Thursday, February 18, 2010

Flannery O'Connor: The Violent Bear It Away

I must admit, the books I enjoy the most are those that cause me to ponder their meaning long after the final page as been turned, leaving me with angst about the human condition: writings that make me dig deep and examine my own soul. For these reasons I have always been drawn to Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. 

 I consider O’Connor and Oates to be writers of Southern and Northern, if there is such a category, Gothic. Their plumbing of the human condition touches me to the very core and often leaves me with more questions than answers, the condition of human existence itself.

Having just read O’Connor’s second and final novel, The Violent Bear It Away, I find myself examining my own personal struggles with those who have touched my life, particularly those whom I did not choose to do so, but have left their mark all the same. The Violent Bear It Away is considered a landmark in American literature. 

Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, Flannery O’Connor died in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1964.  In that short span she wrote two novels, thirty-one short stories, and a number of reviews and essays. As with her previous novel the main character struggles with an internal battle against the faith that was instilled in him, the life he was told by others he was born to lead.

The title is taken from a translation of Matthew 11:12, which provides the book’s epigraph: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” These are Jesus’ words to the multitude, and the themes of baptism, violence and the Bread of Life permeate the novel.
The main action of The Violent Bear It Away occurs over seven days, but much of the novel consists of flashbacks that recall incidents in the lives of the main characters. Events are illustrated through the memories of different individuals providing insight into their psychological and spiritual natures, revealing the motivations behind their actions, and offering a family history clouded by personal feelings, religious and intellectual beliefs, and emotional confusion. The novel is divided into three sections, each covering a period in Francis Marion Tarwater's journey of self-discovery.
O’Connor’s last major work to be published in her lifetime, the novel offers no easy truths; Tarwater is an unlikable boy who learns that doing God's work entails violence, unreason, even madness. It is a psychological study of the mysterious and frightening nature of the religious calling. Stark religious symbolism and Biblical allusions unite to explore themes of spiritual hunger, faith versus reason, and the battle for the soul. O'Connor wrote the novel over eight years while suffering from lupus, publishing the first chapter as a story, You Can't Be Poorer Than Dead, in 1955. 
While living at Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor completed Wise Blood, which was published in 1952. Then her highly acclaimed collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, was published in 1955. By the end of the 1950s, largely on the strength of her short stories, O'Connor was viewed as a major American writer; a committed Catholic, O'Connor traveled to Rome for an audience with the Pope in 1958.  In 1960, The Violent Bear It Away was published, but like its predecessor, Wise Blood, was poorly received.

For the last few years of her life, as her lupus progressed, O'Connor concentrated on writing nonfiction. She died on August 3, 1964 at her mother's home in Milledgeville. In 1972, she was posthumously awarded the National Book Award for The Complete Short Stories.She also wrote The Violent Bear It Away, published in 1960, here. Her second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was published posthumously in 1965. A collection of nonfiction prose titled Mystery and Manners edited by Robert and Sally Fitzgerald was published in 1969. The Complete Stories, edited by Robert Giroux, won the 1971 National Book Award for Fiction. Sally Fitzgerald edited a large collection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, published in 1979, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. O’Connor, a committed Catholic,  traveled to Rome for an audience with the Pope in 1958.  Collected Works was published in 1988 as part of the Library of America series, the definitive collection of America’s greatest writers.
Further Reference-
The Flannery O'Connor–Andalusia Foundation, Inc. maintains a Web site at with information about the activities taking place at the Andalusia property where O'Connor lived and worked. 
Comforts of Home, a Web site dedicated to Flannery O'Connor, can be found at This site has links to biographical information about the author and critical analyses of her work. 
A Library of America interview with author Brad Gooch, who has written the only biography on  Flannery O’Connor, can be found at: "'Connor.pdf