Review: The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away: A Novel is a novel strongly concerned with Christian fanaticism & indoctrination, education, and family.  The story presents us with three male generations of the family Tarwater:  The elder or “great” Uncle, a mentally unbalanced, violent man & self-proclaimed prophet of the Lord; the younger Uncle, a school teacher who was jaded in his youth by the tyrannical, damaging teachings of the great-Uncle; and the two boys – cousins – one an orphan raised by his great-Uncle Tarwater, similarly jaded and trying to find a way to shake off the chains, the other is the mentally handicapped son of the school teacher Uncle, and the only “pure” character in the novel.  The story deals largely with young Tarwater, Francis, and his uncle Marion who come together after the death of their great-uncle and who are both dealing with their own demons, while also trying to come to terms with each other.

The Good:
Flannery O’Connor takes the powerful language of her short stories and fills page after page with it here in The Violent Bear it Away.  Her themes always relate to religion, family, and the south – and this novel is no different.  The most fascinating aspects, I think, are the two Tarwaters who , in their youth, had been stolen and raised for a time by their great-Uncle.  They each end up battling their own demons, and each denies his own continued susceptibility to their former teachings.  Marion, the school teacher, deals constantly with his inner-demons and passions.  In one moment, he is enraptured by and completely loving of his mentally handicapped son and yet, he is also perpetually on guard, as he has repeating thoughts of murdering his son to unburden himself.  Meanwhile, young Francis Tarwater, more recently released from the bonds of the old man, is also dealing with his own identity – fighting his uncle’s compulsion that the boy should be a baptizing prophet.  Francis is fond of saying that he is meant to “do” things and not just think about them or talk about them – and if he cannot or will not do one thing, then he will prove it by doing the opposite.  The boy proves himself true in the most drastic and devastating way, and to the detriment of the one simple, honest soul involved.   Interestingly enough, there are virtually no women in the story.  The only two living female characters are nosey shop owners, both of whom recognize a problem with Francis but neither of whom do anything to intervene.  The mothers and aunts have either deserted their families or died.  I find this role reversal fascinating and telling as, typically, in novels of this fashion – gothic religious and familial – the women tend to take on the main roles, as caregivers and educators and Christian examples.  Perhaps that is why neither education, nor family, nor religion quite lives up to anyone’s expectations.  The pace was fast, the prose beautiful, and the story truly harrowing.  There are some expected and anticipated moments, and there are some shocks – particularly in the final moments. 

The Bad: 
 At the moment, the only criticism I have for the novel is that the ending seems a bit haphazardly produced.  The final pages bring us back to the farm with young Francis, and the indication is that he has been unable to break from his great-uncle’s persuasion and, in fact, submits entirely to his “destiny” after imagining a vision similar to ones he experienced earlier in the novel, though these earlier visions he was able to logically explain away.  Whether this final submission was unavoidable or the result of one of the unexpected moments which occurs just before Francis returns to the farm is hard to determine and this in itself is unsettling as, either way, the result is unsatisfying (though more so in the latter).  Also, the reader is left to guess at the fate of the school teacher.  He wishes for two things as the story unfolds, and his wishes are granted, but will he really be better off?  The answer seems to be yes, which is disturbing yet honest. 

Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5.0 
Overall, I had to push myself to find flaws with this novel.  It was brilliantly constructed and executed.  The story is dark, interesting, and moving – if a bit oppressive.  Flannery O’Connor is a religious writer but what is so fascinating with her work is that she is honest about the dangers of belief-in-excess and in blinding one’s self to the truth at hand and, instead, to allow one’s self to descend into madness in the name of “belief.”  While some of the characters, particularly the great-uncle, are certainly grotesques – the novel still manages to steer away from being wholly didactic.  It also manages to be impressively engrossing, while dealing with such unsettling issues.  

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Challenges: N/A
Source: Owned Copy
Rating: 5.0/5.0

2 Comments on “Review: The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor

  1. This is ridiculous of me, but I didn’t even know that Flannery O’Connor had written a novel! I need to get on that straight away. (Two novels, apparently!) I really liked her short stories when I read them in high school. She has such bleak humor, it’s brilliant.


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