Human and Divine Fatherhood in The Violent Bear It Away and Gilead

The Violent Bear It Away and Gilead show the role of prophet as a preacher of the Lord as a genetic vocation growing out of ‘blood’ and family bonds, but responded to in varying degrees and manifestations. While Marilynne Robinson paints a peaceful picture of a vocation being inherited from generation to generation, chosen in some way by each succeeding son, Flannery O’Connor shows the vocation being a stamp of soul, a character which is not chosen, but can be responded to positively or negatively. The Violent Bear It Away shows a third generation protagonist who responds in strong rebellion, while Gilead shows a third generation protagonist whose response is of resigned, benign, somewhat paralyzing nonjudgement. Both books show an elderly eccentric, the following generation reacting as a pendulum, and the third generation trying to make sense of both. Both books show the future being born from the past. Each book attempts to respond to suffering in the life of a man of God, particularly in his relationships with father and son. These two books showcase earthly relationships of fathers and sons which illustrate the character’s and presumably the author’s interior vision of God as Father and thus deals with strong themes of identity and forgiveness.

Patriarchs and Prophetic Fire

The Violent Bear It Away opens with a brief summary of the entire book. There is certainty, and a clear plan in place reflecting a plan with causalities and an ultimate end. Gilead’s opening provides the narrator’s purpose, but no clear story. The eccentric, saintly prophet of old Mason Tarwater is presented as a character with a strong sense of justice, purified by the very gaze of God, “even the mercy of the Lord burns.”1 Mason feels the call of God and responds wholeheartedly. He preaches apocalyptic fire throughout the city and fails to notice that the message is primarily for himself. This experience of purification teaches him to wait on the Lord’s call rather than form his own mission.2

Gilead’s John Ames I is a similar character. He is a fiery preacher who knows the voice of the Lord. Like Mason, he knows that the man of God receives God’s gifts in a violent manner, “He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied.”3 This understanding of suffering as being a mysterious gift is seen as a mercy by Mason and a blessing by Ames. Mason seems to know this mystery somewhere in his blood and longs for it, seeking it out, going out to the wilderness:

At such times he would wander into the woods and leave Tarwater alone in the clearing, occasionally for days, while he thrashed out his peace with the Lord, and when he returned, bedraggled and hungry, he would look the way the boy thought a prophet ought to look. 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 . . .4

Ames is certain of the blessing, but offers it in blind hope with no certain grasp of how suffering has purified him, “‘I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.’”5 The mercy for Mason is received and cannot be found by searching alone, but comes unexpectedly even when vigil is kept. Blessing for Ames is something to be found and searched out. Perhaps the meaning is there and hidden, or he must pull himself up by his own bootstraps and create some meaning out of it, becoming a co-creator with God who allowed this misfortune. “God is my co-pilot” might be his bumper sticker. Mason’s might echo St. Catherine’s view of God by stating, “God is my mad lover.”6

Interestingly, both these visionaries Mason and John Ames connect these mercies and blessing to their eyes. Mason’s eyes are burned, while Ames loses an eye in the war. Both of these patriarchs have a strong sense of integrity. They want with their whole hearts to be singular in purpose and to have their interior reflected in exterior actions. They want their lives to be in service of God and seem tortured by the call of God within them — God’s desire for his children and the gulf lying between God’s vision and his children’s living of this vision crucify their own hearts. They stop at nothing to pursue their mission. Mason does not hesitate to shoot his nephew Rayber in the foot and ear to protect Tarwater and his mission to raise Tarwater up as a prophet.7 Ames also shoots a man to protect his mission of protecting the abolitionist John Brown.8

These two prophetic characters see the whole cosmos as belonging to God and His law. Ames has no difficulty of conscience in reconnoitering material goods for others to the point that his family and congregation hide things from him. His passion for freeing people from ownership seems to have overflowed to every created thing. Mason overlooks laws of ownership and custody as he battles to save Powderhead for Tarwater and to kidnap first Rayber, then Tarwater. Neither of these men are fully accepted by the generation below them, nor the community around them. Mason seeks a place for his integrity in Powderhead, his backwoods hermitage and Ames does the same by fleeing to Kansas.

