The Violent Bear It Away

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The Violent Bear It Away

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading

Flannery O'Connor


The Violent Bear It Away, published in New York in 1960, is Flannery O'Connor's darkly humorous Gothic novel about a Southern boy's spiritual awakening. It charts the spiritual and physical journey of fourteen-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater, raised by his great-uncle in the backwoods of Alabama to be a prophet. Tarwater travels to the city, where he struggles against the need to deny his spiritual inheritance and the call of God. O'Connor paints a macabre picture of Southern life and religious fundamentalism and parodies the blind self-assurances of modern secular thinking. The novel is unsettling because it offers no easy truths; its hero is an unlikable boy who learns that doing God's work entails violence, unreason, even madness. It is not, as might be expected, a parody of religious fanaticism, but a psychological study of the mysterious, frightening, and sometimes offensive nature of the religious calling. Stark religious symbolism and Biblical allusions unite to explore themes of spiritual hunger, faith versus reason, and the battle for the soul. O'Connor wrote the novel over eight years while suffering from lupus, publishing the first chapter as a story, "You Can't Be Poorer Than Dead," in 1955. Her last major work to be published in her lifetime, The Violent Bear It Away contains elements found in much of O'Connor's fiction. Her only other novel, Wise Blood (1952), fuses humor and horror to examine questions of faith, suffering, family relationships, and intellectual versus religious understanding. The novel was not particularly well received when it first appeared; many critics found it strange and impenetrable. But, to some extent because of O'Connor's reputation as a master of the short story, the novel is now considered an important work in the Gothic tradition and acknowledged to be O'Connor's best work of longer fiction.

Author Biography

Mary Flannery O'Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of a middle-class Catholic family. Her father was a realtor who had once had literary ambitions, and her mother came from a prominent Georgia political family. From an early age O'Connor, a shy and quiet girl, had literary aspirations, which were encouraged by her father; at the age of six she began writing and illustrating her own stories. In 1938, the O'Connor family moved to Milledgeville, her mother's hometown, after her father showed symptoms of lupus. O'Connor attended Peabody High School, where she contributed drawings and articles to the school newspaper and submitted short stories to literary journals.

In 1940 O'Connor's father died, and she and her mother moved to her mother's family farm, Andalusia. After graduating in 1945 from the Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College), where she edited the college newspaper and literary magazine, O'Connor enrolled in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. At Iowa, she was mentored by Paul Engle, the director of the program, and made other important literary contacts.

Her first short story, "The Geranium," was published in 1946. In 1947, O'Connor received her master of fine arts degree and won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award, which consisted of a cash prize and an option on her first novel by the publisher Rinehart. For one semester she worked as a teaching assistant while she worked on that novel, Wise Blood. The following year, she lived for seven months at an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she met the poet Robert Lowell, the critic Alfred Kazin, and others from New York literary circles.

In March of 1949 she moved to New York City. Six months later she moved to Connecticut, where she stayed at the farmhouse of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, a couple she met in New York. At the end of 1950, after exhibiting symptoms of lupus, O'Connor moved back to Andalusia. Wise Blood was published two years later to largely negative reviews, but O'Connor immediately set to work on her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. She continued to write short stories, for which she won three O. Henry Awards. Her health continued to decline, and after 1955 O'Connor began to use crutches. Still, she continued to travel, lecture, and write, supporting herself with literary grants.

A committed Catholic her whole life, O'Connor even traveled to Rome for an audience with the Pope in 1958. By the end of the 1950s, largely on the strength of her short stories, O'Connor was viewed as a major American writer. In 1960, The Violent Bear It Away was published, but it, too, was poorly received. For the last few years of her life, as her lupus progressed, O'Connor concentrated on writing nonfiction. She died on August 3, 1964 at her mother's home in Milledgeville. In 1972, she was posthumously awarded the National Book Award for The Complete Short Stories.

Plot Summary


The main action of The Violent Bear It Away is simple and occurs over seven days, but much of the novel consists of flashbacks that recall incidents in the lives of the main characters. As events are brought to mind through the memories of various individuals, the author provides insight into their psychological and spiritual natures, reveals the motivations behind their actions, and offers an intimate family history clouded by personal feelings, religious and intellectual beliefs, and emotional confusion. The novel is divided into three sections, each covering a period in Francis Marion Tarwater's journey of spiritual self-discovery.

Chapters 1–3

The novel opens with the burial of Mason Tarwater, young Francis Marion Tarwater's great-uncle, at his farm in rural Powderhead, Alabama. Although Tarwater will not learn this until the end of the novel, it is explained that Buford Munson, who has come to get his jug filled from old Tarwater's still, has buried the old man in the proper Christian way because the nephew is passed out drunk. A history of this family is woven into the events that are taking place, but incidents are not described in order of their occurrence. What emerges is that old Tarwater considered himself a prophet. His religious teaching was that of a Christian fundamentalist who despised the trappings of secular modernity; he followed an ancient religious and moral code, and, like an Old Testament prophet, saw himself as a voice crying out in the wilderness. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital for four years, after which he stole his nephew, Rayber, from his parents. Rayber eventually rejected his uncle's teachings, became a schoolteacher, and married Bernice Bishop, a social worker. Rayber's pregnant cousin died in a car accident before she gave birth to Francis Marion, who Rayber took to raise.

After being released from the asylum, Mason lived with Rayber for a few months. Rayber studied him and wrote an article about him in a "schoolteacher magazine," describing him as an all-but-extinct specimen—a religious fanatic. Outraged, Mason kidnapped Francis Marion from Rayber and raised him in the woods to be a prophet as well. Rayber and his wife attempted to retrieve young Tarwater from Powderhead, but gave up after the old man shot Rayber twice, rendering him almost completely deaf (he uses a mechanical hearing device). After this incident, old Tarwater promised Rayber: "THE PROPHET I RAISE UP OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN." Rayber and his wife had a mentally disabled child, Bishop, whom Rayber has taken care of on his own after his wife left him. Mason tried and failed to kidnap Bishop, and Rayber refused to let the old man baptize Bishop, so the old man ordered Francis Marion to finish the job. He also instructed young Tarwater to bury him in the proper Christian way in anticipation of the Second Coming.

Tarwater is skeptical of his great-uncle's teaching, rejecting the idea that he too is a prophet. As Tarwater had set about burying his great-uncle's body, he was visited by an inner voice, that of a "stranger" who later becomes a "friend"—and who represents the devil—who counseled him that he need not do the old man's bidding, that perhaps the old man had not taught him the truth. Young Tarwater passes out drunk, but that night he returns to Powderhead and sets fire to the house, believing he is also burning his great-uncle's body and thus denying him his chance for Resurrection. Tarwater leaves for the city in search of Rayber, believing he has rebelled against his great-uncle's wishes. He gets a ride into the city with an opportunistic copper-flue salesman named Meeks, who suggests to Tarwater that his great-uncle may have misled him. Meeks is another incarnation of the devil as he tempts Tarwater. When he arrives at his uncle's house, Tarwater is repulsed by the sight of the young disabled boy Bishop; Tarwater realizes that he has come to baptize Bishop after all. Rayber sees Tarwater's arrival as an opportunity to undo his uncle's false indoctrination and educate the boy in the proper way, to develop him into a "useful man."

Media Adaptations

  • Comforts of Home, a Web site dedicated to Flannery O'Connor, can be found at (accessed November 24, 2004). This site has links to biographical information about the author and critical analyses of her work.
  • A Student's Guide to Flannery O'Connor, (accessed November 24, 2004), reviews O'Connor's short stories, presents theme paper topics, and has available for order every book written by or about the author.
  • The Flannery O'Connor–Andalusia Foundation, Inc. maintains a Web site (accessed November 24, 2004) with information about the activities taking place at the Andalusia property where O'Connor lived and worked.

Chapters 4–9

Rayber's enthusiasm to "save" the boy soon dissipates, as he finds Tarwater sullen, angry, and difficult. Tarwater does not hide his skepticism of the schoolteacher, whose rationalist arguments echo very much those of Tarwater's own inner voice—the voice of his friend, the devil. Rayber buys the boy new clothes, which Tarwater rejects, and gives him food that he does not eat, despite a deep hunger. Rayber asks his nephew to take some standardized tests, his ultimate goal being to ferret out the center of the boy's "emotional infection," but Tarwater refuses. Rayber continually tries to psychoanalyze the boy, attributing his behavior to his upbringing and thinking of ways to fix his problems. Rayber also wants to give Tarwater what he is unable to give his own son because of his disability. Throughout the section, it is shown how Rayber struggles with his love for Bishop.

One night, Tarwater steals out of the house to attend a religious gathering he has seen advertised. Rayber follows him through the city to the revival meeting, where a young girl named Lucette preaches about Christ's coming and asks the audience for money so her parents can continue their missionary work. As he hides outside in the bushes and listens to Lucette, Rayber recalls his own dysfunctional childhood. At the end of the meeting Lucette stares at Rayber and speaks about the man whose ear is "deaf to the Holy Word." Rayber tries to switch off his mechanical hearing device but cannot, and he flees and waits outside for Tarwater. The boy claims that he attended the service only "to spit on it."

