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Flannery O’Connor: The Violent Bear It Away

O’Connor’s second and last novel is, like its predecessor, full of religious imagery, the grotesque and what has come to be called Southern Gothic. Francis Tarwater is a fourteen year old orphan. He had been brought up by his uncle, George Rayber but then kidnapped by Rayber’s uncle/Tarwater’s great-uncle, Mason Tarwater. Mason Tarwater is a backwoods preacher and tried and failed to convert his nephew, Rayber, so has turned to his great-nephew, Francis. At the start of the novel, however, he has died. Francis intended to bury his great-uncle but went, instead, to the still, where a voice told him not to bury the old man and he ended up getting drunk. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Francis, a neighbour has buried the old man but Francis is unaware of this and burns down the house, thinking that he is cremating his great-uncle. After the cremation, Francis returns to his uncle. Francis has been instructed by his great-uncle to baptise Rayber’s mentally disabled son, Bishop, but, on seeing Bishop, declines to do so.

Rayber, who was very much opposed to his uncle’s preaching, is determined to deprogramme his nephew, but Francis is wary of his uncle and still attracted by religion, as can be seen when he attends a revivalist meeting but tells his uncle, who had followed him, that he only attended the meeting to condemn it. Francis is hearing his voice and is clearly torn between his contempt for his great-uncle and a calling that he feels he might have. He nearly baptises Bishop when Bishop goes and plays in a fountain but is also afraid that he might have drowned him, which he finally does when the two boys go out fishing. On his way back, Francis is picked up by a stranger, drugged and left naked, presumably having been raped. He returns to his great-uncle’s farm, sets fire to the forest and then returns to the city to teach the children of God.

As with her previous novel and her short stories, O’Connor does not make it easy for us. The book is violent and grotesque. At the same time, it is superbly written, intense and humorous. The struggle for the human soul has rarely been so effectively portrayed in American literature.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Farrar, Straus