The Violent Bear It Away (1960) by Flannery O’ Connor
Excerpted from The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) · Sat, Mar 5, 1960. Reviewed by Webster Schott. Flannery O’Connor, a comparatively young southern woman, writers with such skill and control that to praise her novel to excess would come easily and willingly. Suffice it to say that The Violent Bear It Away is the best of her three books and that a comparison between this neo-Gothic tale and the novels written by William Faulkner at the height of his literary powers, could in no way harm Miss O’Connor. This surely will be remembered as one of the most important works of fiction of the present year.
Miss O’ Connor deals with four characters, two boys and two men, in a short span of time and space, Much of the action takes place near a small town, Powerhead, Tennessee, and in a larger city, perhaps Memphis or Chattanooga. The time is the present.
The central figure is 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater, reared on a wilderness farm by a religious fanatic uncle who claimed to be a prophet and who was for four years an asylum inmate. Virtually all this prophesying was to do with the boy’s own responsibilities as a prophet.
But now the uncle has died, and the boy has got drunk on the prophet’s moonshine. In violence to the uncles memory and influence the boy sets fire to the farm house. Then, in contradiction, he embarks on his own mission as a prophet– to convert a younger uncle,, a professor in the pagan city, and to baptize the man’s idiot son. He fails in the first tasks and drowns the son while attempting the latter.
This, except for the rides to and from the city and the boy’s return to the farm at the end, sketches the main action of the novel, but it leaves untouched the dramatic center of the book, the struggle for ideological supremacy. Young Tarwater wars within himself over this rational adolescent conscience and the religious madness acquired from the old man. Within himself the younger uncle, Rayber, struggles to resist the same fanatical impulses learned during his own brief exposure to the prophet as a child and to retain his rationalism while in the presence of Tarwater.
These conflicts are real, burning with emotion which breaks out into the fire of violence. And so is the rest of the novel. The characters are real, revealing themselves and their histories at every turn. The progress of the plot conforms exactly to the truth which experience would invent for these people shaped by these forces in their lives.
Of course MIss O’Connor’s characters are distortions. They seem to be removes from the urban middle culture in which most of us operate. The old man is a paranoiac. But it is her purpose to show another kind of life –a life in which idea and passion alternately rule action –and the effects of this seesaw motivation. She is not interested in portraying balanced human behavior, but in making real madness really recognizable by closing it in truth.
Whether this is the nest service a novelist of Miss O’Connor’s extraordinary ability can perform for her society on doubts. Her muse is somewhere in a cave. But if you can separate a work of art from its larger social responsibilities, which I cannot, then this is a novel of unqualified excellence. It compels reading. It clings in memory.