I’m continuing my Flannery O’Connor week with a discussion of Wise Blood, the first of the two novels O’Connor penned during her life. As I previously mentioned, Flannery O’Connor was a tremendously prolific writer, during her 39 years she penned 2 novels and 2 collections of short stories. Her collected short stories, as well as her letters, essays, lectures, and prayer book have been published posthumously in various collections.
Before I delve into a discussion of the novel, I’m going to provide a couple of brief definitions for the un-initiated or for those whom some time has passed since the regular study of literature, that might provide a little context for Flannery’s work. Firstly, please allow me to note that the literary landscape of the American South is particularly striking and complex, and one of my favorite genres to arise from the Southern literary tradition is that of Southern Gothic. This is a genre started by Poe, but cultivated by William Faulkner and continued by writers like Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor. The Southern Gothic often features “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.” The Southern Gothic is also “uniquely rooted in the South’s transgressions and abberations.” This is obviously not an all-inclusive definition, if you would like a more comprehensive overview of all that Southern Gothic encompasses, this article from the Oxford Research Encyclopedias gives a much more in-depth and very thorough overview.
Flannery in particular was known for writing in a sub-genre of Southern Gothic known as Southern Grotesque, despite not being overly fond of this label. There are a wide variety of traits that are present in the Southern Grotesque, however, most often it features characters with physical deformities that belie inner wickedness or deceit. This trait is exhibited in Wise Blood, through the character of Asa Hawks. Wise Blood, is a little more complex, as it is often also thought of as a comedic novel. Dark comedy, to be sure, but that is just one of the layers compacted within the novel that serve to make it a fascinating, enduring work of fiction.
Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a 22 year-old veteran returning to his home to seek the truth. Hazel Motes is steeped in the old-fashioned Southern tradition of itinerant ministers, tent revivals, and brimstone and hellfire Baptists. Early on in the novel he notes that he left home at the age of 18 to join the army. At first he wanted to escape the army by shooting himself in the foot, so that he could be a preacher like his grandfather.
“His grandfather had traveled three counties in a Ford automobile. Every fourth Saturday he had driven into Eastrod as if he were just in time to save them all from Hell, and he was shouting before he had the car door open.”
When he returns, Hazel Motes still intends to preach. However his message is drastically altered, as he is desperately trying to escape his deep-seated religious beliefs. Hazel’s new message is the gospel of The Church of God Without Christ.
“I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”
The novel captures Hazel’s journey to establish his new church, and preach his gospel. He purchases a car, buys a suit and sets to work. Along the way, he encounters Asa Hawks a “blind” street preacher who travels with his fifteen year old daughter, Lily Sabbath. He also encounters Enoch Emery, an impressionable young man with a fondness for spying on ladies at the pool, heckling waitresses, and who also has “wise blood.” Enoch attaches himself to Hazel, who is in turn focusing intently on Asa Hawks. Lily Sabbath sees a potential husband in Hazel, whose only true interests are discrediting Asa Hawks and preaching his gospel.
The novel culminates in a series of inescapable acts of violence and desperation. It seems to be warning against the dangers of denying our beliefs, and in turn denying who we are. Hazel Motes is trying to deny his deeply ingrained, desperate Christianity. Asa Hawks is trying to deny his lack thereof. All told with the subtle, quiet and all-too true to life comedic delivery that is Flannery O’Connor’s signature, Wise Blood is a wry, haunting, and quirky novel that will endure indefinitely.