The Violent Bear It Away Summary & Study Guide

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The Violent Bear It Away Summary & Study Guide Description

The Violent Bear It Away Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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The main action of The Violent Bear It Away is simple and occurs over seven days, but much of the novel consists of flashbacks that recall incidents in the lives of the main characters. As events are brought to mind through the memories of various individuals, the author provides insight into their psychological and spiritual natures, reveals the motivations behind their actions, and offers an intimate family history clouded by personal feelings, religious and intellectual beliefs, and emotional confusion. The novel is divided into three sections, each covering a period in Francis Marion Tarwater's journey of spiritual self-discovery.

Chapters 1—3

The novel opens with the burial of Mason Tarwater, young Francis Marion Tarwater's great-uncle, at his farm in rural Powderhead, Alabama. Although Tarwater will not learn this until the end of the novel, it is explained that Buford Munson, who has come to get his jug filled from old Tarwater's still, has buried the old man in the proper Christian way because the nephew is passed out drunk. A history of this family is woven into the events that are taking place, but incidents are not described in order of their occurrence. What emerges is that old Tarwater considered himself a prophet. His religious teaching was that of a Christian fundamentalist who despised the trappings of secular modernity; he followed an ancient religious and moral code, and, like an Old Testament prophet, saw himself as a voice crying out in the wilderness. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital for four years, after which he stole his nephew, Rayber, from his parents. Rayber eventually rejected his uncle's teachings, became a schoolteacher, and married Bernice Bishop, a social worker. Rayber's pregnant cousin died in a car accident before she gave birth to Francis Marion, who Rayber took to raise.

After being released from the asylum, Mason lived with Rayber for a few months. Rayber studied him and wrote an article about him in a "schoolteacher magazine," describing him as an all-but-extinct specimen—a religious fanatic. Outraged, Mason kidnapped Francis Marion from Rayber and raised him in the woods to be a prophet as well. Rayber and his wife attempted to retrieve young Tarwater from Powderhead, but gave up after the old man shot Rayber twice, rendering him almost completely deaf (he uses a mechanical hearing device). After this incident, old Tarwater promised Rayber: "THE PROPHET I RAISE UP OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN." Rayber and his wife had a mentally disabled child, Bishop, whom Rayber has taken care of on his own after his wife left him. Mason tried and failed to kidnap Bishop, and Rayber refused to let the old man baptize Bishop, so the old man ordered Francis Marion to finish the job. He also instructed young Tarwater to bury him in the proper Christian way in anticipation of the Second Coming.

Tarwater is skeptical of his great-uncle's teaching, rejecting the idea that he too is a prophet. As Tarwater had set about burying his great-uncle's body, he was visited by an inner voice, that of a "stranger" who later becomes a "friend"—and who represents the devil—who counseled him that he need not do the old man's bidding, that perhaps the old man had not taught him the truth. Young Tarwater passes out drunk, but that night he returns to Powderhead and sets fire to the house, believing he is also burning his great-uncle's body and thus denying him his chance for Resurrection. Tarwater leaves for the city in search of Rayber, believing he has rebelled against his great-uncle's wishes. He gets a ride into the city with an opportunistic copper-flue salesman named Meeks, who suggests to Tarwater that his great-uncle may have misled him. Meeks is another incarnation of the devil as he tempts Tarwater. When he arrives at his uncle's house, Tarwater is repulsed by the sight of the young disabled boy Bishop; Tarwater realizes that he has come to baptize Bishop after all. Rayber sees Tarwater's arrival as an opportunity to undo his uncle's false indoctrination and educate the boy in the proper way, to develop him into a "useful man."

