Places: The Violent Bear It Away

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1960

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1952

Places DiscussedPowderhead

Powderhead. Violent Bear It Away, TheTiny settlement somewhere in rural Tennessee–perhaps east of Nashville–where the boy, Francis Marion Tarwater, has spent nearly all of his fourteen years living with his great-uncle. There they live as if in another century, literally prophets in the wilderness, in a two-story shack surrounded by woods and corn fields, plowing with a mule and selling homemade liquor from their still. After his great-uncle dies, Tarwater gets drunk and burns the cabin and the old man’s body, instead of burying him as he has promised. He then escapes to the city, a place he views with distrust.

The imaginary Powderhead is a primal, magical realm, isolated from the modern world both literally and symbolically. The old man’s cabin is inaccessible by car; like holy ground, it must be approached on foot. While Powderhead proves a paradise of sorts for the young Bishop Rayber, a city child who has “never caught a fish or walked on roads that were not paved,” its thorns bar his entrance when he returns as an adult. With its thickly enclosing woods, thorn bushes, and blackberry brambles, Powderhead is alternately oppressive and edenic. The old man’s remote cabin, like his religious vision, has a haunting power that draws both nephew and great-nephew back after they have left it.


City. Large unnamed southeastern city–possibly modeled on Atlanta, Georgia–that is home to about 75,000 people, including Tarwater’s uncle, the schoolteacher George Rayber, and Rayber’s mentally challenged son, Bishop. When Tarwater first visits the city with the old man, he sees it as an evil place where strangers pass by with ducked heads and muttered words, as if “hastening away from the Lord God Almighty.” After the old man dies, Tarwater returns to the city, turning up on the schoolteacher’s doorstep. Though curious about city life, he shows no interest in giving up his country ways; he refuses to wear the new clothes his uncle buys him and finds a terrible hunger growing in him that city food, mere “shavings out of a cardboard box,” cannot fill.

The city is seen as a dead place with no connections to God or the natural world; its packaged products cannot nourish the soul. Each night, Tarwater walks through the city streets with his uncle as if waiting for something to reveal itself to him. The city, he has been told, is where prophets must go to share the visions they receive in the wilderness. Tarwater claims to scorn his great-uncle’s belief, but one night, he slips out after hours to visit a Pentecostal tabernacle, with blue and yellow windows “like the eyes of some biblical beast,” where a child evangelist is preaching. Rayber follows him and finds him there. The boy claims “I only gone to spit on it,” but he is clearly shaken.

Cherokee Lodge

Cherokee Lodge. Country motel thirty miles from Powderhead where George Rayber takes Tarwater and his son, Bishop, ostensibly for a fishing trip. The lodge is a green and white converted warehouse, one half of which rests on land and the other half perches on stilts above a small lake, where the novel’s key scene takes place. Rayber’s initial plan in bringing the boy to the lodge is to take him to Powderhead and make him face the site of his great-uncle’s death, hoping that the shock of that return will end his obsession. While fishing with Tarwater on the lake, Rayber confesses that he once tried to drown his son but could not bring himself to do it. Later, Tarwater takes Bishop out on the lake in a boat and drowns him–but first baptizes him, thus fulfilling the task the old man has set for him.

BibliographyAsals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. A frequently cited study of O’Connor’s attraction to polar oppositions. Emphasizes the Christian sacramentalism, psychology, and use of doubles in The Violent Bear It Away, as well as the differences between O’Connor’s novels. Treats the novel’s ending as both comic and tragic.Bacon, Jon Lance. Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Treats O’Connor as a Southern critic of nationalistic Cold War culture in America. The Violent Bear It Away becomes a rejection of cultural pressures to conform in terms of politics, public education, consumerism, and religion.Cash, Jean W. Flannery O’Connor: A Life. University of Tennessee, 2002. A painstakingly researched portrait of O’Connor. Includes a bibliography and index.Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. Distinguishes between O’Connor and her narrator in an effort to answer the claim that O’Connor wrote from the devil’s point of view. Discusses O’Connor’s typescripts and emphasizes Rayber’s similarity to other characters.Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A controversial but important early study that generally downplays religious explanations. Treats the novel as an examination of a failed initiation into manhood, in which the protagonist finally reverts to a painfully childish role.Johansen, Ruthann Knechel. The Narrative Secret of Flannery O’Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. Emphasizes the structures in O’Connor’s texts and examines the apocalyptic nature of those texts as well as the role of the trickster figures. Compares O’Connor’s novels to one another and to biblical narratives.
Categories: Places