Symbols and Allusions in Flannery O'Conner's "The Violent Bear It Away"
It is easy to read a novel on a superficial level; that is, to read a book just for the story, the plot, and one’s own enjoyment. It is an entirely different experience, however, to delve deeper into the novel’s meaning and try to extract the author’s message presented throughout the course of the story. Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away is no exception. On one level it is an exciting, darkly comedic tale of a young man trying to decide between the ways of his two completely different uncles and running into a myriad of problems in the process. There is much more to the story, however. Through the use of symbols, O’Connor turns her novel into an allegory for something more. Perhaps Francis’s journey should not be taken completely literally – but as an allegory for the journey that everyone must take in order to discover who they are.
To better understand O’Connor’s purpose behind The Violent Bear It Away, it is vital to have a good idea of what symbols she uses and how she links them to the journey that Francis takes. For O’Connor, the symbolism is not merely an afterthought but the central point of the story. According to Clinton Trowbridge, “For Flannery O’Connor, symbols […] were not simply ways of saying things. Rather, they were tools of language to penetrate into the heart of mystery. She took them so seriously that she would have us take them literally” (298). When reading this novel, one simply cannot escape the symbolism because it is engrained in the text so deeply that, if we are inclined to agree with Trowbridge, the symbols are literal interpretations of the story.
While there are many important symbols and allusions in the text itself, the story itself can be seen as one anagogical symbol – “a symbol that ‘contains’” (Grimes 14). If The Violent Bear It Away is an anagogical symbol, or a symbol that “encompasses other symbols” (Grimes 14), then Francis’s story is not unique to him alone – it is a universal one. It is a story of a lost soul trying to find their way by running from God and what they are destined to become. It is a coming of age tale that comments on the futility of trying to escape from what you are destined to be. It is filled with religious symbols and allusions but is in itself a greater symbol for a spiritual journey (Trowbridge 301) – and the interesting thing about this particular journey is that Francis ends up right where he began, pursuing the path he had been so desperate to escape.
A Spiritual Journey
Even more specific is the possibility that Francis’s spiritual journey is an allegory for the story of Jonah in the bible. Carol Shloss says, “Jonah […] is considered to be a biblical analogue for young Tarwater” (92). It is certainly plausible that O’Connor had this in mind when she wrote the novel. The similarities between the stories of Jonah the prophet running from God’s will and Francis the prophet trying to run from the life chosen for him are there for all to see. Both Francis and Jonah are called by God and try to run away – Jonah, from prophesying to a corrupt city and Francis from actually becoming a prophet (Shloss 91). It is interesting that neither prophet is able to escape God’s will. This could imply that it is futile to try to resist what you are destined to become.
Some thought-provoking questions spring from the idea of this interpretation of the novel. What kind of religion does O’Connor support in the story? Upon first glance, it seems as if the uncle’s almost seems as if the uncle’s zealous devotion to the Lord is bordering on madness. According to Flannery O’Connor’s Dark Comedies, in some ways “God is experienced through an old man who may be mad” (Shloss 93) which could mean that O’Connor is actually attempting to discredit radical Catholicism because God’s will is spoken by a crazy man.
Given O’Connor’s own religious background as a strong Catholic, however, it seems more likely that she is using Francis’s story to comment on how one cannot run from the will – and grace – of God. Robert Brinkmeyer Jr. puts this into perspective when he says, “O’Connor seeks (on one level) to unsettle her audience’s rational sensibilities, to make her readers both admit their limitations and see the necessity of making a choice for or against Christ” (7). This implies that O’Connor is combining the old with the new – melding the fundamentals of Catholicism with a new, more modern way of communicating with a modern audience. According to Brinkmeyer’s line of thought, if this means shocking readers by showing a radical side of the religion, so be it.
If O’Connor’s motive behind the story is to shock her readers into seeing God’s will and grace, the final scene certainly portrays it magnificently. Francis’s realization that he cannot get away from God’s will for his life or the grace that He offers is dramatic and jarring. It shows how God works intricately in the lives of those He created, showing them the way, not just an overseer. I believe that this only strengthens the idea that O’Connor is commenting on God’s grace and his involvement in the lives of His people (Brinkmeyer 8).
When Francis finally returns to his burnt home and uncle’s grave, his hunger all-consuming, a vision is shown to him. He stands at Mason Tarwater’s grave and looks out across the open field before him and all of a sudden, he is not looking at an empty slope, but at a great multitude of people that are eating bread from a basket, never running out. Francis watches in awe as a “red-gold tree of fire” rises into the heavens and he falls to his knees in the presence of a fire “that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him” (242).
He hears a voice that tells him to “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy” (242). It is this vision that causes Francis to realize that he cannot escape his fate as a prophet. He is no longer running from God and his calling and he sets off on journey as a prophet, ready to wonder around the world as a stranger “from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth” (O’Connor 242). After his long and trying journey, Francis finds himself exactly where he started, following the path that he was so intent on veering from at the beginning of the novel. Even though he initially wanted to escape from this path, he does not seem bitter or resigned to his life of prophecy any longer, which implies that he is right where he was always meant to be, doing what he was meant to do, although it took a rather unorthodox path to get him there.
