. Thus the reader can easily believe, like Rayber does, that Tarwater’s problem can be quantified and fixed by human intervention. But the author insists that what reason would have us think is true is simply not true. Tarwater is not mad, although all reasonable indications point to that. He is a prophet, and what appears to us as a descent into madness is a journey away from the temptations of reason to an acceptance of God’s frightening and awesome power working through him. By choosing this unlikely hero as God’s instrument, O’Connor intensifies the mystery of the divine and satirizes modern humans’ hostility toward it.

The violent acts committed by Tarwater in the novel intensify readers’ dislike of him, but O’Connor uses those acts to emphasize to readers the seriousness of her subject. As she noted in many of her essays, modern people misunderstand the nature of God and religion. People view God as a Santa Claus figure, and expect religion to make them happy and comforted. But this, O’Connor insisted, is not what religion is all about. As she wrote in a letter in The Habit of Being, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think it is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” By making her protagonist perform horrible, violent acts in his journey to spiritual awakening, O’Connor stresses the point that Christianity requires that people reexamine their morality, that they acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge, that they submit to the incomprehensibility of the divine. The behavior of Tarwater and his old uncle might strike readers as immoral and ungodly. Old Tarwater makes liquor for a living, kidnaps his nephews, and shoots Rayber. Young Tarwater sets his property ablaze and drowns his cousin. But God does not judge them for doing these things, and in fact, those acts are either done in God’s name or used to bring them closer to him. Again, by insisting actions that appear insane are necessary for the will of God, O’Connor startles readers into paying attention to the message of Christianity in a way that has not been made palatable and is thus meaningless. With the drowning of Bishop, O’Connor shocks her readers into to looking anew at the meaning of baptism. She uses violence and horror to insist to readers that they need to really look without rose-colored glasses at the awesome nature of religion and faith.

In The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor draws large and startling figures, and she shouts her message so modern, apathetic readers will take note. She uses Tarwater—a strange, violent, grotesque figure—to present her vision to a hostile audience and show them in extreme terms the importance, difficulty, and urgency of God’s message. O’Connor insist that her readers take Tarwater seriously because what he has to say and show is of dire importance, difficult though it may be to fathom and to stomach. In some ways, Tarwater is larger than life because he is used to emphasize O’Connor’s beliefs about the intense, bizarre, and incomprehensible nature of God. But any attempt to rationalize that he or his vocation are not to be taken entirely seriously, is to then assume the rationalist position that O’Connor rejects. By presenting an extreme character and extreme situations, O’Connor forces modern readers to look at the most terrible aspects of Christianity. Like a prophet, she presents an uncompromising vision, which she views as necessary to point readers to the mysterious and unpalatable truths of the Christian faith.

Source: Uma Kukathas, Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Complex Human Characters

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2001

In Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, the reader gets an in-depth look at religious fundamentalism. O’Connor skillfully lets the reader see the effects of such fundamentalism through the eyes of an old man who thinks he is a prophet, a boy who is cynical and questioning beyond his years, and a schoolteacher who believes that salvation comes within oneself rather than from Jesus. O’Connor develops this disturbing story through these complex characters. Using her own understanding and portrayal of human nature, the author allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the effects of fundamentalism and extremist thinking. It is this treatment of such disturbing issues that makes this story infinitely powerful. The author does not shy from violent outcomes. Because the story skillfully builds to horrific events, through the motives and actions of O’Connor’s well-developed characters, the outcomes of the story are powerful, disturbing, and ultimately not surprising.

Religion shows up in the first sentence of the story in the form of a burial, which must be done properly in the Christian way. Point of view shifts often in this story, but the common thread of faith runs throughout the book. From the point of view of the old man, the reader can imagine how enraged this character had been when he realized his nephew had been “creeping into his soul through the back door” and had completed a written study about the old man. To the old man, a call from God prompted him to rescue young Tarwater and raise the boy in the backwoods. “The Lord himself had rescued the old man. He had sent him a rage of vision.” The old man’s visions are often full of rage, and accompanied by extreme action. Other characters in The Violent Bear It Away think the old man is crazy, but the reader does not feel authorial judgment. O’Connor does this by letting the reader into the head of the old man. The reader knows his thoughts, feels his emotion, and even feels sympathy for the old man at times. This use of craft by the author is important—it allows the reader to experience the old man’s thoughts and motives, especially in terms of his extreme behavior.

