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Powderhead. Tiny settlement somewhere in rural Tennessee—perhaps east of Nashville—where the boy, Francis Marion Tarwater, has spent nearly all of his fourteen years living with his great-uncle. There they live as if in another century, literally prophets in the wilderness, in a two-story shack surrounded by woods and corn fields, plowing with a mule and selling homemade liquor from their still. After his great-uncle dies, Tarwater gets drunk and burns the cabin and the old man’s body, instead of burying him as he has promised. He then escapes to the city, a place he views with distrust.
The imaginary Powderhead is a primal, magical realm, isolated from the modern world both literally and symbolically. The old man’s cabin is inaccessible by car; like holy ground, it must be approached on foot. While Powderhead proves a paradise of sorts for the young Bishop Rayber, a city child who has “never caught a fish or walked on roads that were not paved,” its thorns bar his entrance when he returns as an adult. With its thickly enclosing woods, thorn bushes, and blackberry brambles, Powderhead is alternately oppressive and edenic. The old man’s remote cabin, like his religious vision, has a haunting power that draws both nephew and great-nephew back after they have left it.
City. Large unnamed southeastern city—possibly modeled on Atlanta, Georgia—that is home to about 75,000 people, including Tarwater’s uncle, the schoolteacher George Rayber, and Rayber’s mentally challenged son, Bishop. When Tarwater first visits the city with the old man, he sees it as an evil place where strangers pass by with ducked heads and muttered words, as if “hastening away from the Lord God Almighty.” After the old man dies, Tarwater returns to the city, turning up on the schoolteacher’s doorstep. Though curious about city life, he shows no interest in giving up his country ways; he refuses to wear the new clothes his uncle buys him and finds a terrible hunger growing in him that city food, mere “shavings out of a cardboard box,” cannot fill.
The city is seen as a dead place with no connections to God or the natural world; its packaged products cannot nourish the soul. Each night, Tarwater walks through the city streets with his uncle as if waiting for something to reveal itself to him. The city, he has been told, is where prophets must go to share the visions they receive in the wilderness. Tarwater claims to scorn his great-uncle’s belief, but one night, he slips out after hours to visit a Pentecostal tabernacle, with blue and yellow windows “like the eyes of some biblical beast,” where a child evangelist is preaching. Rayber follows him and finds him there. The boy claims “I only gone to spit on it,” but he is clearly shaken.
Cherokee Lodge. Country motel thirty miles from Powderhead where George Rayber takes Tarwater and his son, Bishop, ostensibly for a fishing trip. The lodge is a green and white converted warehouse, one half of which rests on land and the other half perches on stilts above a small lake, where the novel’s key scene takes place. Rayber’s initial plan in bringing the boy to the lodge is to take him to Powderhead and make him face the site of his great-uncle’s death, hoping that the shock of that return will end his obsession. While fishing with Tarwater on the lake, Rayber confesses that he once tried to drown his son but could not bring himself to do it. Later, Tarwater takes Bishop out on the lake in a boat and drowns him—but first baptizes him, thus fulfilling the task the old man has set for him.
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Two Americas: United States Culture in the 1950s
The 1950s were characterized by affluence in much of American society, as Americans put the hardships of the Second World War behind them and enjoyed unprecedented economic growth. As a whole, the nation did indeed flourish. Between 1945 and 1960, the U.S. Gross National Product grew by 250 percent, unemployment hovered around 5 percent or less, and inflation was low. Government spending stimulated growth through public funding of schools, veterans’ benefits, welfare, interstate highways, and armaments for the Korean War. Families moved to suburbs, where they needed cars, which sparked a boom in the automobile industry and stimulated the construction of more roads. The increase in mobility contributed also to the rise of motels, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations.
Scientific and technological innovations such as the jet plane, the development of mass communications through radio and television, and the creation of consumer goods such as dishwashers and garbage disposals created a culture in which modernity, progress, consumption, and conformity were prized. Television programs fed Americans a diet of cookie-cutter idealizations of suburban life filled with racial and gender stereotypes. Popular culture depicted marriage and feminine domesticity as a primary goal for American women, and the education system reinforced this portrayal. This revival of domesticity as a social value was accompanied too by a revival of religion. Religious messages began to infiltrate popular culture, and religious leaders such as Billy Graham became celebrities. For many Americans—largely white, urban or suburban, educated, and middle-class— the decade was a golden age, as the economy boomed. Americans enjoyed social stability and new, exciting opportunities for success.
