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Illusions Assertions and Denials 
Redemption By Faith Or By Fact in
The Violent Bear It Away

© 21 July 2003, Stephen Sparrow

In 1881, renowned British scientist Thomas Huxley 1 wrote, “If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?” If Huxley had put that question to Flannery O’Connor, she would doubtless have told him (with tongue in cheek) to read her novel The Violent Bear It Away, wherein Huxley would have discovered a character by the name of Rayber, a schoolteacher obsessed with knowing all he could about the human mind. However, the knowledge Rayber sought and absorbed was nothing more than a set of ephemeral statistics, on which reposed a dubious philosophy incompatible with the wisdom and commonsense necessary to the maintenance of a sane and well-balanced mind. Of course, Huxley and O’Connor never met. He died in 1895, thirty years before she was born, but by then the scholastic legacy of Huxley and his scientist friend Charles Darwin 2 had spawned a new mindset among the mass media that left the general public with the distinct impression that religion and science were somehow engaged in violent warfare; an attitude that in many circles prevails to this day.

Flannery O’Connor spent the best part of seven years writing The Violent Bear It Away. The novel was first published in 1960, and four years later, on August 3rd, she died from complications associated with Lupus. She had lived with the disease for the previous thirteen years and was only 39 at the time of her death.

In essence, The Violent Bear It Away is a story based on the conflict between science and religion. The protagonists are a teenaged boy named Francis Tarwater who has been raised in isolation by his Christian Fundamentalist great uncle; and Rayber, the boy’s avowedly atheistic uncle who lives in the city. At the heart of things is the struggle over the soul of young Tarwater; the struggle for him to retain his deeply imbedded, if somewhat unbalanced, Christian faith against Rayber’s determined efforts to uproot those beliefs and “save” the youth through initiation into the “real” world.

The start of the story finds fourteen-year-old Tarwater confronted with the sudden death at the breakfast table of his eighty-four-year old great uncle Mason Tarwater. Since the time Francis was a baby, the boy and the old man had lived together in a two-storied shack at Powderhead; a clearing in the woods a good long walk from the nearest modern highway. Now with the old man dead, young Tarwater has begun in desultory fashion the task of digging a grave, but all the time the difficulty of dragging the 250 pound corpse out of the house to the gravesite occupies his mind. A stranger’s voice inside the boy’s head easily distracts him by slyly suggesting that in spite of old Tarwater’s oft-repeated demand that he be accorded a proper Christian burial it would be no big deal if the formalities were dispensed with and the body disposed of by burning, an option that becomes easier, and in fact inevitable, when two Negro neighbours arrive on the scene to have their jugs filled from the old man’s secret store of stump liquor. Young Tarwater tells them to take over digging the grave while he takes their jugs away to be filled. The stranger’s voice now persuades him to try the liquor himself and within a short time of doing so he becomes drowsy and falls asleep, but not before one of the Negroes, Buford Munson, comes looking for him and rebukes him for his behaviour. Tarwater wakes after dark, still drunk, makes his way back to the shack and, without entering, sets fire to it, convinced this will remove any further need to continue digging the grave. After that he walks to the highway and hitches a ride into the city, determined to connect with his dead mother’s only brother, Rayber, the city dwelling atheist schoolteacher.

Rayber’s mother was a sister of old Tarwater. The old man considered his sister no more than a whore and a lush and not fit to be in charge of children. When Rayber was just seven Old Tarwater kidnapped the boy and took him to Powderhead where he baptised him and gave him a concentrated course in Christian redemption. The week Rayber spent in Powderhead made a deep impression on him but then his father came and took him back to his mother in the city, and the Christian instruction ceased. With maturity Rayber grew to resent the Christian seed planted in him by his uncle, and as an antidote he studied to become a schoolteacher specialising in psychology. Rayber’s sister was Francis Tarwater’s mother and she gave birth to the boy shortly after being involved in a fatal auto crash. Rayber, who was next of kin, was given care of the baby. However, once more old Tarwater saw it as his duty to intervene. The old man was determined that this child, also his kin, should not miss out on a Christian upbringing, and so another kidnapping took young Tarwater, not yet able to walk, to Powderhead. A little later, Rayber with the help of a welfare woman went to take the baby back, but he got himself shot in the leg and ear for his trouble, and the welfare woman persuaded him not to pursue things further. Rayber married the welfare woman and the couple later had a child who was born intellectually handicapped. They named him Bishop, but because Rayber refused to place the child in a home for the mentally retarded, his wife walked out on him leaving him to raise Bishop on his own.