Thanks to O’Connor’s treatment and description of the old man, a reader of any faith (or no faith) can feel the disappointment of this character, who awaits a powerful vision and instruction from his God. The old man wants excitement; he wants the sun to burn the world and God to speak to him through fire. Instead, he receives the ordinary. The old man lies to the schoolteacher about impending death, and takes a perverse delight in the concern that is suddenly revealed on the schoolteacher’s face. The schoolteacher, for an instant, reveals a “stricken look, plain and awful,” when he learns of the old man’s death. The phenomenon of longing for passion and direction in life, or of longing for excitement and drive and importance and love, is an urge that any reader can relate to, religious or not. It is through telling detail such as this that O’Connor makes her characters remarkably human and real, winning at least some degree of empathy from the reader.

O’Connor’s characters, even those who are not as extreme as the old man, often long for greatness to appear, religious or otherwise. Who has not wished for life to be better, fuller, richer? Often, the characters are not rewarded with visions or experiences of greatness. While this may be interpreted by some as authorial cynicism, it gets at the heart of the human condition and adds to the complexity of these characters. Even the boy wishes for, or at least waits for, the greatness and thundering presence of God. It makes sense that he would expect this, having been raised with the extremism of his great-uncle. In one case, O’Connor uses such a situation to show the stark contrast between what is wished for, and what is:

There was a complete stillness over everything and the boy felt his heart begin to swell. He held his breath as if he were about to hear a voice from on high. After a few moments he heard a hen scratching beneath him under the porch.

With a few short sentences, O’Connor has given the reader dark humor, the dichotomy between wished-for greatness and ordinary reality, and a reminder of the boy’s poor, backwoods setting.

The boy is again disappointed on his first trip to the city. In a place full of 75,000 people, none will look at him; none will meet his eyes or shake his hand. O’Connor captures the impersonality of the city with her efficient and effective prose when she describes “the mass of moving metal and concrete speckled with the very small eyes of people.” Even though the boy resists the pull of his so-called destiny, he also longs for purpose, to be called by God as his great-uncle was called. He says of the city, “When I come here for good I’ll do something to make every eye stick on me.” It is a dark foreshadow of the book’s ending. Even when his greatuncle recounts the story of the boy’s baptism as a baby, the boy is sure that he was fully and cognitively aware of the events around him. The boy desperately wants to believe he is different, special, and beyond ordinary. At the same time, he is so burdened by his so-called destiny to baptize Bishop, that he drowns the child, in order to be free of that destiny.

Young Tarwater provides a foil to contrast the extremism of the old man. Interestingly, for the reader, the contrast between the two is not as simple as the old man being a believer and the boy being an adamant disbeliever. The layers within the boy’s logic make the contrast between the two more interesting, and more realistically human. It also makes the boy another surprising character. Again, O’Connor has avoided creating stereotypical, flat characters and given the reader some nuances of personality to think about. When the old man is sure that young Tarwater’s first task (when the old man dies) will be to baptize the dim witted child of the schoolteacher, young Tarwater has other things in mind:

“Oh no it won’t be,” he said. “He don’t mean for me to finish up your leavings. He has other things in mind for me.” “It’s no part of your job to think for the Lord,” his great-uncle said. “Judgment may rack your bones.”

Ironically, the old man has assumed a God-like position over the boy, by telling the boy that there is no question about young Tarwater’s future duties to God. But the more interesting thing about this exchange is young Tarwater’s presence of mind to not automatically accept direction from an authority figure, and to have some thoughts about his own direction. Still, visions of greatness constantly clash with the mundane ordinariness of everyday life. The boy continues to believe that greatness will be part of his life. After all, he was born in a car wreck. Young Tarwater is sure that being born in such a way “set his existence apart from the ordinary one . . . the plans of God for him were special.” Again, the author effectively captures the human longing for meaning. And yet, the rational Rayber gives the boy pause:

Rayber smiled, then he laughed. “All such people have in life,” he said, “is the conviction they’ll rise again.” The boy steadied himself, his eyes still on the banner but as if he had reduced it to a small spot a great distance away. “They won’t rise again?” he said.

O’Connor shows the reader that the boy has a mind of his own. The boy feels a “charge of excitement,” almost a “sensual satisfaction,” when the great-uncle tells him of the schoolteacher’s fortitude. The schoolteacher will raise his child Bishop as he pleases. Similarly, Young Tarwater will shape his destiny the way in the way he wants. It is ironic that Bishop who will be raised as if he is “free” probably does not have the mental capacity to understand and implement these advantages.