Rayber decides to take Tarwater to a natural history museum to teach him about evolution and science. As they walk through a park to the museum, Rayber stops to tie Bishop's laces and is suddenly gripped with an uncontrollable love for the boy. He remembers an incident in which he tried to drown his son but could not, changing his mind at the last moment because he could not imagine life without the boy. The three of them continue walking, and they come to a fountain, which Bishop tries to jumps in. Tarwater moves to baptize him, but Rayber snatches the boy away at the last moment, realizing what his nephew is trying to do.

Frustrated by his inability to cure Tarwater, Rayber decides to take him back to Powderhead so he can shock him into facing his past and thus get through to him. He tells Tarwater they are going on a fishing trip, and they check in at the Cherokee Lodge, which is near a lake. Tarwater, who had eaten little in the city, has a huge meal at the lodge. He also shows some unexpected kindness to Bishop by tying his shoe. During the stay at the lodge, Tarwater's "friend" visits him repeatedly, and Tarwater recognizes that this voice's demand for a sign from God is what has kept Tarwater from baptizing Bishop. Tarwater tells his friend that he would have drowned Bishop in the fountain rather than baptize him, and his friend approves of such an action, saying he should do it to prove that he was not going to baptize the boy. Later Rayber takes Tarwater fishing and tells him how he tried to drown Bishop and also tells Tarwater that he wants to save him. Tarwater, after his heavy meal, vomits into the lake, leaves the boat, and swims to shore.

Rayber takes a trip to Powderhead with Bishop, and when he returns he offers to let Tarwater baptize Bishop so he can overcome his internal conflict. Tarwater is horrified by the offer, but that afternoon he takes Bishop out in a rowboat. From his room, Rayber hears Bishop's wail. He knows that Tarwater is drowning his son, but he does nothing to stop him.

Chapters 10–12

Tarwater hitchhikes back to Powderhead with a trucker, whom he tells he has drowned Bishop and thus proven he is not a prophet. He admits, though, that he also baptized him by accident. The truck driver gives Tarwater a sandwich that he is unable to eat and drops Tarwater a few miles from Powderhead. There, Tarwater tries unsuccessfully to get a drink from one of his neighbors, who chides him for what he has done to his great-uncle's house. He is then picked up by a stranger, a man in a lavender shirt and Panama hat who drives a lavender and cream-colored car. Tarwater accepts alcohol and marijuana from the man and passes out. He awakens naked, his hands tied with a lavender handkerchief. He sets fire to the forest, then takes the road to Powderhead. At the farm, Buford Munson tells him that he buried the old man with a cross over him. Tarwater has a vision of a multitude being fed from a single basket of loaves and fishes, and he has a great hunger. He stays there until night, his hunger growing as flames from the forest fire encircle him. He throws himself on his great-uncle's grave and smears a handful of dirt from it on his forehead. Then, Tarwater returns to the highway, the burning woods behind him, and travels back to the city to preach the Word to the children of God.


Bernice Bishop

Referred to by Mason Tarwater and his great-nephew Francis Marion Tarwater as "the welfare woman," Bernice Bishop is mother to the mentally disabled boy, Bishop, and she is ex-wife to George Rayber. Bernice Bishop appears only in the past, in the novel's many flashbacks. It is learned in one of these flashbacks that Rayber attempted to "rescue" the young Tarwater from his uncle, that his wife accompanied him, and that she was repulsed by the boy's expressionless response to his great-uncle's violence; she declared that she could not live with him. Although Bernice is trained as a social worker, Bernice Bishop left Rayber after the birth of their "dim-witted" son in part because the son reminded her of her husband's uncle, Mason Tarwater. Rayber also recalls that Bernice has returned only once in the past two years, and only to ask that her son be institutionalized.

Lucette Carmody

Lucette is the young girl of eleven or twelve at the Christian revival meeting who preaches the love of Jesus and the Second Coming. She sees George Rayber hiding outside the window and calls him a "damned soul" and echoes old Tarwater's words when she says to him, "The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean." Rayber believes she is exploited by adults, and her exploitation makes him recall his own childhood.


Meeks is the copper flue salesman with whom young Tarwater catches a ride into the city after he has set fire to his great-uncle Tarwater's house. Meeks is described as a "stranger" and "friend"—one indication that he is among the several incarnations of the devil that the boy encounters (and one of the three that drive him). The salesman is driven by his love of money, but he claims he loves the people to whom he sells. His discussions about love and technology suggest that his views parody those of George Rayber. Meeks hopes to take advantage of Tarwater's backwoods innocence for his own profit.

Buford Munson

The first sentence of the novel introduces "a Negro named Buford Munson," who buries the elder Tarwater because the old man's great nephew Francis Marion is too drunk to finish the job. On his return to Powderhead at the end of the novel, the young Tarwater finds out from Munson that the old man has indeed been buried with a cross over him in anticipation of the Resurrection.

Luella Munson

Buford Munson's daughter, who, Francis Marion Tarwater learns, took care of George Rayber while Rayber's mother, Mason Tarwater's sister, "sat in her nightgown all day drinking whiskey out of a medicine bottle."

Bishop Rayber

Bishop, the mentally disabled and dumb son of the schoolteacher, George Rayber, and of Bernice Bishop, is innocent, uninhibited, and largely unaware of what goes on around him. It is not his actions, but rather others' reactions to him, throughout the novel that are of most interest. His great-uncle Mason Tarwater had tried to kidnap and baptize Bishop as an infant, but his father rescued him and will not, on principle, allow his son to go through what he thinks as the meaningless ritual of baptism. Bishop's mother leaves him in the care of his father. Bishop's father struggles with his love for the boy, and at one point had tried to drown him but found he could not do it. Francis Marion Tarwater, the protagonist of the novel and the boy's cousin, takes it as his mission to baptize Bishop. Bishop is attracted to water throughout the novel; at the end of the novel he is baptized, then drowned, by the younger Tarwater.

George Rayber

Referred to as "the schoolteacher" by his uncle, Mason Tarwater, and his great-nephew, Francis Marion Tarwater, George Rayber is the symbol in the novel of earthly knowledge, of rationalist belief that conflicts directly and violently with the Tarwaters' spiritual understanding. According to Mason Tarwater, Rayber's mother (Tarwater's sister) was a whore who spent her time reading and drinking whiskey, neglecting her son entirely. His insurance salesman father was absent much of the time. When he was seven, Rayber was kidnapped by Tarwater and baptized. When his parents came to reclaim him four days later, Rayber did not want to leave. But Rayber later rejects his uncle's teaching, returning when he is fourteen to tell the old man he no longer believes. Some ten years later, Rayber's cousin dies in a car crash just before giving birth to a son, Francis Marion Tarwater, and Rayber takes the boy to raise him. Rayber's uncle, newly released from a mental asylum, comes to live with him shortly thereafter, and Rayber studies him and writes a story about him in a "schoolteacher magazine." Mason Tarwater, infuriated, kidnaps the baby and leaves Rayber with the warning: "THE PROPHET I RAISE OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN." Rayber and his wife attempt to rescue young Tarwater, but give up after Mason shoots Rayber twice, leaving him deaf in one ear and suffering a permanent limp. Rayber has a young son, the "idiot child" Bishop.

Rayber is in charge of his school's testing program, and he subscribes to modern rationalist and psychological theories that he believes can measure and evaluate human desires and motivations; he rejects the spiritual but is continually drawn by it. Logic tells him his dim-witted son is of no use to him or anyone else, but he feels an uncontrollable love for the boy. This is one of the reasons Rayber failed in his attempt to drown his son. Rayber wears thick glasses and uses an electric hearing aid that he can turn on and off—physical signs that he is the modern rationalist who has eyes but sees not and who has ears but hears not. Rayber represents not only the typical modern man but also the Pharisee and the devil, as he makes it his mission to convince Francis Marion Tarwater that he has been indoctrinated into false religious beliefs and tries to give him a proper, non-religious education.

The Stranger/The Friend

Throughout the novel, Francis Marion Tarwater is counseled by an "inner voice" of a stranger or friend who aims to steer him off the path of righteousness. This is the voice of the devil, who is also transformed physically into the man who rapes him at the end of the novel—the man in the lavender shirt and Panama hat who drives a lavender and cream-colored car.

Francis Marion Tarwater

Francis Marion Tarwater, usually referred to simply as "Tarwater," is the protagonist of the novel whose journey to the city to baptize his cousin constitutes the novel's central action. He is a dour, often silent teenager, but a sense of violence lurks beneath his expressionless surface. Tarwater was born in a car wreck in which both his parents died. He was taken to be raised by his uncle, the schoolteacher George Rayber, but his great-uncle Mason Tarwater, a self-proclaimed prophet, stole him. Mason raised his great-nephew in the isolation of Powderhead, a clearing deep inside the woods in Alabama, with the idea of his great-nephew being a prophet as well. Before Mason Tarwater dies, he instructs his great-nephew to give him a proper Christian burial and tells him that his mission is to baptize his cousin, the mentally defective boy Bishop. But an inner voice of a "stranger"—later a "friend"—counsels Tarwater to reject this duty. Instead, Tarwater burns down his great-uncle's house and leaves for the city.