While growing up at Powderhead, Francis received his education straight from the bible at the hands of old Tarwater. For the old man, baptism was synonymous with redemption and salvation, and when some years later he learned that Rayber had a child with the welfare woman, he was determined that it should also be baptised, especially considering the child’s mental state. Old Tarwater gloated over the fact that this was one child Rayber would not be able to corrupt and stressed to Francis that if he died and Bishop remained unbaptised, it would be young Tarwater's responsibility to see it was done. “That boy cries out for his baptism,” the old man said, “precious in the sight of the Lord even an idiot!”

Now, with old Tarwater dead, and young Tarwater under his roof, the schoolteacher sees it as his duty to undo the damage done to the boy by the old man. A tussle ensues, with Rayber attempting to overcome the boy’s barely concealed contempt for him--contempt drilled into him by old Tarwater. Francis also held nothing but scorn for Bishop, seeing him as no different from a dog. Knowing of his uncle’s obsession with baptism, Rayber is determined that it won’t happen to Bishop and takes care to make sure that young Tarwater hadn’t arrived just to carry out the old man’s instructions. The struggle between Rayber and the youth see-saws back and forth; Rayber using a mix of kindness and instruction to triumph over what he sees as a young mind warped by religion, but still capable of being “redeemed”. After a couple of weeks of having Francis in his house and getting nowhere with him he decides as a last resort to take both the boy and Bishop on a short holiday. The place he chooses is Cherokee Lodge on the shore of a small lake and it is here one evening that young Tarwater takes Bishop out in a rowboat, and after dark deliberately drowns the child, baptising him at the same time, thereby fulfilling the injunction laid on young Tarwater by the old man.

After the drowning, young Tarwater sets off back to Powderhead on foot. A truck driver stops and gives him a lift on condition that Francis talks to keep him from falling asleep at the wheel. After sun up the driver has no further use for Tarwater who has to continue on foot once more. He accepts another ride, this time from a sinister looking character who offers him a cigarette (in reality a joint), drugs him with strong liquor, drives down a side road, sexually violates the unconscious boy and drives off, leaving him clad only in his shoes. The boy wakes and hurriedly dresses himself, all the time feeling a sense of outrage. Before leaving the scene of his violation Francis sets fire to the vegetation in an attempt to purge the place of evil. He continues walking toward Powderhead, all the time regaining more and more of his sense of purpose. When nearly home, Tarwater, from a distance, looks toward the burnt out remains of the shack. The stranger from the grave-digging scene returns and once more plies him with malicious advice, saying how he’d never left his side and promising that never again would he be on his own. Tarwater, revolted by the suggestions, again pulls the box of matches from his pocket and sets fire to the surrounding scrub and trees in an effort to put a permanent barrier between himself and the malevolent deceiver. Near the ruins of the shack Francis catches up with Buford Munson sitting on his mule close to where the Negro had buried old Tarwater. “The grave, freshly mounded lay between them,” and Buford tells the boy, “It’s owing to me he’s resting there, I buried him while you were laid out drunk. It’s owing to me his corn has been plowed. It’s owing to me the sign of his saviour is over his head.” Buford moves on and young Tarwater looks back at the “line of fire that ate languidly at the treeline,” and begins retracing his steps. The novel ends with Tarwater’s arrival back at the highway leading to the city and the last sentence sums up the plan of the “young prophet in waiting;...his singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.”

The character of old Tarwater dominates the story from beginning to end. The first sentence of the novel leaves the reader in no doubt about his death, but from that point onward the old man’s face seems to leer at the reader from nearly every page, as both young Tarwater and Rayber recall his shouting, his ranting, and his weird behaviour, either as secret thoughts or in vigorous exchanges between the two characters. Old Tarwater believed he’d been called by God to be a prophet and that his role in life was to baptise and prophesy, which in his mind justified the two kidnappings. We’ve already seen how he regarded his own sister as a whore; and as for his brother in law (Rayber’s father), the old man regarded him as nothing more than lame brained. O’Connor underscores this opinion when her omniscient narrator tells us, “The man, an insurance salesman, wore a straw hat on the side of his head and smoked a cigar and when you told him his soul was in danger, he offered to sell you a policy against any contingency.”

The old man continually tells Francis that some day the mantle of prophet will pass to him; a prospect that dismays the boy when he reflects on the old man’s vision of Heaven as an uninterrupted feast of loaves and fishes set out on the banks of the river Jordan. Little wonder that Francis is persuaded by the stranger’s voice that there may be more to life than following in the steps of “the mad stinking figure of Jesus”; hence his arrival on Rayber’s doorstep in the middle of the night. However, overriding any desire to reject the mantle of prophet is the contempt Tarwater feels for the schoolteacher over his inability to act decisively. In Tarwater’s view, Rayber is nothing but empty words, and Rayber confirms the boy’s opinion when, in a moment of bizarre honesty, he relates how once on a trip to the seaside he had tried to drown Bishop but found himself unable to see the thing through; an action young Tarwater later has little difficulty carrying out.

