Are the eyes the window to the soul? Do the eyes reveal a person’s nature? In young Tarwater’s journey though Catholicism, he meets people who challenge him and change him fundamentally. He finds a new depth in life as a prophet. But the eyes he finds along the way are microcosms for the people, and for their purpose within Tarwater’s life. In The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor uses eyes as a subtle metonymy that reflects the nature of a soul, and, thematically, reveals the character’s purpose in Tarwater’s life.
Tarwater’s first description of Rayber focuses on his eyes because Rayber’s character has yet to be revealed. Tarwater can describe most aspects of Rayber without problem; however, he “kept trying to find eyes that fit his mouth, nose that fit chin” (55). This is the first revealing use of the ‘eye’ metaphor. Tarwater cannot understand the kind of person who believes, thinks, acts like Rayber. He searching to put a soul to a body: an eye to a face. After contemplation, Tarwater recognizes Rayber’s eyes to be “shadowed with knowledge” (56). As Rayber is a devout man of reason, the diction “shadowed” is enlightening. Tarwater sees the world of ration and reason as wrong or bad—because of the negative connotation shadow presents in literature. So, Rayber’s soul is darkened by his rationality. Not only that, but now there is an established chasm of ideology between Rayber and Tarwater, which foreshadows their struggle to find a cohesive theology. Within in the novel, Rayber is cemented into his identity that was initially revealed through eyes, by eyes. Rayber looks at Tarwater with “little eyes, protected and precise behind his glasses” (159). Because glasses are a symbol for rationality and knowledge, this symbolizes how Rayber looks at the world through the protective lens of his own rationale. This is why he cannot love his son, and this is why he published a paper on Mason. His view is protected to the point of inhibition, which, therefore, disables him from being emotional or religious. Lastly, the diction emphasizes the smallness of Rayber’s eyes. Another passage dictates that over the years “the size of his eyes had shrunk” (69). This concludes the metaphor for Rayber because it is the most obvious. Rayber used to believe in passion and in God but as time went on his soul shrunk—just like his eyes did. Rayber is an example of how to reject God. Rayber’s purpose in Tarwater’s life is to be the epitome of rationality. O’Connor’s use of metaphor and diction surrounding Rayber’s eyes create the nuances of Rayber’s soul, and how it will interact with Tarwater.
Mason, on the other hand, is a symbol for the religious life that appeals to Tarwater, as revealed through the metaphor of the eyes. When Tarwater feels “the rush of longing” for Mason, its for his eyes “—insane, fish-colored, violent with their impossible vision of a world transfigured” (114). Tarwater actually misses Mason’s soul. He is described with all the attributes of a crazy man or a religious one, which is the battle that Tarwater must face. He has to choose which lens to see the world out of. Mason, as the Prophet of the Lord, has “fire in his eyes” (28). Religion, in The Violent Bear It Away, is associated with fervor and outburst of passion resulting in violence, which is why fire is a symbol for religious loyalty. Mason has a soul on fire, on fire for the call of the Lord. This is emphasized by Mason’s consistent description of having “fish-colored eyes” (124). While, at the end, it is intended to that Mason’s zeal was correct, and not psychotic, his description is intended to be ambiguous—for either religious passion or secular crazy—to reflect how Tarwater understood Mason on his journey through theology. This ambiguity comes from fire’s secondary nature to be destructive, and from Rayber’s comments on the fish being a symbol of evolution. Therefore, Mason remains ambiguous in his mental health until Mason’s purpose in Tarwater’s life (to represent one theology) is complete.
Bishop is a key factor in Tarwater’s final determination. Bishop is the deciding factor. Bishop can be dim-witted because he’s useless or because he’s saved. When Tarwater first encounter’s Bishop he has “pale silver eyes like the old man’s except they were clear and empty” (32). Bishop is a blank canvas for the people around him—specifically Tarwater—to paint on. When Mason died, it was clear that Tarwater was to baptize Bishop, as that would commence his life as a prophet. But, Tarwater was uncertain in this life path. The crux of his belief lies in Bishop. Bishop, however, is no help because he “strictly avoided looking him in the eye” (112). The content of Bishop’s soul is hidden from Tarwater. Hence, their complex relationship. Thematically, Bishop’s eyes are hidden because, if revealed, they would also reveal Bishop’s purpose in Tarwater’s life. The Violent Bear It Away is meant to cause introspection circulating the nature of man and God, so the deciding factor of this dispute cannot exist until the conclusion. The conclusion came when Tarwater looked into Bishop’s “fish-colored and fixed” (214) eyes and drowned him. When the moment of choice came, Tarwater’s purpose comes forth, and he drowns him, baptizes him, then runs away. The truth becomes clear, as Bishop becomes fish-colored. The religious parties in Tarwater’s life keep true to themselves, but for the purpose of Tarwater’s growth remain ambiguous because it is a reflection of their role in Tarwater’s journey.
Ration or Religion, how does Tarwater decide? Once Bishop exposes the truth of the novel, Tarwater follows both paths and, subsequently, flees. It isn’t until both preconceptions are ripped from him that he is able to come to a conclusion. It happens when he meets the man with “eyes the same color as his [lavender] shirt” (227). Lavender isn’t exactly violet, but its enough to make a strong allusion to the voice in Tarwater’s head, and the Devil himself. His eyes and the allusion they bring color him as evil, and foreshadows that he will do evil to Tarwater. His purpose in Tarwater’s life is taking “his hat for a souvenir and also the corkscrew bottle opener (231) because this will let Tarwater make an independent decision. In his moment of distress, he is alone with his own thoughts and opinions unassisted by the convictions of others. It is here that Tarwater reaches out and accepts his life as a prophet.
Tarwater was blind, but now he sees. At the forefront of the novel, Tarwater wants to “see no more than what was in the front of his face, and to let his eyes stop at that” (21). He wanted to reject the life of a prophet that Mason crafted for him. This feeling launched him into his expedition to find God or not find God. But the words of Mason stay with. That the prophet he will make out of Tarwater will “burn your eyes clean” (76). There is always the looming notion of what Tarwater is supposed to do. So, Tarwater shuts himself off from his soul. First with alcohol, then with ration, then with weed and whiskey. But after his rape, he is free, and he chooses to be a prophet. He has a new understanding as “his scorched eyes no longer look hollow” because the looked “like the lips of a prophet, they would never be used for ordinary sights again” (233). His eyes are described like so because Tarwater’s soul has accepted his call to God. His eyes reflect the prophet inside Tarwater that has been absent for the majority of the novel. Just like his eyes, Tarwater will never be used for ordinary pursuits again because he is a prophet. He works as a prophet, and thinks like a prophet. With Mason, fire was God acting in his soul. Accordingly, Tarwater’s scorched eyes are the fire of God working within Tarwater for the first time. Tarwater’s eyes reflect the personal state of his soul throughout the novel, beginning with desired ignorance, and ending with wanted willingness.
The roles played by Mason, Rayber, and Bishop are in a clear light after Tarwater’s rape, where the ambiguity of Tarwater’s confusion no longer obstructs the readers view of Flannery O’Connor’s claim. The Violet Bear It Away is an allegory depicting the struggles of religion, told in the nuances of character, which she depicted in the eyes. The final chapters in this novel complete Tarwater’s personal growth. It sheds a light that lifts the shadows off the novel and brings a new depth to each character. This novel uses eyes as a way as reflection before and after clarity. It is a tool of understanding of both the characters and of their purpose.