Representations of Religion and Rationality in Flannery O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear It Away'

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Representations of Religion and Rationality in Flannery O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear It Away'
Williams, Sara
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[Gainesville, Fla.]
University of Florida
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Master's ( M.A.)
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University of Florida
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Hegeman, Susan E.
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Bryant, Marsha C.
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Backcountry ( jstor )
Catholicism ( jstor )
Conformity ( jstor )
Death ( jstor )
Hearing aids ( jstor )
Novelists ( jstor )
Prophets ( jstor )
Religion ( jstor )
Uncles ( jstor )
Violence ( jstor )
English -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
born-digital ( sobekcm )
English thesis, M.A.


Flannery O'Connor's fiction is frequently regarded as a prime example of the dubiously-titled 'Southern Gothic' literary genre, in addition to the works of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams--to name just a few. Additionally, O'Connor's steadfast devotion to Catholicism has reinforced the common perception that most of her stories, 'if not influenced entirely by the gruesome imagination frequently attributed to Southern writers,' display little more than the expected literary tropes and techniques of any given 'backwoods theologian,' a stubborn and pessimistic spinster. Frequently, her portrayals of peculiar characters enduring debilitating physical infirmities and encountering extremely violent deaths have been perceived by critics and the public alike as little more than morbid religious allegories or stark representations of violence for its own sake. This essay focuses specifically on O'Connor's second novel, 'The Violent Bear It Away' (1960), and O'Connor's use of grotesque realism as a social commentary on the many changes facing America (and, more concretely for O'Connor, the American South) during the early to mid-twentieth century. O'Connor's contemporary critics and public alike misjudged the author's aim in a variety of ways, from their confusion over the story's intended protagonist to their misinterpretation of the violence in the narrative as merely sensationalistic. The significance of the social commentary in O'Connor's book was not fully appreciated until many years later. In this essay, I rely upon Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, sociological studies from David Reisman, Herbert Marcuse, and James Agee, and critical literary analyses from Frederick Asals, Robert Brinkmeyer, and Sally Fitzgerald, to argue that O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear It Away' is not merely another morbid tale from a Southern writer; it is, in fact, an in-depth examination of some of the most essential conflicts stemming from the inception of modernity in this country. ( en )
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Thesis (M.A.)--University of Florida, 2008.
Adviser: Hegeman, Susan E.
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by Sara Williams.

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2008 Sara Williams 2


To my Mom and Dad 3


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank my parents, my instructors, and my friends. 4


TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT .....................................................................................................................................6 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION ....................................................................................................................8 2 FLANNERY O'CONNOR AND THE GROTESQUE ..........................................................12 3 'GOD-INTOXICATED HILLBILLIES ................................................................................16 4 MASON TARWATER: RELIC, MADMAN, OR PROPHET? ............................................18 5 RAYBERS PROFANE RATIONALISM .............................................................................28 6 BISHOP TARWATER: A SYMBOL OF LOVE ..................................................................35 7 FREUD AND THE PATHOLOGY OF RELIGION .............................................................39 8 CONFORMITY AND TRUE FREEDOM ..........................................................................43 LIST OF REFERENCES ...............................................................................................................47 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .........................................................................................................49 5


Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts REPRESENTATIONS OF RELI GION AND RATIONALITY IN FLANNERY OCONNORS THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY By Sara Williams August 2008 Chair: Susan Hegeman Major: English Flannery OConnors fiction is frequently re garded as a prime example of the dubiouslytitled Southern Gothic literary genre, in a ddition to the works of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams to name just a few. Additionally, OConnors steadfast devotion to Catholicism has reinforced the common perception that most of her stories if not influenced entirely by the gruesome imagination frequently attributed to Southern writers display little more than the expected literary tropes and techniques of any given backwoods theologian, a stubborn and pessimistic spinster. Frequently, her por trayals of peculiar characters enduring debilitating physical infirmities and en countering extremely violent deaths have been perceived by critics and the public alike as little more than morb id religious allegories or stark representations of violence for its own sake. This essay focuses specifically on OConnors second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), and OConnors use of grot esque realism as a social commentary on the many changes facing America and, more concretely for OC onnor, the American South during the early to mid-twentieth century. OConnors contemporary critics and public alike misjudged the authors aim in a variety of ways, from their confusion over the storys intended protagonist to their 6


misinterpretation of the violence in the narrative as merely sensa tionalistic. The significance of the social commentary in OConnors book was not fully appreciated unt il many years later. In this essay, I rely upon Freuds Civilization and Its Discontents sociological studies from David Reisman, Herbert Marc use, and James Agee, and critic al literary analyses from Frederick Asals, Robert Bri nkmeyer, and Sally Fitzgerald, to argue that OConnors The Violent Bear It Away is not merely another morbid tale from a Southern writer; it is, in fact, an in-depth examination of some of the most essential conflic ts stemming from the inception of modernity in this country. 7


CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION Though Flannery OConnor is frequently catego rized both as a Catholic novelist and as paradigmatic of the so-called Southern Gothic genre, most critics and scholars have relied upon these labels in a manner that poses each as a sort of accusation, rather than a descriptive characterization of her work. The release of OConnors first novel, Wise Blood, in 1952, began this initial rush to oversimplify her work (Three xiii). As Sally Fitzgerald points out in the introduction to Three by Flannery OConnor a compilation of Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge critics were inclined in light of their own prejudices and preconceptions, to see her as another chronicler of southern grotesqueries or, more often, to use a term she loathed: anothe r Southern Gothic writer, an eccentric writing about eccentrics (xiv). The arbitrary classification of OConnors work as Southern Gothic is supported more so by her efforts to examine the South as distinctly separate and different fr om the national culture at large. Although she sometimes contradicts herself in her attacks on Northern secular intellectualism, this aim in itself reflects an intere st in American culture as a whole. Therefore, we can gain some insight into the social co mmentary manifested in her work through an examination of OConnors portrayal of the South as a singular part in relation to the whole of American society. Though one of the main focal points of this paper is to argue that OConnor is not only a Southern Catholic novelist, it would be entirely short-sighted to claim that her religion had no influence whatsoever upon her work. Her lifelong devotion to, and struggle with, the strictures of the Catholic faith and her familys unwavering devotion to it undoubtedly colored OConnors perception of the world. Specifically though, it shaped her reading of the drastic 8


changes facing America manifested most concretely for her in the South during the early to mid-twentieth century. In her study of OConnors li fe and work, Dorothy Walters describes OConnor as an austere and at times avenging angel ex ecuting judgment in wild and violent forms of retribution. Only those survive who transcend or are transformed by th e radical disasters to which they are exposed (21). Though this imag e of OConnor as an a venging angel draws a vivid correlation betw een OConnors approach to writing an d a deeply entrench ed religiosity, it is crucial to understand that the violent judgment that OConnor doles out so frequently stems not just from a standpoint of rigid Catholic reckoning. Her verdicts also act as a social commentary that relies upon the images and language associated with Christianity to examine the unraveling of the integrity of American i ndividualism and, most in dicatively to OConnor, the loss of the singular identity flaws and a ll of the American S outh. Fitzgerald also acknowledges in th e introduction to Three that in the wars between generationsOConnor is not particularly on the side of the young, despite the maddening foibles, and even evils, of the old; she deals out justice with an even hand (xxv); as we will see, this so-called war between the generations manifests in many different ways in OConnors work, and can also be understood as a social commentary of sorts along the lines of the sociological studies of such diverse mid-century figures as James Agee, David Reisman, and Herbert Marcuse. Flannery OConnor was very much aware of the assumptions and preconceptions that her audiences scholars, critics, and the public alike formed regarding her work. Because OConnor did not view her faith as a deciding factor in her art, she in no way intended to pander to the typical Catholic reader any more than she would change her message to appeal to a broader, irreligious audience. Fitzgerald claims that OConnors genuine sympathy for sincere 9


