By Matthew McEver
In The Habit of Being, O’Conner surmises, “The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic… full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments” (350). This notion provides impetus for her final novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Here are repulsive characters, conflict between intolerant religion and intolerant humanism, kidnapping, arson, murder, and rape—yet rampant comicality, much of which owes itself to O’Conner’s allusive use of biblical literature, particularly Old Testament prophetic literature and New Testament symbolism. Relentlessly, she projects this material through a darkly comics lens by working within the paradigm of Southern do-it-yourself religion.
Uncle Mason is a Tennessee backwoods John the Baptist. Ordinarily, prophetic figures wish to proclaim an urgent message to the masses. Uncle Mason’s ministry never goes beyond his own kinfolk. His baptism obsession is also caricatured. Baptism is a rite intended to express that God has claimed an individual, yet Uncle Mason kidnaps his relatives in order to baptize them. First, he kidnaps his nephew Rayber. He recounts his four-year-sentence in a prison for the insane as persecution of the righteous, making reference to wearing a strait-jacket which, in his eyes, puts him in the same company as Ezekiel—the prophet bound by cords (although Ezekiel bound himself as a symbolic act). Subsequently Uncle Mason abducts seven-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater, sequesters and “educates” him. Here, O’Conner borrows from the successor motif (i.e. Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha). When Rayber intervenes with the intent of rescuing the child Francis, Uncle Mason acts in the manner of the Apostle Peter, swinging not a sword but firing a gun and taking a wedge out of Rayber’s ear (Wood 227).
Francis Tarwater’s calling to prophetic ministry dominates the novel and reads like a pastiche of Jonah and the Prodigal Son. It is not the word of the Lord that comes to Francis; it is the voice of the old man. Daunted by his uncle’s calls, Francis grows defiant and drunk, burns the property down and leaves for the city, confident that he has incinerated his dead uncle’s body. By implication, young Tarwater must preach to a city that has forsaken its savior, but this mission takes a back seat to the baptism of Rayber’s son – the baptism that eluded Uncle Mason, which takes on the character of a vendetta more than an act of piety. The Prodigal motif is apparent in the manner in which Francis leaves and returns home. Refusing to bury the uncle’s body is act of sacrilege, a shunning of religious identity. He squanders his prophetic inheritance and returns home in the wake of being chastened by a sodomizer. The theft of his hat, perhaps a symbol of self-reliance, is the ultimate humiliation. What is raped is his insolence.
Fittingly, O’Conner renders a devil figure or inner demon that tempts Francis into abandoning his calling, but in keeping with the tone of the novel this accuser is more of a hillbilly Satan. “Ain’t you in all your fourteen years of supporting (your uncle’s) foolishness fed up and sick to the roof of your mouth with Jesus?” the stranger asks (39). O’Conner’s construction of the inward accuser allows for an internal dialogue that provides insight into Francis’ mind that would otherwise be unavailable to us as readers given that young Tarwater is such a guarded character. When, in the novel’s conclusion, a stranger in a lavender vehicle wearing black, offering Francis a ride, a special cigarette and a flask of whiskey, we realize that he is none other than the countrified Satan incarnate. “There was something familiar to (Tarwater) in the look of the stranger but he could not place where he had seen him before” (228). Aptly, the stranger offers whiskey that tastes “better than the Bread of Life” (230), leaving Tarwater naked and unconscious off the side of the road, stealing Tarwater’s bottle opener and hat – objects that we’ve grown to associate with Tarwater’s droll pigheadedness. Given the references to the lavender car and the lavender scarf used to bind Tarwater, we might conclude that O’Conner intends to evoke the color of Lent, a time designated for the purging of sin.
The Violent Bear It Away could not exist without the fanaticism of its characters, but the novel is not a parody of religious radicalism. Ultimately the heart of this story is the battle for the soul and the scandalous nature of the prophetic calling. O’Conner renders Francis Tarwater as though he were Jonah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah. The wrinkle is that she renders this character in a Southern setting as a rebellious teenager, home-schooled by a do-it-yourself hellfire evangelist. Her genius is in the juxtaposition of these absurdities with sober themes of temptation and grace. The only drawback to reading O’Conner’s work is that she was not around long enough to give us more.
O’Conner, Flannery. The Habit of Being. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. Print.
_____. The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960. Print.