In the city, Tarwater struggles against the impulse to perform the baptism his great-uncle has ordered. He also resists the psychological-rationalist teachings of his uncle, Rayber, and finds himself repulsed by and drawn to Bishop. Tarwater slowly recognizes that he has come to baptize the boy after all. But he continues to listen to the counsel of his "friend," who tries to talk him out of his mission. This is the voice of the devil, and throughout the novel Tarwater wrestles against his temptations. In the end, Tarwater drowns Bishop but, just before he does so, he baptizes the boy. Tarwater flees to Powderhead, where he has a vision, then returns to the city to fulfill his mission as a prophet of God.

Tarwater is complex and hard to define, mirroring the complexity of the novel's theme and handling. The name "Tarwater" links two disparate elements, one black and impenetrable, one cleansing. The boy is at once a prophet from the wilderness and a confused backwoods boy who is spiritually hungry (the constant references in the book to his physical hunger underscore this). He appears naive, but his rejection of the modern world and its trappings is clear and articulate. He attempts to reject his uncle's spiritual legacy, but he cannot. He struggles between doing the devil's work and God's, finding that the latter's teaching is fraught with violence and unreason. He is violent, and a great deal of violence is done to him—he sets fire to a house, he murders a boy, he is raped. He is the prophet Elisha who succeeds his great-uncle, a latter-day Elijah; he is St. Christopher as he baptizes, then drowns, his cousin; he is John the Baptist come to show the way. At the end of the novel he unwittingly performs the action that confirms his status as a prophet, and he finally accepts his role as a messenger of God.

Mason Tarwater

Mason Tarwater, the "old man" who reckons himself a prophet, is the great-uncle of, and spiritual guide to, Francis Marion Tarwater, the novel's protagonist. Mason charges his great-nephew Tarwater with the task of baptizing his cousin, the idiot boy Bishop. The novel opens with Mason Tarwater's death. It is soon learned in a series of flashbacks how the old man kidnapped his great-nephew Tarwater from his nephew, the schoolteacher George Rayber, and raised Tarwater to be a prophet and continue his work. The young Tarwater also recalls how the old man had been committed to an insane asylum for four years by his sister. After returning from the asylum, Mason stayed with his nephew, Rayber. But it turned out that Rayber was studying Mason to write an article about him in a "schoolteacher's magazine," characterizing him as a fanatic, a specimen of a breed "now all but extinct." Infuriated, old Tarwater, who had also kidnapped Rayber when he was young and baptized him, stole Francis Marion to raise him as a prophet to "burn [Rayber's] eyes clean." When Rayber attempted to rescue the boy, the old man shot him, impairing Rayber's hearing and leaving him with a limp.

Mason Tarwater, for all his crazy ways, is God's representative in the novel and one of the two forces that wrestle for Francis Marion Tarwater's soul. Francis Marion struggles against his great-uncle's teachings but cannot reject them. Old Tarwater is repeatedly contrasted to Rayber, who represents the devil, as Mason rejects modernity and rationalism, embraces fundamentalist religious principles, and believes in actions over words. Old Tarwater, it is recounted, viewed himself as the prophet Elijah and his great-nephew as his successor, Elisha. He shielded the boy from what he viewed as the evil influences of the city—modern life, and secular, rationalist thinking. He has little time for those who do not heed the word, labeling most people "asses or whores." Young Tarwater remembers the old man disappearing into the woods for days on end and on his return looked "as if he had been wrestling a wild cat, as if his head were still full of the visions he had seen in his eyes. . . ." Mason is an authentic prophet of the wilderness who recognizes the violence and unreason inherent in any truly spiritual understanding and undertaking.

The Truck Driver

One of the three drivers in the novel that represent the devil, the truck driver gives Francis Marion a ride back to Powderhead after he has murdered the boy Bishop. The truck driver is indifferent and needs someone to talk to so he does not fall asleep at the wheel. His indifference echoes that of George Rayber, the novel's main representative of the devil.


Religion and Violence

The title of the novel is taken from Matthew 11:12. At the beginning of Matthew 11, Jesus preaches to the multitudes about the prophet John the Baptist, who he says will not wear "soft robes" or preach a gentle message. Christ then says, in the verse that provides the novel's epigraph: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away." There have been two interpretations of the verse. The first says that, since the time of John the Baptist and Christ's ministry, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, and the "violent," meaning the eager, ardent multitudes of godly men, will take it by force—displaying their strength through action. The implication is that the faithful will one day attain the kingdom of heaven. Another interpretation is that unbelievers, such as Pharisees (the "violent" in this case) try to undermine the work done by Christ and John the Baptist, doing violence to the kingdom of God in this way. In the novel, both of these interpretations are explored, and the conflict surrounds the attitudes of the believer and the skeptic, the faithful and the godless, as they battle for young Francis Marion Tarwater's soul.

There are numerous instances of violence throughout the novel: kidnappings, a shooting, a drowning, arson, and a rape. Violence is never glorified, but it is used to shock readers into understanding the seriousness of the religious subjects being explored. The drowning of Bishop, for example, draws into relief the intense nature of baptism that for many has become something of a trivial rite. The rape of Tarwater by the stranger underscores in a brutal way the violation of his soul by the devil. O'Connor uses violence repeatedly in her novel to emphasize that religion is not soft or pretty, that God's will is sometimes frightening, and that ordinary human moral standards cannot be applied when it comes to understanding God and his ways.

The Battle for the Soul

The Violent Bear It Away is a novel about psychomachia, or the struggle between good and evil, spirit and flesh, God and the devil within the human soul. Young Tarwater has been reared by his great-uncle (who represents God) to be a prophet, but he listens to an inner voice (that of the devil), and chooses to deny his spiritual inheritance. He is thence tortured by doubt, indecision, and the continuous and confounding pull of his religious calling. This internal battle is played out especially vividly in his perplexing, uncontrollable desire to baptize his cousin Bishop. The devil in the form of his inner voice, as well as three drivers—the salesman Meeks, the truck driver, and the stranger who gives him a ride in his lavender car—and his uncle George Rayber, also repeatedly tempt Tarwater away from his faith. Tarwater is shown struggling against their worldly views. In the end, Tarwater succumbs to his religious calling, and it is less a victory than a capitulation when he embraces his role as a prophet of God. Another battle for the soul is waged between the Tarwaters and Rayber; the Tarwaters want to baptize Rayber's retarded son Bishop and Rayber tries to prevent them from doing so.

Spiritual Hunger

Central to the novel is the question of spiritual hunger and the idea that, ultimately, only God can satisfy the longing that torments the human soul. Throughout the novel, young Tarwater has a profound, gnawing hunger that cannot be appeased. His great-uncle has taught him that Christ is the Bread of Life, but he continually resists this truth and his spiritual calling, yet does not understand the emptiness he feels. Tarwater cannot eat the foreign food his uncle offers him, and craves for the food his great-uncle used to prepare. On his way to the revival meeting, Tarwater stops by a bakery and stares longingly at a single loaf of bread, which emphasizes the spiritual nature of his hunger. At the Cherokee Lodge, Tarwater overeats and vomits into the lake. After he kills Bishop and travels back to Powderhead, he cannot eat the sandwich given to him by the trucker, complaining that his stomach does not allow anything inside it. The idea of Christ as the Bread of Life and recurring images of loaves and fishes serve to deepen this theme. At the end of the novel, Tarwater has a vision of a multitude—his great-uncle among its number—being fed loaves and fishes by Christ from a single basket. It is only then that he becomes aware of the object of his hunger and realizes that "nothing on earth would fill him."

The Spiritual Journey

The obvious subject of The Violent Bear It Away is Francis Tarwater's passage to self-realization and his spiritual awakening. Images of roads, paths, cars, boats, and travel figure prominently in the novel to underscore this important theme. In each of the three parts of the book, Tarwater travels, first from Powderhead to the city, then within the city (to a revival meeting, to a museum) and to the Cherokee Lodge, and finally back to Powderhead. He has various guides along his journey: his great-uncle, who tries to lead him down the difficult path to redemption; Rayber, who wants life's journey to be predictable and devoid of feeling; and other incarnations of the devil who try to steer him away from his goal and off the path of righteousness. It is significant that Tarwater is born in a car wreck, that three of the incarnations of the devil that tempt him are drivers, and that in the end it is his own shadow in the moonlight that "clears a rough path toward his goal." The journey to God, it is seen, is no easy one. O'Connor's exploration of this theme presents her unique, grotesque vision of the beauty and terror of the divine.