Protestants, and even for vividl y subjective Christians, is manifest in her work; on the other hand, though, OConnor was quite i ntolerant of distortions ( Three xxi). Indeed, OConnor clearly had the least amount of patience for false prophe ts: both those who di storted the word of God for their own material gain, and the cadre of secular intellectuals who claimed science as the one (and only) true belief. In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose a collection of OConnors writings edited by Sally Fitzgerald and first published in 1969 OConnor states that one of the most disheartening circumstances that the Catholic novelist has to contend with is that he has no large audience he can count on to understand his work. The general intelligent r eader today is not a believer (181). Thus, even t hough OConnor openly embraced the im portance of religion in her life and constantly defended th e compatibility of her faith w ith serious writing she knew that her work ran the risk of misinterpretation at the hands of a largely secular audience. Conversely, OConnor found that re aders who identified themselves first and foremost as Catholics proved to be just as unr eliable as those who claimed no faith at all: she claimed that the Catholic reader is so busy looking for something that fits his needs, and shows him in the best possible light, that he will find suspect a nything that doesnt serve such purposes ( Mystery 182). Still others attribut e the inherent pessimism of OC onnors work to a harsh judgment of human nature that exceeds the ty pical rigidities of Catholicism: according to these critics, the world according to Flannery OConnor is a world of pain dominated by the crucified, not the resurrected Christ, given over to sharp suffe ring and sudden death (Asals 202). Some misinterpretations of OConnors stories have rest ed on the assumption that the fatal flaw in her art exists within her stubborn refusal to see any good, any beauty or dignity or meaning, in ordinary human life on earth (Stephens 9). A dditionally, critics have attested that a good 10


indication of what must be called OConnors co ntempt for ordinary human life is the loathing with which she apparently contemplated th e human body (Stephens 10). Clearly, this misreading of OConnors aim aligns the physical disfigurements and deformities so common in her work to stereotypical Southe rn Gothic morbidities or fanatical faith-laden human sacrifices, rather than objectively examining them as literary tropes. However, as Jon Bacon points out in Flannery OConnor and Cold War Culture in portraying her rural ch aracters as freaks and misfits, OConnor allied herself with those w ho called attention to the representational inadequacy of the pastoral myth. She suggest ed that Americans coul d no longer base their national identity on a belief in pastoral innocence (38-39). In The Question of Flannery OConnor, Martha Stephens cl aims that even though OConnors interpretations of the delusions, the weaknesses, the hypocrisy in short, the bad in human nature are both credib le and convincing, she adds that what is false in her work springs from her failure to see that though man is all the things herein implied, he is not only these things and the total pict ure of human society that emerge s from her work as a whole is one that is difficult to accept (14). The mistak e that Stephens makes in this assessment of OConnors work is to presume that this bodily destruction and, of course, the graphic and sometimes deadly violence that causes it is the only message offered in these texts. It is my claim, then, that OConnors approach to storyt elling which can be easil y misinterpreted as a pessimistic vision of violence fo r its own sake is a means to a different end: the use of grotesque realism is an analysis of and comme ntary on the human condition in the America of the mid-twentieth century. 11


CHAPTER 2 FLANNERY OCONNOR AND THE GROTESQUE In Mystery and Manners OConnor states that the novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audi ence which is used to seeing them as natural. OConnor posits that it may be necessary for the Christian writer to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience; she succin ctly analogizes this effort by stating that to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures (33-34). At the same time, though, OConnor acknowledged that resorting to thes e violent literary means to get her point across to a hostile audi ence risked alienating most Catholic readers, since this particular writing st yle would rely heavily upon images and actions [that] may seem exaggerated and distorted to the Catholic mind ( Mystery 185). In OConnors essay, The Regional Writer, she states that, by the middle of the twentieth century, th e identity of the South was obscured and in doubt. In the past, the things that have seemed to many to make us ourselv es have been very obvious things, but now no account of nostalgia can make us believe they will characterize us much longer ( Mystery 57). OConnor clearly believed that these labels of grotesque and Southern Gothic, which scholars and critics so frequently pinned onto the work of any author originating from below the Mason-Dixon line, were indicative primarily of the snobbish, stubborn short-sightedness of the stereotypical Northern intellectua l. In response to this percei ved hasty generalization, OConnor observed that a great deal of serious modern fiction origin ating in the South contained a quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. She claimed not to be too terribly surprised by this assumption, since she had observed that anything that comes 12


out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern re ader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic ( Mystery 40). The parallel OConnor suggests here is an in version of the percepti on of grotesque and realistic depending upon the region al affiliations of both the aut hor and the audience. OConnor believes perhaps rightfully so that a Southern authors realistic visi on may be dismissed as Southern Gothic schlock by a Northern critic, wh ile that same Southern authors attempt to represent the truly grotesque may be perceived as normal, natural, or even banal, by the same (Northern) reader. As we will see upon a close examination of The Violent Bear It Away the confusion of OConnors public a nd critics alike regard ing characterizations of both Mason and Rayber Tarwater are two of the most vi vid examples of this misunderstanding. In addition to the problematic binary be tween grotesque and realistic, though, both OConnor and her critics draw several other di chotomies between the North and the South: mainstream/eccentric; decadent/puritanical, godle ss/devout. OConnor frequently discusses the ambivalence with which she approaches these audiences of the extrem e decoratively devout Catholics and godless (i.e., Northern) intellectuals alike. She claimed that although the author creating a character may not perc eive anything abnormal about th e character or, at least, nothing more freakish than ordinary fallen man usually is the audience will certainly consider the character to be grotesque. Accordingly, in a tone that is (typically) defensive, OConnor stated that when she is asked why Sout hern authors tend to focus on freaks, she says that it is because we are still ab le to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in th e South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological (Mystery 44). Though this statement suggests that OConnor believed the Souths deep-seated faith somehow makes its ci tizens more perceptive of the true nature of 13


man than secularized Northerners, she also belie ved that humanity in general was all grotesque, and I dont think the Southerner is an y more grotesque than anyone else ( Mystery 233). In another acerbic passage from Mystery and Manners, OConnor curtly states that Southern identity is not really connected with mockingbi rds and beaten biscuits and white columns any more than it is with hookwor m and bare feet and muddy clay roads ( Mystery 57). This declaration included in The Regional Writer is perhap s the most stunning example of OConnors belief that the South will inevitably be distorted in the minds of a Northern audience. In Robert Coles Flannery OConnors South he claims that by the autumn of 1960, when OConnor made this assertion she had plen ty of reason to believe herself thoroughly misunderstood (Coles 3). The reason to which Coles refers is, most likely, the critical reception of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away which was published in early 1960. Fitzgerald claims that the novel further enhanced [OConnors] reputation, both for bett er and for worseit was just as complex and demanding as Wise Blood, but, additionally, it was even more violent and unsettling in its denou ement (xviii-xix). Frank Wa rnkes review of the book for New Republic, which declared that the novel was one of cran kiness and provincialism, is indicative of the reaction of most Northern audiences at the time of its release (Whitt 87). More recent criticism has noted, however, that the primary reason be hind this lukewarm (and sometimes hostile) critical reception stems from OConnors contemporary crit ics and public muddying their own attempts to understand the work by offering an inad equate interpretation of [the novel] and then criticizing the book for not always fitting it (Eggenschwiler 115). This, they argue, may be the reason why OConnors contemporary readers accu sed both the novel and the author herself of being confused. The real confusion, though, ste mmed from the fact that these readers seemed 14


hardly even to suspect that old Tarwater was dr awn as a sympathetic figure, and they therefore tended to view Rayber, not the boy, as the prot agonist (Stephens 101). OConnor anticipated these types of misinterpretations for most of her work, but did so most astutely for The Violent Bear It Away In Habit of Being a collection of OConnors co rrespondences with friends and publishing associates, edited by Sally Fitzgerald a nd published in 1969 OConnor tells friend and fellow Southern writer Cecil Dawkins that her editor hailed The Violent Bear It Away as the best thing Ive ever done. The most I am willi ng to say is that it has taken more doing than anything else Ive done. I dread all the misunderstandings of my in tentions (340). Likewise, in a letter to her friend A, OConnor states that she expected the novel to be pounced on and torn limb from limb. Nevertheless, I am pleased with it myself ( Habit 342). Afterwards, in another letter to A, dated February of 1960, OConnor recalls with her usual caustic wit the interview that led to the Time review of The Violent Bear It Away She states that the magazine sent tw o men down from Atlanta, one to take pictures and the other to ask questions sent from the New York office [emphasis added]; OConnor recalls that the photographer took about a million pictures, in all of which I am sure I looked like Bishop [the retarded child in Violent ]. They will select the one that l ooks most like Bishop. She continues, stating that the reporter persistently asked OC onnor to characterize myself so he would have something to write down. Are you a Southern writ er? What kind of Catholic are you? All I did for an hour was stammer and stutter. Not only will I look like Bishop, but I will sound like him if he could talk (Habit 374). Although OConnor prepared hers elf for the worst and had already resigned to the fact that I am going to be the books greatest admirer ( Habit 344), she could not have foreseen the professional and persona l attack volleyed at her in the form of Time s scathing review of Violent which was published in the periodicals February 29 th 1960 issue. 15


