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The Violent Bear It Away: How Flannery O'Connor's Use of Violence Reflects the Cross.

(Trigger warning: I mention in brief issues of sexual abuse and abortion)


Recently, I read Flannery O'Connor's novel The Violent Bear It Away, an irksome story about a young boy, Tarwater, who has been raised in the literal backwoods by his fundamentalist Christian great uncle. At the death of his great uncle, he flees the secluded cabin and finds his uncle in the city, who challenges him with an atheistic and worldly perspective on life. Within this basic setting, O'Connor frames her idea about the role of violence in the plan of human salvation.


Any reader of O'Connor's works- short stories and novels- is familiar with her use of shocking, grotesque, and often violent twists. Her characters often exist in an initial state of either innocent ignorance, stubborn complacency, or rigid denial of virtue. Very often, these characters are rocked by a sudden moment of violent action which may cause the reader to grimace while challenging the characters to accept or reject grace. This use of violence causes many people to dislike O'Connor and her work. However, I think this theme makes her work important, as it so uniquely reflects the mystery of Christianity.


These days, we the common people have a rather strange relationship with violence. On one hand, we hate it. As a society, we tend to devalue and reject physical reactions to challenges. We don't want to spank our children, we hate bullying, we oppose the use of violence by police, and so forth. This is not all unreasonable and is very often necessary.

On the other hand, however, we glorify violence. Our movies and television, our music, our video games, even our books are regularly jammed full of depictions of violence. Imagine if the Marvel Avengers movies were all to resolve by negotiations and talking through issues. I doubt anyone would watch them. If James Bond did not have fast action chases, explosions, and danger, it would hardly pass as entertaining. I don't necessarily condemn this either, but I want to draw attention to our relationship with violence; we use it both to impress significance and we can become desensitized to that significance all at the same time. There is certainly far more to be said about this issue than I could fit into a short article. I am neither interested nor qualified to write a comprehensive dissertation on the topic, but I do want to share what insights I have found through my reading and reflection.


In Flannery O'Connor's aforementioned novel, she uses violence in limited and specific ways to highlight corruption and to startle both her character and the reader into a correct moral understanding. The main character in The Violent Bear It Away, young Francis Tarwater, is drifting down a path of moral corruption. He is actively rejecting his upbringing of extreme backwoods fundamentalism. The reader sympathizes with him most of the way. We see how terrible his rearing was, how it causes him pain and confusion, and how it dissociates him from the wider world. We might feel encouraged to witness him flee from his original home and learn how the outside world works.



Yet, before long, his rejection of the oppressive bonds of that fundamentalism leads him to a dangerous shift. Rather than seem an innocent victim, Tarwater almost willingly seeks out vicious opportunities. The circumstances seem for a while to shield him from harmful consequences, keeping him from recognizing the reality of his state. Even to the point of purposefully drowning his mentally retarded cousin, he does not acknowledge the presence of evil. He runs away and wanders down a highway, but does not yet express any deep shame for his crime.

As he walks and grows parched for want of water, he is picked up first by a trucker, and then by a dapper stranger. The second man offers Tarwater some heavy liquor, and then, while the boy is unconscious, sexually abuses him. Though this scene is heavily implied rather than described, it still leaves the reader feeling outraged and sick to the stomach.

This “violation”, as O'Connor refers to it, is a shocking violence which awakens Tarwater to realize the reality of his situation. Of course, no victim of abuse takes the blame due to the perpetrator. Any abuser is absolutely at fault. Yet, Tarwater recognizes that he is guilty in his own right for acting so dangerously in his sinful haste to escape virtue. He has intentionally distanced himself from the right way of living. The basic tenet of, “Don't get in a car with a stranger,” he has rejected for its association with authority. Tarwater realizes that the true nature of evil is abuse, is suffering, and is horrifying. The act of violence inspires a change which mere words have not been able to.

This is why Flannery O'Connor often employs the use of violence. The terrifying, grotesque, stomach turning actions of bad people highlight the reality of evil which is often hidden behind gentle descriptions, sugar coated excuses, and empathetic ignorance.


Violence is repugnant because it is uncomfortable, unwelcome. And yet, it is a reality of a fallen world. We can hide away violent actions, but that does not stop this reality.

For example, in the process of abortion, a human being is always violently harmed. Whether by starvation in the womb, being suctioned apart limb from limb, or lethally injected with poison, this procedure is fatally violent. It is the typical practice of abortion proponents to downplay or ignore this reality. The disturbing and truly unsettling descriptions and graphic images of abortion are so hated because they display this reality. People do not want to acknowledge the violence because that is to acknowledge the evil.

On another topic, abuse is another form of hideous violence. Whether sexual or otherwise, harm is inflicted upon the victim, often causing deep psychological wounds. Unfortunately, the natural shame of being abused causes many victims to keep their situation secret. When we hide away the violent reality, it is easy for abusers to hide their evil. This vicious cycle has done so much harm in our world today.


What does this mystery mean for the Christian, then? How does Jesus play into the relationship between violence and evil? What better example to look to than the crucifixion?

Why did God the Son choose to offer Himself in such a brutal and violent way? Christian writers have asserted that the torturous form of crucifixion was certainly not the only way for Jesus to achieve the redemption of humanity. The simplest suffering of earthly life is so beneath the dignity of God that to stub His toe on a stone would be enough to redeem mankind of all our sins. The very cold night air on the night of the Nativity would be enough. Yet Jesus so humbled Himself that He even suffered the brutal death of the cross.

Of course, Jesus does not crucify Himself. It is the evil hearts of men who inflict this upon Him. In perfect obedience, He humbly accepts it. The act of crucifixion is obviously barbarous, painful, and violent. However, even it is not the most violent action nor the greatest physical suffering possible. Jesus was not crucified because God needed the worst possible way to die. Through this action, however, we see a visible manifestation of the gravity of His redemptive act. We see a glimpse of how evil sin is and how much He is willing to bear for love of us. If our sins were mere trifles, as we often chalk them up to being, why would they bear such an awful violent affliction? Perhaps the utterly grotesque reality of the cross exposes the utter grotesqueness of our sins.

We as Catholics can grow desensitized to the brutality of the cross, I think. Our crucifixes are typically embellished to show Jesus in triumph or serenity more than agony. Of course, Jesus did triumph over the cross. He did not leave us suffering without resurrection and glory, but those more attractive things should not be our only focus, I would suggest.

Mel Gibson's cinematic depiction of The Passion of the Christ presents a shockingly real brutality. I think that is why many find the movie so inspiring. Seeing an image of suffering, cruelty, and violence often awakens or renews our understanding of Jesus as a true victim.


I certainly don't want to suggest that we become preoccupied by the gore or the sadism of the cross. But I think we do ourselves a major disservice as Christians if we forget the real ugliness and violence of sin. If the cross becomes a thing of fancy, it is easy then to sugar coat sin, to ignore it as it happens all around us, and to focus instead on easier things. Instead of this, let us be shaken awake. Let us not forget that our sins are what caused brutal violence to Him who in ultimate grace bore it our of love and gave us an avenue for escape from the violence of evil.

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