The Violent Bear It Away

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The Violent Bear It Away
First edition
AuthorFlannery O'Connor
CountryUnited States
GenreSouthern Gothic
PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
Media typePrint

The Violent Bear It Away is a 1960 novel by American author Flannery O'Connor. It is the second and final novel that she published. The first chapter was originally published as the story "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead" in the journal New World Writing.[1] The novel tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, a fourteen-year-old boy who is trying to escape the destiny his uncle has prescribed for him: 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, an outspoken evangelist and self-ordained prophet, dies. Many years earlier, Mason had kidnapped his great-nephew, the protagonist Francis Tarwater, and has raised him since childhood in a backwoods cabin, refusing to formally educate him and preparing him instead to someday take his place as a prophet. Prior to his death, Mason had asked the now-teenaged Francis 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 him to forget about the old man. Tarwater obeys and gets drunk instead. When he wakes from his drunken sleep, he sets the cabin 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, a well-educated schoolteacher, is amazed to see young Tarwater, whom he had long ago given up on after his "kidnapping" by the old man 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 is the child that Rayber had with Bernice Bishop, a meddlesome social worker whom Francis' great-uncle had referred to as "the welfare woman". The old man had previously told Francis 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 way to protect him from his evil parents. The old man 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 his uncle Rayber anyway. Tarwater does not 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 as a normal boy and provide him with a proper education. 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, he too was kidnapped by old Mason Tarwater in order to baptize him, but Rayber's father had rescued him before the old man could fully corrupt him.

After many attempts by Rayber to "civilize" the reluctant 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 the hope that confronting his past will allow him to leave it behind. Under the guise of taking the two boys out to a country lodge to go fishing, Rayber finally confronts Tarwater, telling him that he must accept an ordinary life and ignore the superstitious Christian upbringing and the false destiny with which his great-uncle has corrupted him. Tarwater, however, is not so easily convinced. While at the lodge, he again hears the "Voice" (the devil) who tells Tarwater to forsake his great-uncle's command to baptize little Bishop and to drown the boy instead. 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 their voices. 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 and tries to make his way 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 with 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 Powderhead, his great-uncle's old farm, where he finds the cabin has burned to the ground. Tarwater had assumed that his great-uncle had been burned up with it, but Buford, a black man who lived nearby, had actually rescued old Mason Tarwater's body from the house while Tarwater was drunk at the beginning of the novel, and given the old man a proper Christian burial just as he had requested. 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 novel's 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. Kidnapped by his great-uncle at a young age, he has been raised under the single-minded premise that his destiny is to become a prophet. At first greatly frustrated by the notion of being forced to subscribe to a pre-ordained fate, he vows to do anything he can to prevent it from happening. Francis 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 lives a secular lifestyle. He is the uncle of Tarwater and the father of Bishop. He tries to protect Tarwater and Bishop from baptism and the old man's corrupting influence, but ultimately fails.
  • Bishop: An intellectually disabled child who is the son of Rayber and the cousin of Tarwater. Tarwater was raised with the belief 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 self-ordained 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, which he has been trained throughout his childhood to ignore. In her letters, O'Connor confirmed that this "friend" is Satan himself.[4]:367
  • The rapist: A passing motorist who offers Tarwater a ride near the end of the novel. It is strongly implied that he rapes and robs Tarwater, an act that ultimately brings Tarwater closer to his destiny. O'Connor also confirmed in her letters that the devil becomes physically "actualized in the man who gives Tarwater the lift toward the end."[4]:375

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 of the novel's themes 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.[5][page needed] The importance of passion is also 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.[5][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.[6][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.[7]

One possible reading of the novel offers cautionary tale about religious anti-intellectualism. Old Mason Tarwater epitomizes faith coupled with anti-intellectualism and spiritual pride, which brings about the whole series of unfortunate events depicted in the book. Rayber is basically moral person, but abashed by closed-minded and anti-intellectual approach to religion infused in childhood he is drawn towards atheism. Had he actually employed his efforts to find rational reasons for Christian faith, he would find no lack of evidential support. Among Christian denominations, at least Roman Catholicism has rich intellectual tradition. Thus Rayber would probably become true Christian, himself baptising Bishop, perhaps coming to terms with his fanatical uncle, and educating his nephew both in science and in faith, which are complementary.


  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. ^ a b O'Connor, Flannery (1979). Fitzgerald, Sally (ed.). The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  5. ^ a b Asals, Frederick (1982). Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. University of Georgia Press.
  6. ^ Baumgaertner, Jill P. (1988). Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring. Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaws Publishers.
  7. ^ How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature, pp. 209–225.

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