CHAPTER 3 GOD-INTOXICATED HILLBILLIES The review, entitled God-Intoxicated Hillbil lies, could have easily been written by a prototype of Rayber himself. The opening sent ence identifies OConnor as a retiring, bookish spinster who dabbles in the variants of sin and salvation like some self-tutored backwoods theologian (Time ). The review condescendingly refers to her family farm in rural Georgia (which she rarely leaves), and in an appallingly inappropriate move raises the issue of her battle with lupus. Thus, her isolated home stead and chronic illness embodiments of the Southern Gothic at their most concrete ar e presented as evidence of OConnors relative immobility, a phrase doubtlessly indicative of Northerners perception of Southerners as backwards, stubborn, and stagnant The reviewer claims, however, that even OConnors immobility does not hinder her efforts to visit remote and dreadful places of the human spirit through her fiction (Time ). Furthermore, the review declares that The Violent Bear it Away is a horror story of faith in which the characters are for or against G od with a kind of vindictiveness thatmust make even Him uneasy ( Time ). Though the misguided evaluation asse rts that despite her intentions OConnors handling of God-drunk backwoodsme n seldom seems to rise above an ironic jape, the closing sentence of the review clearly illustrates her cont emporary audiences misreading of the narratives central character. In an assessment that curiously poses both Rayber and young Tarwater as the ve ritable victims of the old man s wiles, the review claims that it is this suggestion of th e secure believer poking bitter f un at the confused and bedeviled that lingers in the mind after the tale is ended rather than the occasional flashes of pity that alone make such a story bearable (Time ). Of course, OConnor soon learned of the hostile 16


review; she stated that I woul d have been a little uneasy had Time liked the book, but I do regret their making it and me sound so unhealthy-sounding ( Habit 376). OConnor was, understandably, troubled by the review: A full medi cal report. Lupus makes the news. That was really a sickening review and in very bad taste ( Habit 378). Overall, OConnors effort in Violent to bring the question of faith into mass publication was just as ill-received by the predominantly non-believing public as it had been scorned and dismissed by critics. Walters argues that since OConnor believed that a set of once universally assumed beliefs has faded dangerously from the modern consciousness, she was required to create her large, startling figures to remind society that mans rejection or ignoring of his traditional spiritual heritage does not diminish its validity nor relieve him of his inner responsibility to fulfill its demands (35). O Connors objective, then, must have been to illustrate through violence the nature of that obligation and the conse quences of its denial (Walters 35). Additionally, in Flannery OConnor and the Imagination of Extremity OConnor scholar Frederick Asals states that the popular conception of OConnors portrayal of the Almighty throughout most of her fiction a God who reveals Himself only in our pain, and who reveals Himself in order to demand all fr om us was bound to perplex and aggravate her largely secular audience (229).Clear ly, this particular approach e ither did not sit well with the majority of her critics and audiences, or c ontinued to be misinter preted and maligned; Violent is, perhaps, the most vivid exam ple of this dilemma. 17


CHAPTER 4 MASON TARWATER: RELIC, MADMAN, OR PROPHET? In the essay entitled Catholic Novelists in Mystery and Manners OConnor claims that the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarna ted in human life (176). Since an exploration of mystery and mysticism inherently has spiritual though not necessarily religious implications, OConnor asserts that even though a wr iters artistic concerns may overlap with their personal beliefs, this does not necessarily lead to a conflict of interests. She states that there is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality ( Mystery 178). Likewise, as she reflecte d on the central act of The Violent Bear It Away, OConnor states that I know that for the larger percentage of my readers, baptism is a m eaningless rite; therefore I have to imbue this action with an awe and terror wh ich will suggest its awful mystery. I have to distort the look of the th ing in order to represent, as I see them, both the mystery and the fact (180). Consequently, in The Violent Bear It Away, one of the most complex configurations of mystery conflicting with secular intellectualism is embodied in Mason Tarwater. The critical and popular reaction to this char acter is only the first example of the misinterpretations of OConnors novel presented in this paper, but it is certainly one of the most relevant miscommunications between author and audience. Though OConnor supported Mason per cent, readers attributed his prophecy to demen tia, not divine guidance. According to some critics, the old man can be seen in various lights as a harmless relic of a lost age, as a madman, or as a true prophet called of God (Walters 94). OConnor acknowle dges the complications inherent in the construction of a charact er such as Mason in a passage from Mystery and Manners: 18


When you write about backwoods prophets, it is very difficult to get across to the modern reader that you take these people seriously, that you are not making fun of them, but that their concerns are your own and, in your judgment, central to human life. It is almost inconceivable to this reader that such could be the case (204). Her vocal support for Mason and, perhaps more accurately, the Southerner s who even slightly resemble Mason in their religious fervor attest s to Fitzgeralds claim that OConnors concern for the people she wrote about was at bottom of the utmost seriousness, and sprang from a kind of tough-minded respect for them and their dignity as human beings, and a hope for them born of austere and uncondescending charity (Three xviii). Though OConnor goes to great lengths to unders core the importance of self-sufficiency and individualism to Mason and, thereby, Franci s Tarwater it is impor tant to understand that the self-imposed alienation which the old man so feverishly attempts to impart on the young boy is also, in a sense, a means of ensuring confor mity. Just as he accuses Rayber of wanting to capture the boy and confine him to his own hea d, Mason is in a similar fashion ignoring Tarwaters own will through his efforts to prepar e the boy for his inherited role as a prophet. In The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character David Reisman posits that most modern societies can be categor ized into three different types depending on the unique manner by which each society elects to e nforce conformity and mold social character (32). Reisman repeatedly refers to the South as an anomaly within the larger American society of its day; he argues that, by and large, modern Americans, residing outside of the South, lack feudal traditions, a strong establis hed church believe themselves to be pragmatic. [and] on the whole they tend to be optimistic for th emselves, their children and their country (xxxi). Therefore, he asserts, southern rural groups, Negros and poor wh ites are indicative of the remnants of tradition-directed types in this country (Reisman 32). Reisman defines both 19


tradition-directed individuals and societies dependent upon tradition-direction as those which display a social character whose conformity is in sured by their tendency to follow tradition (8). These remarks are also supported by the obser vations presented in James Agees earlier documentary book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). In a chapter of this book focusing specifically upon the poor Sout hern tenant-farmers with whom both Agee and photographer Walter Evans lived for several months, Agee observe s that the farmers la bor in the fields performed as a matter of survival is undert aken without choice or the thought of chance of choice, taught forward from father to son ( 320). The main difference, though a difference which will become more significant to my analys is here between Agees farming families and the tasks undertaken at Powderh ead is, of course, the fact that Masons lifelong vocation is not focused on agriculture, but prophecy. Mason seeks refuge for himself and Fran cis from the outside world through their existence within the pastoral realm of Powd erhead. The landscap e surrounding the rural farmhouse frequently takes on the to pography of a biblical setting, at times resembling an Edenic garden, before shifting into a proverbial sea of fi re. The most important feature of Powderhead, though, is its utter isolation from the outer worl d. Masons secluded plot of land was not simply off the dirt road but off the wagon track and footpath, and the near est neighbors, colored not white, still had to walk through the woods, pushing plum branches out of their way to get to it ( Three 130). The location of their homestead indi cates not only the old mans self-imposed alienation, but also his status among the uneducated poor in the deep South. Mason and Francis subsist on the crops and livestock on the farm; it a ppears that the only other source of income for the two is the old mans barter system he dist ributes moonshine (and ref ills jugs) for the black sharecroppers nearby in exchange for goods or he lp in his fields. Thus, Powderhead provides a 20


