Frances Marion Tarwater, 14, has been raised by his great-uncle Mason. Frances was “born from a wreck” as his mother was injured in a car crash and lived just long enough to deliver her son. Originally, the boy was sent to live with his uncle Rayber, a schoolteacher. But Mason, a religious fanatic who lives out in the woods and sells homemade hooch, kidnaps the baby so he can raise him to be a prophet like himself.
As the novel begins, Mason dies, leaving young Tarwater with no option but to turn to his schoolteacher uncle for help. Rayber, who nearly succumbed to his uncle Mason’s influence as a youth himself, is determined to save his nephew and enable him to make his way in the modern world. Rayber is also raising his son Bishop, whose mother abandoned the family after realizing her son was intellectually disabled. Bishop is a sweet boy but his presence irritates and repels Tarwater, while Rayber finds his love for the boy alternately overwhelming and terrifying.
Tarwater is a difficult character for the reader to get their head around. He has been thoroughly warped by his great-uncle’s prophesy to the extent that his behavior is barely recognizable as human. He refuses to explain himself, ever. He speaks cryptically and his pride won’t let him accept Rayber’s help.
All of the characters here are more or less vehicles for O’Connor’s vision of religious faith. Mason’s unquestioning faith are diametrically opposed by Rayber’s antipathy for religion and his embrace of the modern world. Their conflict plays out internally in Tarwater, who also deals with a “friend” in his inner voice, which tempts him to do the unthinkable.
Like all the best-known Catholic novelists, Flannery O’Connor makes faith seem absolutely terrifying. If she intended The Violent Bear it Away as an argument for belief, she may have missed her mark. This was a difficult novel to read, but there’s no question that the novel is extremely compelling in its strangeness.