Flannery O’Connor is probably best known for her short stories, but she also wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). Her modus operandi as a writer was the employment of violence and the grotesque to shock her readers out of their somnambulant indifference to truth. Such violence and grotesqueness are never used gratuitously but are always pregnant with metaphysical meaning.
The murderous violence of the Misfit in the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” serves as an unwitting agent of grace, bringing the grandmother to her knees and her senses, even as it brings her life to an end. In Wise Blood, the pathological pride of the Christ-haunted and Christ-hating protagonist reaps such a bitter and embittered harvest of destruction and desolation that the necessity of Christ’s presence is implied by the consequences of His absence. The overall effect is akin to Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, in which all that is left in the vacuum created by the absence of grace is the vice and viciousness that leads to suicidal despair.
In The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor places the reader in a claustrophobic world in which claustrophobic philosophies close in upon themselves, preventing any real growth in the perception of reality. In doing so, she shows the harmful consequences of sundering faith from reason.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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At one end of the philosophical spectrum is the irrational faith of Mason Tarwater, a self-ordained and theologically idiosyncratic “Christian” prophet, who dies at the beginning of the novel, having groomed his orphaned great-nephew, Francis Tarwater, to follow his fanatical prophetic calling. At the other end of the spectrum is the faithless rationalism of Rayber, a fanatically anti-religious schoolteacher and “progressive,” who is Francis Tarwater’s uncle.
The fourth key character is Bishop, a mentally disabled child who presumably has Down syndrome. It is Bishop’s presence which is the leaven that raises the moral dimension of the whole novel. Switching metaphors, he is also the catalyst that enables us to see into the hearts and minds of Rayber and Francis. It is their reaction to his presence which reveals their own personalities and the practical ramifications of their respective philosophies.
Bishop is Rayber’s son and Francis’ cousin. His mother, Bernice, is an intrusive social worker whom the old man, Mason Tarwater, had dubbed “the welfare woman.” The old man, a libertarian with a healthy contempt for progressivism and government intervention, had explained to Francis that God had bestowed his mercy on Bishop by making him “dim-witted,” thereby preserving him from being corrupted by the atheism of his parents. Since neither of Bishop’s parents would tolerate their son being baptized, Mason Tarwater charges Francis with the “mission” to baptize the child.
Francis Tarwater refuses the “mission,” considering Bishop to be subhuman and feeling repulsed by him. Ironically, he shares this disrespect for the dignity of Bishop’s human personhood with the boy’s own father. Rayber resents Bishop, seeing no point in him, considering him an imposition and a curse. The most excruciating aspect of the novel is the cruelty and contempt with which Francis and Rayber treat the boy, whose uncomplaining innocence serves as an unwitting foil to their wickedness.
Francis resents and resists Rayber’s attempts to “educate” him in the direction of unbelief, but he is equally uncomfortable with belief, seeking to escape from the narrowness of the theology with which he’d been raised. To make matters worse, Francis is also visited at key moments by an invisible “friend,” a “voice” which whispers diabolical thoughts into his head.
In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor revealed that this “friend” was in fact the devil himself. It is significant that this diabolical “friend” speaks to him in the language of rationalist materialism and secularism, tempting him with atheism. The “friend” plays a key role because of his (or its) appearance at a critical moment in the story, a moment which is “crucial” in the sense of the ultimate crux of the crucifixion itself. As for Bishop, he emerges throughout the story, and especially at this “crucial” moment, as the innocent victim of the sins of others.
It says something of Flannery O’Connor’s provocative genius that she can make a psychopathic killer an agent of grace in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a wooden leg a symbol of the cross in “Good Country People” and a child with Down syndrome a Christ figure in The Violent Bear It Away.
Perhaps the final words on The Violent Bear It Away should be said by the character in the novel who has nothing to say. It is Bishop’s powerful silence that speaks loudest. It has been said, quite truly, that most of us are here to learn, whereas some of us are here to teach. Those with Down syndrome are here to teach. This is the lesson that Bishop teaches in The Violent Bear It Away.
Editor’s Note: This is the forty-seventh in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”