Wise Blood

Wise Blood

Infobox Book
name = Wise Blood
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Flannery O'Connor
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Southern Gothic novel
publisher = Harcourt, Brace & Company
release_date = May 15, 1952
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 238
isbn = ISBN 0-374-50584-5
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Wise Blood" (1952) was the first novel written by U.S. Southern author Flannery O'Connor.

Plot summary

Hazel Motes begins the novel having returned from serving in the Army, and he is travelling by train to the city of Taulkinham having just found his family home abandoned. His grandfather was a tent revival preacher, and Hazel himself is irresistibly drawn to wearing a bright blue suit and a black hat. He is told repeatedly that he "looks like a preacher," though he despises preachers.

In the United States Army, presumably in World War II, Hazel came to the conclusion that the only way to escape sin is to have no soul. In Taulkinham, he first goes to the home of a Miss Leora Watts, a casual prostitute, who tells him "Mamma don't care if you ain't a preacher," takes his $2, and provides her services.

The next night, he comes across a street vendor hawking potato peelers and Enoch Emery, a sad and manic 18-year-old who was forced to come to the big city after his father abandoned him. The huckster is interrupted by a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his young daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. Motes is attracted to the girl, and the preacher says that he has really been attracted to him for repentance. In attempted blasphemy, Hazel says, to Hawks, "My Jesus!" He turns to a crowd Hawks is attempting to reach and begins to announce his "church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified," but no one seems to be listening.

Enoch Emery is attracted to Hazel's new "Church Without Christ," and the legendary Asa Hawks (and his daughter, Sabbath Lily) takes Hazel under his wing. Ostensibly, Asa Hawks had blinded himself with lye, and his daughter is his only aid as he preaches the joys of redemption. It turns out, however, that Asa promised the public to blind himself and then did not, though he carries on as if he did. Hawks is not only lying about his blindness, he is a raptor who is preying upon those who pray. The pure daughter, Sabbath Lily, instead of being pure, has a wild sex drive, and she uses the semblance of purity and virginity to heighten her sexual allure. Asa encourages his daughter to seduce Hazel so that he can leave her with him, and Hazel initially intends to seduce her as well, but despite their mutual intentions their "relationship" is not initially consummated.

The "Church Without Christ" staggers along with Hazel as its only follower, until one day when a Christian evangelist named Hoover Shoats (his preaching name is "Onnie Jay Holy") adapts the message for himself, intending to use it as a moneymaking scheme where potential members have to pay a dollar to join the renamed "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ". The new preacher explains, "It's based on your own personal interpitation (sic) of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited." Hazel declines to participate in the scheme, instead watching as Shoats's church gains followers. Shoats hires a man as his "Prophet" who dresses and looks strikingly similar to Hazel.

Meanwhile, Enoch believes that he, like his father, has "wise blood" that tells him secrets about things. After hearing Hazel's message that the Church needs a "new Jesus," Enoch's blood tells him that a mummy in a museum is the one, and so he steals it. By this time, Hazel has realized that Asa was not blind, and Asa has since left and Sabbath is living with Hazel. Enoch delivers the "new Jesus" to Sabbath, who cradles it in her arms like a baby, and when Hazel returns he destroys the corpse by throwing it against the wall of his room and then dropping the remains out the window into a pouring rain. Enoch later steals a gorilla costume from a man who had insulted him -- and presumably Enoch stabs him and possibly kills him in the act -- and puts it on, burying his old clothes in the woods. The novel's last image of Enoch is him approaching a couple in his gorilla suit, frightening them away.

Hazel watches as his rival, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, turn in a profit of $15 on its second day, Hazel then follows the "Prophet" on his way home and confronts him. He rams the man's car, which looks very much like Hazel's own car, pushing it into a ditch. He then orders the man to take off the blue suit, but before the man can finish, Hazel runs him over in his car, killing him, and backing over the body to make sure it is dead.

The next day, a policeman catches Hazel driving without a drivers permit while on his way moving to a new town. The policeman rolls Hazel's car over the embankment and the car is destroyed. His response is to blind himself with lime and become somewhat of an ascetic. Hazel invests his passionate belief in suffering, binds himself with barbed wire, and puts stones and glass in his shoes. All of the money that Hazel receives from the government for welfare and being blind he puts towards rent, all of his leftover money he throws away. His landlady, Mrs. Flood, believes that she can take advantage of Hazel to make some money by marrying him and having him committed. However, just the opposite happens as she falls in love with him and becomes preoccupied with caring for him, but when she tells him of her plans for them to marry, he wanders off and is found 3 days later in a ditch just about dead. While being driven in the car of the police who found him, Hazel dies and his body is taken back to Mrs. Flood.

