Not many novels are comparable to Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away. Perhaps this is due in part to her skillful composition, but O’Connor’s blunt addressal of the natural struggle between faith and reason is strikingly convicting. Raised in the south in a predominantly Catholic family, O’Connor herself was no stranger to the concepts, using her experiences to create a composition that is deeply personal. O’Connor uses the themes of faith and reason as means of bearing her true beliefs to the reader, drawing them in further to the mesmerizing work that is The Violent Bear it Away.
In order to better analyze the relationship between the two, faith and reason must first be defined. The novel’s definition of faith is heavily demonstrated through the character of Old Tarwater, the self-proclaimed prophet. Though O’Connor claims to be “a novelist with Christian concerns,” this story’s “man of faith” is not portrayed in a favorable light. Tarwater may have been wellintentioned, however, his actions paint a picture of a deranged lunatic rather than a saintly figure. Through the character of old Tarwater, faith is demonstrated as being an abandonment of all reason.
Contrarily, the theme of reason is manifested through Rayber, young Tarwater’s atheistic, “man-of-the-world” uncle. Rayber makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with Tarwater’s faith, placing his primary value in education and the secular reform of his uncivilized nephew. Faith and reason make a second debut through the character of young Tarwater as we follow his internal struggle with the concepts.
Though Tarwater was bred to be a man of faith, he wrestles with the voice of “The Stranger. ” Whether this is the voice of the devil or his subconscious, O’Connor portrays it as the voice of reason hat rages against young Tarwater’s spiritual inclinations. The mind of young Tarwater is the battleground in which the influence old Tarwater’s faith and Rayber’s reason come to contend. With heavy influence from both sides of the spectrum, young Tarwater often found himself confusing the two. Even the Stranger chided him, “You have to quit confusing a madness with a mission” (O’Connor, 165). Though O’Connor portrays faith and reason as opposing forces, she also implies the importance of their codependence.
Much like the relationship between darkness and light, the coexistence of faith and reason is crucial in that we would not know one without the other. We see through the actions of old Tarwater that faith without reason is baseless and blind. Old Tarwater exhibits a mindless faith, acting with the potential of what could be (faith), but disregarding what already is (reason). Tarwater’s focus was completely fixated on fulfilling his status as a prophet, and training his nephew to do the same.
This blindlydriven faith led Tarwater to disregard any other needs his nephew might have – physical, educational, or social. Genuine faith should not disregard reason entirely, but rather should take what reason knows and expand hope upon it. The implication of faith and reason’s codependence is expanded through Rayber, young Tarwater’s atheistic uncle who “… kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness” (115). Scripturally, faith is defined as “the substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1); in other words, faith provides a source of hope to an otherwise monotonous existence.
Though Rayber is dedicated to the secular reform and betterment of himself and his nephew, he still finds himself dragging through life. Through Rayber’s complete rejection of faith, O’Connor insinuates that exercising reason without faith creates a lack of purpose and drive. Considering O’Connor’s religious background, it’s not difficult to see the parallels between the novel’s themes and her personal convictions. Raised in the Catholic faith, O’Connor’s belief system was heavily influenced by the saints – one of these being St. Augustine.
In St. Augustine’s Confessions, he writes of his relationship with faith and reason: “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe” (Sermo 43:9). St. Augustine’s writings were firmly grounded in the idea that reason drives man toward God, and faith helps to guide and increase reason. Other philosophers and saints throughout the years have repeatedly debated the relationship between the two concepts, questioning which should be prioritized in various contexts.
Though the subject has been rigorously debated, we see in O’Connor’s writings that she has not strayed far from the faith in which she was reared. Like Augustine, O’Connor’s writings revolve around the idea that faith and reason must work together in order to be effective. At first glance, The Violent Bear It Away appears to be just another modernist novel toying with the concepts of religion, belief, and intellectualism. However, looking closer into O’Connor’s background, it’s clear that her purpose in writing on such topics was far deeper than many of her peers at the time.
O’Connor believed firmly in her religious convictions, and knew how to get others to question theirs as well. The concepts addressed in her novel were nothing short of bold and controversial, cutting readers down to the core and challenging the way they viewed the world. Speaking about The Violent Bear it Away, O’Connor claims that she was intentional in dealing with controversial topics: “I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I’m afraid it will not be controversial.
Much like St. Augustine, O’Connor believed it was one of her personal duties and callings to share with others the experiences with faith and reason that had so deeply impacted her life. Through her bold and unconventional methods, it’s no surprise that O’Connor is considered one of the most impactful authors of our generation. The Violent Bear It Away is but one platform in which O’Connor proved herself to be an ingenious author, using subtle techniques that yielded powerful results.