The first line of Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has to be my favorite first line. “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table when it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up,” says it all.
What do we learn from the sentence?
From that one sentence, we know that Francis Marion Tarwater was, no doubt, named for that famous South Carolina “Swamp Fox” of the American Revolution, Francis Marion. We know that Tarwater is white, because Buford Munson is described as being a Negro. We can guess that there is an illegal still involved, although Munson could have come to fill his jug with water. The sentence tells us that Tarwater’s uncle died at the breakfast table and half a day later Tarwater was too drunk to bury him. It also tells us that Tarwater’s uncle was a Christian, and that Munson puts a cross at the head of the grave when he finishes burying Tarwater’s uncle.
The opening sentence also paints a picture of the grave of Tarwater’s uncle piled high with fresh dirt in order to prevent dogs from smelling and digging up the body. From this, we can assume there was no casket, no vault, no fence around the gravesite, and no leash laws in the area.
Tarwater is described as a boy in the opening sentence. This tells us that he was under the age of 21 (the age of majority when the novel was written) and more than likely younger than that. (We learn later that he is 14 years old.) For him to be too drunk to finish digging the grave tells us that Tarwater is either celebrating his uncle’s death or distraught with grief. Either way, it is not a desirable situation.
The young Tarwater apparently felt total responsibility to bury his uncle which insinuates that there are no relatives or good friends close by. Or, perhaps Tarwater murdered his unsuspecting uncle by putting poisonous material in his food, then got scared or felt guilty, which caused him to get drunk and attempt to hide the evidence by burying him.
Just when we think that opening sentence with all its nooks and crannies has said it all, we realize that it has led us to an incredible number of questions. Although the novel’s opening sentence is outrageously long at 88 words and complicated with only two commas allowing us to take a breath, it accomplishes what every fiction writing textbook says a novel’s opening sentence should do: It hooks us. It draws us in. It compels us to keep reading in order to find out what is going on and to find the answers to the many questions it raises. What more could you ask of an opening line?
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.