Major themes

"Wise Blood" can be read simply as a comedy of grotesques (the so-called "Southern Gothic" genre), for it is comedic and has many grotesque elements. It can also be read as a philosophical novel, for it presents opposing views of reality and asks the reader to resolve the conflict. It can even be read as a social text, for the novel captures the South at a time of great tension, when, after World War II, the rural and cosmopolitan populations were clashing, and tent-revival preachers encountered big city marketing. Finally, "Wise Blood" can also be read as an unusual case study of heresy and redemption. O'Connor frequently creates heretical characters and victims of spiritual confusion; however, "Wise Blood" not only has such a character, but also offers a complete biography that explains the psychological and spiritual crises that have brought her character to such a state of "grotesqueness."

Hazel Motes (whose name recalls Jesus warning us not to complain of the mote in another's eye, when we have a beam in our own, as well as man who is in a "haze" of motes) returns from the military without family but with an inheritance. He is a man in religious crisis. His own grandfather was a revival preacher, yet he has rejected not only faith, but the entire story of Jesus as "a trick on niggers." In particular, he rejects guilt and redemption. He is, as O'Connor said of the South, "not Christ-centered, but Christ-haunted." Motes is tormented by belief and rejects it violently because of how much it is a part of him. Hazel begins as many O'Connor characters do, a victim of a misunderstanding of the radical Calvinism of the South. His evangelical grandfather taught him that Jesus died for the sins of mankind and that Jesus would always "get you": this "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" view of Christ leads Motes to view salvation as a form of punishment, so he decides that he can be saved from being evil by believing in nothing. That is, he can save his soul by having no soul at all. However, his nihilism becomes a positive belief. He is not an atheist, for his nothingness takes on the power of salvation. Motes believes in a vacuum as an alternative to a hunting, predatory Jesus.

Enoch Emery, in contrast, believes readily but cannot see beyond the body. He, like other O'Connor characters, wants and demands a physical Jesus. He is a creature of clay, a man whose blood speaks to him. It was his "wise blood" (inherited from his father) that led him to Hazel, whom he latches onto as a candidate for the "new Jesus." The character Asa Hawks, on the other hand, is one of O'Connor's mountebanks. He has no belief in anything but himself. He takes no pleasure in evil or good, only in gratification of himself. His daughter Sabbath also believes only in self-gratification.

Hazel is a believer without belief and a seer without vision. Each of O'Connor's stories has, she said, a moment of grace, but it is a Roman Catholic grace – grace that brings a person to the brink of belief, but not grace that saves by itself. It is transformative, but those to whom the grace is given must choose to either accept it or not. One interpretation is that Hazel's own moment of grace comes with his destruction of the "new Jesus" that Enoch Emery has discovered (a mummified body he steals from a museum). Another is that throughout the novel, Hazel's "rat-colored car," takes on more and more meaning as it becomes not only a mode of transportation, but a place to live and a platform (the "nose" of its hood) from which to preach his Church without Christ. At various times in the novel he says "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified," and "nobody with a good car needed to worry about anything." In this context, after the malicious policeman destroys his car, the actual "church" from which his new denomination is launched, his moment of grace occurs: he is left with nothing but his own mind and body to incorporate his church. This is when he decides to blind himself with lime. Another intepretation is that the policeman's spite in rolling the car off the road and destroying it remind's Hazel of his own spite in rolling another man's car off the road the night before and destroying that man's life, a man who was made to look just like Hazel. Having denied the existence of sin or guilt up to this point, Hazel now says, "I'm not clean" when questioned about the barbed wire he wears under his shirt. Having denied the soul's need for redemption, Hazel now tells his landlady that he walks with rocks in his shoes "to pay," still rejecting Christ's redemption in his ironic attempt to forge his own. Whether Hazel's mote is ultimately removed or not is not made clear in the novel.