Topics For Further Study

  • Do you think that Francis Tarwater is a true prophet, a madman, or something else? How do you think people can recognize when someone is a true prophet, if there is such a thing? Research the life of one of the biblical prophets mentioned in the novel (Moses, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist) and write a short essay about him. Do you see any parallels in the life of your chosen prophet and the life of Tarwater?
  • Research the Christian rite of baptism. What is the symbol of the rite, according to the Catholic Church? Is there any variation among the other sects of Christianity, such as Methodism or Lutheranism? What do you think O'Connor does when she uses drowning as a symbol for baptism in her novel? Write a short essay in which you discuss O'Connor's understanding and treatment of baptism in the novel.
  • Who do you find to be a more sympathetic character: Francis Tarwater or George Rayber? Why? Who do you think would be more sympathetic to most modern-day readers? Create a dramatic debate between the two characters in which each presents his point of view. Whose do you think is more compelling? Does your audience agree?
  • Look for stories in the newspaper about religious believers who commit violent acts in the name of their faith. How are these people portrayed by the media? Is there an assumption of their insanity? Do you think there is any justification for what they have done?

Faith versus Reason

As Francis Tarwater struggles to come to terms with his faith, he is tempted by the devil in the guise of his uncle, the schoolteacher George Rayber. Rayber is a secular humanist who scoffs at the fanatical faith of his uncle Mason Tarwater and believes that reason is the only true guide as humans learn how to live. In his published study of his uncle in the "schoolteacher magazine," Rayber argued that the old man had imagined the need to be "called" out of a feeling of insecurity, so he "called himself." Rayber believes too that a person's intelligence and emotional states can be measured and the results can be used to better his or her life, to "fix" or "save" it. Thus, he tries to convince his nephew to take standardized tests, which the latter refuses. Rayber also tries to convince Tarwater that religion is superstition, while reason and science have brought impressive human advancements, such as flying. To this Tarwater replies, "I wouldn't give you nothing for no airplane. A buzzard can fly." Although Rayber thinks he can read his nephew "like a book," he does not understand him because he does not have the requisite tools or understanding to really see or hear what is going on around him; cold logic and reason are inadequate to make sense of the mystery of life. Because of this, Rayber struggles against the love he has for his disabled son; he cannot make sense of it using logic, and it overwhelms him and renders him helpless. Rayber had, at Tarwater's present age of fourteen, rejected the spiritual life and chosen the way of reason. The novel shows how Tarwater makes his own choice about what path he is to follow.


Southern Gothic

The Violent Bear It Away is an example of Southern Gothic, a style of writing that is characterized by its setting in the American South and its grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents. Southern Gothic literature explores and critiques Southern culture by focusing on the supernatural, and describing people who are spiritually or physically deformed but still portrayed with empathy, their humanity as well their limitations spelled out in often violent terms. O'Connor's characters in The Violent Bear It Away are near-caricatures, and damaged in some way, but their essential humanity makes the reader care about their plight. The protagonist Tarwater is a sullen, angry boy, emotionally wounded and a "backwoods imbecile" as his uncle, Rayber, calls him. But O'Connor makes the reader care about his journey to self-realization. Other characters' deformities are more obvious: Bishop is mentally defective, Rayber is lame and uses a hearing aid, and old Mason Tarwater is "crazy." They are grotesque, but their defects are described with a blend of humor and horror so they are more than mere types. It is through the lens of their distorted visions that the author presents her own darkly ironic understanding of God, faith, and freedom. Within the genre of Southern Gothic, O'Connor uses her unique satirical voice in The Violent Bear It Away to create a disquieting and morally complex story about the funny and tragic nature of religious fanaticism and the place of spirituality in the modern world.

Religious Imagery and Symbolism

The Violent Bear It Away is a deeply religious novel, one that offers up a dark and disturbing portrait of spiritual states, faith, and Christian fanaticism. Religious symbolism permeates the work, and everywhere there are Biblical allusions and references. The dominant images in the novel—water, fire, loaves and fishes, and eyes—are all religious in nature. They emerge organically from the story but are also interconnected and woven together, taking on multiple forms to enrich the religious questions and concerns. Throughout the novel, fire and water are purifying forces that serve also to destroy. The book, of course, is about baptism; both Tarwater and Bishop are drawn to water; and the turning point of the action is Bishop's drowning. Tarwater also believes that if he is sent on a mission from God it would be to do more than to baptize an idiot boy, thinking about how Moses struck water from a rock. The two events that signify Tarwater's spiritual denial, and then rebirth, involve fire—at the beginning he sets his great-uncle's house ablaze, and at the end he sets fire to the forest before assuming the mantle of a prophet. Early on in the novel, Tarwater mistakes the lights of the city for fire. The fire of purification is also used to describe old Tarwater, who "learned by fire," and who tells Rayber that his great-nephew will "burn" the schoolteacher's eyes clean. Tarwater also imagines that God will talk to him as he did to Moses, from a burning bush, which does happen in his final vision. It is significant, too, that even the name Tarwater unites these central elements of fire and water.

The images of the loaves and fishes are related to fire and water; loaves are baked over fire and fish come from water. The fish might be viewed as symbolic of the human soul (Christ is the "fisher of men"), and only Christ, as the Bread of Life, can satisfy the human soul. Old Tarwater is also described as having eyes that "looked like two fish straining to get out of a net of red threads." Rayber takes Tarwater to a natural history museum to show him how humans are descended from fish. And the drowning incident takes place on the fishing trip. Images of loaves include the bread in the bakery that Tarwater stares at longingly, and the sandwich given to him by the truck driver that he cannot eat, because his hunger is not physical but spiritual. At the end of the novel, Tarwater sees his great-uncle gathered with the multitude being fed loaves and fishes by Christ from a single basket.

There are descriptions and references throughout the novel to eyes, which reveal a great deal about people's characters and beliefs. Rayber wears glasses, mirroring his spiritual blindness; Tarwater's eyes at the end are "scorched," "singed"—purified; the stranger who rapes Tarwater has lavender eyes, signaling the fact that he is the devil (in ancient times snakes were said to hide under lavender bushes); and old Tarwater's eyes are referred to as "fish-colored," and Tarwater is deeply attracted by them. Again, images have religious overtones, are interconnected, and constantly reinforce ideas through repetition and as they are transformed. Other important images in the novel that are used are: roads or paths, which emphasize Tarwater's spiritual journey; hats and clothes, markers of holiness and identity; and earth, which symbolizes redemption and rebirth.

Historical Context

Two Americas: United States Culture in the 1950s

The 1950s were characterized by affluence in much of American society, as Americans put the hardships of the Second World War behind them and enjoyed unprecedented economic growth. As a whole, the nation did indeed flourish. Between 1945 and 1960, the U.S. Gross National Product grew by 250 percent, unemployment hovered around 5 percent or less, and inflation was low. Government spending stimulated growth through public funding of schools, veterans' benefits, welfare, interstate highways, and armaments for the Korean War. Families moved to suburbs, where they needed cars, which sparked a boom in the automobile industry and stimulated the construction of more roads. The increase in mobility contributed also to the rise of motels, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations.

Scientific and technological innovations such as the jet plane, the development of mass communications through radio and television, and the creation of consumer goods such as dishwashers and garbage disposals created a culture in which modernity, progress, consumption, and conformity were prized. Television programs fed Americans a diet of cookie-cutter idealizations of suburban life filled with racial and gender stereotypes. Popular culture depicted marriage and feminine domesticity as a primary goal for American women, and the education system reinforced this portrayal. This revival of domesticity as a social value was accompanied too by a revival of religion. Religious messages began to infiltrate popular culture, and religious leaders such as Billy Graham became celebrities. For many Americans—largely white, urban or suburban, educated, and middle-class—the decade was a golden age, as the economy boomed. Americans enjoyed social stability and new, exciting opportunities for success.

There were, however, a great many other Americans who struggled on the fringes of the economic boom during the 1950s, dispossessed by the very industrialization and expansion that was the backbone of the nation's success. As automation increased efficiency in production, big business flourished, until less than half a percent of American corporations controlled more than half of the nation's corporate wealth. Technology drastically cut the amount of work needed to successfully grow crops, and many small-scale farmers were forced to give up their land to rich companies who used chemicals and harvested crops with new machinery. Large numbers of black farmers, in particular, moved from the countryside to cities, and the number of inner-city ghettoes expanded rapidly. Some of the most destitute regions in the country were found in the rural South, where blacks continued to live in shantytowns and the decline of the coal industry eroded the only significant economic support many poor white communities had known. Rural areas often lacked adequate schools, health care, and services, and many people who lived there were almost entirely shut off from the mainstream of American economic life. The needs of these disadvantaged groups went largely unanswered, and their living conditions deteriorated rapidly.

This contradictory nature of American culture was explored in many works of literature of the decade. Saul Bellow produced a number of novels examining the difficulties of urban Jews finding fulfillment in modern urban America. J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) tells the story of a young boy who, despite his family's outward material success, feels completely alienated

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: Americans are enduring the cold war years, a military stalemate between two international superpowers, the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Both countries are secretly developing nuclear weapons programs, and many Americans fear a nuclear attack from communist adversaries.

