The Violent Bear It Away

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The Violent Bear It Away
First edition
Author Flannery O'Connor
Country United States
Language English
Genre Southern Gothic
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
Media type Print
Pages 243
OCLC 170140

The Violent Bear It Away is a novel published in 1960 by American author Flannery O'Connor. It is the second and final novel that she published. The first chapter of the novel was published as the story "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead" in the journal New World Writing.[1] It is the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, a fourteen-year-old boy who is trying to escape his destiny: the life of a prophet. Like most of O'Connor's stories, the novel is filled with Catholic themes and dark images, making it a classic example of Southern Gothic literature.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel begins when old Mason Tarwater dies. Prior to his death, he had asked his great-nephew, the teen-aged protagonist Francis Tarwater, to give him a proper Christian burial with a cross marking the grave so that his body would be resurrected on Judgment Day. Young Tarwater starts to dig the grave but suddenly hears a "Voice" in his head telling to him to forget about the old man. Tarwater obeys and gets drunk instead. When he returns from drinking, he sets the house that he and his uncle had lived in on fire, with his great-uncle's body still inside. He leaves for the city and gets a ride from a salesman, who drops him off at his uncle Rayber's door.

Rayber is amazed to see young Tarwater, whom he had given up on a long time ago after the young boy had essentially been "kidnapped" by the boy's great uncle to live in the country and be brought up a Christian. Tarwater is also greeted at the door by Rayber's young son Bishop, who (it is implied) has Down syndrome and low intelligence. Bishop was the child that Rayber had with Bernice Bishop, a meddlesome social worker known as "the welfare woman." Mr. Mason previously told young Francis Tarwater that the welfare woman was much older than Rayber and only able to give him one disabled child, and that God had mercy on the child by making him "dim-witted," which was the only choice he had to protect him from the evil parents. Old Mason Tarwater (the great uncle) had commissioned the young Tarwater to baptize Bishop at some point, in order to save the little boy's soul.

Due to this history, Tarwater is immediately put on edge when confronted with Bishop, but decides to stay with Uncle Rayber anyway. He doesn't think of Bishop as a human being and finds him repulsive.

The three begin to live together as a family for a while, and Rayber is excited to have his nephew back in order to raise him like a normal, educated boy. But Tarwater resists his uncle's attempts at secular reform very much the same way he resisted his great uncle's attempts at religious reform. Rayber understands what Tarwater is going through. When he (Rayber) was only seven years old, old Mason Tarwater kidnapped him in order to baptize him, but Rayber's father rescued him before the old man could fully corrupt him.

After many attempts by Rayber to "civilize" Tarwater, and many attempts by Tarwater to figure out his true destiny (be it as a prophet, which was his great uncle's wish, or as an enlightened, educated modern man, which is his Uncle Rayber's wish), Rayber devises a plan to take Tarwater back to the country where the damage had been done in hopes that confronting his past will allow him to leave it. Under the guise of taking the two boys out to the country to a lodge to go fishing, Rayber finally confronts Tarwater and tells him that he must change and must leave the crazy, superstitious Christian upbringing that his great uncle corrupted him with. Tarwater, however, is not so easily convinced. While at the lodge, he meets up again with the "Voice" (the devil) who tells Tarwater to forsake his great uncle's command to baptize little Bishop and instead, drown the boy. One evening, Tarwater takes Bishop out on a boat to the middle of the lake, with Rayber's reluctant blessing. Rayber cannot see them on the lake but can still hear the voices faintly. Tarwater ends up drowning Bishop while at the same time baptizing the boy, thereby fulfilling both destinies simultaneously. Rayber realizes what has happened and faints, not out of fear for his son's life, but because he feels nothing at his son's death.

Tarwater runs away into the woods in order to go back to his great uncle's house to confront his demons once and for all. He eventually hitches a ride with another man, who entices Tarwater to get drunk. Tarwater takes the man's offer and passes out, eventually waking up naked against a tree, his clothes neatly folded beside him. He dresses hurriedly and sets fire to the area.

Burning his way through the forest, Tarwater finally makes his way back to his great uncle's old farm, where the house has been burned to the ground. Tarwater had assumed that his great uncle had been burned up with it, but Buford, a black man who lived in the area, had actually rescued old Mason Tarwater's body from the house at the beginning of the novel when Tarwater had gone off to get drunk, and given the old man a proper Christian burial just as the old man had requested that Tarwater do. Tarwater realizes that his great uncle's two main requests (that he be given a proper burial and that the little boy Bishop be baptized) have been realized, which convinces Tarwater that he can no longer run away from his calling to be a prophet. The story ends with Tarwater heading toward the city to "Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy."


