The Violent Bear It Away Summary

Flannery O'Connor

The Violent Bear It Away

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The Violent Bear It Away Summary

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American Author Flannery O’Connor’s second and final novel, The Violent Bear It Away, was published in 1960. The initial part of the novel appeared as the short story, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” in the literary journal New World Writing. It tells the story of fourteen-year-old Francis Tarwater whose destiny is to be a prophet and whose desire is to avoid it. The book is filled with dark images and themes of Catholicism, placeing it in the genre of Southern Gothic literature. The title is taken from the Douay Bible, which is the version on which most English language versions of the Bible are based. From the Gospel of Matthew the verse reads, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

The novel opens in 1952 in Tennessee. Francis Tarwater is burying Mason, his great-uncle who raised him. Mason was a devoutly religious man and believed that he was one of God’s prophets. He brought up (Francis) Tarwater to believe that he, too, is a prophet. While undertaking the difficult task of burying his uncle, Tarwater hears a voice in his head. The voice tells him that the easier thing would be to forget about his uncle’s expectations—expectations that others have come to hold for him as well—and reject the notion of being a prophet rather than fulfill what he has been told is his destiny. Tarwater gets drunk and burns down his uncle’s house, thinking that the body is inside. One of his uncle’s friends, a black man named Buford Munson, has actually burned the body in the Christian tradition.

As he begins his journey away from his destiny, Tarwater leaves the backwoods area of his upbringing and heads for the city. There, he meets another uncle who has been estranged from the family. Uncle Rayber had been the original choice to raise Tarwater. Mason was living with Rayber at that time and kidnapped Tarwater to raise him in the rural area. Tarwater was born to an unwed mother who, along with her parents, died in a car accident before his birth. Rayber was the choice to raise the child, but since Mason knew Rayber would raise him as an atheist, he took Tarwater. When Rayber went to Mason to reclaim the child, Mason shot him in the leg and in the ear, leading to a significant loss of Rayber’s hearing. Mason was the one who baptized Rayber when he was a young boy, an act for which Rayber hates Mason. Now, when Tarwater comes to Rayber, he welcomes the chance to give him what he considers a normal life and to be able to do so to spite Mason.

It is a difficult challenge for Rayber to move Tarwater away from the religious upbringing that has always been his way of life. He is able to convince the boy that in order to be reborn, he needs to start everything in life from the start, and point himself in a new direction. This makes sense to Tarwater since he knows he is attempting to move as far away from his destiny as he can. Adding to Tarwater’s inner turmoil is the fact that Mason had called on him to baptize Bishop, a mentally challenged young son of Rayber. Unable to make any progress in his attempts to change Tarwater, Rayber decides that taking him back to the home in the backwoods where he grew up could serve as a means for him to face the truth.

One night on their journey back, they stay at a lake not far from their destination. The voice in Tarwater’s head speaks to him again. It tells him that rather than baptize Bishop, he should drown him. The voice is too much for him to ignore, and he begins to drown Bishop. As he does so, he finds himself saying the words of baptism at the same time. He continues on his way back home and gets a ride from a man who gets him drunk, rapes him, and abandons him in the woods. Later, Tarwater burns the place where he was raped and sets the woods on fire as he approaches the home in which he was raised. He finds out about Buford having given Mason a proper burial. To Tarwater this destroys the one thing that had kept him from becoming a prophet, so he heads back to the city, prepared to fulfill his destiny as a prophet after all.

Common to the works of Flannery O’Connor is the reflection of her religious beliefs in her fiction. In The Violent Bear It Away, she deals with the theme of passion versus destiny and of the opposing forces of the religious and secular worlds. She grapples with the concept that destruction and creation are closely related. She exemplifies these themes with such plot events as a drowning becoming a baptism and a rape leading to a revelation.