    Today: The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted America's global war on terror, preceding a U.S. war with Iraq. Americans live under the fear of terrorist attacks by those who oppose its policies, particularly terrorist cells in the Middle East.

  • 1950s: North Korea attempts to invade South Korea in June 1950. The United States responds by sending munitions and supplies to South Korea. Before the end of the month, the United States is engaged in a war with North Korea.

    Today: After defeating Saddam Hussein in a full-scale military attack, the United States continues to occupy Iraq. Battles ensue between Iraqi insurgents and U.S.-led forces over strategic cities. The state of the U.S.-led occupation, along with morality and faith, become major campaign issues in the November 2004 presidential election.

  • 1950s: Twenty-two percent of Americans live in poverty, most of them in newly created inner-city communities and in rural areas, as wealthier Americans move to the suburbs.

    Today: Eleven percent of Americans live in poverty, most of them in rural areas. The rate of poverty for minorities living in rural areas is especially high, and one of out four rural Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans lives below the poverty line.

  • 1950s: Television presents idealized portraits of suburban American life in such shows as Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Rural life and inner-city life are rarely portrayed.

    Today: Television presents far more hard-edged depictions of American suburban life in The Sopranos and The Osbournes. Most television programs focus on urban and suburban people and situations, and there are few portrayals of rural life in major television programs.

  • 1950s: Radio and television popularize the new Protestant evangelical movement in Christianity, with preachers such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts presenting their message to audiences using mass media in an outgrowth of revival-tent preaching. The vast majority of these religious leaders are from the South.

    Today: Television evangelists remain popular, particularly in the Midwest and the South. Two well-known and controversial evangelists, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have achieved particular notoriety for their assertion that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City constituted divine retribution for what they regard as rampant sexual immorality in American society.

  • 1950s: Fourteen percent of Americans live in rural areas. There is mass migration away from the rural South, as African Americans move to the North to escape racial oppression and find higher-paying jobs.

    Today: Seven percent of Americans live in rural areas. Over forty percent of this population lives in the rural South, where poverty, illiteracy, and poor health conditions continue to be widespread.

from society. The African American writers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin published works condemning racism and called into question the myth of the American Dream. The Beats, a group of nonconformists led by Allen Ginsberg, author of the poem Howl (1956), and Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road (1957), rejected uniform middle-class culture, stressed the importance of intuition and feeling over reason, and sought to overturn the sexual and social conservatism of the period. They also fuelled protests against the death penalty, nuclear weaponry, and racial segregation. Although O'Connor's fiction is not concerned with the cultural trends of the 1950s, her work is firmly rooted in the American South of that time. She depicts a society that is at the margins of American society—that is shut off from the mainstream. Her works are populated not by successful, beautiful people with comfortable suburban lives, but by grotesques and misfits who are struggling against the horrors of modern life and clinging to the values and traditions of the past. Her protagonists rebel against modernism and the changes it brings. Like other writers of the decade, she exposes in her writings the fact that the economic success, technological advances, and cultural trends of the 1950s have had unsettling and alienating effects on American life.

Critical Overview

O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, received hostile reviews when it first appeared in 1952; most readers missed the dark humor and religious intent of the highly unconventional novel. By 1960, O'Connor had earned something of a reputation for her short stories. Critics were more forgiving in their remarks about The Violent Bear It Away. However, few reviews were outright favorable, and most readers expressed confusion at the author's intent and took exception to the seeming anti-Catholic determinism in the novel, although most commended O'Connor's finely crafted prose. Sumner J. Ferris, for example, writing in Critique, praised the excellent construction of the novel, but maintained that because of its theme and locale the author's spiritual vision would not be taken seriously and, further, that O'Connor "will never be considered anything but a Southern woman novelist."

After O'Connor won the posthumous National Book Award in 1972 for her Collected Stories, critical opinion of her second novel softened further. Although commentators now still acknowledge that it is a difficult book to comprehend, it is emphasized that a close and careful reading reaps considerable rewards—indeed, this is essential to fully appreciate the power and deep complexity of the work. Numerous scholarly works have since been written on the novel, touching on a vast array of subjects—including the depiction of family, the difficult heroism of the protagonist, the significance of hats in the work, the importance of silence, the novel's multi-layered system of religious symbolism, and the spirituality and psychology of the main characters. Scholars have been aided in their discussions by O'Connor's letters about her novel, which point out, for example, that the main concern she had when writing it was to explore "the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times," as she says in The Habit of Being. Critics continue to explore O'Connor's handling of this conflict, discussing issues such as her use of irony, humor, and religious symbolism grounded in the particular to emphasize her theme. The novel's complexity and unusual treatment of difficult spiritual questions, initially seen as its shortcomings, are now regarded as the work's strengths and evidence of O'Connor's original and uncompromising vision as a Christian and as a writer.


Uma Kukathas

Kukathas is a freelance editor and writer. In this essay, Kukathas considers the relevance of O'Connor's religious vision for modern readers.

The Violent Bear It Away is about the fearsome nature of the Christian faith and calling, and about its strange, mysterious, and sometimes awful aspects. The novel tells the story of a young boy, Tarwater, who attempts to renounce his faith and his mission as a prophet, but is pulled back to God and redeemed finally through grace after he receives a holy vision. But the protagonist Tarwater's spiritual journey is bizarre, and the manner in which he comes to acknowledge the divine and assumes his role as a prophet of God is nothing less than horrifying. He kills his mentally retarded cousin by drowning him, but just before he does, he unwittingly baptizes the boy. Soon after, Tarwater is raped by a man who is the incarnation of the devil; Tarwater sees for the first time what evil is, and turns back to God. After seeing a vision, he accepts the mantle of prophet and goes forth to preach this message to the modern world.

To many contemporary readers, Tarwater is certainly a most unlikely prophet, and his spiritual odyssey might appear to be one that leads to madness rather than salvation. But O'Connor, writing in a letter in 1962, insisted that "Tarwater's call is real. ... [H]is true vocation is to answer it. Tarwater is not sick or crazy but really called to be a prophet—a vocation I take seriously, though the modern reader is not likely to." For O'Connor, Tarwater is not a parody of a religious fanatic. He is not a psychological study of a disturbed boy who plays out in his psychoses the indoctrination of his insane, controlling evangelical great-uncle. He is not a satirical portrait of an ill-educated boy from the backwater. He is, for O'Connor, a boy who first rejects, then hears and answers the call of God; he is a spokesperson for the Christian faith. Tarwater is someone who is aware of the truth of the divine. But how is a modern reader supposed to take this—and Tarwater—seriously? Why does O'Connor think that using an unlikable redneck hero, exploring his tortured psyche, and describing his insane-seeming actions will point readers to the truths of the Christian faith?

In her essays and letters, O'Connor frequently noted that her fiction was written with a Christian purpose—that she wrote as a Catholic. She thought of herself as a prophet of sorts, as an artist who could speak forth truth to her society. In fact, while she was writing The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor often signed her letters with variations of the name "Tarwater." One of her main concerns as a Christian, which she writes about in her nonfiction and which is a major theme of The Violent Bear It Away, is that modern life and secular thinking stifle true understanding of the divine. O'Connor felt that most people viewed religion with apathy, that they thought lazily about morality and spiritual questions. She took it as her role to jolt them out of their complacency to face the harsh realities of God's message. In her essay "The Fiction Writer and His Country," she declares:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

By using large, grotesque characters like Tarwater, and depicting his detestable actions and other horrific events, O'Connor presents a repugnant picture of modern society and the problems it faces. She does this to show to her readers that the faith she speaks of is no easy, comfortable path but one that sometimes entails suffering, violence and destruction. The truths in her vision of Christianity fly in the face of all that modern readers find reasonable, and she means to show that it cannot be ignored, nor sugar-coated. O'Connor uses Tarwater as her protagonist to illuminate two major concerns: that modern secular beliefs hinder understanding of God and that God's message is mysterious, unfathomable, but not to be ignored simply because it is difficult to stomach.

By making the hero of her story an unsophisticated boy from the backwater, O'Connor underscores the idea that the beliefs of educated, rational intellectuals are seriously misguided. On a superficial level, Tarwater seems like a "backwards imbecile," as his uncle, George Rayber, calls him. But Tarwater surveys the world that Rayber introduces to him and quickly finds it spiritually hollow. Tarwater's spiritual guide and teacher is his uncle, Mason Tarwater, who "taught him Figures, Reading, Writing, and History beginning with Adam expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming." Although the details of his education sound comical, Tarwater is no idiot; he has a sound understanding of religious teachings and a keen mind. His inner voice (of the "stranger") articulates reasoned arguments about the limitations of religion—showing that Tarwater understands and anticipates rationalist objections to faith. Throughout the novel, Tarwater is drawn to Mason's fervent evangelical beliefs even though he struggles to deny their truth. Tarwater goes to the city to seek out Rayber, the representative of reason, of modern humanistic rationalism, but soon Tarwater rejects Rayber's views. It is old Tarwater's vision, the vision of faith, that he embraces and which triumphs against secular ways of seeing. Tarwater's rejection of Rayber's belief—that reason and science can save the world and humanity—are spelled out in a humorous episode in which Rayber tries to impress upon the boy the achievements, such as flying, that humans have accomplished. To this Tarwater replies, "I wouldn't give you nothing for no airplane. A buzzard can fly." Tarwater articulates, in his unsophisticated speech and ultimate choices, that the trappings of modernity, secularism, and rationalism cannot show humans the light, but are a hindrance to ultimate salvation.