When young Tarwater comes to the city, despite years of influence from the old man, the boy intends to find out how much of what his uncle told him was true. Somehow, the boy realizes that there may be other versions of reality and belief in the world beyond the old man and his backwoods home. It is the boy’s consistent edginess, doubt, and argumentativeness that make him a wellrounded and interesting character; it is also these flaws that send him over the edge.

The schoolteacher is also a foil to the greatuncle’s beliefs, providing the possibility for change in the direction of young Tarwater’s life. The schoolteacher somehow managed to shed what he considers old Tarwater’s brainwashing and is free of old Tarwater’s “idiot hopes” and “foolish violence.” When the old man realizes he is reading about himself in the magazine, the schoolteacher offers his own, contrasting understanding of being born again. “You’ve got to be born again, Uncle, by your own efforts, back to the real world where there’s no saviour but yourself.” But the schoolteacher recognizes the common link between himself, the boy, and the old man—the potential for great internal emotion and violence. The schoolteacher is able to stop himself in the act of violence, but the boy is too far gone to know better.

Bishop, perhaps, presents the greatest enigma in the story. This child links the schoolteacher, the old man, and young Tarwater. To the schoolteacher, Bishop is formed in the “image and likeness of God.” To young Tarwater, Bishop looks like a young and innocent old man. To the old man, and to young Tarwater, Bishop represents young Tarwater’s calling—he must be baptized. The schoolteacher experiences surges of terrifying and unexplainable love around Bishop. And it is ironic, perhaps intentionally so, that the schoolteacher, who spends less time seeking greatness than the boy or the fundamentalist old man, encounters the greatness and expansiveness of true love—quite beyond the ordinary. Also ironically, the schoolteacher spends his life trying to squelch the greatness within himself. But for all his effort, he still has moments when “his hated love gripped him and held him in a vise.” Rayber knows that he has a divided self—both rational and violent. He warns young Tarwater not to go to extremes; that extremes are only for violent people: “He had kept it from gaining control over him by what amounted to a rigid ascetic discipline. He did not look at anything too long, he denied his senses unnecessary satisfaction.”

In the end, violence is what young Tarwater resorts to in order to escape his destiny. “I proved it by drowning him. Now all I have to do is mind my own bidnis until I die,” young Tarwater tells us, “I don’t have to baptize or prophecy.” But Tarwater’s destiny is planted too deeply within him, like the seed that he shares with the schoolteacher and the old man. And in the end, the act of violence and rape committed against Tarwater sends him over the edge and plants him firmly into the destiny that he resisted, the destiny of becoming a prophet. Tarwater has achieved his greatness, and has surpassed the mundane everyday life, but at great cost to himself and to others. And the reader has experienced a disturbing and powerful story through the experiences and motives of these effectively drawn characters.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

The Symbolic Vision of Flannery O’Connor: Patterns of Imagery in The Violent Bear It Away

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5522

The difficulty, yet at the same time the beauty and power, of The Violent Bear It Away derives from the fact that so much of its meaning is communicated through its imagery as contained in its figurative language. For Flannery O’Connor, symbols, figures of speech in general, were not simply ways of saying things. Rather, they were tools of language to penetrate into the heart of mystery. She took them so seriously that she would have us take them literally. They were used to make a work not more suggestive but more explicit. As Robert Fitzgerald wrote in his introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge:

She could make things fiercely plain, as in her comment, now legendary, on an interesting discussion of the Eucharistic Symbol: ‘If it were only a symbol, I’d say to hell with it.’

Basic to the novel is the idea that only Christ can really satisfy man’s spiritual hunger. Yet no one was more afraid of being too explicit about her themes, and so she wove this idea into an intricate web of figures of speech and Biblical allusions, all of which rise naturally out of the concrete world of her fiction, so that, for the unsuspecting, they can be overlooked as merely decorative. First of all, she takes the idea of man’s spiritual hunger literally and makes the parable of the loaves and the fishes serve as the major, and thus controlling, image of the novel. What seem to be more obviously important images—fire and water—really derive from the loaves and fishes as she uses them; for loaves are baked, after all, and fish swim. It is in fact just this sort of literal connection between things, this making things “fiercely plain,” that is essential to recognize if we are to read her work as she would have it read. The parallel that old Tarwater makes between himself and Elijah and between the young Tarwater and Elisha, a parallel which runs through the novel, is but another instance of the fire and water images, for Elijah used his cloak to part the waters and was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire; and Elisha was to receive a double portion of his spirit if he saw him ascend. Moses and the burning bush and Jonah and the whale are likewise logical figures through which to view the young Tarwater. Even the name “Tarwater,” though it has other important suggestions, seems to be a literal yoking of these two elements. Nor are these connections between images ones that I am making. They are made by Miss O’Connor herself, though in a manner that one is likely to overlook. The fishes are introduced early in the novel in what at first seems to be merely a comic, though certainly vivid, way of describing old Tarwater’s death.