There were, however, a great many other Americans who struggled on the fringes of the economic boom during the 1950s, dispossessed by the very industrialization and expansion that was the backbone of the nation’s success. As automation increased efficiency in production, big business flourished, until less than half a percent of American corporations controlled more than half of the nation’s corporate wealth. Technology drastically cut the amount of work needed to successfully grow crops, and many small-scale farmers were forced to give up their land to rich companies who used chemicals and harvested crops with new machinery. Large numbers of black farmers, in particular, moved from the countryside to cities, and the number of inner-city ghettoes expanded rapidly. Some of the most destitute regions in the country were found in the rural South, where blacks continued to live in shantytowns and the decline of the coal industry eroded the only significant economic support many poor white communities had known. Rural areas often lacked adequate schools, health care, and services, and many people who lived there were almost entirely shut off from the mainstream of American economic life. The needs of these disadvantaged groups went largely unanswered, and their living conditions deteriorated rapidly.
This contradictory nature of American culture was explored in many works of literature of the decade. Saul Bellow produced a number of novels examining the difficulties of urban Jews finding fulfillment in modern urban America. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) tells the story of a young boy who, despite his family’s outward material success, feels completely alienated from society. The African American writers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin published works condemning racism and called into question the myth of the American Dream. The Beats, a group of nonconformists led by Allen Ginsberg, author of the poem Howl (1956), and Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road (1957), rejected uniform middle-class culture, stressed the importance of intuition and feeling over reason, and sought to overturn the sexual and social conservatism of the period. They also fuelled protests against the death penalty, nuclear weaponry, and racial segregation. Although O’Connor’s fiction is not concerned with the cultural trends of the 1950s, her work is firmly rooted in the American South of that time. She depicts a society that is at the margins of American society—that is shut off from the mainstream. Her works are populated not by successful, beautiful people with comfortable suburban lives, but by grotesques and misfits who are struggling against the horrors of modern life and clinging to the values and traditions of the past. Her protagonists rebel against modernism and the changes it brings. Like other writers of the decade, she exposes in her writings the fact that the economic success, technological advances, and cultural trends of the 1950s have had unsettling and alienating effects on American life.
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The Violent Bear It Away is an example of Southern Gothic, a style of writing that is characterized by its setting in the American South and its grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents. Southern Gothic literature explores and critiques Southern culture by focusing on the supernatural, and describing people who are spiritually or physically deformed but still portrayed with empathy, their humanity as well their limitations spelled out in often violent terms. O’Connor’s characters in The Violent Bear It Away are near-caricatures, and damaged in some way, but their essential humanity makes the reader care about their plight. The protagonist Tarwater is a sullen, angry boy, emotionally wounded and a “backwoods imbecile” as his uncle, Rayber, calls him. But O’Connor makes the reader care about his journey to self-realization. Other characters’ deformities are more obvious: Bishop is mentally defective, Rayber is lame and uses a hearing aid, and old Mason Tarwater is “crazy.” They are grotesque, but their defects are described with a blend of humor and horror so they are more than mere types. It is through the lens of their distorted visions that the author presents her own darkly ironic understanding of God, faith, and freedom. Within the genre of Southern Gothic, O’Connor uses her unique satirical voice in The Violent Bear It Away to create a disquieting and morally complex story about the funny and tragic nature of religious fanaticism and the place of spirituality in the modern world.
Religious Imagery and Symbolism
The Violent Bear It Away is a deeply religious novel, one that offers up a dark and disturbing portrait of spiritual states, faith, and Christian fanaticism. Religious symbolism permeates the work, and everywhere there are Biblical allusions and references. The dominant images in the novel—water, fire, loaves and fishes, and eyes—are all religious in nature. They emerge organically from the story but are also interconnected and woven together, taking on multiple forms to enrich the religious questions and concerns. Throughout the novel, fire and water are purifying forces that serve also to destroy. The book, of course, is about baptism; both Tarwater and Bishop are drawn to water; and the turning point of the action is Bishop’s drowning. Tarwater also believes that if he is sent on a mission from God it would be to do more than to baptize an idiot boy, thinking about how Moses struck water from a rock.
The two events that signify Tarwater’s spiritual denial, and then rebirth, involve fire—at the beginning he sets his great-uncle’s house ablaze, and at the end he sets fire to the forest before assuming the mantle of a prophet. Early on in the novel, Tarwater mistakes the lights of the city for fire. The fire of purification is also used to describe old Tarwater, who “learned by fire,” and who tells Rayber that his greatnephew will “burn” the schoolteacher’s eyes clean. Tarwater also imagines that God will talk to him as he did to Moses, from a burning bush, which does happen in his final vision. It is significant, too, that even the name Tarwater unites these central elements of fire and water.