These men view God as active in their lives. Mason sees God as a father who knows how to chastise his children for their good — He heals as he wounds.9 Ames sees God as one who gives a mission, inspires preaching, and presents blessing in times of affliction. These men’s view of God as a providential Father allow each of them to set their hearts on the eschatological vision. Mason’s hope is in the Bread of Life in heaven and the Resurrection of the dead, while Ames seems more earthbound in social justice, but not without eternal consequence. Their own fatherhood then is superseded by God’s, and they are content to leave their families and sons when their own time of active fatherly formation is complete.

Rebellious Sons

The second generation of both books show some resemblance to each other, but there are divergent qualities in the way they respond to the previous generation. John Ames II and Rayber both want to be socially normal and rational in their living. Both desire to practice social virtue and are repulsed by talks of visions and prophesies. Both had emotionally distant fathers, and in their turn keep their own emotional distance from at least one son. Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away is not the biological son of Mason, but he is kidnapped for salvation. Rayber responds positively in his childhood as one adopted by the first adult who showed an emotional interest in him. His own parents did not notice his absence for three days.10 As a child, his sense of being adopted delights him and he responds to the uncle and to God as a child who has seen himself loved for the first time. Later, he resents this adoption and the very prophet’s blood within his veins. He attempts to stifle this blood, adoption, and the accompanying call by psychologizing away his interior impulses to love:

Anything he looked at too long could bring it on. Bishop did not have to be around. It could be a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk. If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of love that terrified him—powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise. It was completely irrational and abnormal.11

John Ames II, of Gilead, also rebels against his father’s eccentricities, but not against the vocation as such, nor against God. John Ames II becomes a preacher, but in a different style than his father. He is more careful in pastoral approach, a pacifist who left his own father’s church to seek out the Quakers, and feels guilty when people identify him as a preacher trying to give him more than strictly necessary. His love for peace becomes a thorn in his own heart as his father left and died without full reconciliation:

It grieved my father bitterly that the last words he said to his father were very angry words and there could never be any reconciliation between them in this life. He did truly honor his father, generally speaking, and it was hard for him to accept that things should have ended the way they did.12

Both of these characters desire an integral life and to act upon their beliefs; both find what they profess to believe and their action do not match up. Rayber professes utility in relationships with other people, yet finds that he cannot follow through in drowning his own son and loves him despite his lack of potential.13 The truth of his love for his son wins over his attempt to construct the meaning of life. His very blood seems to know it and act despite his attempts at rational errors. This blood is the hope Mason had for him, “‘Good blood flows in his veins,’ the old man said. ‘And good blood knows the Lord and there ain’t a thing he can do about having it. There ain’t a way in the world he can get rid of it.’”14 Mason’s hope is Rayber’s bane. Ames professes that the body has no meaning of itself, yet he goes through great pains to find his father’s grave. “My father always said when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn’t want anymore. But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet.”15 The journey from Gilead, Iowa to Kansas — “near a town that had pretty well lost its people,”16 brings out qualities and situations that lead John Ames II to act as his father: gleaning in fields and gardens — even shot at as a result and begging at doors.

Rayber wants to believe God does not exist and rebels against his own contingency on this God’s love. He tries to squelch the love that is within his heart and might teach him God’s own love for him, but like his love for his son, he knows God exists despite himself. He wants to remake himself and is simply unsuccessful. He cannot create, nor can he even participate in procreation as he wants to begetting a boy bearing his uncle’s (and also God’s) image who cannot be formed into his own likeness. He wrestles with God’s existence and wrestles with his own son’s existence. In the end, he does not receive the gift of his son, but allows God’s violent love to bear him away. God, for Rayber, is a Father who adopts by kidnapping with violent love.