sanctuary of sorts for these two, separated entirely from the godle ss and impure inhabitants of the city. Mason and Francis survive in a world that is for the most part, insulated and isolated from the threat of external (i .e., modern) evils. Though the two share a meager existence, the old man teaches Tarwater the basics: Figures, Reading, Writing, and History beginning with the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment ( Three 125). The majority of Masons instructional time and effort, though, is spent attempting to prepare the boy for the Lords cal ling as a true prophet of God. The dual dangers that a prophet must face are major focal points in Masons lectures to Francis: the evils that befall prophets are divided into those that co me from the world, which are trifling, and those that come from the Lord and burn the prophet clean (Three 126). Accordingly, Mason is compelled to share this knowledge with the boy since the old man himself had been burned clean He had learned by fire (126). Since Mason believes that his own existence is both righteous and true particularly in comparison to his heathen nephew Raybers way of life he intends for young Tarwater to grow up in an id entical manner, and to follow in the old mans footsteps, since Mason believes himself to be a prophet of Christ too. To assert this point, Mason often pushed the boy to consider: why he thought the Lord had rescued him out of the womb of a whore and let him see the light of day at all, and then why, having done it once, He had gone and done it again, allowing him to be baptized by his great-uncle into the death of Christ, and then having done it twice, gone on and done it a third time, allowing him to be rescued by his great-uncle from the schoolteacher and brought to the backwoods and given a chance to be brought up by according to the truth. It was because, his uncle said, the Lord meant him to be trained for a prophet, even though he was a bastard, and to take hi s great-uncles place when he died ( Three 147). 21


Both Reisman and Agee agr ee that the children of these tradition-directed societies learn more than just rudimentary labor skills from ol der generations; they also assume the behavioral traits of their caretakers. A ccordingly, in a section entitled P arental Role in the Stage of Tradition-Direction, Re isman attests that in tradition-directed societies, children can be prepared at an early age to assume an a dult role. Adult roles ar e almost unchanging from generation to generation, and children begin ve ry early to learn how to act like adults simply by watching adults around them (38-39). Similarl y, Agee asserts that poor Southerners learn the work they will spend their lives doing, chiefl y of their parents, and from their parents and from the immediate world they ta ke their conduct, their morality, and their mental and emotional and spiritual key (Agee 295). The cohesion betw een these sociological studies and OConnors portrayal of Mason and Tarwater strongly suggest that, even t hough Northern readers found this pair to be grotesque, they are ac tually in close conformity with sociological view s of individuals belonging to a particular socioec onomic stratum in the South. Furthermore, Reisman claims that the increasingly pervasive other-directed nature of modern societies is rejected and resented by some tradition-directed societies, particularly in the South, and that this resentment is culturally supported both by the old-timers and by the long memory of the past which is pres ent to all in rural and small-town areas . Nevertheless, the moralizers [i.e., Mason Tarwater and his ilk] . do not feel s ecure the weight of the urban world outside is against them (34). In Violent OConnor crafts an incident remarkably similar in scope to this illustration of deep-seated distrust and contempt amongst these inhabitants of the poor, rural South toward outsiders not only most Northerners, but well-to-do, educated Southerners as well. Rayber re calls that he and a welfare woman who, for a brief time thereafter, became his wife and the mother of Bishop traveled out to Powderhead to rescue 22


young Tarwater from Masons kidnapping. The altercation that followed led not only to Raybers deafness and subsequent reliance on a h earing aid (Mason shot o ff his ear), but would have been the first indication of the already-inherent stubborn individualism that Mason had implanted in Tarwater, had Rayber only paid a ttention to what the woman told him about the expression on young Tarwaters face: It was not simply that the child was dirt y, thin, and gray; it wa s that its expression had no more changed when the gun went off than the old mans had. This had affected her deeply . [T]he childs look had frozen her . It had, she said, the look of an adult, not of a child, a nd of an adult with immovable insane convictions. Its face was like the face sh e had seen in some medieval paintings where the martyrs limbs are being sawed off and his expression says he is being deprived of nothing essential . The face for her had expressed the depth of human perversity, the deadly sin of rejecting defiantly ones own obvious good ( Three 229-30). Consequently, Rayber and the welfare woman leav e Tarwater to the old man, and he educates the boy in the ways of prophecy. In addition to his sermons, though, Mason Tarw ater spends an inordinate amount of time and energy preparing for his own death. More specifically, it s eems fair to say that Mason spends just as much time contemplating the de tails of his own burial as he does educating Francis in the ways of the Lords prophecy; accordingly, then, these two endeavors are inextricably linked. Since OConnor s audience learns from the fi rst page of the novel that the old man has already expired, some critics have ar gued that Masons demise is one of the most significant aspects of this character in the narra tive. In fact, the first sentence of the novel hailed by modern critics as being among the t op 100 best opening lines for a novel centers on this very issue: Francis Marion Tarwaters uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, 23


with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up (Three 125). Though young Tarwater has always been somewh at stubborn and dism issive of the endall importance of a proper Christia n burial for his great uncle, one of his first interactions with the voice of the stranger which later b ecomes young Tarwaters friend suggests that Tarwater werent anything to [Mason] but something that w ould grow up big enough to bury him when the time came and now that hes dead, hes shut of you ( Three 149). The stranger emphasizes that the only principle Mason intended to impart on Tarwater was ensure that you would be fit when the time came to bury him so he would have a cross to mark where he was at (149). Tarwater recalls that, in response to his aggressive in terrogation regarding the pomp and circumstance surrounding a proper burial, Mason explains that the world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are . Theres a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longe r than the living are alive ( Three 132). Eventually, though, Masons enigmatic reasoning for a proper burial is not enough to keep Tarwater from denying the old man his last request. As Marshall Gentry points out in Flannery OConnors Religion of the Grotesque, old Tarwater is obsessed with his own death, but not because he fears death; he simply wants to make sure that Tarwater buries him properly (146). The old man attempts, on several occasions, to convey the importance of this sacrament to his young nephew and to convince Francis that he is the only person that Mason trusts with this all-important task: ListenI never asked much of you I taken you and raised you and saved you from that ass in town and now all Im asking in return is when I die to get me in the ground where th e dead belong and set up a cross over me to show Im there. Thats all in the world Im asking you to do ( Three 131). 24


In The Christian Humanism of Flannery OConnor David Eggenschwiler states that Mason Tarwaters preoccupation with hi s burial, the burden of which he placed on the boy is the most vivid example of the old mans pride (120). Mas ons extreme distrust of Rayber manifests itself most clearly in his staunch refusal to ask the sc hoolteacher to claim responsibility for the task: Hed burn me . Hed have me cremated in an oven and scatter my ashes. He dont believe in the Resurrection. He dont believe in the brea d of life (132). According to Eggenschwiler, OConnor pokes fun at the old man for his fixation on this procedure, but not necessarily at the rite itself : His concern for last things is not entirely satirized, but the egoism in his concern for personal salvation often is (121). This, too, is made clear through Ma sons declaration that burying the dead right may be the only honor you ever do yourself. I brought you out here to raise you a Christian, and more th an a Christian, a prophet! he hollered, and the burden of it will be on you! ( Three 132). Thus, young Tarwaters initial reaction to torch the house, where he believes the body of his great uncle rema ins seated at the breakfast table where he died is a significant indication of the beginning of the boys rebell ion, grotesque transformation, and subsequent self-discovery. In her study of OConnors life and work, Dorothy Walters claims that since the societal norm at this time was that of religious apat hy, those who are zealous in their spiritual commitments are themselves labeled grotesque by an uninvolved society. Old Tarwater and his nephew appear grotesque in the eyes of an indifferent world (32). This analysis parallels Reismans assessment that in societies in which tradition-direction is the dominant mode of ensuring conformity, the actions of an individual who might have become at a later historical stage an innovator or rebel, whose belonging, as such, is marginal and problematic, is drawn instead into roles like those of the shaman or sorcerer or prophet (12). On the other hand, 25


