The Violent Bear It Away

by Flannery O’Connor

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1288

Religion and Violence
The title of the novel is taken from Matthew 11:12. At the beginning of Matthew 11, Jesus preaches to the multitudes about the prophet John the Baptist, who he says will not wear “soft robes” or preach a gentle message. Christ then says, in the verse that provides the novel’s epigraph: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” There have been two interpretations of the verse. The first says that, since the time of John the Baptist and Christ’s ministry, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, and the “violent,” meaning the eager, ardent multitudes of godly men, will take it by force—displaying their strength through action. The implication is that the faithful will one day attain the kingdom of heaven. Another interpretation is that unbelievers, such as Pharisees (the “violent” in this case) try to undermine the work done by Christ and John the Baptist, doing violence to the kingdom of God in this way. In the novel, both of these interpretations are explored, and the conflict surrounds the attitudes of the believer and the skeptic, the faithful and the godless, as they battle for young Francis Marion Tarwater’s soul.

There are numerous instances of violence throughout the novel: kidnappings, a shooting, a drowning, arson, and a rape. Violence is never glorified, but it is used to shock readers into understanding the seriousness of the religious subjects being explored. The drowning of Bishop, for example, draws into relief the intense nature of baptism that for many has become something of a trivial rite. The rape of Tarwater by the stranger underscores in a brutal way the violation of his soul by the devil. O’Connor uses violence repeatedly in her novel to emphasize that religion is not soft or pretty, that God’s will is sometimes frightening, and that ordinary human moral standards cannot be applied when it comes to understanding God and his ways.

The Battle for the Soul
The Violent Bear It Away is a novel about psychomachia, or the struggle between good and evil, spirit and flesh, God and the devil within the human soul. Young Tarwater has been reared by his greatuncle (who represents God) to be a prophet, but he listens to an inner voice (that of the devil), and chooses to deny his spiritual inheritance. He is thence tortured by doubt, indecision, and the continuous and confounding pull of his religious calling. This internal battle is played out especially vividly in his perplexing, uncontrollable desire to baptize his cousin Bishop. The devil in the form of his inner voice, as well as three drivers—the salesman Meeks, the truck driver, and the stranger who gives him a ride in his lavender car—and his uncle George Rayber, also repeatedly tempt Tarwater away from his faith. Tarwater is shown struggling against their worldly views. In the end, Tarwater succumbs to his religious calling, and it is less a victory than a capitulation when he embraces his role as a prophet of God. Another battle for the soul is waged between the Tarwaters and Rayber; the Tarwaters want to baptize Rayber’s retarded son Bishop and Rayber tries to prevent them from doing so.

Spiritual Hunger
Central to the novel is the question of spiritual hunger and the idea that, ultimately, only God can satisfy the longing that torments the human soul. Throughout the novel, young Tarwater has a profound, gnawing hunger that cannot be appeased. His great-uncle has taught him that Christ is the Bread of Life, but he continually resists this truth and his spiritual calling, yet does not understand the emptiness he feels. Tarwater cannot eat the foreign food his uncle offers him, and craves for the food his great-uncle used to prepare. On his way to the revival meeting, Tarwater stops by a bakery and stares longingly at a single loaf of bread, which emphasizes the spiritual nature of his hunger. At the Cherokee Lodge, Tarwater overeats and vomits into the lake. After he kills Bishop and travels back to Powderhead, he cannot eat the sandwich given to him by the trucker, complaining that his stomach does not allow anything inside it. The idea of Christ as the Bread of Life and recurring images of loaves and fishes serve to deepen this theme. At the end of the novel, Tarwater has a vision of a multitude—his great-uncle among its number— being fed loaves and fishes by Christ from a single basket. It is only then that he becomes aware of the object of his hunger and realizes that “nothing on earth would fill him.”

The Spiritual Journey
The obvious subject of The Violent Bear It Away is Francis Tarwater’s passage to selfrealization and his spiritual awakening. Images of roads, paths, cars, boats, and travel figure prominently in the novel to underscore this important theme. In each of the three parts of the book, Tarwater travels, first from Powderhead to the city, then within the city (to a revival meeting, to a museum) and to the Cherokee Lodge, and finally back to Powderhead. He has various guides along his journey: his great-uncle, who tries to lead him down the difficult path to redemption; Rayber, who wants life’s journey to be predictable and devoid of feeling; and other incarnations of the devil who try to steer him away from his goal and off the path of righteousness. It is significant that Tarwater is born in a car wreck, that three of the incarnations of the devil that tempt him are drivers, and that in the end it is his own shadow in the moonlight that “clears a rough path toward his goal.” The journey to God, it is seen, is no easy one. O’Connor’s exploration of this theme presents her unique, grotesque vision of the beauty and terror of the divine.

Faith versus Reason
As Francis Tarwater struggles to come to terms with his faith, he is tempted by the devil in the guise of his uncle, the schoolteacher George Rayber. Rayber is a secular humanist who scoffs at the fanatical faith of his uncle Mason Tarwater and believes that reason is the only true guide as humans learn how to live. In his published study of his uncle in the “schoolteacher magazine,” Rayber argued that the old man had imagined the need to be “called” out of a feeling of insecurity, so he “called himself.” Rayber believes too that a person’s intelligence and emotional states can be measured and the results can be used to better his or her life, to “fix” or “save” it. Thus, he tries to convince his nephew to take standardized tests, which the latter refuses. Rayber also tries to convince Tarwater that religion is superstition, while reason and science have brought impressive human advancements, such as flying. To this Tarwater replies, “I wouldn’t give you nothing for no airplane. A buzzard can fly.” Although Rayber thinks he can read his nephew “like a book,” he does not understand him because he does not have the requisite tools or understanding to really see or hear what is going on around him; cold logic and reason are inadequate to make sense of the mystery of life. Because of this, Rayber struggles against the love he has for his disabled son; he cannot make sense of it using logic, and it overwhelms him and renders him helpless. Rayber had, at Tarwater’s present age of fourteen, rejected the spiritual life and chosen the way of reason. The novel shows how Tarwater makes his own choice about what path he is to follow.

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