Flannery O’Connor, born in 1925, was the only child of a well to do family in Savannah, Georgia. When she was young, her father lovingly indulged her creativity and encouraged her story writing and drawings. She showed promise as a cartoonist, thinking from an early age that this would be her vocation.
She spent most of her adult years on a farm in Milledgeville, Georgia a devout Roman Catholic in the Protestant South. (Milledgeville was also a home for the criminally insane, which may or may not have been the inspiration for some of her more outlandish characters.) These opposites, her Catholicism, her town’s Protestantism, her family’s wealth, the southern poor, are what she lived, observed and actively infused with her intellect, wit and creativity to culminate in her perfect writing style.
She wrote many short stories and two novels, Wise Blood, and The Violent Bear It Away. The title of the latter comes from the Bible verse Matthew 11:12 which states, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth Violence and the Violent Bear It Away”.
In this story, the characters are blood relations with the belief that there is a ‘calling” to be a “prophet” in their familial bloodline. When the story opens the prophet uncle Old Tarwater has died, leaving his tiny farm to his fourteen year old grand nephew Francis Marion Tarwater who was raised and educated in the isolation of this homestead.
The prophet uncle left instructions for the boy to carry out the details of his Christian burial, but the boy gets drunk at the farm’s still and then burns the farmhouse. Tarwater believes that burning the house with his uncle in it is the first act of his rebellion against his proposed prophet profession.
Tarwater has also been instructed to find his unbelieving Uncle Rayber and to baptize his child Bishop, so the work of the prophet can be completed in the family. Young Tarwater does not want to be a prophet and does not want to baptize the child but since he has burned down his own home he ventures to the city to search for Rayber to tell him that Old Tarwater has died.
The uncle is a raging non-believer and is afraid that the teen-age Tarwater is only “pretending” that he isn’t going to baptize the child but will baptize the child if he gets the chance. Young Tarwater is deathly afraid that Rayber, a schoolteacher, is going to “test” him and educate him, then write about him in a school magazine.
Bizarre indeed, but this strange plot holds the reader’s attention like a head on collision in slow motion. It is impossible to look away but at the same time improbable to care about the hopelessness of these unlovable characters.
The characters are grotesque in appearance and activity with Tarwater being sullen, mean, and dirty and Rayber being so unenlightened that he appears to be a robot held together with the wires for his hearing aids and glasses.
However, this is where the genius of Flannery O’Connor comes into play. The story moves forward inexorably, gaining momentum as the protagonist’s internal conflict is played out. Her characters are so unsympathetic that at any given moment, the reader might think, “Um, I think I’ll get off this ride now, I’m not feeling very well”.
But remember, her story is highly allegorical. There is the classic everyman story, good vs. evil and then the religious plane of the characters taking on Biblical roles of John the Baptist (the great uncle), Jesus (Tarwater), a fallen angel (Rayber) and the devil(a sexual predator). The devil preys on Tarwater’s mind throughout the story and at the end the devil is manifested as a sexual predator to physically harm him.
Tarwater is tempted, he is tested, he sins and in the end he triumphs; he has an epiphany; he accepts the calling and in the last scene we see him going back to the city to apparently, spread his prophecy to the “Children of God”.
I did not ‘enjoy” this story, it is too grotesque and unappealing for my taste. However, Flannery O’Connor is a skilled story teller and I was held in awe of her characterizations of futility, lunacy and obsession. The plot was absurd but once entangled in the family dynamics, the tug of war between the robotic Rayber and the emotionally torn Tarwater seemed perfectly natural.
Flannery O’Connor’s ability to convey deep meaning with an economy of words marks her a great writer. An example: The boy’s hands opened stiffly as if he were dropping something he had been clutching all of his life. This sentence was written at the exact time Tarwater has his epiphany. And it is certainly an adroit author who can weave a story that has meaning on two or more levels, create a whole world full of ugliness, and have the ability to infuse the horrific with humor, redemption and grace.
Flannery O’Connor was not a boastful person but she was pragmatic about her writing and confident of her ability to write very well. She knew that her finished product was as unique and masterful as she and it was rich in texture and meaning. This book is to be experienced, just to understand what it feels like to read a novel written by a master craftsman at the peak of her abilities.
Like many experiences that are good for you it is not enjoyable, at least not for me but, it definitely had merit, enriching my thinking and learning. It is humbling to be in the presence of an author with the breadth of imagination Flannery O’Connor possessed and the depth of her scholarly knowledge in the craft of writing and spiritual matters.
When Flannery O’ Connor died at the age of thirty nine after suffering with lupus for the last nine years of her life, America lost a writer of singular worth and an imaginative creative mind that has not been and cannot be duplicated.
1. After reading this book would you ever read anything else by Flannery O’Connor?
2. Flannery O’Connor was a strict Roman Catholic. Her characters have the ability to make religion seem absurd and extreme. Why do you think she did that?
3. Flannery O’ Connor was housebound pretty much for the last nine years of her life. Do you think this affected her writing and how is that demonstrated.
The next book discussed will be Richard Russo’s Straight Man.