Tarwater is a sullen, unlikable boy who is not easy to sympathize with or identify with. The reaction to him by readers is likely to be similar to that of the woman at the Cherokee Lodge: that he is mean and that there is something evil about him. He exhibits no endearing traits that might attract readers to him. If anything, he seems like a troubled boy from a dysfunctional home whose behavior is the result of brainwashing and isolation, and we feel sorry for him. But O'Connor uses this complex, frightening figure to make a bold statement that, like other prophets before him, Francis Marion Tarwater has been chosen by God for reasons that are incomprehensible to people. Tarwater himself does not understand why or if he is chosen. O'Connor explores his confusion, anger, and defiance of his calling. She also examines the suffering he undergoes before he is finally redeemed. He is tortured by the need to be his own person, as Rayber would want him to be, and to be an instrument of God. He is tormented and tempted by voices inside his head. On the one hand, then, what O'Connor seems to be offering is a portrait of someone struggling with mental illness. But part of O'Connor's genius is that she is able to paint Tarwater in such a way that this interpretation of him is perfectly reasonable, even probable. Thus the reader can easily believe, like Rayber does, that Tarwater's problem can be quantified and fixed by human intervention. But the author insists that what reason would have us think is true is simply not true. Tarwater is not mad, although all reasonable indications point to that. He is a prophet, and what appears to us as a descent into madness is a journey away from the temptations of reason to an acceptance of God's frightening and awesome power working through him. By choosing this unlikely hero as God's instrument, O'Connor intensifies the mystery of the divine and satirizes modern humans' hostility toward it.

The violent acts committed by Tarwater in the novel intensify readers' dislike of him, but O'Connor uses those acts to emphasize to readers the seriousness of her subject. As she noted in many of her essays, modern people misunderstand the nature of God and religion. People view God as a Santa Claus figure, and expect religion to make them happy and comforted. But this, O'Connor insisted, is not what religion is all about. As she wrote in a letter in The Habit of Being, "What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think it is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross." By making her protagonist perform horrible, violent acts in his journey to spiritual awakening, O'Connor stresses the point that Christianity requires that people reexamine their morality, that they acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge, that they submit to the incomprehensibility of the divine. The behavior of Tarwater and his old uncle might strike readers as immoral and ungodly. Old Tarwater makes liquor for a living, kidnaps his nephews, and shoots Rayber. Young Tarwater sets his property ablaze and drowns his cousin. But God does not judge them for doing these things, and in fact, those acts are either done in God's name or used to bring them closer to him. Again, by insisting actions that appear insane are necessary for the will of God, O'Connor startles readers into paying attention to the message of Christianity in a way that has not been made palatable and is thus meaningless. With the drowning of Bishop, O'Connor shocks her readers into to looking anew at the meaning of baptism. She uses violence and horror to insist to readers that they need to really look without rose-colored glasses at the awesome nature of religion and faith.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Wise Blood (1952) is O'Connor's first novel. It tells the story of young Hazel Motes who, like Francis Tarwater, is caught in a struggle against his innate faith.
  • O'Connor's most celebrated collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), is a classic of Southern Gothic literature that tells of the underside of life in the rural South.
  • The posthumously-published The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (1988) offers a self-portrait of an author who otherwise revealed very little of herself.
  • The subjects of O'Connor's essays in her prose collection Mystery and Manners (1969) include writing, religion, teaching literature, and the grotesque in Southern fiction.
  • In Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003), Jon Krakauer recounts the chilling story of Dan and Ron Lafferty, Mormon brothers who in 1984 murdered their sister-in-law and infant niece in the name of a divine revelation, and it explores one type of modern-day religious fundamentalism in the United States.
  • In Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (2000), Peter Daniel chronicles the changes that transformed the South in the period following World War II and describes the culture that developed from poverty, religious fundamentalism, and racial obsessions.
  • A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941) is the first collection of stories by Eudora Welty, another Southern woman whose work contains elements of horror and humor.
  • Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2003), by Mark Juergens-meyer, explores the mindset of those who perpetrate and support violence in the name of religion.

In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor draws large and startling figures, and she shouts her message so modern, apathetic readers will take note. She uses Tarwater—a strange, violent, grotesque figure—to present her vision to a hostile audience and show them in extreme terms the importance, difficulty, and urgency of God's message. O'Connor insist that her readers take Tarwater seriously because what he has to say and show is of dire importance, difficult though it may be to fathom and to stomach. In some ways, Tarwater is larger than life because he is used to emphasize O'Connor's beliefs about the intense, bizarre, and incomprehensible nature of God. But any attempt to rationalize that he or his vocation are not to be taken entirely seriously, is to then assume the rationalist position that O'Connor rejects. By presenting an extreme character and extreme situations, O'Connor forces modern readers to look at the most terrible aspects of Christianity. Like a prophet, she presents an uncompromising vision, which she views as necessary to point readers to the mysterious and unpalatable truths of the Christian faith.

Source: Uma Kukathas, Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Catherine Dybiec Holm

Holm is a freelance writer, as well as a genre novel and short story author. In this essay, Holm looks at how O'Connor develops complex human characters who drive this intense and dark story.

In Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, the reader gets an in-depth look at religious fundamentalism. O'Connor skillfully lets the reader see the effects of such fundamentalism through the eyes of an old man who thinks he is a prophet, a boy who is cynical and questioning beyond his years, and a schoolteacher who believes that salvation comes within oneself rather than from Jesus. O'Connor develops this disturbing story through these complex characters. Using her own understanding and portrayal of human nature, the author allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the effects of fundamentalism and extremist thinking. It is this treatment of such disturbing issues that makes this story infinitely powerful. The author does not shy from violent outcomes. Because the story skillfully builds to horrific events, through the motives and actions of O'Connor's well-developed characters, the outcomes of the story are powerful, disturbing, and ultimately not surprising.

Religion shows up in the first sentence of the story in the form of a burial, which must be done properly in the Christian way. Point of view shifts often in this story, but the common thread of faith runs throughout the book. From the point of view of the old man, the reader can imagine how enraged this character had been when he realized his nephew had been "creeping into his soul through the back door" and had completed a written study about the old man. To the old man, a call from God prompted him to rescue young Tarwater and raise the boy in the backwoods. "The Lord himself had rescued the old man. He had sent him a rage of vision." The old man's visions are often full of rage, and accompanied by extreme action. Other characters in The Violent Bear It Away think the old man is crazy, but the reader does not feel authorial judgment. O'Connor does this by letting the reader into the head of the old man. The reader knows his thoughts, feels his emotion, and even feels sympathy for the old man at times. This use of craft by the author is important—it allows the reader to experience the old man's thoughts and motives, especially in terms of his extreme behavior.

Thanks to O'Connor's treatment and description of the old man, a reader of any faith (or no faith) can feel the disappointment of this character, who awaits a powerful vision and instruction from his God. The old man wants excitement; he wants the sun to burn the world and God to speak to him through fire. Instead, he receives the ordinary. The old man lies to the schoolteacher about impending death, and takes a perverse delight in the concern that is suddenly revealed on the schoolteacher's face. The schoolteacher, for an instant, reveals a "stricken look, plain and awful," when he learns of the old man's death. The phenomenon of longing for passion and direction in life, or of longing for excitement and drive and importance and love, is an urge that any reader can relate to, religious or not. It is through telling detail such as this that O'Connor makes her characters remarkably human and real, winning at least some degree of empathy from the reader.

O'Connor's characters, even those who are not as extreme as the old man, often long for greatness to appear, religious or otherwise. Who has not wished for life to be better, fuller, richer? Often, the characters are not rewarded with visions or experiences of greatness. While this may be interpreted by some as authorial cynicism, it gets at the heart of the human condition and adds to the complexity of these characters. Even the boy wishes for, or at least waits for, the greatness and thundering presence of God. It makes sense that he would expect this, having been raised with the extremism of his great-uncle. In one case, O'Connor uses such a situation to show the stark contrast between what is wished for, and what is:

There was a complete stillness over everything and the boy felt his heart begin to swell. He held his breath as if he were about to hear a voice from on high. After a few moments he heard a hen scratching beneath him under the porch.