The image is slipped to us, characteristically, in a simile. One of the things O’Connor teaches us is to take her similes literally. Old Tarwater has just died, at the breakfast table, and the young Tarwater is being impressed with his spirit. As we discover by the end of the novel it is a kind of laying on of eyes.

He was a bull-like old man with a short head set directly into his shoulders and silver protruding eyes that looked like two fish straining to get out of a net of red threads. . . . Tarwater, sitting across the table from him, saw red ropes appear in his face and a tremor pass over him. It was like the tremor of a quake that had began at his heart and run outward and was just reaching the surface. . . . His eyes, dead silver, were focussed on the boy across from him.

Tarwater felt the tremor transfer itself and run lightly over him.

The idea of the loaves is presented, even more deceptively, in one of Miss O’Connor’s funniest scenes. Tarwater is sitting on his great-uncle’s coffin wondering how to go about burying him, and a former conversation between himself and the old man occurs to him and is dramatized for us. Old Tarwater had climbed into the coffin after finishing it and had instructed the boy in what to do with him when the time came.

[He] had . . . climbed into it . . . and had lain there some time, nothing showing but his stomach which rose over the top like over-leavened bread. . . .

‘It’s too much of you for the box,’ Tarwater said. ‘I’ll have to sit on the lid to press you down or wait until you rot a little.’

The conversation continues and the boy begins to anger the old man with the threat that he will not carry out his instructions, that he will allow the despised Rayber to cremate him. It is this that the old man most fears, and still in his over-leavened condition he shouts: “He don’t believe in the Resurrection. He don’t believe in the Last Day. He don’t believe in the bread of life . . .” Highly comic, this connection between the literal and the figurative, between the old man lying in his coffin and the crowd eating the multiplied loaves and fishes, brings into the novel the silent country of the dead, the dead who will receive the multiplied loaves and fishes if they are faithful, as well as all the hosts of the holy to whom man ought to owe his allegiance. It is actually this promise of salvation and fulfillment that lies behind the threatening words of the old man:

The old man grabbed the front of his overalls and pulled him up against the side of the box and glared into his pale face. ‘The world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are,’ he said, and then as if he had conceived the answer for all the insolence in the world, he said, ‘There’s a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive,’ and he released him with a laugh.

It is the silent world of the dead, among whom his great-uncle eats the multiplied loaves and fishes eternally, that haunts Tarwater until, at the end of the novel, unable to resist its pressure any longer, he accepts his rôle as prophet. There, in a vision, he sees his great-uncle surrounded by a vast multitude, impatiently awaiting the single basket that is being passed among them:

The boy too leaned forward, aware at last of the object of his hunger, aware that it was the same as the old man’s and that nothing on earth would fill him. His hunger was so great that he could have eaten all the loaves and fishes after they were multiplied.

“Jesus is the bread of life,” the old man had told Tarwater, but the whole action of the novel consists in Tarwater’s trying to escape this truth. Even as he resists it, however, he senses that eventually he must succumb. What he most fears and seeks to run away from is what even he knows is the true object of his quest. He is, like the narrator in Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” (whose first name he shares), being pursued; though, at the end of the novel, because he has been caught, he starts in pursuit of others, compelled by the command that he “GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY.”

Fish, bread, silence; along with these, and images that derive from them, there is the image of the road. Because this image is central to the structure of the novel, I will begin with it, returning later to a discussion of the others.

Tarwater, born in a wreck, walks, runs, or rides almost continually during the come of the novel, so much so that the work itself could rightly be termed picaresque. The road symbolizes his spiritual journey in several ways. That it literally comes full circle, that the novel ends in Powderhead where it began, dramatizes Tarwater’s inability to escape; that it ends with his acceptance of his rôle as prophet shows that he has been travelling the path toward salvation, that the stages of his journey were also stations of the cross.

Old Tarwater and Rayber are the opposed moral forces of the novel, and Tarwater has to choose which to follow. Once again taking literally what is usually passed over as a figure of speech, Miss O’Connor envisions each as a guide. Tarwater imagines following his great-uncle’s commands in these terms:

His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.