critics have suggested that O Connors declaration of agreement with, and steadfast support of, old Tarwater may very well be an endorsement of the old man in a struggle with himself as with unbelievers (Eggenschwiler 117-18). Perhaps this touches on a point of interest in our discussion of OConnors work, and the debate over its inspir ation and interpretation. Though O Connor was a sophisticated, highly educated, and thoroughly rational person, she refused to adopt a mentality that would have required her to turn the Souths old-time religion into a big joke for them up there, the northern cognoscenti, or nearer at hand, those belonging to the S ouths secular salons (Coles 65). Even though OConnor clearly and frequently pokes fun at and, sometimes, blatantly ridicules the members of these affiliations, her embodiment of such intellectual characters also demonstrates the ambivalent nature of her relations hip with faith and logic. Therefore, as Robert Brinkmeyer states in The Art and Vision of Flannery OConnor the development of these intellectual characters aided OC onnor in an effort to manifest that part of herself tending toward the intellectual endeavor, exploring a nd exposing it in diffe rent situations and environments (144). Brinkmeyer concludes that an illustration of the fact that OConnor feared in herself the power of the intellect to overpower faith is suggested not only by her own harsh comments on herself but in the ferocious judgments in her fiction leveled against her intellectual characters by the na rrative consciousness (144). Though her lifelong devotion to the Catholic faith is undeniable, it is clear that OConnor possessed, primarily through her thorough grounding in the Bible and her enthusiastic southern identity (southern cultures being underpinned by biblical t hought), a restless and probing skepticism that critiqued society as well as self (Brinkmeyer 31-32). That is to say, OConnors novel may have frequently taken the form of what could be interpreted as a religious allegory, 26


but these creations under the su rface of baptism, crucifixion, and prophecy also expressed a critique of society and an examination of th e individual that reached far beyond the sanctimony of a church sermon. Though the clash between rationalism and religion further embodied through the dissonance between th e North and the South, respectiv ely is a complex struggle unto itself, it is also representative of the c onflict between public and pr ivate, society and the individual, and the divided self. For OConnor, the concept of the individual resi sting the conformity of society at large was symbolic of all these struggles. As is i ndicated in her work, this individualistic image became synonymous with the image of the South; that is to say, the manifestations of the individuals struggle to re sist conformity at the hands of societ y at large mirror, for the most part, the Souths struggle to cling to a past (both historically a nd religiously) which was quickly becoming obsolete in the early to mid-twentiet h century. Even OConnor acquiesced that her homeland was losing its grip on the religious devotion of past gene rations. In The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, she claims that it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted the Sout herner who isnt convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God ( Mystery 44-45). Throughout The Violent Bear It Away the character that most cons istently demonstrates this suspicion and fear is Rayber, the atheistic schoolteacher. 27


CHAPTER 5 RAYBERS PROFANE RATIONALISM Thus, despite the assumption of her contempor ary audiences, OConnor did not intend to create Rayber as the protagonist of the story; in fact, her creation of the schoolteacher as a dramatic, but believable, representation of the secular man proved to be the most challenging aspect of drafting the novel for OConnor. In a letter to her editor, dated April 18, 1959, OConnor claims that Rayber has been the difficu lty all along. Ill never manage to get him as alive as Tarwater and the old man, bu t I can certainly improve on him ( Habit 327); later, in another correspondence, she would claim that she had no trouble writing the first chapter and the last thirty pages; I sp ent most of the seven years on Rayber (353). Though OConnor appears to question her own ability to create Rayber as a plausible portrayal of a non-believing intellectual, the deep -seated conflicts manifested in his divided self also suggest that she did not intend for him simply to be a flat symbol for rationalism or secularism either (Eggenschwiler 115). Insofar as Raybers hearing aid emphasi zes his abdication of the human for the mechanical approach, it also serves as an exte rnal manifestation of his intellectual affinity for modern psychological theories which substi tute subconscious motives for spiritual drives (Walters 94). In fact, the hearing aid is the crucial link betwee n Rayber and OConnors signature grotesquerie; whereas Bi shops retardation is considered positively grotesque (Gentry 152) in that it preserves his innocence and humanity Raybers infirmity is negatively grotesque, as he manipulates this mechanical device to select and c ontrol his perception of reality. On several occasions throughout the novel, Rayber turns off his hearing aid and retires 28


into a mock heaven of peaceful silence, rather than confront situations that challenge his mechanistic faith (Asals 181). When Tarwater reunites with Rayber, the boy is simultaneously fascinated and revolted by the device. When the boy sees Rayber plug so mething into his ear, which is connected by a cord to a metal box, the boy speculate s for an instant that his head ran by el ectricity (175). Therefore, just as Raybers perception of Tarwater is muddi ed by his fixation on the boys backwoods background just as much, perhaps, as he is distracted by Tarwaters potential, rather than the present predicament Tarwater fr equently views Rayber as little more than an extension of the odd machinery plu gged in to his head; as far as Tarwater is concerned, his uncles face might have been only an appendage to [the hearing aid] (187). Once Tarwater realizes that the hearing aid is in fact, a point of weakness fo r the schoolteacher, he targets Rayber repeatedly, mocking his dependence on the contraption: What you wired for? he drawled. Does your head light up? (186). Also in one of the more tense confrontations between the two, Tarwater provoc atively inquires, Do you thi nk in the box, or do you think in your head? (187). Perhaps young Tarwater is not aware of the multifaceted implications of such a query, but OConnors intended message is not lost on recent critical responses to the boys dismissive attitude. In fact, two of the more significant scenarios in the narrative in which Rayber deliberately disconnects from the external worl d by switching off his hearing aid are brought about by Tarwaters presence. The first of these occurs when Rayber realizes that Tarwater is sneaking out of the house to embark on a midnight journey through the city. Rayber turns off the aid as he follows Tarwater, pursuing the dim figure as if in a dream (196). Of course, Tarwater and Rayber eventually arrive at the revival wher e OConnor introduces another 29


grotesque child character: Lucet te Carmody. During her sermon to the crowd, the crippled child evangelist proclaims that the damned soul be fore her Rayber, peer ing in through a window is deaf to the Holy Word! (205). Again, the words of a child carry a multitude of meanings, and Rayber quite literally becomes deaf to Carmodys words of prophecy by turning off his hearing aid, groping fiercely about him, slapping at his coat poc kets, his head, his chest, not able to find the switch that would cut off the voice. Then he snapped it. A silent dark relief enclosed him like shelter afte r a tormenting wind (205). Additionally, Rayber turns off the hearing aid in anticipation of Tarw aters baptism of Bishop. He has left his son under Tarwaters care and, when the pair does not promptly return from their trip out on the lake, he begins to c onsider his life without Biship in a torturously conflicted self-analysis. When Rayber instinct ually switches the aid on again, grabbing the metal box of the hearing aid as if he were cl awing his heart. The quiet was broken by an unmistakable bellow (242). He realizes that Tarwater is drowning his son, as the machine picked up the sounds of some fierce sustained st ruggle in the distance . The machine made the sounds seem to come from inside him as if something in him were tearing itself free (242). Raybers dependence on the contraption as a filter for reality is in many ways indicative of a technological screen between himself and the world around him (Feeley 162); above and beyond this, though, it is also the most dramatic demonstration of Raybers dehumanization (Stephens 130). Thus, Rayber exists as, among other things, the embodiment of one of the evils which Mason warns Francis he will inevitably encounter as a prophet of Christ. Mason emphasizes the importance of his charity and sacrifice on Franci s behalf by reminding the boy of the path his life could have taken if he had been raised by hi s uncle in the city: If the schoolteacher had got 30


