The story of young Francis Tarwater is as old as the tale of Jacob from the Book of Genesis, struggling with God to find his own identity; it is as timeless as Young Goodman Brown’s exploration of his own darker sides. It is the story of the collision between the spiritual forces of good and evil and their own resolution in the tale of each of us. Just like many of us, Francis Tarwater has to make his own decisions about his spiritual future, and the influence he receives from his various father figures in the story is problematic, as he has to decide which influence he will accept, and which he will shun. The interaction between Francis and his father figures provides one of the primary sources of conflict in the novel.
Of Francis’ elders in the book, Mason Tarwater, whose death immediately precedes the opening of the story, is the closest to the traditional paradigm of a father, in the sense of playing a primary and intimate role in the child’s upbringing. Interestingly, though, Mason has gone so far as to keep any women out of Francis’ life. Mason’s own experience with women has been less than pleasant; he tells Francis that his own sister had acted like a “whore” (355). This woman, Francis’ deceased mother, had been “unmarried and shameless” (355). Even Bernice Bishop, the wife of Rayber, as a simple automaton who should perform the accepted roles of motherhood, including changing the diaper of their baby. It is ironic that Bernice is a welfare worker; this role is the type of social control which Mason has emphatically rejected in the way he chooses to bring up Francis. This resistance to social control is one of the major conflicts that arise in the story. Mason has decided to steal Francis from the community, so that he could raise him to serve God, along the line of the Old Testament priest Eli raising Samuel (although with a significantly less twisted set of motivations).
The raging misogyny within Mason causes a conflict within Francis, as the difference between Mason’s fundamentalism and the message of love that comes from a more orthodox understanding of Christianity leads to a split within Francis’ own personality. Mason’s misogyny makes him, at best, a conflicted father-figure. It is true that the first part of the twentieth century showed an attempt by men to join in the socialization of children, women still played a key role as a keeper of the house and a source of support for the father, including (but not limited to) the daily grind of parenting small children. By parenting Francis by himself, Mason does keep him from being overwhelmed by a controlling maternal figure, but he also robs him of the ability to find a positive relationship with any mother figure at all. Mason has instead usurped the role of the mother as well. Indeed, Mason drifts away from the societal views of both the masculine and the feminine by taking on this bizarre hybrid role.
It is important to analyze the circumstances preceding Francis’ abduction to gain full insight into Mason’s performance as a father figure. Feeling “prompted by the Lord,”(367) Mason makes a point of complaining about the immoral lifestyle he felt his sister was pursuing, to the point of holding forth on her front steps in an attempt to “lead her to repentance”(367). This does not go well for Mason, though; his sister manages to trap him and get him sent to a mental institution. After he is released, though, Mason shows no change; he immediately tried to kidnap Rayber (his sister’s son) and raise him to serve Jesus. The only change that the asylum appears to have produced is an improvement in strategy; instead of agitating the situation by visiting his sister, he tries to bring someone whom he can control into his own isolation. In this instance, he views this sort of abduction as a way to become a father. For Mason, being a father includes raising one’s child far away from the corruption of secular life, instead leading that child to follow the correct system of morality that has been instituted by God. When Mason finally does capture Rayber and spend three days with him at Powderhead, baptizing him and teaching him his own beliefs about proper piety, the reader views the notion of the father as religious/moral leader of the home. It is worth noting that it takes three days for Rayber’s mother to notice that he is gone. Even in such a short time, Mason believes that Rayber’s instruction ensures that he “would never be the same boy again”(371). However, Rayber never sees Mason until his sister and parents are killed in an auto accident.
When he enters adulthood, though, Rayber is just as secular and far from faith as his parents had been; this suggests that, while Mason’s three days with Rayber may have been intense, they were not enough to counteract his lifestyle at home. Rayber’s father, for example, would mock evangelists by saying “he was a prophet too, a prophet of life insurance”(367). Rayber’s parents have chosen lives of capitalism and self-fulfillment. These are the same ruling principles that Francis’ mother (Rayber’s sister) chose for her own life. When Rayber introduces his sister to her future husband, he does so to “contribute to her self confidence”(366). In any event, it is not clear who did the worse job of parenting – Mason, with his molten desire to flee society, or Rayber’s parents, who have left the wonder of faith behind for blind materialism.
Because Francis spends so much more time with Mason than Rayber had, it makes sense that Francis would foresee a more spiritually elevating future for himself. Of course, this self-grandeur allows him to overlook the actual spiritual benefit that might have accrued to him had he completed his first mission after Mason’s passing, the baptism of the mentally challenged Bishop. Francis responds that God “’don’t mean for me to finish up you leavings. He has other things in mind for me’”(335). Francis was thinking more of the great deads of Moses, Daniel and Joshua than of the minutiae of the service of ministry. The second conflict in the story – that between secular culture and the more ascetic fabric of faith – appears both here and in the tale of Rayber’s parents. The temptations of materialism were strong, both within and without the faith, and they appear to have ensnared Francis as well.
There are many conflicts that occur in The Violent Bear it Away. Some of the most important occur within rather than between characters; the conflict between Mason’s own views of fatherhood and those that are proper, as well as the conflict between secular culture and the self-denying call to faith, have been with humanity from the very beginning and are not likely to be resolved any time soon. The war between the ego and the realization that the ego’s interests are only helpful in the short term is a basic part of maturation, and each person resolves that war in his own way.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works.
Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988. 329-479. Print.