The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. ~ Matthew 11:12

The Violent Bear It Away is one of the less-hyped works of Flannery O’Connor, but this is easily my favorite work of the great Southern Gothic writer.

A young boy was raised by his great Uncle, a former inmate at a mental asylum and self-anointed “prophet.” The Uncle raises him to be a prophet, but when the great Uncle dies, the boy is in his teens and must decide the course of his life. While drawn to the exotic and dramatic elements of a prophetic calling (e.g., calling fire down from heaven, etc.), he greatly fears prophetic poverty, most notably the hunger he senses from his Uncle, who longs for the Bread of Life to satiate his spiritual deprivation.

He knew that he was the stuff of which fanatics and madmen are made and that he had turned his destiny as if with his bare will. He kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness and when the time came for him to lose his balance he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice.

It’s typical of a young man, to be possessed with a sense that he can make his own destiny. It’s also classic O’Connor, a recurring theme that I am always fascinated by: her characters are often troubled but driven and determined, overly confident in the rightness of their cause and of the control that they have over their own destiny. It’s in this sense that O’Connor gets to the heart of the modern fallacy — that despite our great confidence in ourselves and in the existence of a fixed self, we remain at the mercy of forces outside of our own control. Along with other great modern writers, she destabilizes the modern confidence in the self.

But the boy would-be-prophet must also wrestle with two competing influences: his great Uncle, the prophet, and another Uncle, younger, who shuns religion in favor of a more methodological and analytical approach to life. In other words, the boy is yet again caught in the cross-hairs of modernity, the clash between the secular and the sacred.

Yet as with all O’Connor novels, we dig deep into the hearts and minds of the characters, and the answers to the greater conflicts and tensions of modernity are answered at a deep existential level…or failing any satisfactory answer, the tensions might just surface, at any strange time, and erupt in unexpected violence.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

8 thoughts on “The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor”

  1. Remarkably, one of the few other bloggers I follow also posted today on O’Connor. He quotes her as saying about The Violent Bear it Away:

    “The lack of realism would be crucial if this were a realistic novel or if the novel demanded the kind of realism you demand. I don’t believe it does. The old man is very obviously not a Southern Baptist, but an independent, a prophet in the true sense. The true prophet is inspired by the Holy Ghost, not necessarily by the dominant religion of his region. Further, the traditional Protestant bodies of the South are evaporating into secularism and respectability and are being replaced on the grass roots level by all sorts of strange sects that bear not much resemblance to traditional Protestantism—Jehovah’s Witnesses, snake-handlers, Free Thinking Christians, Independent Prophets, the swindlers, the mad, and sometimes the genuinely inspired. A character has to be true to his own nature and I think the old man is that. He was a prophet, not a church-member. As a prophet, he has to be a natural Catholic. Hawthorne said he didn’t write novels, he wrote romances; I am one of his descendants.”

    Here’s a link to the post if you’re curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Speaking of the grotesque……….I read through a good bit of the post you linked to, as well as your comment. I couldn’t help but think of my Nick character, from my novel, and your comment(s) about his deformed leg. Nick’s grotesque leg was inspired by Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. In one of your early comments on Nick’s leg, you felt like this was a disability, a handicap for which Nick seemed to be unfairly targeted. Perhaps I’m not quite correctly recalling your point, so correct me if I’m wrong, but there was a fairly profound take away for me: that we human beings tend to assign negative meanings to physical aberrations from “normality” (whatever that is). In the same way that in America, being “black” is historically associated with ignorance, dependency, laziness, violence, lust, etc., it also seems true that missing limbs or other physical disabilities become a blank canvas upon which we can write in any number of exotic or grotesque meanings.

      This has always been combined into entertainment. The freak shows at the carnival: the bearded lady, the midgets, the elephant man, etc. In the era of literature, the spectacle of the freak shows up in the pulps.

      While I sympathize in many ways with the blogger you linked to, I’m not sure I like his conclusion:

      So if you want to know America now, take the low road into those “lowbrow forms of horror pornography as the detective story, the pulp thriller, and the Superman comic book” along with noir, crime, Southern gothic and gothic horror tales.