John Ames II believes in God, but is unwilling to accept God’s blessings in the form of visions, prophesies, calls to unbounded foolishness. He prefers to keep God in a tidy box and understandable. A moment at his father’s grave that his son viewed as a shared vision, John Ames II explains it away:

‘You know everybody in Kansas saw the same thing we saw.’ . . . Later I realized my father would have meant that the sun and moon aligned themselves as they did with no special reference to the two of us. He never encouraged any talk about visions or miracles, except the ones in the Bible.17

Social virtues are highly valued, and peace the primary spiritual objective. This contrasts greatly with his father who never sought interior or exterior peace for its own sake in this life. John Ames II values peace above all, but his desire for peace destroys peace between him and his father in this life. Like Rayber, he chooses to create his own meaning:

He said, ‘I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing. And I was, and I am, as certain of that as anyone could ever be of any so-called vision. I defer to no one in this. Not to you, not to Paul the Apostle, not to John the Divine. Reverend.’18

His own fatherhood has it’s rifts and unquiet as Edward follows the rationalistic thread out of belief causing heartbreak. John Ames III feels his father’s distance. He relishes the memories of the shared journey to Kansas and the stories that would have gone untold in other circumstances of normalcy of family life with its proper boundaries and tidy boxed relationships.

Children’s Children

The third generation of The Violent Bear It Away and Gilead are rather different from each other, yet there are parallels of note and this pair shows the diverging vision of their authors most clearly. While John Ames III is a peace loving reflective old man, Tarwater is a wrathful, impetuous youth, both of these third generation men of God bear memories of past generations and try to make sense of the past — informing their own existence and identity. Both deal with a questionable baptism at their own hands making each unwilling spiritual fathers, and in the end both are reconciled to this role of fatherhood.

As already observed in Rayber’s character, Flannery O’Connor dealt with adoptive relationships in The Violent Bear It Away. All of the relationships in the novel are uncle-nephew biologically, except Rayber and Bishop. Tarwater is the son who refuses to be adopted. Gary M. Ciuba explores O’Connor’s sense of orphanhood and adoption in his essay “‘NOT HIS SON’: Violent Kinship and the Spirit of Adoption in The Violent Bear It Away.” He recounts that as a child O’Connor would visit an orphanage and was listed among the benefactors of the orphanage. Her experience of interacting with the orphans gave her imagination an understanding of such an identity.

The solitude to which O’Connor gravitated by illness, vocation, temperament, and spirituality made her live out on a daily basis the strangeness and separation that she detected in the children at St. Mary’s . . . O’Connor adopted orphanhood as a sign of the ongoing loss out of which she created her fiction.19

O’Connor’s Tarwater treasures his birth and proclaims his undesirable origins as a rebuff to Rayber’s attempt at fatherhood, “‘I ain’t ast for no father, ‘ he repeated. ‘I’m out of the womb of a whore. I was born in a wreck.’ He flung this forth as if he were declaring a royal birth. ‘And my name ain’t Frankie. I go by Tarwater . . .’”20 He has no interest in his origins as belonging to his parents, but in his lack of belonging to them.

Tarwater turns away from the path set by his great uncle and attempts at building up his isolated identity. His turn to Rayber is his first attempt, but Rayber grasps too tightly and Tarwater will not succumb to his fatherly embrace. He is disloyal to both his great-uncle and his uncle, yet not identifying as God’s son, but cringes at the idea of his sonship being dependent on Jesus.21 Tarwater enjoys seeing himself as called on a mission, but he is more interested in action at the beginning of the story than in his actual identity. He wants to be independent to do what he wants to do. While still digging his great-uncle’s grave he reflects, “Nobody to bother me, he thought. Ever. No hand uplifted to hinder me from anything; except the Lord’s and He ain’t said anything. He ain’t even noticed me yet.”22 Eventually, he only desires to be left alone, presumably even by God:

I’m going back there. I ain’t going to leave it again. I’m in full charge there. No voice will be uplifted. I shouldn’t never have left it except I had to prove I wasn’t no prophet and I’ve proved it . . . Now all I have to do is mind my own bidnis until I die. I don’t have to baptize or prophesy.