hold of him, right now he would have been in school, one among many, i ndistinguishable from the herd ( Three 134). Masons disavowal of public education rife with the conforming tendencies of socialization stands in shar p contrast to Raybers responsibility as a schoolteacher (i.e., his instrumental role in dow nplaying individualism and cultivating solidarity among the masses). Furthermore, Mason claims, in the schoolteachers head, [Francis] would be laid out in parts and numbers every livi ng thing that had passed through the nephews eyes into his head was turned by his brain into a book or a paper or a chart ( Three 134). Mason declares in staunch defense of the virtue of his decision to, essentially, kidnap young Tarwater from Rayber when the boy was very young I saved you to be free, your own self and not a piece of information inside hi s head. If you were livi ng with him youd be going to school. Accordingly, we learn that the boy knew that escaping school was the surest sign of his election, because while other children his age were herded together in a room to cut out paper pumpkins under the direction of a woman, he was left free for the pursuit of wisdom ( Three 133). Although Mason has never truly given young Tarwater any other option, the old man prides himself on his ability to guide the boy along a righteous path; Rayber, on the other hand, abandoned his destiny years ago. Rayber strives for emotional emptiness in an effort to eliminate his irrational impulses, and to explain away his spiritual desires as ma dness instilled in him at an impressionable age (Eggenschwiler 116). Raybers need to cure hims elf can be directly related to his reliance upon psychoanalytic theory, the public education system and a disavowal of individualism in favor of the conformity of the modern ag e (i.e., the North). The schoolteacher is painfully aware of this schism within himself; he feels afflicted with a peculiar chilling clarity of mind in which he saw himself divided in two a vi olent and a rational self ( Three 207). Raybers violent self 31


manifests through his ties to the old man (and, therefore, Tarwater), and hi s hated love of his retarded son, Bishop. In an effort to bring the violence of his fundamentalism under rational control (Brinkmeyer 123), Rayber inflicts a strangely se cularized and modern asceticism upon himself in his attempt to both disavow and distance himsel f from his past. Ultimately, though, Rayber was not deceived that this was a whol e or full life, he only knew that it was the way his life had to be lived if it were going to have any dignity at all. Rayber realizes th at the stuff of which fanatics and madmen are made that is buried deep with in him has the potential to erupt under certain circumstances; thus, he has made a very conscious effort to turn his destiny as if with his bare will (Three 193). Though he has, for the most part, manage d to quell this violent, irrational side both through his distance from the old man an d the repression of his affection for Bishop Tarwaters appearance on his doorstep exacerba tes Raybers already into lerable situation. This is illustrated most profoundly in one of the many arguments between Rayber and Tarwater: when Rayber claims th at Mason still controls the boy from beyond the grave, and that Tarwater is completely unaware of what ma kes you do the things you do, the boy lashes out that, Its you the seed fell in . It aint a thing you can do about it. It fell on bad ground but it fell in deep. With me it fell on rock and the wind carried it away. Rayber, on the other hand, maintains that it fell in us both alike. The difference is that I know its in me and I keep it under control. I weed it out but youre too blind to know its in you ( Three 236). Of course, since Rayber prides himself on his psychoanalytic prowess, he believes that in addition to the fact that he survived a sim ilar attempt by Mason to shape him into a prophet he understands the boy completely and can save him from his ignorant backwoods ways. In The Art and Vision of Flannery OConnor Robert Brinkmeyer observes that Rayber has very 32


little concern or use for other indi viduals, except in how he can e ngineer their lives to be more like his lives of rationalism. Guided by his own insight into human psychology, he believes he thoroughly understands all others (121). During one of his many slanderous assaults upon Rayber, Mason pointed out that if Tarwater ever fe lt so inclined to seek out his uncle in the city, the first thing he would do w ould be to test your head and tell you what you were thinking and how come you were thinking it and what you ought to be thinki ng instead. And before long you wouldnt belong to yourself no mo re, you would belong to him (Three 157).Clearly, the old mans concern (and contempt) for Raybers ways aligns the schoolteachers reliance upon Freudian theory with the conformity and lo ss of individuality that Mason and, thereby, Reismans old timers both scorns and fears. True to the old mans word, once Tarwater flees Powderhead and finds Rayber in the city, the schoolteacher reassures him that the old man lived a long and useless life and he did you a great injustice. Its a blessing hes dead at last. You could have had everything and youve had nothing. All that ca n be changed now. Now you belong to someone who can help you and understand you (Three 177; emphasis added). When Rayber takes Tarwater and Bishop on the ill-fated vacation to the lakeside lodge, Rayber predicts that his planned day trip to Powderhead will elicit Tarwaters irrational fears and impulses, and that Rayber, sympathetic, knowing, uniquely able to understand would be there to explain them to him ( Three 213). In one of OConnors supposed jabs at Freudian theory and ps ychoanalysis, Rayber hypothesizes that the boy is eaten up with fa lse guilt (226) over his rash decision to burn his home (with Masons body still inside), rather than burying his great uncle in the manner which he had been instructed. Rayber is convinced that even though Tarwater may a ttempt to deny that this is the 33


case, the boy could not escape knowing that there was someone who knew exactly what went on inside him and who understood it for th e good reason that it was understandable ( Three 233). Clearly, Rayber views Tarwater as a problem to be solved (Brinkmeyer 121); believing that the old man had made a wreck of the boy and that what was called for was a monumental job of reconstruction ( Three 183). Rayber revels in his thoughts of the boys future, except when every now and then the boys actual face would lodge in the path of a plan (229). Raybers desire to educate Tarwater so th at the boy can one day ta ke his place as an intelligent man in the world, (190) is frequently distracted by the image of the actual insignificant boy before him (177). When he finally realizes, though, that the damage the old man has wrought on Tarwater is irreparable, he no longer feels any challenge to rehabilitate him. All he wanted now was to get rid of him (240). The fact that Rayber essentially gives up on Tarwater long before Tarwater ever baptizes (i.e., drowns) Bishop should come as no real surprise, though, considering th e ambivalence with which Rayber regards his own son. Raybers initial intentions to help Tarwater are rooted in several distinctive motivating factors: not only would Tarwater be a pet project, of sorts, through which Rayber could hone his skills in psychoanalysis, but he could also im part on the boy all the e ducation and intellectual stimulation he has been unable to share with his retarded son Bishop; an added bonus, one may assume, would be an avenging one-upmanship dire cted at his dead uncle Mason. When Rayber is reunited with Tarwater for the first time in twelve years since his unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the child from his uncles homestead, Rayber vows that he will remedy the damage done to the boy by Mason he will make it up to him now, to lavish on him everything he would have lavished on his own child if he had had one who would have known the difference (184). 34


CHAPTER 6 BISHOP TARWATER: A SYMBOL OF LOVE Aside from Raybers hearing aid, Bishops me ntal retardation is perhaps the most concrete manifestation of grotesque realism in a si ngle character in the novel. While some critics could and, from the implications of the Time review, did dismiss th e idiot child as yet another example of So uthern Gothicism in Violent, Bishop plays an extremely important part not only in the narrative and plot de velopment, but in the message of the novel overall. Critics willing to scratch the surface of th is tangent of the story have unearthed several analyses of the significance of Bishop to OConnors social commentary, most directly through Raybers ambivalence toward his son. Masons initial attempt to bap tize Bishop is halted by an irate Rayber. The schoolteacher insists that the old man could slosh water on him for the rest of his life and he d still be an idiot. Five years old for all eternity, useless forever. Rayber argues, ironically enough, that he will not allow Mason to perform the rite as a matter of human dignity (143). According to Edward Kessler in Flannery OConnor and the Language of the Apocalypse Rayber believes that his son is useless because the child clearly has no pr ospect of becoming a fully developed, rational person. Kessler goes so far as to suggest that though Rayber never uses the word, Bishop is a candidate for euthanasia . w ith Bishop removed from his life, Rayber could hope to be free of the irrational love that tempts him (65). Rayber acknowledges these feelings of af fection only to himself, and outwardly dismisses Bishops affliction as an irrefutable argument against the ex istence of a benevolent diety (Walters 95). However, as Asals argues, if Bishops handicap is a manifestation of the reality of the Fall he first appears in the nove l gnawing on a brown apple core it is at the same time the preserver of his incorruptibility (Asals 170). Thus, in similar ways, Bishop and 35