The hostility between Rayber and Francis becomes transferred to the unbaptised state of Bishop, with Rayber grimly determined to preserve Bishop from any form of Christian “contamination”. Ironically, Bishop is a Christ figure 3: sinless and incapable of sinning, he is a living reproach to the weakness and venality of the other main characters. Bishop, in his innocence, becomes the focus for their conflict; a tangible hook on which to hang an argument. Underpinning that argument is the secular humanism of Rayber, who sees all religion, and in particular Christianity, as a darkening of the mind. Yet Rayber is totally perplexed by the love he holds for Bishop. The child might be a halfwit but Rayber cannot understand why he will never be able to control his emotions where Bishop is concerned. Bishop doesn’t fit into any of Rayber’s categories but then neither does his own behaviour toward the child. For Rayber, filial love is a complete mystery. Once again the omniscient narrator comes to the rescue, and, in a series of widely separated reflections, the reader gets to peek inside Rayber’s mind.

Rayber’s normal way of looking on Bishop was as an X signifying the general hideousness of fate. There were times when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love [of Bishop]. If without thinking he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him… It was love without reason, love for something futureless, love that appeared to exist only to be itself… His own stability depended on the little boy’s presence. He could control his terrifying love as long as it had its focus in Bishop, but if anything happened to the child, he would have to face it in itself. Then the whole world would become his idiot child.

It was this terrifying love that had intruded and prevented Rayber from carrying out the ghastly act of drowning Bishop at the seaside. Rayber wanted to be freed of his burden and yet, at the last instant, he couldn’t bring himself to continue holding the struggling child under the water. He completely lacked the courage to carry out a “mercy” killing. Rayber may have been a rationalist and positivist who, given the power, would have arranged this world to suit himself, but in the end it was the love he held for Bishop that was his undoing. Fortunately for human beings this love is something that cannot be rationalised. O’Connor covered the situation in her remarkable essay “Introduction to a Memoir of Mary Ann” 4.

One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labour camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

Rayber believes that education holds the key to all of life, but his idea of education rests only on acquiring knowledge of things capable of being measured. He believes that scientific inquiry will solve the riddle of love and hate. In a letter to Cecil Dawkins Flannery O’Connor said, 5

The notion of the perfectibility of man (secular redemption) came about at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century… The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own unaided efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgement is out of place because man is not responsible.

Rayber fits easily into the liberal mould as defined here by O’Connor.

Returning to the beginning of the story, the stranger’s voice that dissuades young Tarwater against completing digging the grave belongs to the same serpent that so slyly convinced Eve that no harm would come from eating the forbidden fruit. 6 As with Eve, the devil pretends an earnest interest in young Tarwater’s wellbeing. When Francis discusses with the stranger his choice between Jesus or the devil, the stranger answers, “No no no, there ain’t no such thing as a devil…I know that for a fact. It ain’t Jesus or the devil. It’s Jesus or you.” And, after falling in with the stranger’s suggestions, Francis clears out from Powderhead and wanders in the wilderness (in the city with Rayber) until he murders Bishop, after which his awakening commences. The devil can take many forms, so when Tarwater accepts the offer of the lift with the sinister stranger who drugs and rapes him we are still in the company of that same devil. The reader receives confirmation of this when the stranger’s voice returns near the end of the story and reminds young Tarwater that all the time he has been at the boy’s side and in the future will never leave him alone. Of course, who but the sinister stranger who had never left Tarwater’s side could have been the subtle goad for Bishop’s murder?

The murder is a wake up call to both young Tarwater and Rayber. Francis reacts by returning home to Powderhead and on the way rediscovers his true self and his role in life. What exactly Rayber does is open to speculation. How will he cope now that Bishop has gone from his life? How will Rayber come to terms with the dichotomy of love and death? I suspect one of his first actions would be to make a large bonfire of all his rationalist magazines and “scientific” papers, and then maybe, try to figure out where Christ fits into the scheme of things; but that’s only guesswork on my part. O’Connor wrapped up her novel by concentrating on what happened to young Tarwater. After all he was the prophet, if only a prophet in waiting.

The story also explores the question of faith. Even before Francis leaves Powderhead, O’Connor provides a tantalising glimpse of the relationship between belief and unbelief. The reader has the opportunity to reflect on the question of who knows unbelief better: is it the believer or is it the unbeliever? If the unbeliever cannot comprehend belief, is he any different from the drunk who cannot imagine what it’s like to be sober? The unbeliever and the drunk have something in common; both are muddled and unsure of their ground, and neither realises it. When young Tarwater is lying drunk, having given up on the task of grave digging, and Buford Munson tries to reason with him, the boy tells the Negro to go and leave him to his “bidnis.” Buford’s parting shot is, “Nobody going to bother you. That going to be your trouble.” A few pages further on, a now sober Tarwater thinks about the ridicule his great-uncle had once heaped on Rayber. Young Tarwater had praised Rayber to his great uncle saying, “He knows a heap. I don’t reckon it’s anything he don’t know.” To which the old man had retorted “He don’t know it’s anything he can’t know. That’s his trouble.”