Along with the all-encompassing anagogical symbol of the book as a spiritual journey, there are other smaller, but certainly no less important, symbols in The Violent Bear It Away. While it is obvious that O’Connor is trying to make a point with Francis Tarwater’s story and that she uses symbols and allegories to take her readers to whatever realization she has in mind, it is less clear what the symbols actually mean and what is meant to conveyed through the plot, images, and events. According to Ronald Grimes, “the central gesture of The Violent Bear It Away is baptism and its related imagery of water and fire” (12). Baptism certainly is the main focus of the story, from Mason Tarwater’s obsession with baptizing Bishop, to Francis’s hunger to do what his uncle never had the chance to do and actually baptize the child, to the actual drowning of Bishop when Francis “baptizes” him.
The drowning of Bishop is a difficult subject to tackle. It is hard to look into the symbolism behind the “baptism” because of the death it involves. Personally, I was shocked when I read about Bishop’s death. The idea of baptism ending in death is a scary thought – especially when it is the protagonist that does the actual killing. But is it really murder? Grimes, in his article, tells us that we must put away our own prejudices when we read this work because we have to remember that this is not literal – it is a metaphor for something else (16-17). If we are to understand O’Connor’s message, we have to view the baptism objectively as a symbol and not an act of murder.
What is baptism a symbol of in The Violent Bear It Away? There are many possibilities. Grimes suggests that it is merely a ritual and that the drowning, as grotesque as it may be, is still just that – a ritual. He implies that O’Connor is commenting on the danger of ritualization (19-20). This is certainly a possibility. O’Connor could be suggesting that it is dangerous to let a ritual or routine “religion” rule one’s life when they should be focusing on acting on their faith, not just going through the motions.
Another possibility, though, is that Bishop’s drowning is actually Francis’s turning point. Trowbridge believes that “it is really Bishop who acts upon him [Francis], who […] drowns him into the spiritual life, the life that all along he has been fleeing” (309). Seen from this point of view, O’Connor is using Bishop’s death as a symbol of the death of the old man – the “old man” being Francis’s determination to run from God, represented by the act of baptizing the boy he had been told all along to baptize – and the rebirth of the new man. The new man, in this case, would be Francis after making the decision to return to his home and give into God’s will and the call to be a prophet.
Both views of the baptism are plausible and in fact, O’Connor could be making both points at the same time. It is difficult to discern just what she has in mind for her readers to take in. In this case, the analysis could be open-ended. Some readers might be growing stale in their religion and relationship with God, and perhaps the former message will be revealed to them. On the other hand, a reader might be running from God and the latter interpretation might appeal to them as they realize that God wants to make them a new person and that they should follow him. It is not clear which, if either, of these claims O’Connor supports, but each is equally likely.
The third and final recurring symbol in the novel is the image of hunger. Through the entire novel, Francis is constantly hungry but it is not a physical hunger. Instead, the hunger Francis experiences is a metaphor for another, religious type of hunger. “Tarwater’s hunger,” Trowbridge says, “like his thirst, is a spiritual one” (311). Even when Francis eats food, his all-consuming hunger is not quenched. This is because, as Trowbridge informs us, he is not starved of earthly food, but of spiritual food – the bread of life. Grimes concurs with this idea when he says that “we cannot understand Tarwater’s hunger without recognizing that Christ is the bread of life” (13). Only when Francis submits to the role of being a prophet of God and allow Him to work in his life does his hunger stop paining him and instead wash over him like a tide (O’Connor 242). In the bible, Christ is continuously referred to as the Bread of Life, and this is yet another allusion that O’Connor makes to her religion and Catholic roots.
The Violent Bear It Away poses many questions as to its interpretation. Perhaps there are even multiple explanations for the text. It is the story of a young man who has lost his way in the world and is trying to find it on his own without anyone else telling him what to do. Ultimately he is taken back to the place where his journey began, but this time he is armed with the realization that he cannot escape the path that God has set before him. This time, when he is faced with a decision concerning his destiny, he uses his gained knowledge to make a different decision – the same decision his uncle predicted all of his life that he was destined to make.
Flannery O’Connor has baffled many with her characters and stories but lying just beneath the surface is always a message of redemption, shown through symbols, allegories, and metaphors. Sometimes it is masked somewhat by her wit and colorful characters, but it will always be there, portraying her rich southern heritage and her determination to hold on to her Catholic views even in the midst of a modernizing world.
Brinkmeyer Jr., Robert H. “A Closer Walk with Thee: Flannery O’Connor and Southern Fundamentalists.” The Southern Literary Journal 18.2 (1986): 3-13.
Grimes, Ronald L. “Anagogy and Ritualization: Baptism in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away.” Religion & Literature 21.1 (1989): 9-26.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd., 1960.
Shloss, Carol. Flannery O’Connor’s Dark Comedies. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Trowbridge, Clinton W. “The Symbolic Vision of Flannery O’Connor: Patterns of Imagery in The Violent Bear It Away.” The Sewanee Review 76.2 (1968): 298-318.