Much later in the novel, Rayber explains to Tarwater: “The old man told you to baptize Bishop. You have that order lodged in your head like a boulder blocking your path.” Rayber would also lead the boy down a path, but it is unobstructed only because it is empty, because it lacks any kind of feeling. He even knows that this is so himself. Miss O’Connor has Rayber express this awareness in the following image, in which the tight-rope metaphor succinctly expresses the narrowness as well as precariousness of his way of life:

He kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness, and when the time came for him to lose his balance, he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice.

Characteristically, the road image is introduced in a wonderfully funny, and indeed epic, simile early in the novel. The old man is boring Tarwater with the constantly repeated story of Rayber’s four days with him:

The story always had to be taken to completion. It was like a road that the boy had travelled on so often that half the time he didn’t look where they were going, and when at certain points he would become aware where they were, he would be surprised to see that the old man had not got farther on with it. Sometimes his uncle would lag at one point as if he didn’t want to face what was coming and then when he finally came to it, he would try to get past it in a rush.

Witty as this extended comparison is, its real significance lies in the fact that what is really being made vivid is not how old Tarwater tells stories and how young Tarwater listens to them, but the image of the boy and his guide trudging painfully along toward the goal of the boy’s redemption. One of the delights of reading Miss O’Connor’s fiction lies in appreciating the wit involved in such passages. The opening paragraph of “Good Country People” is one of the most amusing of these. Here, however, there is more than the pleasure in her wit. She is building the structure of imagery through which she would have us see deeper into her novel.

There are other guides, variously demonic, who accompany Tarwater on his flight: three are drivers; the other, Satan himself, takes up his place in Tarwater’s mind as the voice of the “stranger” right after his great-uncle’s death. He becomes so powerful that he gradually seems to take on physical being. As Robert Fitzgerald says of him:

“There are few better representations of the devil in fiction than Tarwater’s friend, as overheard and finally embodied in The Violent . . .”

These four characters, all tempters, serve to dramatize in an extreme form different aspects of Rayber’s philosophy, a philosophy that Miss O’Connor equates with the Satanic non serviam and which she sees as the basic evil of modern man. To the Existentialist, Rayber’s words may sound heroic; for Miss O’Connor they are the words of the devil:

‘The great dignity of man,’ his uncle said, ‘is his ability to say: I am born once and no more. What I can see and do for myself and my fellowman in this life is all of my portion and I’m content with it. It’s enough to be a man.’

The copper flue salesman, Meeks, is the most amusing, most broadly satirical, of these portraits. He might be said to represent the hypocrisy and fundamental irrationality of Rayber’s attempt to harmonize self-interest and selflessness. His advice to Tarwater, in fact his whole philosophy of life, is a parody of Rayber’s, and as such serves to reveal what lies behind Rayber’s gospel of love. To Tarwater he says that “love was the only policy that worked 95% of the time.” Both Meeks and Rayber are in awe of man’s triumphs over nature. Meeks tells Tarwater that “the greatest invention of man . . . was the wheel,” and advises him “to learn to work every machine he saw.” Tarwater’s indifference here matches the reply he gives to Rayber’s eulogy on man’s conquest of the air: “A buzzard can fly.” The Meeks shall indeed inherit the earth, Flannery O’Connor seems to be saying, but that’s all it will be: dirt.

The truck driver from Detroit dramatizes the moral indifference, blind determination and real contempt for his fellows that we see in Rayber when his philosophy is too severely tested. When Tarwater tells the truck driver that he has just drowned a boy, the man says, “Just one?” His desire for sleep matches Rayber’s longing for nothingness. The one is kept awake, the other kept alive, through grim determination. As Rayber lies on his bed waiting for what he somehow knows will happen—the drowning of Bishop—Miss O’Connor writes: “He told himself that he was indifferent even to his own dissolution. It seemed to him that this indifference was the most that human dignity could achieve, and for the moment . . . he felt he had achieved it. To feel nothing was peace.”

The pervert who picks up Tarwater in his car is related to Rayber in a more symbolic but even more sinister sense. He is Tarwater’s “friend” reappearing in another guise to take his revenge on his betrayer, for Tarwater had momentarily banished him when he uttered the words of baptism over Bishop even as he drowned him. Yet his “kindness” to Tarwater suggests the darker motives that possibly underlie Rayber’s concern for Tarwater, and the two are symbolically identified through the combination corkscrew-bottleopener that Rayber gives Tarwater as a peace offering and that the pervert takes with him as a talisman after ravishing the unconscious body of his victim.