Tarwater are connected: while Ma son (and, subsequently, Rayber) strives to influence Tarwater and shape him in their own image, both Rayber and Mason view Bishop as a stalemate of sorts. Rayber views Masons attempts to baptize the ch ild as ultimately futile, yet Mason knows that Bishops stunted intellect is Raybers biggest frustration. It certainly is not by chance, then, that Bishops idiocy re presents a more sympathetic grotesquerie in comparison to Raybers grotesque hearing aid. Indeed, as Marshall Gentry argues in Flannery OConnors Relig ion of the Grotesque Bishop signifies Raybers one link to the positive grotesque, and even as Rayber ridicules the idea of God, he links God to Bishop (153). For instance, we learn that Ra ybers perceives his son as an x signifying the general hideousness of fate. He did not believe that he himself was formed in the image and likeness of God but that Bishop was he had no doubt. The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution ( Three 192). According to Martha Stephens in The Question of Flannery OConnor this is OConnors means to express the idea that the loss of faith inevitab ly leads to a paralysis of the emotions; the atheist opts fo r the dignity of emotional death as against what he sees as the insanity of belief (130). Rayber experiences what he presumes are the symptoms of this so-called insanity during the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love of and for his son; he spontaneo usly experiences a morbid surge of the love that terrified him powe rful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise. It was completely irrational and abnormal ( Three 192). According to Gentry, these emotional responses serve as indicators to the atheistic Ra yber that he is consta ntly on the verge of returning to religious belief, to the purposeless love that Bish op inspires, and that what would force his crucial decision would be the loss of Bishop (Gentry 153). Indeed, Rayber 36


acknowledges that his own stability depended on the little boys pr esence (230), and any attempt he makes to envision his life without Bishop inevitably inspires a moment of complete terror (209); although Rayber can control his terrifying love as long as it had its focus on Bishop, if anything were to happen to his son, h e would have to face [his terrifying love] in itself (230). Therefore, by allowing Tarwater to drown the child thereby becoming complicit in the death of his own son Rayber simultaneously relieves himself of the crutch that prevents his collapse toward re ligiosity (Gentry 154). Though Bishops mental handicap may have been read as Southern Gothic stock, the act of drowning the child stunned OConnors contempor ary readers and critics almost as much as the assault on Tarwater at the end of the novel. Still modern critics argue that Bishops presence, and death, signifies at the heart of the story, an abiding theological paradox (Walters 95). This becomes all the more meaningful, Walters argues, as one realizes that while the obviously deformed call attention to themselves as oddities w ithin the human family . they manifest in actuality merely as exaggerations or extensions of the imperfections that mark all Gods creatures (96); thus, according to Gentry, Rayber deserves criticism precisely because he fails to see the positive qualities in the grotesque (14). While Bishops affliction may have been mo re noticeable in its outward manifestation and left the boy vulnerable to dest ruction by others, Raybers grotesquerie indicated externally by the hearing aid, but pervasive throughout hi s being is sustained by technology and is therefore ultimately self-destructive. Rayber has convinced himself that indifference was the most that human dignity could achieve, and he felt that he had achieved it. To feel nothing was peace ( Three 241). Later, when Rayber realizes wit h an instinct as sure as the dull mechanical beat of his own heart, that Tarwat er has drowned Bishop (2 43), he expects his loss 37


to bring about some sort of revelatory moment Rayber awaits the wave of raging pain, the intolerable hurt that was his due so that he could ignore it; however, Rayber continue[s] to feel nothing and it was not until he realized that there would be no pain that he collapsed ( Three 243). Brinkmeyer suggests that Raybers u ltimate self-destruction stems from this comprehension that so withdrawn from life has he become, that he has wonBut in winning he is left with exactly what his life has become not hing and contrary to hi s earlier belief, feeling nothing is not peace (126). 38


CHAPTER 7 FREUD AND THE PATHOLOGY OF RELIGION In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud asserts that reli gion confines individual freedom, this play of choice and adaptation, in sofar as it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protectio n from suffering . religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more (36). This notion that religion, rather than cultivating the sense of indi vidualism that Mason so firmly endorses, instead acts as a veritable breeding ground for collective neuroses is especially helpful to our discussion here. Reisman argued that tradition-directed so cieties rely on long-sta nding customs within the group to maintain conformity; to the secular intellectua l, then, religion is just as much of a mechanism geared toward a brainwashed herd mentality as old-timers (such as Mason) argue that public education and modern ization in general acts to stri p individuals of their autonomy in favor of the greater good. Conversely, Freud argues that the most important step in the process of civilization is the aim of creating a unity out of the individua l human beings (105). Fr eud states that this endeavor is bound to clash with the other primary urge within each individual, which strives to obtain personal happiness, (i.e., independence). T hus, he asserts, these two urges must struggle with each other in every individual; and so, also, the two processes of individual and cultural development must stand in hostile oppos ition to each other and mutually dispute the ground (Freud 106). In a passage from Habit of Being we learn that OConnor admitted to possessing quite a respect for Freud, when he is nt made into a philosopher (491). This too, I believe, is indicative of OConnors own internal struggle with fa ith and logic, which plays out in Violent through Raybers resistance to sp irituality, and his eventual destruction at the hands of his own emotional paralysis. 39


Curiously, Rayber criticizes Masons brand of independence because it is not a constructive independence but one that was ir rational, backwoods, a nd ignorant (185); presumably, then, Raybers ideal of a constructive independence aligns with Freuds notion of the shifting balance of power between indivi dual and community. Fr eud suggests that the replacement of power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization (49), and that this is a necessary transaction, si nce civilized man must exchange a portion of his possibilities of happi ness for a portion of security (73). This suggests, of course, that an unw illingness to do so classifies one as uncivilized, and Rayber let alone OConnors intellectual audience cert ainly perceive Mason (and young Tarwater) as coarse anachronisms and therefore troublesome obstacles along the path of total modernization, for both the North and the South. As Bacon points out, Rayber has little patience for nonconformity, whether willful, like Tarwaters, or innate, like Bi shops (100). In either case, though, nonconformity is indicative of a brand of independence an individualism which Rayber abhors, and this disregard for i ndividuality aligns him with the forces from outside the South that seemed to diminish its identity (Bacon 100). Even though OConnor clearly did not perceive Mason Tarwat er as a religious fanatic, some of her readers certainly did; therefor e, this largely secular audience most likely misinterpreted the significance of Masons inst itutionalization. Accordin g to the old man, his own sister who claimed that Mason was not only crazy but dangerous conspired with doctors to have him committed: Ezekiel was in th e pit for forty days, he would say, but I was in it for four years, and he would stop at that point and warn Tarwater th at the servants of the Lord Jesus could expect the worst ( Three 160). Oddly, as the narr ator points out, Masons extended stay in the asylum was not due to an in -depth rehabilitation program of any kind; on the 40


contrary, it had taken him four years to understand that the way for him to get out was to stop prophesying on the ward ( Three 160). Thus, in an extremely subtle point in the narrative, OConnor suggests not only that religious devotion is inevita bly immune to medical (and, therefore, technological) interven tion, but that true believers are persistent enough to overcome adversity from both psychologist s and scientists alike. OConnors irreligious audience members especially those who regarded faithful followers of the Church with a sort of condes cending contempt must have been disturbed by this notion; in fact, the portrayal of Mason as a subversive trickster not a holy man must have contributed to the audiences perception of the old man as th e storys antagonist. In this same vein of pathologizing religiosity, then, Rayb er focuses his attention squarely upon the task of forcing Tarwater to understand that his urge to baptize th e child was a kind of sickness an infection, no doubt, passed from the old man to the young boy (213). Therefore, just as Walters argues that Masons religious fervor during a time period of wi despread (and accepted) apathy toward the strictures of religiosity influenced audiences perception of both Mason and Tarwater as grotesque, Rayber likens the Ta rwaters faith to a disease in need of treatment. Rayber realizes that Masons time in th e mental institution did not cur e the old man, but is nonetheless insistent that he can cure the young boy. In one of his many failed attempts to underm ine Masons teachings, Rayber insists that the old mans fixation of being called by the Lord had its origin in insecurity. He needed the assurance of a call, and so he called himself (134). Later, Rayber conde scendingly assesses that all such people have in life is the conviction they ll rise again (190). Thus, OConnor shapes Rayber as an embodiment of the secu lar man who endorses psychoanalysis completely, and adopts its clinical bias whic h she defines as the prejudice th at sees everything strange as 41


a case study in the abnormal ( Mystery 165). Additionally, as Rayber attempts to express his complete comprehension of the boys inner turmoil, he explains to Tarwater that theres a part of your mind that works all the time, that youre not aware of yourself. Things go on in it. All sorts of things you dont know about (224). Time and time again, though, Tarwater rejects Raybers theories, informing his uncle that he never came [to see Rayber] for no school lesson . I aint worried what my underhead is doing (225). Nevertheless, Rayber ultimately fails in his interactions with Ma son who was, quite literally, a case study for Raybers article in the schoolteacher magazine and young Tarwater (whom Rayber initially envisions as his potential successor) to c onvince them of the significance of subconscious drives, or to cure them of their backwoods theology. OConnors audience may have perceived Mason and Tarwat er as sick or even insane just as Raybers attempt at asceticism is intended to achieve emoti onal paralysis but as Agee notes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in his appraisal of psychological educa tion, it needs to be remembered that a neurosis can be valuable; also th at adjustment to a sick and insane environment is of itself not health but sickness and insanity (310). 42


