Monday, April 25, 2011

Review of Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood is a truly baffling piece of literature.  I knew when I read O’Connor it would be Southern Gothic with plenty of freakish, grotesque characters.  However, I was expecting to understand more clearly where the story was taking me.  After reading it once, chewing on it for a few days, and still finding the point of the story “hazy”, I went online to see what critics and scholars were saying.  One of the better scholars I found was Yale’s Amy Hungerford.  After watching part 1 of her lecture on Wise Blood, I gained a clearer vision, if you will, of Hazel Motes and his motivations.  Armed with some of Hungerford’s insights and pondering questions she posed to her students, I went back through Wise Blood and thought more about the symbols and themes in the novel.
            Here is a quick plot synopsis:  The protagonist, Hazel Motes, was raised in a fire-and-brimstone preaching family.  His grandfather was a roving minister who put the fear of Jesus in Hazel at an early age.  Hazel realized that the easiest way to avoid the scary Jesus of his grandfather’s sermons was to avoid sin.  He thinks he will become a preacher, but he is drafted into the army, and that plan is thwarted.  During his service, fellow soldiers try to take him to a brothel.  Haze refuses, saying he will protect his soul from the government and foreigners.  His comrades tell him he has no soul and leave him behind.  This plants the seed in Haze’s mind that maybe he truly has no soul.  If he were rid of his soul – converted to nothingness instead of evil – he would have some relief from the Jesus moving “from tree to tree in the back of his mind.”
            When Haze returns from the army, he finds his family home abandoned; he is adrift – a roving, godless prophet.  He takes a train to a city where he plans to commit sins he’s never committed.  First, he goes to a whore whose name and address he finds in a bathroom stall.  The whore says he looks like a preacher in his dark hat and blue suit.  It is a mistake characters in the book make throughout the story, but Haze vehemently denies being a preacher.
            In spite of his denial of being a minister, sinners are drawn to him.  Even as he blasphemes about his Church Without Christ, people follow him.  Even when he is rude and hateful, people want to interact with him.  He meets a woman on the train who wants to talk to him even though he’s disinterested.  He meets a young man named Enoch Emery who begs for his friendship.  He attracts a charlatan preacher, Onnie Jay Holy, who would use him to exploit believers.  There is also fifteen year old Sabbath Lily Hawks who wants to seduce Haze so she can leave her conman father, Asa Hawks.  Finally, there is Mrs. Flood, Hazel’s landlady, who believes he has some important insight which she wants for herself.
            Enoch Emery is a foil to Hazel Motes.  While Hazel attracts company he doesn’t want, Emery can’t seem to befriend anyone no matter how hard he tries.  When Enoch was a boy, his father gave him away to a religious woman Enoch hated.  When he was eighteen, his father forced him to go to the city and get a job while he ran off and married.  Enoch laments that the city is unfriendly, and no one wants to be friends.  No one has so much as shaken his hand.  Hazel blows him off cruelly, but Enoch doesn’t give up.
            In the end, Hazel is stripped of nearly everything he thinks is important for his Church Without Christ.  He goes home to the boarding house and blinds himself.  With this blinding, I believe he is able to “see” something he was unable to see before – a sort of “blind faith”, perhaps?  It’s not clear to me whether Haze is truly redeemed in the sense that he comes to embrace Christ, but he is certainly changed and even repentant of his sins.  What’s upsetting is that the world around him is completely unchanged in spite of his struggle.  The world around him practices a faith of convenience, and as Haze says, “If you are redeemed, then I wouldn’t want to be.”
            Certain themes and symbols stood out to me, largely because they left me guessing as to what they could possibly mean.  O’Connor’s use of animal symbolism was interesting, especially as it pertained to Enoch.  Enoch is a man who believes he has “wise blood” that leads him to certain courses of action.  It is almost like an animal instinct with no human reason.  Ironically, Enoch hates the animals in the zoo where he works.  He thinks they are lazy and useless, and resents that men feed them and clean up after them.  Each day when he leaves work, he has a ritual that includes insulting the animals in their cages.  His landlady has a picture of a moose in his room which he finds frightening.  What is it about animals that he hates?  Is it because these soulless creatures get better treatment and more attention from people than he does? 
At one point Enoch encounters Gonga, a Hollywood gorilla, at a movie theater.  Enoch thinks this is a perfect opportunity to insult an animal.  He lines up with some children to shake the gorilla’s hand.  It is the first hand in the city that has reached out to Enoch, and he is moved by it.  He begins talking to the gorilla, whose celluloid eyes become replaced with human eyes.  A voice inside the costume tells him to “go to hell”, and the hand is jerked away.  I won’t give anything away, but Enoch symbolically devolves into his true animal nature – soulless and ignorant, guided only by instinct.  Again, this is a foil to Hazel, who is guided by faith, even when he tries to have none.  Enoch fears and hates animals, which represent his instinct (“wise blood”), while Hazel fears and hates Jesus, who represents his faith.  Neither man can escape his true nature.