With a few short sentences, O'Connor has given the reader dark humor, the dichotomy between wished-for greatness and ordinary reality, and a reminder of the boy's poor, backwoods setting.

The boy is again disappointed on his first trip to the city. In a place full of 75,000 people, none will look at him; none will meet his eyes or shake his hand. O'Connor captures the impersonality of the city with her efficient and effective prose when she describes "the mass of moving metal and concrete speckled with the very small eyes of people." Even though the boy resists the pull of his so-called destiny, he also longs for purpose, to be called by God as his great-uncle was called. He says of the city, "When I come here for good I'll do something to make every eye stick on me." It is a dark foreshadow of the book's ending. Even when his great-uncle recounts the story of the boy's baptism as a baby, the boy is sure that he was fully and cognitively aware of the events around him. The boy desperately wants to believe he is different, special, and beyond ordinary. At the same time, he is so burdened by his so-called destiny to baptize Bishop, that he drowns the child, in order to be free of that destiny.

Young Tarwater provides a foil to contrast the extremism of the old man. Interestingly, for the reader, the contrast between the two is not as simple as the old man being a believer and the boy being an adamant disbeliever. The layers within the boy's logic make the contrast between the two more interesting, and more realistically human. It also makes the boy another surprising character. Again, O'Connor has avoided creating stereotypical, flat characters and given the reader some nuances of personality to think about. When the old man is sure that young Tarwater's first task (when the old man dies) will be to baptize the dim witted child of the schoolteacher, young Tarwater has other things in mind:

"Oh no it won't be," he said. "He don't mean for me to finish up your leavings. He has other things in mind for me." "It's no part of your job to think for the Lord," his great-uncle said. "Judgment may rack your bones."

Ironically, the old man has assumed a God-like position over the boy, by telling the boy that there is no question about young Tarwater's future duties to God. But the more interesting thing about this exchange is young Tarwater's presence of mind to not automatically accept direction from an authority figure, and to have some thoughts about his own direction. Still, visions of greatness constantly clash with the mundane ordinariness of everyday life. The boy continues to believe that greatness will be part of his life. After all, he was born in a car wreck. Young Tarwater is sure that being born in such a way "set his existence apart from the ordinary one . . . the plans of God for him were special." Again, the author effectively captures the human longing for meaning. And yet, the rational Rayber gives the boy pause:

Rayber smiled, then he laughed. "All such people have in life," he said, "is the conviction they'll rise again." The boy steadied himself, his eyes still on the banner but as if he had reduced it to a small spot a great distance away. "They won't rise again?" he said.

O'Connor shows the reader that the boy has a mind of his own. The boy feels a "charge of excitement," almost a "sensual satisfaction," when the great-uncle tells him of the schoolteacher's fortitude. The schoolteacher will raise his child Bishop as he pleases. Similarly, Young Tarwater will shape his destiny the way in the way he wants. It is ironic that Bishop who will be raised as if he is "free" probably does not have the mental capacity to understand and implement these advantages.

When young Tarwater comes to the city, despite years of influence from the old man, the boy intends to find out how much of what his uncle told him was true. Somehow, the boy realizes that there may be other versions of reality and belief in the world beyond the old man and his backwoods home. It is the boy's consistent edginess, doubt, and argumentativeness that make him a well-rounded and interesting character; it is also these flaws that send him over the edge.

The schoolteacher is also a foil to the great-uncle's beliefs, providing the possibility for change in the direction of young Tarwater's life. The schoolteacher somehow managed to shed what he considers old Tarwater's brainwashing and is free of old Tarwater's "idiot hopes" and "foolish violence." When the old man realizes he is reading about himself in the magazine, the schoolteacher offers his own, contrasting understanding of being born again. "You've got to be born again, Uncle, by your own efforts, back to the real world where there's no saviour but yourself." But the schoolteacher recognizes the common link between himself, the boy, and the old man—the potential for great internal emotion and violence. The schoolteacher is able to stop himself in the act of violence, but the boy is too far gone to know better.

Bishop, perhaps, presents the greatest enigma in the story. This child links the schoolteacher, the old man, and young Tarwater. To the schoolteacher, Bishop is formed in the "image and likeness of God." To young Tarwater, Bishop looks like a young and innocent old man. To the old man, and to young Tarwater, Bishop represents young Tarwater's calling—he must be baptized. The schoolteacher experiences surges of terrifying and unexplainable love around Bishop. And it is ironic, perhaps intentionally so, that the schoolteacher, who spends less time seeking greatness than the boy or the fundamentalist old man, encounters the greatness and expansiveness of true love—quite beyond the ordinary. Also ironically, the schoolteacher spends his life trying to squelch the greatness within himself. But for all his effort, he still has moments when "his hated love gripped him and held him in a vise." Rayber knows that he has a divided self—both rational and violent. He warns young Tarwater not to go to extremes; that extremes are only for violent people: "He had kept it from gaining control over him by what amounted to a rigid ascetic discipline. He did not look at anything too long, he denied his senses unnecessary satisfaction."

In the end, violence is what young Tarwater resorts to in order to escape his destiny. "I proved it by drowning him. Now all I have to do is mind my own bidnis until I die," young Tarwater tells us, "I don't have to baptize or prophecy." But Tarwater's destiny is planted too deeply within him, like the seed that he shares with the schoolteacher and the old man. And in the end, the act of violence and rape committed against Tarwater sends him over the edge and plants him firmly into the destiny that he resisted, the destiny of becoming a prophet. Tarwater has achieved his greatness, and has surpassed the mundane everyday life, but at great cost to himself and to others. And the reader has experienced a disturbing and powerful story through the experiences and motives of these effectively drawn characters.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Joyce Hart

Hart is a freelance writer and author of several books. In this essay, Hart examines the various combatants in the battle between good and evil in O'Connor's novel The Violent Bear It Away.

There has long been a discussion about the characters in Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. This dialogue revolves around not just how the characters act and what their motives are but also includes an exchange of ideas concerning what each character represents. This is obviously a novel about the battle between good and evil, but on which side of this battle do the characters stand? And, maybe more importantly, which of the characters wins the battle? Is old man Tarwater a representative of good or evil? And where does that put Rayber, the character who stands diametrically opposed to the old man? And then there is the third main character, the young boy Francis Marion Tarwater who teeters somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of old Tarwater and Rayber. Does the young boy capitulate toward evil by the end of the novel? Or does he see his way clear to the bright light of goodness? And last but not least, just what is goodness? Or at least, how does this novel define this abstract quality?

The reviews were mixed when The Violent Bear It Away was first published. O'Connor believed that this was to be expected. She concluded that most readers would not be able to understand the concepts that she portrayed in this short novel. Not only were her ideas abstract, the beliefs that inspired her story were formed by an in-depth study of obscure Catholic dogma. But there are other reasons why readers might have had (and probably still have) trouble comprehending O'Connor's attempt to define good and evil as well as the interior discourse that her characters face in trying to claim goodness in their fictional lives. One major reason for the confusion could be caused by the fact that her characters appear to be muddled in their own thinking. Or it might be that the author herself is unsure about what defines goodness and evil.

Take Old Man Tarwater, for example. In letters to her friends, as published in Flannery O'Connor, Collected Works, O'Connor refers to old Tarwater as a natural man. In her way of thinking this is so because the old man does what he wants, when he wants, to whomever he chooses. Cultural or societal rules mean nothing to him. He is a man of very strong convictions, most of which come directly from his interpretations of the Bible. His analysis of this ancient text is unfettered by other historic accounts or by the outcome of intellectual study. Old Tarwater lives his life based on his instincts. And it is these personal intuitions that help elucidate the Biblical phrases that he reads. The Bible, for instance, says what it says because old Tarwater believes that is what it says. He believes himself to be a prophet—a man to whom God speaks directly. Therefore, accordingly, what Tarwater believes is what God wants him to believe. Old Tarwater's actions, he believes, are directed by God, regardless of society's judgment. In his mind, Tarwater 's motives, thoughts, and actions are all good.

In today's world, however, old Tarwater would be hounded by the FBI until he was shackled and taken to prison. He kidnaps not just one child but two children. And he would have kidnapped a third child, Bishop, but he never gets the chance. He does, however, manage to steal his nephew, Rayber, when Rayber was just a child. Later, the old man takes the young Tarwater boy back to his isolated shack in the woods. When Rayber tries to reclaim the young boy, Tarwater shoots Rayber. Then, after Rayber abandons the idea of rescuing young Tarwater, the old man teaches the boy to lie to state authorities who come to register him for school. This is all done in the name of God, in the name of a religion that has only one member: Old Man Tarwater. He believes he is saving the young boy as he tried to save Rayber before him. And he instructs the young boy to continue his work upon his death.