CHAPTER 8 CONFORMITY AND TRUE FREEDOM Thus, OConnors portrayal of Rayber as a secular (i.e., public) sc hoolteacher which, according to Reisman acts as a proxy parent whose power has increased as a consequence of the shift to other-direction (57) parallels Agees assessment of the role of public education in America during the mid-twentieth century. Rath er than cultivating th e potentiality of the human race which Agee states is born again in every child, the public education system acts instead as the very propert y of the worlds misunderstanding (289-290). In a parallel that is especially useful to our discussion regarding th e intersections of modernization, technology, and the public sphere, Agee regards the mechanisms of public education as the spectacle of innocence, of defenselessness, of all human hope, brought steadily in each year by the millions into the machineries of the teachings of the world (290). Rather than preparing future generations by aiding in their comp rehension of their own dignity in existenceto live and to take part toward the creation of a world in which good living will be possible, Agee states that the education system is indeed, all but entirely unsuccessful even within its own scales of value (Agee 294). OConnor constructs Rayber as an embodime nt of the type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself but who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; therefore, OC onnor posits, he has become his own ultimate concern ( Mystery 159). I believe that this remark provi des an interesting parallel to Freuds observation that modern man has nearly acquired the characteristics specifically, omnipotence and omniscience that in the past were reserved only for deities. Freud posits that, because of this, modern man has almost become a god himself . Man has, as it were, become a kind of 43


prosthetic God (44), although this development itself leads to an irre pressible feeling of discontent (44-5). If, as Freud suggests, the tr ipartite source of human suffering stems from our own body from the external world and finally from our relations to othe r men, and that the suffering that comes from this last source is perhap s more painful to us than any other (26), then Tarwater only becomes fully cognizant of the extent of the external worlds impact on himself after being raped by the sinister Stranger. T hough the boys grotesque transformation begins the instant he ignores his great uncle s request of a proper Christian burial opting instead to leave Powderhead for the city the horrific encounter with the driver of the lavender and creamcolored car is OConnors most fo rceful [demonstration of her] be lief in the power of violence to return one to reality (Feeley 160). Yet OConnor insists that it is al ways assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself (Mystery 113). Furthermore, OConnor clai ms, distortion is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distor tion that destroys; it is th e kind that reveals, or should reveal (162). Though at the conclusion of the novel, Ta rwater is once again leaving Powderhead in order to descend to the dark c ity with a prophetic message to which no one will listen (Asals 227), OConnor states that Tarwater must of course not live to realize his mission, but die to realize it. The children of God I da resay will dispatch him pretty quick (342). Instead, OConnor posits, she is not saying that he has a great mission or that Gods solutions for the problems or our particular world are prophets like Tarwater [his] mission might only be to baptize a few more idiots (Habit 342). 44


In Flannery OConnors Relig ion of the Grotesque Edward Kessler notes that, in OConnors work, the emphasis falls not upon evil as a sort of opposite and equal number to good, but on sin understood as a defection from the good the basis of sin is precisely a turning away from true freedom into false freed om (63). The concept of freedom, then, stands as one of the central conflicts in the novel, and each key character presents their own interpretation of it. Additio nally, Brinkmeyer suggests that Raybers idea of freedom is synonymous with control, controll ing ones emotions and actions and controlling other people, by bringing everything to bear under the fierce rule of rati onal thinking (120). Raybers freedom is largely empty of content. It amount s to a kind of brave self -sufficiency in which there is no higher good than the assertion of one s autonomy. Freedom for Rayber is its own end (Kessler 64); essentially, then, Raybers pe rception of freedom is, in fact, the ultimate torture because it yields only nothing disguised as free will (Whitt 107). Conversely, the voice of the st ranger which as OConnor blun tly states, I certainly do mean Tarwaters friend to be the Devil ( Habit 367) proclaims a celebration of complete and individual freedom, with the se lf free from all constraints an d control by others (Brinkmeyer 124). The stranger tells Tarwat er you can do one of two things. One of them, not bothYou can do one thing or you can do the opposite. Jesus or the devil, the boy said. No no no, the stranger said It aint Jesus or the dev il. Its Jesus or you ( Three 146). Therefore, as Kessler suggests, the struggle within young Tarwater is not so much between the opposing views of old Tarwater and Rayber as it is between self-sufficiency and submission (Kessler 66). Therefore, in OConnors The Violent Bear It Away the contact made between these two extremes be it self-sufficiency and submi ssion, faith and rationality, individualism and conformity, or the spiritual and social worlds manifests within the realm of the grotesque. In 45


One Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse claims that under the conditions of a rising standard of living, non-conformity with the system itself appears to be so cially useless, and the more so when it threatens the smooth operation of th e whole (2). Raybers general contempt for the backwoods ways of his rural re latives illustrates this notio n quite clearly as does the misinterpretation by OConnors au dience that Mason was, in fact the intended antagonist of the story. Though Mason and young Tarwaters religious fer vor appears grotesque to this secular audience, the grotesquerie manifested in Raybe rs hearing aid denotes his fatal flaw as a dependence upon technology; Marc uses sociological interpre tation mirrors OConnors own judgment, as he asserts that today, dominati on perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology but as technology (158). Marcuse also claims that the distinguishing feature of advanced industrial society is its effective su ffocation of those which demand liberation while it sustains and absolves the destructive power and repressive function of the affluent society (7). Raybers hearing aid enables him to selectively allow and omit signals of change and conflict coming from the world around him that is to say, the suffocation of some in favor of a so-called liberation for all; undoubtedly, this represen ts one of Flannery OConnors most critical observations regarding the confin ement and distortions th at such technological advances pose for American society, in the name of modernity. 46


LIST OF REFERENCES Agee, James and Walter Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941. Asals, Frederick. Flannery OConnor and the Imagination of Extremity Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1982. Bacon, Jon. Flannery OConnor and Cold War Culture. Cambridge University Press, 1993. Baumgaertner, Jill. Flannery OConnor: A Proper Scaring. Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 1998. Brinkmeyer, Robert. The Art and Vision of Flannery OConnor. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Coles, Robert. Flannery OConnors South Baton Rouge, Louisian a: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Eggenschwiler, David. The Christian Humanism of Flannery OConnor Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972. Feeley, Kathleen. Flannery OConnor: Voice of the Peacock New York: Fordham University Press, 1982. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1961. Gentry, Marshall. Flannery OConnors Religion of the Grotesque Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. God-Intoxicated Hillbillies. Time. Vol. 75, No. 9 (February 29, 1960):,9263,7601600229,00.html Retrieved November 15, 2007. Kessler, Edward. Flannery OConnor and the Language of Apocalypse Princeton University Press, 1986. Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man: Studies in th e Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. O, Connor, Flannery; Sally Fitzgerald, ed. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. ---. Three by Flannery OConnor New York: Signet Classics, 1986. ---. Habit of Being: Lett ers of Flannery OConnor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988. 47


Rath, Sura and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O'Connor: New Perspectives Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 996. Reisman, David, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character Yale University Press, 1961. Stephens, Martha. The Question of Flannery OConnor. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. Walters, Dorothy. Flannery OConnor. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1973. Whitt, Margaret. Understanding Flannery OConnor Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. 48


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Sara Williams was born in 1982, and has lived in Gainesville, Florida, since she was a child. She earned her bachelors degree in Eng lish from the University of Florida in 2005, and attended graduate school there from 2006 to 2008. 49