Read The Violent Bear It Away

The Violent Bear It Away is a 1960 novel by American author Flannery O’Connor. It is the second and final novel that she published. The first chapter was originally published as the story “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” in the journal New World Writing.[1] The novel tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, a fourteen-year-old boy who is trying to escape the destiny his uncle has prescribed for him: the life of a prophet. Like most of O’Connor’s stories, the novel is filled with Catholic themes and dark images, making it a classic example of Southern Gothic literature.

There was something haunting about The Violent Bears It Away. Whether it be the characters or their fractured experiences, things always feel incomplete, both sad and unresolved.

What exactly does it mean to say that human beings are made “in the image and likeness of God”? Three answers have dominated Western theological ethics—imago Dei as reason, as will, and as love—and Flannery O’Connor’s second novel explores each of these from the inside, as it were, through its portrayal of the distinctive lifeworlds inhabited by three of the novel’s major characters: George Rayber, Francis Marion Tarwater, and the boy Bishop.

Source: Only Love Overcomes Violence: “The Violent Bear It Away” as Case Studies in Theological Ethics by Scott Huelin

In some respect, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Yes, both novels end in some sort of resolution, but it never quite satisfies all that is wrong in the world.

I feel that this is probably one of those books that I could come back to as something of a meditation. I did try diving into some of the commentary, but realised there was a whole different layer that would be a study in itself. It does make me want to read more from Thomas Aquinas.

Read Wise Blood

Wise Blood is the first novel by American author Flannery O’Connor, published in 1952. The novel was assembled from disparate stories first published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review and Partisan Review. The first chapter is an expanded version of her Master’s thesis, “The Train”, and other chapters are reworked versions of “The Peeler,” “The Heart of the Park” and “Enoch and the Gorilla”. The novel concerns a returning World War II veteran who, haunted by a life-long crisis of faith, resolves to form an anti-religious ministry in an eccentric, fictionalized Southern city after finding his family homestead abandoned without a trace.

Nick Cave mentioned Flannery O’Connor in Faith, Hope and Carnage:

I did go back and re-read Flannery O’Connor recently to remember why we must value her, but that was only because her books had been taken out of a college library in America, due to some skewed and overly harsh charges of racism.

I had never read anything by Flannery O’Connor before, so I was intrigued.

Wise Blood is a story about Hazel Motes, a returning World War II veteran who, haunted by a life-long crisis of faith, resolves to form an anti-religious ministry. It is an example of “low comedy and high seriousness”.

O’Connor states that the book is about freedom, free will, life and death, and the inevitability of belief.[5] Themes of redemption, racism, sexism, and isolation also run through the novel.

Source: Wise Blood by Wikipedia

Some have made associations with other post-war texts, such as Waiting for Godot, and the existential response:

In the process of waiting for a sign that Jesus exists and that people can be saved, he digs himself deeper into the existential hole, which can only end with tragedy. He fails to be saved, because in an existential world, there is no one to do the saving. In existentialism, it is always a matter of waiting, of “walking and of meeting—the hope that drives all of O’Connor’s seekers through all the mazes of their existence” (Kennelly 40).

Source: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood as an Unintentional Existential Novel When Compared to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by Samantha F Gebel

The connection with the ‘God is Dead’ movement of the 60’s:

The historical “death-of-God” theological movement may help to better understand Hazel Motes as a Christian malgré lui. Nevertheless, Hazel’s Church Without Christ is far from a success, and the historical “death-of-God” movement likewise never attracts many followers. These two similar radical theological movement and institution share the same problems. Thomas Merton indicates, one crucial problem in the “death-of-God” theology is that “it implies a marriage of quietism and revolt which is a little hard to understand. It accepts everything ‘with passivity’ yet waits for some inexplicable breakthrough” (247). Hazel’s preaching shares this same problem; he preaches the truth without Jesus in anticipation for Jesus’s revelation. It is radical in a way, yet it is peculiarly passive at the same time. It achieves nothing. Merton further argues that “[t]he trouble is that isolated insights like those, taken out of their context, transferred from the realm of subjective experience into that of dogma or theodicy, easily form misleading systems of thought” (271). In Wise Blood, Hazel’s preaching similarly misfires and sends the wrong message to his followers. The Church Without Christ has very few members: aside from Hoover Shoats who soon starts his own preaching career and Enoch Emery who follows Hazel in secret, there is only one other follower, “a boy about sixteen years old who had wanted someone to go to a whorehouse with him” (WB 146). Of course, this follower is only a mistake and confesses to be a “Lapsed Catholic” himself (WB 147). In this regard, instead of attracting believers in his “truth,” Hazel only succeeds in alluring the half-believers whose faith has already gone awry.

Source: “The Church Without Christ”: Radical Theology, Secularism, and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood by Yen-Chi Wu

The postmodern mismatch between signifier and signified:

O’Connor derived this notion of alienation from a panoply of modernists including Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce, Kafka, Gide, and Camus, but the high modernists she engaged most studiously in writing Wise Blood were Faulkner and T. S. Eliot. Her early short story “The Train,” which introduces the prototype of Hazel Motes, is redolent in style and theme of As I Lay Dying (1930) (Asals 18). Wise Blood is also a Southern rendition of The Waste Land (1922), its museum mummy, “once as tall as you or me” (O’Connor Wise 98), standing in for Eliot’s drowned Phoenician sailor, “once handsome and tall as you” (1161).4 However, O’Connor revises these modernist sources: Wise Blood shifts the focus of “The Train” from consciousness to visual images (Asals 19), and it uses the mummy image to mock Haze’s “Church Without Christ”–declining the mythic pattern of death and rebirth linked to Eliot’s sailor and exacting a redemption that is more spectacular, grotesque, and personally demanding. She achieves this end by exposing modernist ideology to postmodern surroundings, that is, to a community of “common tastes and interests” (“Catholic” 856).

Source: Learning from Atlanta: Prophecy and Postmodernism in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood) by Joseph C. Murphy

The use of gothic characterists to elicit introspection.

Whereas traditional Gothic literature emphasizes the exterior, either structural or behavioral, to reveal a wicked secret within, O’Connor uses violence and sin as a filter from which God’s grace may be revealed anywhere, and at any time. Supernatural mysteries, in the form of divine influences, are revealed not only inside the individual or edifice, but outside the Gothic “container,” within the natural world. When violent intervention finally occurs, signs of God’s grace are exposed ubiquitously. The dual purpose of the Gothic mode, as an exemplifier of both internal and external supernatural elements, makes O’Connor’s works truly unique. Her stories do more than entertain, they edify through elicitation of introspection.

Source: To Be or Not to Be Gothic: Focus and Form of Literary Devices in Flannery O’Connor’s Stories by Andrew Schenck

Personally, the thing that stuck with me was the mismatch between signs and situations, and the act of misreading. Whether it be the advertising signs, Asa Hawks’ blindness or Hoover Shoats’ Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. In the end, Motes’ death is misread. In some ways I was reminded as much of Don DeLillo as I was of William Faulkner, but then again, maybe that is my own misreading.