Then at the other end of the social spectrum, there is Rayber. O'Connor has created this character as the antithesis of the old man. Rayber is all about society and the modern emphasis on science versus superstition. Rayber's world is comprised of so-called facts. He is an intellectual, whose beliefs rely heavily on the results of very precise empirical tests. Whereas old man Tarwater gives free rein to his emotions, which in turn feed his intuitions and inspire him, Rayber confines his feelings, keeping them under control so they will not interfere with his reasoning processes. "To feel nothing," O'Connor writes of Rayber, "was peace." Rayber fears his emotions will drive him insane. "The longing [emotion] was like an undertow in his blood dragging him backwards to what he knew to be madness." If he allows his emotions freedom, he is concerned he will turn out to be just like the old man. If he is to experience any emotion, he concludes, it will be under the rigid controls of his intellect.

On the positive side, Rayber raises his mentally impaired son, providing him with as much stimulating experiences as possible. He sees to the child's needs and at moments admits to himself that he loves the child. Although this love is frightening, Rayber cannot escape it. And when young Tarwater wanders into town, Rayber takes him in without hesitation. Rayber's hope and goal is to rehabilitate the young Tarwater. Rayber believes that the old man has brainwashed the young boy. He knows this to be true, because the old man had tried to do the same thing to Rayber. The old man had wanted Rayber to see the world as he saw it. And Rayber knows that young Tarwater is struggling in trying to decipher the world. He recalls his own challenges in trying to measure the meaning of life, on one hand, according to old Tarwater's beliefs and on the other hand, on the personal experiences he was living through on his own. Rayber senses that young Tarwater is doing the same; and he wants to support him in his efforts, secretly hoping to convince him that the old man was wrong and Rayber's vision of the world is right.

But Rayber, like old man Tarwater, has a very dark side. He admits to having tried to drown his son, Bishop, an act he had performed in order to rid himself of his emotions for the child. He could not pull it off, however, because in the midst of his attempt, he realized that the ache of not having his son in his life would have been as great as the ache of having him alive. But this insight does not prevent Rayber from secretly and passively allowing young Tarwater to drown Bishop.

Rayber lies on a cot in the hotel room, waiting "for a cataclysm. He waited for all the world to be turned into a burnt spot between two chimneys." With these words, the reader understands that Rayber subconsciously wants not only young Tarwater but also Bishop to be somehow removed from his life. He wants there to be nothing but their ashes remaining, much as he believes that there was nothing but ashes left of old Tarwater once the house at Powderhead was burned down. He wants all memories of his kin, the people who rouse the most emotions in him, to be gone. This will give him peace, he concludes. So when he hears his son yell out in the night as Rayber stares out of the window that overlooks the lake on which young Tarwater is drowning Bishop, Rayber does nothing. He merely remains "standing woodenly" at the window. And in the end, when silence returns to the dark night, when the full impact of Bishop's drowning hits him, Rayber feels no pain.

Finally there is young Tarwater. Who is this character? If old man Tarwater represents the emotional prophet of God, and Rayber represents the rational man of modern society, then young Tarwater might be the bridge between the two. Or at least that is what the reader is led to believe as the young boy begins his journey into town after the old man dies. Whereas the old man and Rayber are more definitely sure of where they stand, young Tarwater wavers. For instance, young Tarwater insists to Rayber that he is fully aware of how the old man has tried to brainwash him and has therefore risen above it all. "With me," he tells Rayber, the old man's teachings "fell on rock and the wind carried it away." He believes he is unaffected, although Rayber points out that young Tarwater, if he were truly untouched by the old man, would not be so obsessed with baptizing Bishop. Young Tarwater ponders Rayber's accusations about his obsession with baptizing Bishop and then denies it. Even when he relates the details of the drowning to a stranger, young Tarwater says, "It was an accident. I didn't mean to." But it is not the drowning that he is referring to. It is the baptism. "The words just come out of themselves but it don't mean nothing." Young Tarwater has more remorse, at this point, for the so-called accidental baptism than he does for the premeditated murder. And it is the baptism and death of Bishop that creates the fork in the road that young Tarwater is traveling on.

Whereas previously, Tarwater had been exploring the secular world, bringing his strange concepts of the world to the city, he now begins his return to Powderhead and social obscurity. But O'Connor is not finished with him yet. She conjures up yet one more trial for the young boy. In a letter to Louise Abbot, O'Connor writes that as she interprets it, "hell is what God's love becomes to those who reject it." And since immediately after Bishop's drowning, young Tarwater states that there is no sense in baptizing because one cannot be reborn, O'Connor drops the boy into another scene that resembles hell. She has him drugged and raped. Then to emphasize her symbolic language, she has young Tarwater set the scene ablaze.

So where does the battle between good and evil take place in this novel? And who represents which side? The old man is a self-professed prophet directed by God. This should put him on the side of good. But he commits crimes against society, which would deem him bad. Rayber, as seen through the eyes of modern culture, may appear confused but not evil. And young Tarwater, who commits the most serious crime would be, at the least, classified as corrupt. According to law, the old man, young Tarwater, and Rayber might all have spent time in jail. But is this a true accounting of good and evil? And more specifically, is this what O'Connor had intended?

In a letter to John Hawkes on September 13, 1959, O'Connor writes, "The modern reader will identify himself with the school teacher, but it is the old man who speaks for me." With this statement, readers have the first clue as to where the author has placed her characters on the goodness spectrum. For O'Connor, old man Tarwater was the most natural of the characters and therefore the most "good." In contrast, Rayber was a secular man, a man of the world. And not only was Rayber involved with social customs, he was at the leading edge. Rayber was a man of modern science, trusting the tenets of the new world of psychology as much as the old man trusted the laws of the Bible. But in O'Connor's mind, as she states in a letter to William Sessions on September 13, 1960, Old Man Tarwater was true to "his own character." In contrast, as O'Connor writes to Alfred Corn on July 25, 1962, Rayber fought "his inherited tendency to mystical love"; and when Rayber watches the drowning of his son, Bishop, by his not stopping the murder, he "makes the Satanic choice."

"Sin is sin," O'Connor writes to Dr. T. R. Spivey on August 19, 1959, "whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests, or lay people." And yet she quickly dismisses the murder of Bishop and young Tarwater's involvement in it. She writes to "A" on July 25, 1959: "Someday if I get up enough courage I may write a story or a novella about Tarwater in the city. There would be no reformatory I assure you. That murder is forgotten by God and of no interest to society." So, according to O'Connor, young Tarwater follows in old Tarwater's footsteps—along the path of goodness. If this is how O'Connor delineates the difference between good and evil, it is no wonder that is it difficult for readers to determine who has won the battle in this muddled novel.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Violent Bear It Away, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Clinton W. Trowbridge

In the following essay excerpt, Trowbridge examines how O'Connor used symbolism and allusions in The Violent Bear It Away to convey the idea that man's desire for the spiritual is answered only through faith in Jesus Christ.

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Ferris, Sumner J., "The Outside and the Inside: Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away," in Critique, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1960, pp. 11–19.

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Grimes, Ronald L., "Anagogy and Ritualization: Baptism in Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away," in Religion and Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 9–26.

O'Connor, Flannery, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," in Mystery and Manners, Noonday Press, 1969.

—, Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, Library of America, 1988.

—, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.

—, Letter to Grace Terry on August 27, 1962, quoted in Cash, Jean W., "O'Connor on the The Violent Bear It Away: An Unpublished Letter," in English Language Notes, Vol. 26, No. 4, June 1989, p. 69.

—, The Violent Bear It Away, 13th reprint, Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960.

Olson, Steven, "Tarwater's Hats," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall 1987, pp. 37–49.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow, "Apocalypse of Self, Resurrection of the Double: Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 3–4, 1980, pp. 100–11.

Scouten, Kenneth, "The Schoolteacher as a Devil in The Violent Bear It Away," in the Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. 12, 1983, pp. 35–46.

Shaw, Patrick W., "The Violent Bear It Away and the Irony of False Seeing," in Texas Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1982, pp. 49–59.

Swan, Jesse G., "Flannery O'Connor's Silence-Centered World," in the Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. 17, 1988, pp. 82–89.

Wilson, Carol Y., "Family as Affliction, Family as Promise in The Violent Bear It Away," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall 1987, pp. 77–86.

Zornado, Joseph, "A Becoming Habit: Flannery O'Connor's Fiction of Unknowing," in Religion and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 27–59.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., Flannery O'Connor, Chelsea House Publications, 1999.

This volume gathers together some of the best criticism on O'Connor's work, including The ViolentBear It Away, and also features a short biography on the author, a chronology of her life, and an introductory essay by Bloom.

Magee, Rosemary, Conversations with Flannery O'Connor, University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

The interviews with O'Connor in this collection were conducted over the span of her writing career.

Martin, Carter, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor, Vanderbilt University Press, 1969.

This is a study aimed at students that concentrates on the religious themes in O'Connor's fiction.

McMullen, Joanne, Writing against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor, Mercer University Press, 1996.

Religious symbols and images in O'Connor's fiction are analyzed in depth in this book.

Spivey, Ted R., Flannery O'Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary, Mercer University Press, 1995.

Spivey's bio-critical study analyzes O'Connor's work and discusses her life, family, and influences.