Faulkner & Flannery Notes – Week 2
Spring 2014 Books & Film Class
Topic – Faulkner & Flannery: Exploring the Southern Gothic
Held Wednesdays through February 26 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
Notes will be updated each Friday through February 28; comment to join in the discussion.
Class was canceled last week due to the wintery weather down here in South Louisiana, but we resumed on February 5 for a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. The second of her two novels, this one is tough to get through and was met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1960.
The novel’s first chapter was published as a short story five years earlier with the title “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead.” Proof of O’Connor’s strength as a short story writer is evident in the first and last parts of the books, with most critics — and class participants — agreeing that the story sags in the middle.
The story of Francis Tarwater, a 14-year-old boy who is trying to escape his destiny as a prophet, set forth by his late great-uncle who kidnapped him as a baby, The Violent Bear It Away represents the struggle between a secular and a spiritual view of life. Tarwater’s uncle, a schoolteacher who lives in town, wants nothing to do with the child’s prophecies and hasn’t even baptized his own son.
Described by O’Connor as a “very minor hymn to the Eucharist,” this book is filled with religious views and symbolism. It’s title comes from the Douay version of the Bible, and O’Connor dramatizes and horrifies the sacrament of baptism to be sure her non-Catholic readers don’t miss the point.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. – Matthew 11:12
Reviews in the The New York Times and Time Magazine were not favorable, with Time‘s now notorious review titled “God-Intoxicated Hillbillies.” Its vindictive anonymous author brings O’Connor’s lupus into the picture and paints her as a backwoods spinster. O’Connor was furious to say the least.
Violent Bear It Away has been compared to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” which O’Connor admitted by letter she hadn’t seen, and Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Robert Lowell compares the first part of the book to a poem. There are some beautifully written passages in this story if the reader can get past being bogged down by others.
The ending is both typical O’Connor and a stretch for her — we won’t give it away, but prepare to be shocked and keep an eye out for a character who is described in the likeness of a vampire. It should come as no surprise that violence is at the center of this novel, with the word in its title and Tarwater’s entry into the world during a deadly car wreck, but it’s also easy to understand why this story was a hard pill to swallow in the 1960s.
There are humorous parts as it wouldn’t be O’Connor without them, but this is one story that will stay in readers minds for a while. Our class discussion was lively to say the least, with some attendees questioning O’Connor’s own sanity by the end.
Praying to Be a Fine Writer, a review of O’Connor’s Prayer Journal