The images of the loaves and fishes are related to fire and water; loaves are baked over fire and fish come from water. The fish might be viewed as symbolic of the human soul (Christ is the “fisher of men”), and only Christ, as the Bread of Life, can satisfy the human soul. Old Tarwater is also described as having eyes that “looked like two fish straining to get out of a net of red threads.” Rayber takes Tarwater to a natural history museum to show him how humans are descended from fish. And the drowning incident takes place on the fishing trip. Images of loaves include the bread in the bakery that Tarwater stares at longingly, and the sandwich given to him by the truck driver that he cannot eat, because his hunger is not physical but spiritual. At the end of the novel, Tarwater sees his great-uncle gathered with the multitude being fed loaves and fishes by Christ from a single basket.
There are descriptions and references throughout the novel to eyes, which reveal a great deal about people’s characters and beliefs. Rayber wears glasses, mirroring his spiritual blindness; Tarwater’s eyes at the end are “scorched,” “singed”— purified; the stranger who rapes Tarwater has lavender eyes, signaling the fact that he is the devil (in ancient times snakes were said to hide under lavender bushes); and old Tarwater’s eyes are referred to as “fish-colored,” and Tarwater is deeply attracted by them. Again, images have religious overtones, are interconnected, and constantly reinforce ideas through repetition and as they are transformed. Other important images in the novel that are used are: roads or paths, which emphasize Tarwater’s spiritual journey; hats and clothes, markers of holiness and identity; and earth, which symbolizes redemption and rebirth.
Compare and Contrast
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1950s: Americans are enduring the cold war years, a military stalemate between two international superpowers, the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Both countries are secretly developing nuclear weapons programs, and many Americans fear a nuclear attack from communist adversaries.
Today: The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted America’s global war on terror, preceding a U.S. war with Iraq. Americans live under the fear of terrorist attacks by those who oppose its policies, particularly terrorist cells in the Middle East.
1950s: North Korea attempts to invade South Korea in June 1950. The United States responds by sending munitions and supplies to South Korea. Before the end of the month, the United States is engaged in a war with North Korea.
Today: After defeating Saddam Hussein in a full-scale military attack, the United States continues to occupy Iraq. Battles ensue between Iraqi insurgents and U.S.-led forces over strategic cities. The state of the U.S.-led occupation, along with morality and faith, become major campaign issues in the November 2004 presidential election.
1950s: Twenty-two percent of Americans live in poverty, most of them in newly created innercity communities and in rural areas, as wealthier Americans move to the suburbs.
Today: Eleven percent of Americans live in poverty, most of them in rural areas. The rate of poverty for minorities living in rural areas is especially high, and one of out four rural Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans lives below the poverty line.
1950s: Television presents idealized portraits of suburban American life in such shows as Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Rural life and inner-city life are rarely portrayed.
Today: Television presents far more hard-edged depictions of American suburban life in The Sopranos and The Osbournes. Most television programs focus on urban and suburban people and situations, and there are few portrayals of rural life in major television programs.
1950s: Radio and television popularize the new Protestant evangelical movement in Christianity, with preachers such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts presenting their message to audiences using mass media in an outgrowth of revival-tent preaching. The vast majority of these religious leaders are from the South.
Today: Television evangelists remain popular, particularly in the Midwest and the South. Two well-known and controversial evangelists, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have achieved particular notoriety for their assertion that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City constituted divine retribution for what they regard as rampant sexual immorality in American society.
1950s: Fourteen percent of Americans live in rural areas. There is mass migration away from the rural South, as African Americans move to the North to escape racial oppression and find higher-paying jobs.
Today: Seven percent of Americans live in rural areas. Over forty percent of this population lives in the rural South, where poverty, illiteracy, and poor health conditions continue to be widespread.
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Comforts of Home, a Web site dedicated to Flannery O’Connor, can be found at http:// www.mediaspecialist.org/index.html (accessed November 24, 2004). This site has links to biographical information about the author and critical analyses of her work.
A Student’s Guide to Flannery O’Connor, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/2188 (accessed November 24, 2004), reviews O’Connor’s short stories, presents theme paper topics, and has available for order every book written by or about the author.
The Flannery O’Connor–Andalusia Foundation, Inc. maintains a Web site http://www.andalusia farm.org/ (accessed November 24, 2004) with information about the activities taking place at the Andalusia property where O’Connor lived and worked.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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Benoit, Raymond, “The Existential Intuition of Flannery O’Connor in The Violent Bear It Away,” in Notes on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 23, No. 4, September 1993, pp. 2–3.