            Another interesting theme is O’Connor’s use of doppelgänger.  In the beginning of the novel, Hazel is described as looking like his preacher grandfather who had “a particular disrespect for him because his own face was repeated almost exactly in the child’s and seemed to mock him.”  His grandfather drove from place to place, spreading his gospel in a Ford and preaching on the nose of the hood.  Haze cannot escape this legacy, no matter how much he tries.  From the beginning, people mistake him as a preacher because of his dress.  Haze even gets a car that he drives from place to place, preaching about his Church Without Christ from the nose of the hood.  
This “twin” theme is repeated when Haze angers Onnie Jay Holy (aka Hoover Shoats), the crooked evangelist who tries to profit from Haze’s “church”.  When Haze won’t play along with Holy’s scheme, Holy hires a consumptive man named Solace Layfield to dress like Haze and drive a gray car like Haze’s.  Layfield and Holy arrive where Haze is preaching so they can fleece the people.  One of Haze’s listeners, a fat woman, asks, “You and him are twins?”, to which Haze responds, “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it, it will hunt you down and kill you.”  Haze even develops a consumptive cough like Layfield’s, and it is here that he decides to put an end to the mockery.  Like his grandfather, Haze cannot abide the face that seems to mock him.
            Another baffling symbol in the novel is the small mummy, which Enoch steals from a museum.  Enoch’s “wise blood” compels him to deliver it to Haze to be the “new jesus” for Haze’s church.  Sabbath Lily, who seduced Haze the night before, answers the door of Haze’s room.  She dismisses Enoch and opens the package.  Rather than feeling revulsion, Sabbath likes the mummy.  She cradles it like a baby.  It is perhaps a symbolic “love child” of their unholy union – an empty, soulless shell of a human: “She might have sat there for ten minutes, without a thought, held by whatever it was that was familiar about him.  She had never known anyone who looked like him before, but there was something in him of everyone she had ever known, as if they had all been rolled into one person and killed and shrunk and dried.”  Again, we have Christ-like symbolism, where the sins of all people are rolled into one person who was killed to redeem all.  But the mummy represents a dead and dried-out faith instead of a living and vital faith.
            When Sabbath shows the mummy to Haze, he grabs it and throws it against the wall.  The head pops off and the body explodes, and Sabbath protests that he is mean and evil.  She says, “I seen you wouldn’t never have no fun or let anybody else because you didn’t want nothing but Jesus!”  In the end, a self-blinded Haze also becomes a lifeless shell.  His corpse is brought home to his landlady, Mrs. Flood, who happily welcomes him home.  Not realizing he is dead, she holds his hand and gazes into his eye sockets.  Haze’s soulless body is revered by someone with no spiritual sight, just as the mummy was adored by Sabbath.
            If you are looking for a book with heroic or even flawed characters who redeem themselves, look elsewhere.  Normally, I need a book with likeable characters, but I was able to manage Wise Blood.  Why?  First, the novel is short and O’Connor’s prose is compact.  Her symbolism packs a lot of meaning into a short space.  Not a word is wasted.  She is, after all, a short story artist.  Secondly, the freakishness and insanity of the characters is morbid, but compelling – the reader has to keep reading just to see what these weirdos will do next.  Thirdly, the reader has to do some work on his own.  You will noodle over the meaning of it, and this puzzle-like quality enriches the reading experience.  O’Connor gives nothing away. 
Even though she explained parts of Wise Blood in some of her letters, the novel offers plenty of room for individual interpretation.
            Flannery O’Connor isn’t for everyone.  While she described Wise Blood as comic, I call it surreal and absurd.  “Darkly funny” is even a stretch in my opinion.  O’Connor has something deep and important to say to us, but secular readers like myself are akin to the spiritually blind people in Wise Blood: we readily recognize O’Connor as a literary prophet, but her message remains just beyond our grasp.  Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to reach for that “pin point of light” in the darkness.


  1. I am a person of faith , but that does not instantly unlock O 'Connor either. She is hard to get. I think the stones and barb wire wrapped around Motes chest let us know he has not successfully believed in nothing, I think he has failed at his own religion as he has failed at Christianity. He never found grace. I am amazed at how unpleasant her books and stories are. Maybe they were cathartic for her. Have you read Walker Percy?

  2. Thanks for commenting, sancho panza. O'Connor really is sort of grotesque, but that is where, I suppose, her genius resides. She's not pleasurable reading, but she really does leave you chewing on her work for weeks afterwards. I have not read Walker Percy, but I will - thanks for the recommendation.