At the end of the novel, when Tarwater accepts his rôle as prophet and starts toward the city, it is something within himself—the result of his acceptance of God’s grace—that guides him, not any human figure; and Miss O’Connor emphasizes this fact in a simile which, once again, we must take literally in order to understand its real significance.

The moon, riding low above the field beside him, appeared and disappeared, diamond-bright, between patches of darkness. Intermittently the boy’s jagged shadow slanted across the road ahead of him as if it cleared a rough path toward his goal.

So much for road imagery and the various guides that almost succeed in destroying Tarwater. His great-uncle is ultimately the more powerful figure and much of that power can be seen in the way Miss O’Connor uses images more directly connected with the reward that comes at the end of the road: the loaves and the fishes.

Old Tarwater’s eyes are several times in the novel referred to as “fish-colored.” To Rayber they stand for the fierce pull, the insane attraction, of the old man’s absurd vision of a world transfigured. He manages to resist them; though his breakdown at the end suggests that he has not entirely escaped them. To Tarwater they stand for the vitality and everwatchful presence of his great-uncle’s character, and they haunt him throughout the action until he finally gives in to their demands. As the secret sign used by the early Christians to proclaim their identity to each other, the fish that are contained in old Tarwater’s eyes serve to dramatize the fact of his own redemption and thus constantly remind us that he is the real hero of the novel. To Rayber, the old man is a “type that’s almost extinct.” Yet Miss O’Connor, with characteristic wit, both symbolically dramatizes Rayber’s own deep attraction for the old man’s views and satirizes man’s pride in his past, which oddly coexists with his pride in his progress from the past, when she has Rayber take Tarwater to the natural history museum to introduce him to “his ancestor, the fish, and to all the great wastes of unexplored time” in order to stretch the boy’s mind.

When Tarwater first leaves Powderhead, he does so thinking that he has burnt up his great-uncle and in so doing rid himself of his influence. What he has actually done, Miss O’Connor tells us, not directly but through her imagery, is to release upon himself the full power of his great-uncle’s spirit and to receive, without knowing it, a double portion of that spirit.

. . . he began to run, forced on through the woods by two bulging silver eyes that grew in immense astonishment in the center of the fire behind him. He could hear it moving up through the black night like a whirling chariot.

Elisha prayed that he would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and was told he would if he saw him ascend to heaven. Later his prayer is granted when he sees him ascend in a chariot of fire. Tarwater has prayed, in effect, to be “shut” of the whole business, but the effect is the same. What Miss O’Connor would seem to be emphasizing is the irresistible nature of God’s grace, which, ironically, here operates through the very act that was meant to deny it.

The old man had instructed Tarwater that his first mission as a prophet would be to baptize Bishop, and it is largely through Bishop that he works after his death. It is Rayber, ironically, who sees the real significance that Bishop has for Tarwater—ironically, because he is unaware at the time that Tarwater has been told to baptize him.

Nothing gave him pause—except Bishop, and Rayber knew that the reason Bishop gave him pause was because the child reminded him of the old man. Bishop looked like the old man grown backwards to the lowest form of innocence, and Rayber observed that the boy strictly avoided looking him in the eye.

The similarity between the two, yet Bishop’s greater holiness, is emphasized, and again in a simile, early in the novel when Tarwater recalls his first meeting with Bishop:

The little boy somewhat resembled old Tarwater except for his eyes which were grey like the old man’s but clear, as if the other side of them went down and down into two pools of light.

Just before Tarwater drowns Bishop, the old man himself seems to be forcing him on, though to the baptism, not the drowning, through the eyes of the child:

He [Tarwater] looked through the blackness and saw perfectly the light silent eyes of the child across from him. They had lost their diffuseness and were trained on him, fish-colored and fixed.

Then, too, the child is a sort of fish. There is his general attraction to water, dramatized in the scene in the park where he lurches into the fountain. And when Rayber recalls his own unsuccessful attempt to drown the boy, he describes Bishop’s struggles as if they were those of a fish:

A fierce surging pressure had begun upward beneath his hands and grimly he had exerted more and more force downward. In a second, he felt he was trying to hold a giant under. Astonished, he let himself look. The face under the water was wrathfully contorted, twisted by some primeval rage to save itself.

It is comically ironic that Rayber has taken Tarwater on a fishing trip, fishing for his soul, as it were, while Tarwater, unaware of what he is doing, acts the part that has been prepared for him and sets in motion all that is to come when he carries out his great-uncle’s instructions and baptizes Bishop as he drowns him.