Flannery O’Connor could hardly have chosen a more suitable piece from scripture for the title of her novel. The text comes from the New Testament, “ from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” 7 Those last five words highlight in a unique way the enigma of good and evil inside this concrete world. All around us today we have available the published works of renowned scientists such as Peter Singer 8 , Stephen Jay Gould 9 and Richard Dawkins 10: men of considerable prestige and talent, but men who insist that the human being is merely a higher animal that evolved to fit the ecological niche it currently occupies; meaning of course that the principles of justice and mercy are genetically based, which begs the question about the possibility of their being cloned? A reasonable corollary would be that the perfect society must be just around the corner; and if that is so, how is it that this “modern” world continues to endure its orgy of violence and bloodshed on the march toward perfection? Well it must be obvious by now that although modern science using evolutionary theory can explain the measurable world and its myriad life forms; it remains completely clueless in explaining the origin of good and evil. As for those scientists doggedly determined to unravel this puzzle, I’m reminded of the men who tried to build the Tower of Babel 11 , and anyone familiar with the Book of Genesis is aware of the colossal failure of that enterprise. The difficult path toward justice and mercy will never be straightened by science, and Flannery O’Connor with her usual astuteness pointed this out by saying, “evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” 12

The meaning of the words The Violent Bear It Away refers to those best fitted to attain the goal of Heaven; i.e. those who have done violence to whatever stood between themselves and the prize. O’Connor explained the text in a letter to Betty Hester. 13 Leaning on Aquinas for support, she told Hester that “the violent Christ is here talking about represent those ascetics who strain against mere nature.” By contrast, in Rayber’s economy of thought, faith was not compatible with knowledge, and because he could see no value in faith, his belief system had left him inert, unable to do violence to anything let alone his own lower nature. O’Connor covered the topic in a letter she wrote to Alfred Corn 14 in which she paraphrased St Paul by saying, “Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge.” So, shouldn’t we be asking if some day knowledge might encompass all that there is to know? Will future human beings be like Thomas Huxley’s man who has acquired enough knowledge to be out of danger? I think O’Connor provided a clear answer to that question inside The Violent Bear It Away, but if the message of that story is still too obscure for some; then they should read her lecture entitled "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction". Using plain and unambiguous language O’Connor said: “Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances.” 15 Of course, bringing these matters into the light is one thing; having them accepted is another. If you know nothing about horses, Christianity is a great way to prove the truth of that old saying. “You may lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

In The Violent Bear It Away Flannery O’Connor has given us an eerie albeit oblique look into a world where liberals and rationalists have seized control; a world that has lost its way, lost its sense of wonder, lost its joy of believing, and as a consequence of that lack lost the joy of knowing and seeing. It is a world where large numbers of people are ignorant of the faith that states God so loved this world that He found it worth dying for. As throughout history, the problem is how to turn that situation around. In the Parable of The Sower, Jesus Christ explained the various depths and strengths of faith and concluded by exhorting his audience to “Listen if you have ears.” 16 and that is precisely the message young Tarwater was ready to preach at the end of The Violent Bear It Away. He had accepted the mantle of prophet from old Tarwater and was on his way back "to the dark city where the children of God lay sleeping" to wake them and make them listen.

1. Huxley, Thomas Henry 1825-1895: Famous English Zoologist, Lecturer, Writer and early supporter for Darwin’s theory of evolution

2. Darwin, Charles Robert. 1809-1882: British Scientist; Naturalist: Famous for theory of organic evolution.

3. "Letter to A." Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 1014-1015.

4. "Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann." Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 822-831.

5. "Letter to Cecil Dawkins. Nov. 8th 1958." The Habit of Being. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. 302-303.

6. "Book of Genesis." 3 : 1-7. Bible.

7. "Gospel of St Matthew." 11:12. New Testament. Douay Rheims Version.

8. Singer, Peter. 1946-: Prominent Bio Ethicist and Atheist.

9. Gould, Stephen Jay. 1941--2002: Eminent Palaeontologist, Evolutionary Theorist & Atheist.

10. Dawkins, Richard. 1941- : Prominent Zoologist, Evolutionary Biologist & Atheist.

11. "Book of Genesis" 11: 1-9. Bible

12. "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South." Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 853-864.

13. "Letter to A." Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 1101.

14. "Letter to Alfred Corn." Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 1164.

15. "Some Aspects of The Grotesque in Southern Fiction." Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988. 813-821.

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