He attempts to reject every sense of belonging that he has, the last left to him — a child of God and prophet. This is the unmaking Augustine wrote about in his Confessions and commented on by Fr. David Meconi, SJ,

Sin removes every soul from community, rendering the fallen one content to live in a world obviously broken and bankrupt, but at least it is his or her own ruin.

Here the fallen grow comfortable with being at the center of their own world—devoid of intimacy, true enough, but at least now they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, and however they want.23

Just at the moment that Tarwater believes himself to be completely separated from God, he finds the burnt cabin, “What he looked out upon was the sign of a broken covenant. The place was forsaken and his own.”24 He turns to see his place restored. The great-uncle is buried, Buford buried him and planted the corn — a sign of a future mission. Here in this moment of understanding his debt paid through Buford’s action, he sees what he has been longing for without knowing it. “The boy too leaned forward, aware at last of the object of his hunger, aware that it was the same as the old man’s and that nothing on earth would fill him. His hunger was so great that he could have eaten all the loaves and fishes after they were multiplied.”25 His desire being fully known, his eyes are burned by God’s mercy, his spiritual ancestry is made known to him from Abel down to him, and his own place as son is revealed in the word given to him, “GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY.”26 Tarwater baptized Bishop after a long struggle with himself and supposedly by accident. Afterwards, he feared it meant something, but hoped it does not, while knowing that it does. This Tarwater receives as his filiation and accepts his own role as a spiritual father. Now at the end of the story, the Father is known as the one who knows his children better than they do, fulfills the desire, and calls to mission, restoring this call even when the child runs away. God is a Father too good to let his children forget his love and Fatherhood. He will make a way to restore to sonship even when all bridges to the past and future seem to be burned up.

John Ames III, narrates Gilead in a gentle, patient tone. He fears his own temper, but gives little proof of letting anger turn to wrath. He seems quietly, but stubbornly opposed to making any judgement whatever. This anger he confesses and warns his young son about is likely there, but he does not engage it enough in the novel to judge the pain of his own heart in relation to others and so offer true forgiveness. If he feels anger within, it stems from his unwillingness to judge the injustice and consequent inability to fully forgive the pain inflicted upon himself. He attempts to make sense out of his memories of his grandfather and father to honor both without being disloyal to either. It is an exact opposite of Tarwater’s desire to rebel against both of his uncles. Ames respects his grandfather and reveres him as a saint, yet does not want to think ill of his own father’s opinion. He generally takes the approach of his father to cover things over as forgotten rather than to face the difficult complexities of memory and judgement as recounted in a discussion about ‘Bleeding Kansas’:

All best forgotten, my father used to say. He didn’t like mention of those times, and that did cause some hard feelings between him and his father. I’ve read up on those events considerably, and I’ve decided my father was right. And that’s just as well, because people have forgotten.27

Ames’s inherited nonjudgmental attitude pervades the entire narrative. He intersperses baseball scores and facts with his memories as if his own role in life is as a spectator. Life and baseball memories are intertwined as if having the same weight. He reflects on the past, present, and future, all as a nonjudgmental observer, simply reporting things. This is in large part how he understands God the Father. It is this understanding of fatherhood that paralyzes him in his spiritual fatherhood.