O'Connor herself said that a chief theme of the novel was "integrity." For those people who think belief in Christ is "a matter of no great consequence," O'Connor writes, "Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind," but for her "Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to." Free will, she says, "does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man," and freedom is a mystery that cannot be reduced to a simple definition. These comments, written in 1962 on the 10th anniversary of the novel, seem contradictory. It is the integrity, the sameness of will and character, that is demonstrated by the frustration of Hazel's overt will and character, for the Hazel who emerges from apostacy is not the Hazel who blindly gainsays the sermons of the grandfather who "had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger." The religious vision of Hazel's last asceticism is not Hell- or guilt-inspired, and so his defeated will is the accomplishment of his will.

Literary context

"Wise Blood" began with four chapters published in "Mademoiselle", "Sewanee Review", and "Partisan Review" in 1948 and 1949. Flannery O'Connor then published it as a complete novel in 1952, and Signet advertised it as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption."

In the novel, O'Connor revisits her recurring motif of a disaffected young person returning home and the theme of the struggle of the individual to understand Christianity on a purely individualistic basis. O'Connor's hero, Hazel Motes, sneers at communal and social experiences of Christianity, sees the followers of itinerant, Protestant preachers as fools, and sets out to deny Christ as violently as he can. Against his individual attempts, Motes faces the tendency of all around him to identify him as a preacher. Enoch Emery, a friend of Motes who is in search of a new Jesus, explains that some people have "wise blood": that the blood knows even if the mind does not. Hazel is obsessed with preachers, with salvation, and with denying redemption. He seeks to save people from salvation, eventually becoming an anti-priest of The "Church Without Christ", where "the deaf don't hear, the blind don't see, the lame don't walk, the dumb don't talk, and the dead stay that way," and, in the end, becoming a hallowed ascetic.

Some critics have argued that what Flannery O'Connor consistently writes about is not salvation, but heresy. Each of her "heroes" encodes one or another of the classic heretical movements, whether Chartist in "The Enduring Chill" or Jansenist in "Wise Blood". At the same time, O'Connor's heretical heroes often flirt with existentialism (e.g. the Misfit from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find") and its demands that only the solitary individual's experiences can provide a basis for belief. O'Connor saw these ancient heresies blooming in a post-Reformation world, and particularly in the fertile fields of the decentralized evangelical realm of the South.

Biographical context

Flannery O'Connor was a Roman Catholic living in the American South, and her fictions consistently illustrate not merely religious, but theological points of view. By the time of "Wise Blood," O'Connor was herself diagnosed with lupus and was receiving treatment with hydrocortisone therapy at Emory University hospitals in Atlanta.

O'Connor's first major attack of lupus had occurred in 1950, and she had been forced to return home to Milledgeville, Georgia to live with her mother on the family farm. Since O'Connor's father had died of lupus, she was under no illusions about her prospects. Having been a writer, previously living in Iowa and New York City, she found her mother's company and the general area of Milledgeville to be difficult. The smart-aleck child coming home, and resentment of mother figures and parents in general, permeates all of O'Connor's fiction, and "Wise Blood" is no different.

Literary influence and significance

In her own day, O'Connor was accused of writing about "grotesques," and her novel "Wise Blood" is a good example how she features these seemingly grotesque characters. These characters populate the story to show that even grotesque individuals can be human in their religious hungers and their cravings for love and recognition. Her image of the south as populated with religious fanatics and the malformed has influenced a great many writers to emphasize Southern eccentrics. From John Kennedy Toole to Harry Crews, novelists have focused on the South as home of curious people who put belief into action. However, O'Connor's characters are as much theological embodiments as descriptions of real people. "Wise Blood", in particular, is a novel of philosophical debate.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

A film was made of "Wise Blood" in 1979, directed by John Huston, and starring Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes and John Huston himself as the evangelist grandfather. It is a fairly literal filming of the novel.

References in popular culture

The recorded line "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified," and presumably others from the 1979 film version of "Wise Blood" were used as samples peppered throughout the beginning of the extended mix of the industrial-metal band Ministry's 1991 song, "Jesus Built My Hotrod."

In Bob Dylan's "High Water (For Charley Patton)" on the album "Love and Theft," the second part of the lyrics "Well, the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies/I'm preaching the Word of God, I'm putting out your eyes" are a reference to Asa Hawks.

External links

* [http://kirjasto.sci.fi/flannery.htm A Good General O'Connor Page on the Web]
* [http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-478 New Georgia Encyclopedia]

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