The Violent Bear It Away is a novel published in 1960 by American author Flannery O'Connor. It is the second and final novel that she published. The first chapter of the novel was published as the story "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead," in the journal New World Writing, volume 8 in October 1955. It is the story of Francis Tarwater, a fourteen-year-old boy who is trying to escape his destiny: 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.
The novel begins with the death of Mason Tarwater, a fanatically religious old man who considers himself a prophet and lives in a Southern backwoods farm called Powderhead. He lives with his great-nephew, Francis Marion Tarwater. Mason kidnapped the younger Tarwater shortly after he was born, in order to baptize him. Mason believes that his destiny is to baptize his other great-nephew, Bishop, and that this destiny will become Francis' if he fails. He claims to have learned this from God, in an event in which Mason's eyes were "burned clean," and his mission as a prophet was revealed.
Mason's only request to the younger Tarwater was to be buried when he died and to have a cross mark his grave. When Tarwater finds Mason dead one morning, he begins to dig a grave for the old man. However, an invisible "stranger" arrives, the dark side of Tarwater's mind, and convinces the boy to forget the old man, claiming the act to be pointless. Tarwater obeys and gets drunk at a nearby still. Convinced by the "stranger," who he now considers a "friend," Tarwater shuns his destiny and burns down the farm. He is picked up by a travelling salesman, who drives the boy to an unnamed city.
Tarwater asks to be dropped off at his uncle Rayber's house. Rayber is the father of Bishop, the boy Tarwater is destined to baptize. Rayber (Mason's nephew) was kidnapped by Mason when he was seven years old, but was recovered by his father after four days. He is staunchly anti-religious, and refuses to have his son, who is mentally retarded, baptized.
When Tarwater arrives, Rayber is pleased to see him, hoping that the boy has finally rejected his religious upbringing. Tarwater believes as if he has finally escaped his destiny, but is horrified when he sees Bishop, feeling again that he is trapped into the life of a prophet.
Tarwater lives with Rayber for a while, and is torn between the religious life of Mason and the secular life of his uncle. On one occasion he escapes from Rayber and goes to a church service but later claims that he was only there to mock it. Rayber puts up with Tarwater's behavior, until the boy attempts to baptize Bishop in a park fountain. Rayber takes both boys to a lodge near Powderhead. He hopes that by bringing Tarwater back to the farm the boy will realize how miserable his religious life was.
They spend the day fishing in a lake near the lodge, and later that night Tarwater asks to take Bishop out by himself. Rayber agrees, and Tarwater takes his cousin to the center of the lake. With urges from the "friend," he attempts to drown the boy, but just as Bishop is about to die Tarwater uncontrollably yells out the words necessary to perform a baptism. Bishop is baptized just as he dies, and Tarwater's destiny is fulfilled. Rayber views the whole scene and discovers that the fact that his son has just died hardly affects him at all. The realization that he feels no pain causes him to collapse.
Tarwater leaves the lodge and is picked up by a trucker, who brings him part way to Powderhead. He is then picked up by a pale man in a lavender vehicle. The man gives him liquor and marijuana, causing Tarwater to pass out. When he awakes, he finds himself naked in a field with his clothes lying next to him. Though not directly stated, it is implied that Tarwater was raped by the man. Though horrified, Tarwater realizes that, like his uncle, his eyes have been "burned clean." He burns down the surrounding woods, incinerating his "friend" with them. Then he returns to Powderhead only to discover that Old Tarwater was buried after all, by a neighboring farmer. His destiny as a prophet finally realized, Tarwater rubs the dirt of the grave on his forehead. He turns his head toward the city he recently came from, and understands that his destiny as a prophet is to redeem it and rewake the children of God.
There are various explanations for the use of this passage as a title, the most accepted being that violence constantly attacks God and heaven, and that only those violent with the love of God can bear it away. This is best shown when Tarwater drowns Bishop, he commits a violent act, but the “accidental” baptism is an equally powerful act of violent love for God, bears the previous wrong away.
Another possible meaning is that, specific to O'Connor's theology, both secularism and fundamentalism (that is the Protestant functioning outside of the Roman Catholic Church) are basically heresy, which blinds their adherents to God's pure truth. When God's grace comes into contact with an errant life, a form of violent revelation occurs where falsehood and heresy is burnt off and the individual then sees with startling clarity. Those who undergo this spiritual violence take "the kingdom of God" with them as they go through the world.
The most obvious theme of The Violent Bear it Away is the idea that destiny and religion will dominate over the secular. O'Connor illustrates this well, demonstrating the power of Tarwater's destiny as it dominates every obstacle in its way; the drowning of Bishop is transformed to a baptism, Tarwater's rape turns to revelation, and the secular Rayber fails in every way.
The importance of passion is linked with the power of religion. Tarwater is filled with passion; Rayber suppresses his. Thus, Tarwater succeeds and is redeemed, and Rayber is ultimately destroyed. This shown when Bishop is killed; when he realizes that he has no love for his son, Rayber collapses.
The idea that everything that destroys also creates is evident as well. Nearly every symbol and character in the book pulls Tarwater away from his destiny but also pushes him back. Rayber nearly succeeds in secularizing Tarwater, but he ultimately brings the boy back to Powderhead. The drowning of Bishop, the ultimate secular act, nearly destroys Tarwater's destiny, but the simultaneous baptism redeems it. Fire both destroys Powderhead and burns Tarwater's eyes clean. Water drowns and baptizes. Everything that destroys, redeems.