Like Tarwater, Rev. Ames baptizes in a way that is somewhat forced. Tarwater is unable to explain what happened, but Rev. Ames is surprised with the well-intended gift of a namesake just at the moment of baptizing this ‘son’ of his, Jack Boughton. The bitterness of his own lot is felt deeply and his own disposition in the baptism is not one of reverent awe, but confused resentment. Ames seems to wonder about the efficacy of this baptism as he reviews the history of Jack’s own life of childish pranks, thieving, and “squandered fatherhood.”28 Ames never intervenes in this child’s life. He is uncertain of his own heart in Jack’s regard. He feels deep pain, but is unable to acknowledge that something was done to him and so he is unable to forgive:

. . . It is not for me to forgive Jack Boughton. Any harm he did to me personally was indirect, and really very minor. Or say at least that harm to me was probably never a primary object in any of the things he got up to. That one man should lose his child and the next man should just squander his fatherhood as if it were nothing—well, that does not mean that the second man has transgressed against the first.

I don’t forgive him. I wouldn’t know where to begin.29

Through his writing, Ames is able to own his love for Jack. This will later flower in his final blessing of this son of his at the train station. Rev. Ames views himself as an individual, and believes his life to be independent of Jack’s. His role is an observer and ought not to be pained by another’s personal sin and so forgiveness seems impossible. Tarwater seems to know in his proclamations of independence that he is called to community and rejects it. Rev. Ames views community as individuals co-existing side-by-side, observing, and perhaps encouraging. He is there to listen or advise when advice is sought, but does not give it otherwise.

When Jack seeks counsel about his relationship with his wife and child, Ames withholds any advice or promise of support among the community in Gilead because he is uncertain he will be there to follow through and he is not convinced that the people will be welcoming. This discourages Jack who is longing for the ‘observing’ God to break into his life. He recounts the experience of being next to a man at a tent meeting who has an experience of God’s love and forgiveness, a sort of baptism in the Spirit:

‘One night a man standing just beside me, as close to me as you are, went down as if he’d been shot. When he came up again, he threw his arms around me and said, ‘My burdens are gone from me’ . . . it’s a fact that if I could have traded places with him, my whole life would be different, in the sense that I might have been able to look Della’s father in the eye, maybe even my father. That I would no longer be regarded as quite such a threat to the soul of my child.30

He comes multiple times to his godfather seeking direction, forgiveness, a way to move on and become the man people think he is when they first meet him. He seems marked as a chosen one by God as everyone calls him Reverend on first acquaintance, yet he has not heard God’s call, or thinks himself beyond responding to such a call and can find no path to change his life. He seems destined to disappoint his father and himself. The blessing Ames gives Jack at the station in an attempt to right what was a lacking in Jack’s baptism is meant to bestow and restore Jack’s identity as a son, brother, husband, and father, but it seems to be more about Rev. Ames, than about Jack. Jack appears to have no more peace than before. It is a gift he can give Ames to allow the words to flow over him, but they do not change the son, they only console the father. Jack sees God as a kind, but personally unhelpful old man observing his life without caring to intervene.

Ames sees the Father as an observer and thinks this a positive thing. His own personal experience is that he can delight best in just observing. His own observation of his son as Br. Isaac Augustine, OP, observes on his Thomistic commentary on Gilead brings out the theme of “the sense of awe at the wonder of existence that pervades Ames’s thoughts stands out,” he “feels the weight of one of the great philosophical questions: Why is there something rather than nothing?”31 Ames delights in his son’s existence and loves him with a simple love, “but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”32 He delights in his wife’s delight in his son’s existence and this reflection of love of parent and child becomes a living icon for him of God’s love: “She has watched every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones. . . . You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.”33 The bubble scene of the wife and child being watched from above reinforces this ‘divine’ view of God as the mother and child play and a ‘celestial’ vision is created rising to the heavens.34 This vision of his wife and child as God the father looking on is reinforced by the color choice, the blue dress and red shirt. This is the color choice of artists for Mary and the child Jesus. Ames sees the Father as one who loves his children, yet does not see God as one who intervenes, one who would send a Beloved Son to a violent death of love. He might allow it, but He would not instigate it. This God sets things in motion, makes some blessing out of afflictions for those who love Him, and for those who do not, no one can know. These must be entrusted to a God who knows best and whose ways are not ours, but it isn’t really our business. Suffering is a part of life, and each one must make what each can out of it. Being reflective is helpful and advisable.