Bieber, Christina, “Called to the Beautiful: The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,” in Xavier Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1998, pp. 44–62.
Burns, Stuart L., “The Violent Bear It Away: Apotheosis in Failure,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 76, 1968, pp. 319–36.
Buzan, Mary, “The Difficult Heroism of Francis Marion Tarwater,” in the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, Vol. 14, 1985, pp. 33–43.
Cash, Jean W., “O’Connor on The Violent Bear It Away: An Unpublished Letter,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 26, No. 4, June 1989, pp. 67–71.
Donahoo, Robert, “Tarwater’s March toward the Feminine: The Role of Gender in O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,” in CEA Critic, Vol. 56, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 96–106.
Ferris, Sumner J., “The Outside and the Inside: Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,” in Critique, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1960, pp. 11–19.
Giannone, Richard, “The Lion of Judah in the Thought and Design of The Violent Bear It Away,” in the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, Vol. 14, 1985, pp. 25–32.
Grimes, Ronald L., “Anagogy and Ritualization: Baptism in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,” in Religion and Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 9–26.
O’Connor, Flannery, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners, Noonday Press, 1969.
—, Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works, Library of America, 1988.
—, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.
—, Letter to Grace Terry on August 27, 1962, quoted in Cash, Jean W., “O’Connor on the The Violent Bear It Away: An Unpublished Letter,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 26, No. 4, June 1989, p. 69.
—, The Violent Bear It Away, 13th reprint, Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960.
Olson, Steven, “Tarwater’s Hats,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall 1987, pp. 37–49.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow, “Apocalypse of Self, Resurrection of the Double: Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 3–4, 1980, pp. 100–11.
Scouten, Kenneth, “The Schoolteacher as a Devil in The Violent Bear It Away,” in the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, Vol. 12, 1983, pp. 35–46.
Shaw, Patrick W., “The Violent Bear It Away and the Irony of False Seeing,” in Texas Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1982, pp. 49–59.
Swan, Jesse G., “Flannery O’Connor’s Silence-Centered World,” in the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, Vol. 17, 1988, pp. 82–89.
Wilson, Carol Y., “Family as Affliction, Family as Promise in The Violent Bear It Away,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall 1987, pp. 77–86.
Zornado, Joseph, “A Becoming Habit: Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction of Unknowing,” in Religion and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 27–59.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Flannery O’Connor, Chelsea House Publications, 1999. This volume gathers together some of the best criticism on O’Connor’s work, including The Violent Bear It Away, and also features a short biography on the author, a chronology of her life, and an introductory essay by Bloom.
Magee, Rosemary, Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, University Press of Mississippi, 1987. The interviews with O’Connor in this collection were conducted over the span of her writing career.
Martin, Carter, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Vanderbilt University Press, 1969. This is a study aimed at students that concentrates on the religious themes in O’Connor’s fiction.
McMullen, Joanne, Writing against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O’Connor, Mercer University Press, 1996. Religious symbols and images in O’Connor’s fiction are analyzed in depth in this book.
Spivey, Ted R., Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary, Mercer University Press, 1995. Spivey’s bio-critical study analyzes O’Connor’s work and discusses her life, family, and influences.
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Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. A frequently cited study of O’Connor’s attraction to polar oppositions. Emphasizes the Christian sacramentalism, psychology, and use of doubles in The Violent Bear It Away, as well as the differences between O’Connor’s novels. Treats the novel’s ending as both comic and tragic.
Bacon, Jon Lance. Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Treats O’Connor as a Southern critic of nationalistic Cold War culture in America. The Violent Bear It Away becomes a rejection of cultural pressures to conform in terms of politics, public education, consumerism, and religion.
Cash, Jean W. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. University of Tennessee, 2002. A painstakingly researched portrait of O'Connor. Includes a bibliography and index.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. Distinguishes between O’Connor and her narrator in an effort to answer the claim that O’Connor wrote from the devil’s point of view. Discusses O’Connor’s typescripts and emphasizes Rayber’s similarity to other characters.
Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A controversial but important early study that generally downplays religious explanations. Treats the novel as an examination of a failed initiation into manhood, in which the protagonist finally reverts to a painfully childish role.
Johansen, Ruthann Knechel. The Narrative Secret of Flannery O’Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. Emphasizes the structures in O’Connor’s texts and examines the apocalyptic nature of those texts as well as the role of the trickster figures. Compares O’Connor’s novels to one another and to biblical narratives.