As Tarwater recollects the drowning and accidental baptism of Bishop, it becomes clear that it is the silent land of the dead, symbolized in the great whale that swallowed Jonah, that has taken possession of him. A great fish has swallowed him and for a moment he is seen as a fish himself. Yet it is only by taking literally what most would pass over as a figure of speech that we understand this and see that this is for Tarwater the moment of his soul’s redemption, unaware of it as he is. Recalling the scene, “he grappled with the air as if he had been flung like a fish on the shores of the dead without lungs to breathe there.” And it is really Bishop who acts upon him, who, the imagery and figures of speech suggest, drowns him into the spiritual life, the life that all along he has been fleeing:

The boy . . . saw suddenly that the bank loomed behind him, not twenty yards away, silent, like the brow of some leviathan lifted just above the surface of the water. He felt bodiless as if he were nothing but a head full of air, about to tackle all the dead. . . . The water slid out from the bank like a broad black tongue. . . . While he stood there gazing, for the moment lost, the child in the boat stood up, caught him around the neck and climbed onto his back. He clung there like a large crab to a twig and the startled boy felt himself sinking backwards into the water as if the whole bank were pulling him down. . . . He might have been Jonah clinging wildly to the whale’s tongue.

At the end of the novel, just after Tarwater has accepted his great-uncle’s hunger as his own, Miss O’Connor describes his change in an extended water image which, if we take the figures of speech literally, makes it clear that Tarwater’s soul, just redeemed, is now buoyed up by the waters of the spirit, that he will now swim, fish-like, in the procession of prophets that have preceded him.

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it. . . . He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and engulfing him. It seemed in one instant to lift and turn him.

It is characteristic of Miss O’Connor that she should develop her controlling images with wit as well as infuse them with Biblical overtones and allusions. Overcome with a thirst that cannot be quenched by the waters of a well, that is made worse later on by the doped liquor that the pervert presses upon him, Tarwater trudges toward Powderhead after the drowning of Bishop. He passes a country store where he and his great-uncle had sometimes traded. The Sybil-like, angel-like proprietress, as Miss O’Connor describes her, aware of how he has treated old Tarwater, fixes her eyes on him with a “black penetration”:

She spotted him across the highway and although she did not move or raise her hand, he could feel her eyes reeling him in. He crossed the highway and was drawn forward. . . .

We would pass over the “reeling him in” and “drawn forward” as merely amusing, though vivid, figures of speech if it were not for our recognition of what was being said when we take the words literally. Ever since the moment of his great-uncle’s death, when the tremor that passed through the old man seemed also to pass through the boy, Tarwater has been caught, on the line of the great fisher of souls, so to speak. His acts of rebellion, his acts of violence, all are but the thrashings of a fish that imbeds the hook ever deeper into its jaws with each exertion. Now he is being reeled in for judgment, and though he is not caught yet, we recognize that he has really been caught all along. For his redemption to be secured, for him to be finally brought in, all that remains is for the pervert (Satan) to drug him into insensibility and ravish what is left of his unredeemed life. Dead to his old life, he accepts capture and his new soul floats on the waters of spirit.

As the fish is the central image for the soul, and so symbolizes it, so the bread is symbolic of what nourishes the soul—the spiritual life. The images that cluster around this central image are literally related to it, just as water, thirst, struggle are literally related to the image of the fish. These images are: the seed from which the grain grows that is used to make the bread; and fire, the fire in which it is baked.

The idea that old Tarwater has left his mark both on Rayber and on young Tarwater is presented early in the novel in an image which calls up the parable of the sowers. Tarwater is recalling an argument with his great-uncle about old Tarwater’s effect on Rayber. The old man boasts:

‘The truth was even if they told him not to believe what I had taught him, he couldn’t forget it. . . . I planted the seed in him and it was there for good. Whether anybody liked it or not.’

‘It fell amongst cockles,’ Tat-water said . . .

‘It fell in deep,’ the old man said. . . .

Later, Tarwater taunts Rayber with the old man’s words:

‘It’s you the seed fell in,’ he said. ‘It ain’t a thing you can do about it. It fell on bad ground but it fell in deep. With me,’ he said proudly, ‘it fell on rock and the wind carried it away.’

Rayber, furious, curses at the boy and says:

‘It fell in us both alike. The difference is that I know it’s in me and I keep it under control. I weed it out but you’re too blind to know it’s in you.’