The title is taken from a verse of the Douay Bible:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

— Matthew 11:12

There are various explanations of the meaning of this verse. The most accepted explanation is that violence constantly attacks God and heaven and that only those who are "violent with the love of God" can bear heaven away. This is seen when Tarwater drowns Bishop. He commits a violent act, but the "accidental" baptism is a powerful act of violent love for God—which bears away the crime of murder.[2]

Another possible meaning is that both secularism and fundamentalism (that is, the Protestant functioning outside of the Roman Catholic Church) are heresy, which blinds their adherents to God's truth. When God's grace comes into contact with an errant life, a violent revelation occurs. Falsehood and heresy are burnt off, and the sinner then sees the truth clearly. Those who suffer this spiritual violence bear the kingdom of God with them as they go through the world.[3]


  • Francis Marion Tarwater. The protagonist of the story. His destiny is to become a prophet, but he will do anything he can to prevent it from happening. He does not fit the role of a hero, strictly speaking, but is the central figure in the novel.
  • Rayber. The main antagonist of the story. He is staunchly anti-religious and believes in a secular lifestyle. He is the uncle of Tarwater and the father of Bishop. He tries to protect Tarwater and Bishop from baptism and religion but ultimately fails.
  • Bishop. An intellectually disabled child. He is the son of Rayber, and the cousin of Tarwater. Tarwater believes that it is his destiny to baptize Bishop, whereas Rayber struggles to prevent this from happening.
  • Mason Tarwater. The great-uncle of Tarwater and Bishop and the uncle of Rayber. A fanatically religious prophet, he raised Tarwater to follow in his footsteps. His death at the beginning of the novel spurs Tarwater's quest of denial and redemption.
  • The "friend". A voice in Tarwater's head, representing rational, secular thinking. In her letters, O'Connor confirms that this friend is Satan himself.[4]
  • The rapist. He is a motorist who, it is strongly implied in the novel, rapes Tarwater at the end of the novel, an act that ultimately brings Tarwater closer to his destiny. O'Connor also confirms in her letters that the devil becomes physically "actualized in the man who gives Tarwater the lift toward the end."[5]

Major themes[edit]

Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic, and The Violent Bear it Away reflects her religious beliefs. It is filled with religious imagery and themes, ranging from the power of passion to the dominance of destiny.

The most obvious theme of The Violent Bear it Away is the idea that destiny and religion will dominate over the secular. O'Connor illustrates this well, demonstrating the power of Tarwater's destiny as it dominates every obstacle in its way; the drowning of Bishop is transformed to a baptism, Tarwater's rape turns to revelation, and the secular Rayber fails in every way.[6][page needed]

The importance of passion is linked with the power of religion. Tarwater is filled with passion; Rayber suppresses his. Thus, Tarwater succeeds and is redeemed, and Rayber is ultimately destroyed. This is shown when Bishop is killed; when he realizes that he has no love for his son, Rayber collapses.[6][page needed]

The idea that everything that destroys also creates is evident as well. Nearly every symbol and character in the book pulls Tarwater away from his destiny but also pushes him back. Rayber nearly succeeds in secularizing Tarwater, but he ultimately brings the boy back to Powderhead. The drowning of Bishop, the ultimate secular act, nearly destroys Tarwater's destiny, but the simultaneous baptism redeems it. Fire both destroys Powderhead and burns Tarwater's eyes clean. Water drowns and baptizes. Everything that destroys, redeems.[7][page needed]

James Cantrell feels that O'Connor's Irish heritage is central to the novel, serving as the foundation of her exploration of the conflicts between Christ and secularism in America. He says, for example, the surname "Tarwater" is completely understood only by focusing on Irish culture and history.[8]


  1. ^ O'Connor, Flannery (October 1955). "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead". New World Writing. Vol. 8. 
  2. ^ Peters, Jason (July 31, 2006). "The Kripke Center". Journal of Religion and Society. 7 (2005). 
  3. ^ Gerald, Kelly S. (2013) [Originally published 2004]. "The Violent Bear It Away". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on March 16, 2016. Retrieved May 18, 2016. 
  4. ^ O'Connor 1979, p. 367.
  5. ^ O'Connor 1979, p. 375.
  6. ^ a b Asals 1982.
  7. ^ Baumgaertner 1988.
  8. ^ How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature. pp. 209-225