Chapters 4—9

Rayber's enthusiasm to "save" the boy soon dissipates, as he finds Tarwater sullen, angry, and difficult. Tarwater does not hide his skepticism of the schoolteacher, whose rationalist arguments echo very much those of Tarwater's own inner voice—the voice of his friend, the devil. Rayber buys the boy new clothes, which Tarwater rejects, and gives him food that he does not eat, despite a deep hunger. Rayber asks his nephew to take some standardized tests, his ultimate goal being to ferret out the center of the boy's "emotional infection," but Tarwater refuses. Rayber continually tries to psychoanalyze the boy, attributing his behavior to his upbringing and thinking of ways to fix his problems. Rayber also wants to give Tarwater what he is unable to give his own son because of his disability. Throughout the section, it is shown how Rayber struggles with his love for Bishop.

One night, Tarwater steals out of the house to attend a religious gathering he has seen advertised. Rayber follows him through the city to the revival meeting, where a young girl named Lucette preaches about Christ's coming and asks the audience for money so her parents can continue their missionary work. As he hides outside in the bushes and listens to Lucette, Rayber recalls his own dysfunctional childhood. At the end of the meeting Lucette stares at Rayber and speaks about the man whose ear is "deaf to the Holy Word." Rayber tries to switch off his mechanical hearing device but cannot, and he flees and waits outside for Tarwater. The boy claims that he attended the service only "to spit on it."

Rayber decides to take Tarwater to a natural history museum to teach him about evolution and science. As they walk through a park to the museum, Rayber stops to tie Bishop's laces and is suddenly gripped with an uncontrollable love for the boy. He remembers an incident in which he tried to drown his son but could not, changing his mind at the last moment because he could not imagine life without the boy. The three of them continue walking, and they come to a fountain, which Bishop tries to jumps in. Tarwater moves to baptize him, but Rayber snatches the boy away at the last moment, realizing what his nephew is trying to do.

Frustrated by his inability to cure Tarwater, Rayber decides to take him back to Powderhead so he can shock him into facing his past and thus get through to him. He tells Tarwater they are going on a fishing trip, and they check in at the Cherokee Lodge, which is near a lake. Tarwater, who had eaten little in the city, has a huge meal at the lodge. He also shows some unexpected kindness to Bishop by tying his shoe. During the stay at the lodge, Tarwater's "friend" visits him repeatedly, and Tarwater recognizes that this voice's demand for a sign from God is what has kept Tarwater from baptizing Bishop. Tarwater tells his friend that he would have drowned Bishop in the fountain rather than baptize him, and his friend approves of such an action, saying he should do it to prove that he was not going to baptize the boy. Later Rayber takes Tarwater fishing and tells him how he tried to drown Bishop and also tells Tarwater that he wants to save him. Tarwater, after his heavy meal, vomits into the lake, leaves the boat, and swims to shore.

Rayber takes a trip to Powderhead with Bishop, and when he returns he offers to let Tarwater baptize Bishop so he can overcome his internal conflict. Tarwater is horrified by the offer, but that afternoon he takes Bishop out in a rowboat. From his room, Rayber hears Bishop's wail. He knows that Tarwater is drowning his son, but he does nothing to stop him.

Chapters 10—12

Tarwater hitchhikes back to Powderhead with a trucker, whom he tells he has drowned Bishop and thus proven he is not a prophet. He admits, though, that he also baptized him by accident. The truck driver gives Tarwater a sandwich that he is unable to eat and drops Tarwater a few miles from Powderhead. There, Tarwater tries unsuccessfully to get a drink from one of his neighbors, who chides him for what he has done to his great-uncle's house. He is then picked up by a stranger, a man in a lavender shirt and Panama hat who drives a lavender and cream-colored car. Tarwater accepts alcohol and marijuana from the man and passes out. He awakens naked, his hands tied with a lavender handkerchief. He sets fire to the forest, then takes the road to Powderhead. At the farm, Buford Munson tells him that he buried the old man with a cross over him. Tarwater has a vision of a multitude being fed from a single basket of loaves and fishes, and he has a great hunger. He stays there until night, his hunger growing as flames from the forest fire encircle him. He throws himself on his great-uncle's grave and smears a handful of dirt from it on his forehead. Then, Tarwater returns to the highway, the burning woods behind him, and travels back to the city to preach the Word to the children of God.

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