Perhaps the difference in the qualitiy of the two novels lies largely in the fact that The Violent Bear It Away doesn’t seem to be operating in the establishment of the same abstract terms; O’Connor establishes Tarwater’s relationship with God in blatant truths and not abstract vagueries, so the audience has a better understanding of what the characters are invested in. Wise Blood, it seems, is chiefly concerned with telling a story through a carefully-placed veil, and O’Connor seems to have little interest in lifting that veil – if, indeed, her first novel tells the story of the Watchers, then there is no shortage of motivation for O’Connor to have left this concealed.
The problem, however, lies in the confusion that this veil creates, for it takes so much effort to decode the riddles wrapped in Eliot and Dante and Biblical references that by the time the message is actually received, one has very little interest anymore in what the message might actually say. The Violent Bear It Away doesn’t have this problem – O’Connor sets up her story and her characters without hiding them behind somewhat random-seeming circumstances and vague dialogue; the old man believes himself a prophet, his nephew in the city thinks he’s schizophrenic, and the young Tarwater wants to be a prophet, but finds the required faith a little demanding.
I still find The Violent Bear It Away to be rather heavy-handed, and I fail to see how this story is any less of a hodge-podge of ideas than Wise Blood is, and think, perhaps, that the only real difference is that the cracks in the framework have glue on them with the second novel. It does not require much effort to see the influence of O’Connor’s past work (“they slept in the kitchen until a bobcat sprang in the window one night” directly parallels “The Wildcat,” as does “he would look as if he had been wrestling a wildcat, as if his head were still full of the visions he had seen in its eyes”; the schoolteacher bears the same name as a character in “The Barber”), and after a while, this gets a little oppressive, because O’Connor has merely shifted from esoteric allusions to other people’s work to esoteric references to her own.
In fact, I feel largely persecuted by The Violent Bear It Away, as O’Connor seems to have gone well out of her way to challenge the structures present in society in a whole (and it’s not the deconstruction of social structures that bothers me, but when that ties in with both psychology and T. S. Eliot, I have to wonder exactly what O’Connor is up to). With the first mention of the asylum, I began to wonder exactly what statement O’Connor was trying to make about Eliot, or, for that matter, about high modernism as a whole, as it is common knowledge that Eliot (along with several of the other modernists) was in a mental hospital for a period of time. While there are several people who respond to this information with comments such as, “Couldn’t these people, these… modernists… couldn’t they, just, like, not think so much,” I never would have taken O’Connor for one of them, and while perhaps O’Connor would criticize modernism because of the tendency it has to wander away from organized religion, the fact that she puts Old Tarwater in one for four years seems even more problematic.
Perhaps, then, this is a condemnation of the psychological community as a whole, first for their condemnation of Eliot because of his tendency to simply think too much, and then for their condemnation of people like old Tarwater (and likewise any other prophets who could have delivered their message). My background in psychology, I suppose, is largely why I find this novel unnerving, as O’Connor presents a family that presents the majority of the criteria for schizophrenia, and seems to taunt her readers with this fact, waiting for them to make that judgement so that she can destroy them with the credibility of their claims. Marion Tarwater, after his great-uncle’s death, begins to hear voices (or, more specifically, a voice) that is either an auditory hallucination or the voice of the devil, attempting to lure him into sin. He begins to question the motives of those that he encounters (Meeks, the schoolteacher) with a sort of paranoid fixation that further implies schizophrenia, and the fact that old Tarwater presents all of the symptomology as well only furthers this.
The presence of the schoolteacher does not really complicate this paradigm, as he claims that old Tarwater ruined his life by introducing him to his “fantasy world,” which would imply a long-term struggle with reality. Schizophrenia manifests most frequently in males, and the first psychotic break (hearing the voices, etc) is normally during the teenage years and is often triggered by some sort of significant event; schizophrenics often believe themselves called by some higher power to serve some grand purpose, and while the condition can be neutralized with medication, the individual would have to possess a strong desire to rid himself of the delusions and hallucinations (and Rayber would have this type of motivation, because what he really wants is simply to be normal).
He tells his uncle, “You infected me with your idiot hopes, your foolish violence. I’m not always myself,” blaming old Tarwater for either his introduction to God or his genetic schizophrenia. If the schoolteacher were prone to schizophrenic tendencies, then this alternative way of approaching the world would challenge his foundation, and would account for his severe dislike of his uncle, and his subsequent need to cast old Tarwater aside as a loon – in the everyday world, prophets do not wander the streets, but schizophrenics might, and it would be easier to believe that his uncle was making the entire thing up then to believe that there truly is a God and that Rayber has cast him aside.
Maybe I see schizophrenia because the idea of a world with wandering prophets is particularly threatening; maybe the idea of a world riddled with psychopaths wandering around acting out of faulty brain chemistry is somehow less frightening than a world of prophets acting out God’s will (and perhaps the latter is threatening because of my old testament mindset, as we see, in the end of the novel, the change from “Go andd tell the children of God of the terrible speed of justice” to “Go and tell the children of the terrible speed of mercy”).
O’Connor seems to be on a personal crusade for those with mental impediments (I lack a better way to phrase that), as she not only tackles the possiblility of mental illness, and, perhaps, the suggestion that there is more to so-called mental illness than meets the eye, but she also deals with the treatment of Bishop, who is repeatedly described, as his father, as being useless. Rayber states that there are things that he would have done for Bishop “if it were any use” (92), if he “would have known the difference” (100), and he tells old Tarwater that Bishop will not be baptized because “you could slosh water on him for the rest of his life and he’d still be an idiot” (34).
When Tarwater appears on the doorstep, Rayber cares little that his son is hit; when old Tarwater comes to baptize the child, Bishop is pushed out of the way – it seems to me that if it were my child, I would take great exception to anyone striking my child, but Rayber seems more interested in Tarwater than he does his own son, because Tarwater has something more to offer him (or so he believes).
Rayber tries to make sense of the world and appreciates love only for the uses that he believes it serves; he therefore cannot appreciate the love that he feels at times for his son, and he cannot appreciate the overwhleming love of God, for he thinks it “irrational and abnormal.” This man goes contrary to all that fatherhood stands for, to all that brotherhood stands for, and yet, ultimately, he receives mercy, and once again O’Connor asks us to judge, to state openly that he doesn’t deserve this mercy, that he is not worthy of God’s forgiveness.
I have learned, however, from none other than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that:
Forgiveness is an act of compassion. It has nothing to do with whether someone is worthy or not. You don’t forgive someone because they deserve it, you forgive
them because they need it.
That, then, pretty much sums up my feelings for The Violent Bear It Away. I may well like Wise Blood more, but only because it is more cut and dry, and it doesn’t require an in-depth analysis of the circumstances of redemption; people are either not redeemed, or they’ve done something meaningful that would lead to their possibility for redemption. This novel, however, involves mercy, and mercy is such a new testament creation that it still requires some getting used to.