These two authors, O’Connor and Robinson have varying views of God and attempt to speak to the times. O’Connor portrays a Fatherly God who claims his own, but will not stop at claiming only those who want to be loved. God pursues, intervenes, acts — He is pure act.35 He loves unconditionally and pursues unconditionally, but those who run from him will feel the hunger and the lack in their lives until they seek the one who has sacrificed the last drop of blood for the sinner’s soul with the terrible speed of mercy. She writes to a world of comfortable Christians who have attempted to domesticate and civilize the Gospel. Robinson portrays God as a benign, all seeing, ever patient, nonjudgmental observer of the children of men. He loves his creation and delights in it. Touching it and intervening might be too violent a thing and disrupt some predetermined clockwork. Time goes on until all is revealed. Sins are covered and forgotten, but people do not seem to change, but continue on the path they are already taken. Robinson writes for a world frenzied by unreflective activity that has ceased to care if life has deeper meaning. “Gilead expresses a passion for the world, for existence that makes activity, ‘doing’ seem beside the point.”36 Suffering for Robinson is something to be endured with patience and to be reflected upon to make some meaning out of it. Suffering for O’Connor is a loving God’s way of allowing a person to experience need for Him and to increase the desire for the life to come.

Robinson has something to teach materialistic secularists who have forgotten their own souls’ ability to slow down and take in beauty. O’Connor teaches the person who sees earthly beauty as an end in itself that only God satisfies the human heart — only He knows what will fulfill it. He made us and we belong to him.37

  1. Mary Flannery O’Connor, “The Violent Bear It Away” in 3 By Flannery O’Connor (New York: Signet, 1962), 316.
  2. O’Conner, 307.
  3. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), 36.
  4. O’Connor, 307.
  5. Robinson, 36.
  6. St. Catherine of Siena, OP, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 325.
  7. O’Connor, 307.
  8. Robinson, 108.
  9. Job 5:18.
  10. O’Connor, 341.
  11. O’Connor, 372.
  12. Robinson, 10.
  13. O’Connor, 403.
  14. O’Connor, 338.
  15. Robinson, 13.
  16. Robinson, 9.
  17. Robinson, 48.
  18. Robinson, 84–85.
  19. Gary M. Ciuba, “‘NOT HIS SON’: Violent Kinship and the Spirit of Adoption in The Violent Bear It Away,” in Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, ed. Susan Srigley (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 59.
  20. O’Conner, 368.
  21. O’Connor, 315.
  22. O’Connor, 317.
  23. David Vincent Meconi, SJ, On Self-Harm, Narcissism, Atonement and the Vulnerable Christ (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 3.
  24. O’Connor, 444.
  25. O’Connor, 446.
  26. O’Connor, 447.
  27. Robinson, 76.
  28. Robinson, 164.
  29. Robinson, 164.
  30. Robinson, 226.
  31. Br. Isaac Augustine Morales, OP, “Marilynne Robinson, St. Thomas, and the Wonder of Existence,” Dominicana, April 23, 2014, dominicanajournal.org/marilynne-robinson-st-thomas-and-the-wonder-of-existence/.
  32. Robinson, 53.
  33. Robinson, 136.
  34. Robinson, 9.
  35. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, New Advent, newadvent.org/summa/1003.htm, 1.3.2.
  36. Amelia DeFalco, “In Praise of Idleness: Aging and the Morality of Inactivity,” Cultural Critique 92 (Winter 2016): 104.
  37. Psalm 100:3.
Sr. Mary John Kramer, OP About Sr. Mary John Kramer, OP

Sr. Mary John Kramer, OP, is a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. She has been a professed Bride of Christ for eight years, and currently teaches second grade at the Spiritus Sanctus Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sister is also working toward a Masters in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Comments

  1. Avatar Dea. Roberto Rios says:

    This is explained well and I understand a little more of our desire for God.

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