      Aren’t these other lowbrow forms of pulp simply the latest and greatest way in which we use physical difference to other people who have disabilities? And is it perhaps ultimately the goal of entertainment to assign evil or malevolence to physical deformations? The mystery of the fear of the unknown is tantalizing, isn’t it? It stimulates our senses to think that behind a wounded leg or a physical aberration, there is something sinister that lurks. The idea that it might be merely biological isn’t quite so enchanting, is it?


    2. Like you, I also come from the Midwest but I feel like there is so much of Flannery O’Connor (and other southern Gothics?) that I can relate to, so I appreciated your comment on the post you linked to at Techno Occulture.

      I’ll quote from the post:

      Warped rural communities replaced the sinister plantations of an earlier age; and in the works of leading figures such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, the representation of the South blossomed into an absurdist critique of modernity as a whole.

      But I’m not sure this is quite right, because when I read O’Connor (specifically), what resonates with me is that the settings in her rural communities are often quite normal, even boring, and it’s within these very uninspiring settings that O’Connor does her best work, in my opinion, because she then digs deeper into the struggles that her characters have in maintaining this way of life. Their fear of change warps them. The rural communities themselves aren’t usually warped, they are changing, and change always happens, everywhere. Of course it’s faster in the modern world (or perhaps it only seems faster) but the communities themselves aren’t warped, it’s the individuals who are grappling with the changes who become warped.

      That’s where I see the overlap between the South and the Midwest. Midwesterners also have a very hard time with change. The cling to a mythological past, a nostalgia for the good old days, romanticized vision of a time that probably never existed, but it motivates people to hang on to old ideology. This can then be easily exploited, politically, by conservative causes, which only escalates things into “culture wars,” and so resisting change takes on epic proportion. But for O’Connor the essence of this struggle is internal. She shows how obsessing about holding back change is the mechanism that warps the psyche and ends up setting people against one another.

      I should hasten to say that I’m no Southern Gothic expert. I’ve read all of Flannery O’Connor, but I’ve only read a few things by Faulkner, and nothing of McCullers. So, I could be wrong on this. What do you say?


  2. I agree with your views. I don’t see O’Connor linking physical to psychological grotesqueness. There’s that short story, “Good Country People,” where the girl with one leg is wooed by the door-to-door Bible salesman, and he’s the grotesque character. Ahab’s one-leggedness fits the narrative: bitten off by a whale, replaced by whalebone, he’s monomaniacally obsessed with the fatal showdown. But I think O’Connor does tend to single out weirdos, doesn’t she — a grotesque figure who provides the impetus for the story, shaking up the status quo? Maybe O’Connor, a Catholic in a rural Georia that must have been overwhelmingly Protestant, identified with the freakish outsider. There’s Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a grotesquely white character (like Moby Dick?) in racist Mississippi, who takes things into his own hands and makes the climax happen. It’s what interested me about <i?So Long, See You Tomorrow, the “Midwest Gothic” novel I referenced in my comment — everybody, even the most plain and ordinary person, can be transformed into the grotesque stranger, not through a Jeckyll-Hyde magical transformation but through the inexorable wear and tear of ordinary life. A quote:

    “They were themselves in front of him, as if he had assured them (he hadn’t, but it was nevertheless true) that he didn’t expect them to be anything they weren’t. All this was altered irrevocably by a change in him so unexpected that it was as if it had happened without his knowing a thing about it. And after that he could not go on being natural in front of them. He said silently (but nevertheless wanting to be heard), Clarence, you ought not to trust me… half expecting Clarence to answer Why not? If Clarence had, then he would have said Because all my life I’ve been a stranger to myself.

    So the change isn’t just imposed from outside on the insular traditional way of life, provoked by some threatening stranger; it comes from the stranger within. Often in Southern Gothic, especially Faulkner, it’s the local kid who leaves, goes North or to decadent New Orleans, comes home, doesn’t fit in, is transformed into the grotesque stranger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The stranger within. Well put. Yes, to me it’s far more rattling and jarring when ordinary people in ordinary contexts act in ways that are both grotesque but somehow profoundly familiar. It could be folklore, but I’ve heard it said that at the holocaust trials, what would most disturb the survivors was to see how ordinary and normal the people were who masterminded the terrors of concentration camps. They weren’t the degenerate evil geniuses that one imagines that they must have been.


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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