At the end of the novel, just after Tarwater has heard the command that he go to the city to prophesy to the children of God, Miss O’Connor writes: “The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood.” Again in the guise of a figure of speech, she tells us something central to our understanding of her work. The seeds of the spiritual life have been in Tarwater all the time, but they had to enter his blood—his new life—in order to open.

In the course of the novel, Tarwater grows increasingly hungry. Though the unappetizing food Rayber serves him might be reason enough for the boy’s hunger, clearly it comes to more than that; and, once again, it is by taking a figure of speech literally that we see Miss O’Connor’s intention:

‘Jesus is the bread of life,’ the old man said. . . . The boy sensed that this was the heart of his great-uncle’s madness, this hunger, and what he was secretly afraid of was that it might be passed down, might be hidden in the blood and might strike some day in him and then he would be torn by hunger like the old man, the bottom split out of his stomach so that nothing would heal or fill it but the bread of life.

Tarwater’s hunger, like his thirst, is a spiritual one, but it is Miss O’Connor’s great gift to see far things up close and, through ordinary physical images, to give reality to states of the soul. Often she does this comically, as in the scene between Tarwater and the truck driver toward the end of the novel in which only the reader sees the wit as well as deeper significance, the double entendre of their dialogue.

‘I’m hungry,’ he said.

‘You just said you weren’t hungry,’ the driver said.

‘I ain’t hungry for the bread of life,’ the boy said. ‘I’m hungry for something to eat here and now. I threw up my dinner and I didn’t eat no supper. . . . When I come to eat, I ain’t hungry,’ Tarwater said. ‘It’s like being empty is a thing in my stomach and it don’t allow nothing else to come down in there.’

Sometimes she drops the symbolic detail so casually that, unless we are looking for it, we are apt to pass over its significance. During the evening chase that eventually ends up at the “Carmodys for Christ,” Rayber sees Tarwater staring into a shop window, his face “strangely lit” and looking “like the face of someone starving who sees a meal he can’t reach laid out before him.” He determines to return the next morning and buy whatever it is that has brought such a response from the boy. “Everything a false alarm,” he thought with disgust, when he sees that the boy had been merely looking in the window of a bakery, empty except for “a loaf of bread pushed to the side that must have been overlooked when the shelf was cleaned for the night.” “If he had eaten his dinner, he wouldn’t be hungry,” thinks Rayber, failing, of course, to recognize the symbolic loaf, just as Tarwater himself is undoubtedly unaware of the reasons behind its attraction for him.

At the end of the novel, what Tarwater most fears comes to him. Not only do the dreaded seeds open in his blood, but, as he walks across the field of corn at Powderhead, toward the grave of his great-uncle, his stomach seems to split open:

. . . his hunger constricted him anew. It appeared to be outside him, surrounding him, almost as if it were visible before him, something he could reach out for and not quite touch. . . . Instantly at the thought of food, he stopped and his muscles contracted with nausea. He blanched with the shock of a terrible premonition. He stood there and felt a crater opening inside him, and stretching out before him, surrounding him, he saw the clear gray spaces of that country where he had vowed never to set foot.

His eyes have been “scorched” and appear “seedlike” as he uses a firebrand to protect himself from the “stranger,” now referred to as his “adversary.”

His scorched eyes no longer looked hollow or as if they were meant only to guide him forward. They looked as if, touched with a coal like the lips of the prophet, they would never be used for ordinary sights again.

Tarwater is now prepared for his final vision. He has passed from the ordeal by water through the trial by fire, and he is ready to be “healed” and at the same time “filled” by the bread of life. The country that now stretches before him is the silent country of the glorified dead, and this is his entry into it. He has become one with his great-uncle; and, accepting his call as a prophet, he now sees himself as one in a line of prophets, “who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.”

The silent country is the country of the redeemed dead, and Miss O’Connor weaves images of silence and noise through her novel to make correct, and therefore real, the spiritual atmosphere of redemption and damnation.

It is the memory of the voice as well as the eyes of old Tarwater that Tarwater tries to escape during the course of the novel. The memory might fade, however, were it not for the fact that through various images his great-uncle exerts a silent, continual, and finally unbearable pressure on him. This pressure, Miss O’Connor seems to suggest, is actually the inexorable force of God’s will. Since it is presented most often in the image of the sun, it is also the force that burns Tarwater’s eyes clean.

Source: Clinton W. Trowbridge, “The Symbolic Vision of Flannery O’Connor: Patterns of Imagery in The Violent Bear It Away,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, April– June 1968, pp. 298–318.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview