Religious Vision and Free Will in Flannery O'Connor's Novel Wise Blood

STEPHEN SPARROW

Compared with the early music compositions of child prodigies like Mozart or Camille Saint-Saëns; the novel Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, was an impressive literary feat.


Flannery O'Connor
(1925-1964)

Child prodigies in Math are similar to their music counterparts and their abilities can draw gasps of awe from adults, but, in no case has anyone recognised as a writer, ever produced an acknowledged literary masterpiece at the age of seven or even seventeen. That requires not just a way with words but also emotional maturity: and, overriding all, vision and humility. Of course as Mozart and Saint-Saëns grew into adulthood, their work also explored the realms of drama, whether comic or tragic, and it is for this that they are justly famous, but always the music was an adjunct to existing stories such as Mozart's music for the opera Don Giovanni or Saint-Saëns's for Samson and Delilah. And that is why the art of straight musical composition must always take a backseat to the art of story telling, no matter what its format.

O'Connor was not quite twenty-two when she started work on Wise Blood and it took her five years to complete. In the year before it was finished she was struck down by the first attack of Lupus and the disease left her health in a precarious state until she died nearly thirteen years later in 1964. When Wise Blood was first published in 1952, most critics belittled it, either because they failed to understand it or preferred not to. I suspect that the male dominated literary scene at that time hated being upstaged by a woman writer, especially a talented woman not afraid to use controversial subject matter, and remember, this was a time when anything perceived as being 'liberal' or merely 'outside of the ordinary', was equated with anti Americanism.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned the importance of vision for the serious novelist and by vision I didn't just mean the faculty of sight. I meant the gift of being able to see into things, which is the religious dimension of vision and this is the thread that runs through all of Flannery O'Connor's work. However, in Wise Blood the faculty of sight for the main character Hazel Motes, takes on a special significance. Vision becomes real only after he loses his sight. There is also Scriptural significance in his name — Motes. A mote is a tiny particle. Christ in (Matt.7, 3;etc) compared those who fail to notice their own faults yet see and magnify the faults of others, to someone ignoring the roof beam in their own eye while pointing to the mote in the eye of another.

Wise Blood is a story about religious vision and free will. Hazel Motes has been raised in a tiny place called Eastrod in Tennessee inside a family immersed in the Bible but afraid of God. The Motes family 'saw' God as a stern judge who kept meticulous records of each human being's mistakes and misdemeanours and whom they believed would punish all of them severely on the "last day". Like many Calvinist style fundamentalists, they must have spent an inordinate amount of time on the Old Testament to have allowed its influence to have swamped the message of the New Testament parables; especially the Parable of The Prodigal Son. O'Connor gives us a picture of Hazel Motes as a man devoid of joy and with a massive chip on his shoulder and we first meet him straight after his discharge from the army at the end of World War II. He arrives home to find Eastrod deserted, a home which no longer exists both literally and figuratively and symbolising a society now broken and uncaring. Ever since his unhappy youth he had been thinking that Jesus must be the problem and that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. Reacting against the guide that resides in each of us, he now sets out on a crusade against God. He intends to get even with the world. Haze heads for the nearest city, Taulkinham and begins by abusing and hurting all those he meets; but when eventually he is haunted by the reality of his actions, he performs an about face. Haze lacks the means to express love and in atonement now turns the anger he directed against others on himself, making him totally vulnerable to a world that mocks and preys on the weak.

On the opening page we meet Hazel Motes wearing a blue suit and with a stiff black broad brimmed hat on his lap: and by both dress and manner looking for all the world like a southern preacher. He's in a train carriage seated opposite fellow passenger Mrs Hitchcock who is trying to be friendly, but her conversation irritates Haze so much that he shuts it off by suggesting in a sneering manner that Mrs Hitchcock obviously thinks she's been redeemed and it is at this point that we come directly to the nub of the story, which is that Haze is desperately trying to rid himself of any thoughts of redemption.

After getting off the train Haze takes a taxi to the address of Mrs Leora Watts, a 'lady' with the friendliest bed in town. The driver is puzzled as to why an obvious preacher wants to visit a prostitute until a vehement Haze tells him that he's not a preacher and furthermore doesn't believe in anything. The driver is stunned. "Not in nothing at all?" He asks, which Haze confirms as he gets out of the car. The driver however remains unconvinced and Haze, who is about to turn and walk into the house, stands there long enough to hear him say. "That's the trouble with you preachers. You've all got too good to believe in anything." Haze has just found out how difficult it is to hide his upbringing and its legacy of sin, fear and guilt but he's grimly determined to leave it all behind and that is why he starts by taking up with Mrs Watts. (He) wanted to prove that he didn't believe in sin since he practiced what was called it.

During the next few days, Haze explores Taulkinham on foot and meets some interesting if peculiar characters, among them the simple teenager Enoch Emory and the fake blind street preacher Asa Hawkes and his fifteen year old daughter Sabbath. And then one morning Haze wakes and decides to go out and buy a car. He's also had enough of Mrs Watts and wants Sabbath Hawkes instead. He wanted someone he could teach something to and he took it for granted that the blind man's child since she was so homely, would also be innocent. As it happened Sabbath Hawkes was hardly innocent. She was a willing party to one aspect at least, of what Haze had in mind. In talking to her father about Motes she said. "I like his eyes, They don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep on looking."

Asa Hawkes is tired of looking after his daughter and relishes the thought that Haze might take her off his hands. Sabbath has been starved of love and wants to get away from her phoney hypocritical father. She pulsates with hormones and longs to be tamed, especially by Haze now that she's met him. He is her King of The Beasts. A couple of days after Haze buys his car, Sabbath stows away in the back of it and later when they stop on a lonely hillside, she attempts to 'lead' Haze on, but succeeds only in boring him by prattling on about her exchange of letters with the local newspaper's agony columnist on whether a bastard like her could ever get into heaven or how far she should go with boys.

Now that he owns a car, Haze starts in earnest, preaching his gospel of disbelief. Evenings offer the best prospects and so he parks across the road from cinemas, waiting for the crowds to emerge and when they do he stands on the nose of the Essex, preaching about his new church, the Church Without Christ, where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way. Later in his crusade he refines the message by starting with, "Listen you people. I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgement because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…"

Haze has also been latched onto by Enoch Emory, the teenage simpleton whose life has been almost a parallel farce to his own. O'Connor portrays Enoch as some one who operates only by instinct. 'Sometimes he didn't think, he only wondered: then before long he would find himself doing this or that, like a bird finds itself building a nest when it hasn't actually been planning to.' Enoch is a comic diversion, the clown of the story. He longs for celebrity status, albeit at a very elementary level. He wants to escape his dreary life style but in his case instead of the more usual longing to be like a film star or pop singer, he sees his way to fame by dressing 'up' as a gorilla. Enoch is also a pervert who hides in the bushes while spying on women at the local swimming pool and although shocked by what he sees as 'looseness' in the city, he's not above making regular visits to the local whorehouse when he can afford to. When Enoch heard Haze preaching that what was needed was a new Jesus, a new model for his new Church Without Christ; he knew instinctively where to find one. In the Museum was a mummy, a shrunken man and Enoch stole it and delivered it to Haze. He had earlier shown the exhibit to Haze and explained that he (the mummy) was once as tall as you and me and that some Arabs had made him like that in six weeks. A symbol of what man becomes when he deprives himself of God's grace.

The consequences of Hazel abandoning Christian Redemption dog his every step. He has 'run ins' with numerous people and in fact all the way through the story Haze is prey to those who see him only as a sucker. Leora Watts, Sabbath Hawkes and his landlady Mrs Flood are all out to use him. Perhaps the most obvious is the con man evangelist Hoover Shoats alias Onnie Jay Holy who instantly recognises talent when he sees it; and in this case that 'talent' is Haze's ability to pull a crowd with his new screwball Church. Wherever there's a crowd, Shoats smells money and he tries to talk Haze into joining him in a scheme to fleece the people who stop to listen. The name Hoover Shoats is based on a popular brand of vacuum cleaner — Hoover; and shoat — a young pig: which all add up and allude to the parasitical behaviour of Mr Shoats. Haze however, has enough integrity to want no part in Shoat's plans. He might hate Christianity but he refuses to cash in on his hate. While trying to shake off Shoats, Haze has an argument with him that ends when he slams his car door on Shoats' thumb but not before the other man as a last resort yells at him the truth that "The trouble with you innerleckchuls, (is) you don't never have nothing to show for what you're saying", which is O'Connor's back handed way of illuminating the scriptural saying, "by their fruits they shall be known". Poor old Shoats is utterly distraught at the thought that the money-making opportunity presented by Hazel has been lost and decides that if he can't join him, he'll have to beat him at his own game. Shoat hires a Hazel look alike to preach a similar message in a similar manner and on their second night he clears a handsome profit. Haze is outraged that his idea has been stolen and especially since it's only to make money. The next evening after the opposition has finished work, Haze follows the puppet preacher and murders him, but before he does, he tells him how much he despises people who ain't true.

Convinced now that he's managed to shake off his faith in Christian Redemption, Haze naturally falls into the hole of being a supremacist. As the proud owner of a car, he had earlier told Sabbath Hawkes that it "hasn't been built by a bunch of foreigners or niggers or one-arm men. It had been built by people with their eyes open that knew where they were at."

Being a Supremacist has also left his conscience untroubled about the murder he's committed, or so he thinks. Remember how he justified his going to see Leora Watts by telling himself, (He) wanted to prove that he didn't believe in sin since he practiced what was called it. Well, Supremacists must keep on the move and having grown tired of Taulkinham, he decides to further advance the cause of his new Church without Christ by heading for the big city (Atlanta). He stops at a filling station to have the Essex checked and tells the attendant that nobody with a good car needed to worry about anything and then starts lecturing him about the new Church and that it was not right to believe in anything you couldn't see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth. He said he had only a few days ago believed in blasphemy as the way to salvation, but that you couldn't even believe in that because then you were believing in something to blaspheme.

Haze now drives on toward Atlanta but doesn't travel very far before he has a life changing experience. He gets flagged down by a Highway Patrolman who trashes his car. After the patrolman has smashed the Essex he asked Haze if he could give him a lift to where he was going. And then asks, "Where was you going? Was you going anywheres?" The Patrolman has innocently asked that question which each of us should put to ourselves. It ties in neatly with one of Hazes early rants that he preached from the nose of the Essex, "Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it."

It's safe to assume that it is at this moment Haze receives his rush of enlightenment. He declines the Patrolman's offer of a lift, walks back to town, buys himself a bucket and some quicklime, returns to his old boarding house and blinds himself. Poor old Haze has done a complete flip-flop but in the most wacky manner. Not knowing how to repent with love he mutilates himself. It was as if he was back in his childhood and had been to the carnival tent where he looked at the naked woman in the coffin and afterward had walked a mile with sharp rocks in his shoes in atonement. Now self-blinded and back living in Mrs Flood's boarding house, his conversion experience takes him into further bizarre behaviour. He wraps barbed wire around his chest and again wears his shoes lined with rocks and glass shards and when a puzzled and shocked Mrs Flood asks him why, he replies that it's because he isn't clean and that he has to pay.

Haze now blind is almost at the mercy of his landlady who has her eyes set firmly on his monthly war injury pension payments, and is prepared if necessary to marry him to get them. She spends much of her time sitting on the porch trying to hold conversations with him but not getting very far. Mrs Flood feels irritated and has the feeling she's being cheated by him in some secret way. Money and a place to live were never far from her mind. The landlady had always been impressed with the ability to pay. When she found a stream of wealth, she followed it to its source and before long, it was not distinguishable from her own. She even tried to motivate him back into preaching. "Mr Motes, why don't you preach any more? Being blind wouldn't be a hinderance. People would like to go see a blind preacher. It would be something different." She was used to going on without an answer. "You could get one of those seeing dogs," she said, "and he and you could get up a good crowd. People'll always go to see a dog." A typical O'Connor assault on the cult of novelty and trivia.

Of course by the end of the story Haze is dead. But Mrs Flood is still there with the body in her room. She seems unable to give up on the idea of getting her hands on his money. She sits beside him holding his hand to her heart and looking into his deep burned eye sockets trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn't see anything.

Wise Blood is an iridescent story; brim full with insights, and dialogue loaded with symbolism, comic irony and truisms: all uttered by characters in complete innocence. O'Connor once described it as a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.

The taxi driver outside the prostitutes house takes Haze to task for having got too good to believe in anything. That fictionalised remark is another typical O'Connor swipe at "innerleckchuls", and years later in 1963 she expanded on that theme at the Symposium on Art and Religion at Virginia's Sweetbriar College. O'Connor warned her listeners that in trying to enlarge student's ideas of what religion is there was a very real danger of evaporating them. She said, "I think nothing in this world lends itself to quick vaporisation so much as the religious concern." In other words the quickest way to destroy some useful thing is to be always examining it to see what makes it 'tick' instead of just getting on with making the proper use of it. To us it may seem cold comfort, but that's exactly how ancient Greek civilisation came to grief.

Sabbath Hawkes speaks of Haze's eyes as, "They don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep on looking." Her words symbolising Haze's futile attempt to escape the truth while searching for its opposite. Haze was trying to swap his faith in something for a faith in nothing and discovering how difficult the task was. G. K. Chesterton1 (among many) exposed the fallacy of non-belief by saying that the trouble with sceptics was that they were not sceptical enough, (the taxi driver's comment turned back to front). The sceptic lacks consistency, he isn't true to himself and in spite of any contrary claim, he still retains a belief in many things. After all how else could he get by? Without faith, such things as airplane flight schedules, telephone directories or the rules of the road become impossible to accept.

Haze standing on the nose of the Essex and preaching that there was no fall because there was nothing to fall from etc. sums up the cause of the moral malaise afflicting Twentieth Century Western Man. In O'Connor's essay The Fiction Writer and His Country, she stated, I see from the standpoint of Christian Orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centred in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken half way or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.

When the patrolman destroyed the Essex, it was the turning point for Haze; he discovered at one stroke that Supremacism is a dead end. O'Connor covered this in her essay, The Nature and Aim of Fiction. "The hero's rat coloured automobile is his pulpit and his coffin as well as something he thinks of as his means of escape. He is mistaken in thinking that it is a means of escape, of course, and does not really escape his predicament until the car is destroyed by the patrolman."

In a letter I received in 1998 from Sally Fitzgerald,2 (Fitzgerald was a close friend of O'Connor's), she told me that, The whole story, whatever modern turns it takes, is in fact a re-telling of the old, old — and ever new — story of Paul on the road to Damascus: the persecutor, by nature a zealot and deeply serious about his faith, who tries to injure Christianity and Christians (of whatever gross form they are given in the book), but is stopped (on the road to Atlanta, Georgia, in this instance) by a distinctly 'angelic' policeman, when "a great light shines about him" (or in his mind, at least) briefly blinding him, but in due course, his spiritual vision is restored and he spends the remainder of his life being his own kind of 'apostle' — Eyeless in Gaza.3

The self blinding of Hazel is, of course, aberrant, the result of the lack of true teaching of which fundamentalists like Hazel, and the peoples from whom he springs, were deprived by the 'Reformation'. Or 'Deformation', I sometimes think. The Church would have taught him to do penance with love. Lacking that knowledge, he could only turn to his own natural violence for instruction, finding there the anger and self loathing that led him to turn on himself. That he is ultimately self-shriven (forgiven) and gathered to God is made perfectly clear at the end, I think. Anyway, I feel sure that Flannery intended him as a Pauline figure.

O'Connor intended to publish her novel under the title of Wise Blood and Simple but she changed her mind and used only the first two words. As a story it is an impressive foray into the world of Twentieth Century Nihilism and belief. Writing about it to one of her friends she said that the irony of Hazel's situation was that he started off with The Church Without Christ and ended up with Christ without the Church. At the risk of repeating O'Connor's position vis a vis the role of Christian novelists it is still a useful exercise to return to the lecture she delivered at Sweetbriar College to the Symposium on Art and Religion and her statement that.

Where this no belief in the soul there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognising sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment but as a responsible choice of offence against God which involves his eternal future.

When we examine the work of writers like Flannery O'Connor, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that readers of fiction today are poorly served. The vast majority of contemporary writers have their eye fixed firmly on the market place and dish up an insipid fare of action occurring in an environment at best, morally neutral and at worst just plain amoral. As O'Connor said it so well in her letter to Betty Hester (Sept.8 1956) I mortally and strongly defend the right of the artist to select a negative aspect of the world to portray and as the world gets more materialistic there will be more to select from. Of course you are only enabled to see what is black by having light to see it by……Furthermore the light you see by may be altogether outside of the work itself. In other words, the right of the artist to portray negativity carries with it the twin responsibility to neither use negative aspects indulgently nor remain indifferent to them.

We should count ourselves fortunate indeed to be able still to read O'Connor's fiction in her two novels and forty or so short stories, as well as her edited essays and letters: and Wise Blood is the outstanding product of a prodigious writing talent married to a moral vision where the negative aspects of the world were seen and described through the eyes of an author whose very being resonated with orthodox Christianity.

In her essay Catholic Novelists and Their Readers, O'Connor quoted Arthur Koestler who said he would swap a hundred readers now for ten in ten years time and swap those ten for one in a hundred years time. By that definition Flannery O'Connor is doing very well among serious readers. More and more are picking up her works which seem never to be out of print and as a pointer to both her importance and popularity, she was early on the list of authors whose collected works were published in the prestigious Library of America series and whose stated aim is to publish America's best and most significant writing.

Endnotes

  1. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. 1874 - 1936. English poet, writer, thinker and devout Christian convert.

  2. Fitzgerald, Sally. 1916 - 2000. A close personal friend of Flannery O'Connor's. Much of Wise Blood was written over an eighteen-month period while O'Connor lived with the Fitzgerald family in Connecticut. Fitzgerald edited O'Connor's letters published as "The Habit of Being" and with her husband Robt. Fitzgerald, co edited O'Connor's essays and talks, published under the title of "Mystery and Manners".

  3. The phrase, Eyeless in Gaza is originally from the poem "Paradise Lost" by John Milton 1608 - 1674. Milton wrote the poem after losing his sight. Eyeless In Gaza was also used by Aldous Huxley as the title for one of his novels.

About Flannery O'Connor


Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) is recognized as one of the most important American writers of this century. In her short life, Flannery O'Connor left a small and precious body of writing in which the voices of displaced persons affirm the grace of God in the grotesqueries of the world.

Born Mary Flannery O’Connor in Savannah in 1925, she spent a serene childhood there, although a series of displacements lay ahead in her growing years. Her family were staunch Roman Catholics, a small religious minority in the South. Even as a child in parochial school, she was aware of being regarded as somehow different, although Savannah was where most Georgia Catholics lived at that time. In her mature years as a writer, many of her artistic contemporaries regarded any kind of orthodoxy as freakish, but she never lost her vital connection to her faith and her Church, and never lost the courage of her convictions, whether as a Catholic or an artist.

Her brief literary career was a race against time. The symptoms of lupus appeared just as she was finishing her first novel, Wise Blood. The disease progressed with occasional remissions. But, in fact it was only restrained by a medication that simultaneously damaged her bone structure. Aware of the fragility of her existence, she wrote and revised with tireless intensity. But two collections of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, were all she was able to finish. The Fitzgeralds posthumously published her occasional prose in a collection entitled Mystery & Manners. Some years later Sally Fitzgerald edited and published a selection of her celebrated letters under the title, The Habit of Being. Unfortunately, Flannery O’Connor’s work did not receive its highest honors until after her death, but her reputation has grown steadily and, today, she is everywhere recognized as one of the most important American writers of this century.

During her most creative years, also the years of her physical decline, she lived on a family farm outside Milledgeville, attended by a great flock of peacocks she loved to raise. She was a warmly receptive person who maintained her sharp sense of humor despite poor health. She died in Milledgeville in 1964 and is buried there near her father. Toward the end of her life she wrote:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

Her “shocking” message was, and is, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men!”

(Excerpted from the short biography of Flannery O'Connor on the Georgia Women of Achievement web site)

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stephen Sparrow. "Religious Vision and Free Will in Flannery O'Connor's Novel Wise Blood." Comforts of Home (January, 2002).

Comforts of Home, is a web site dedicated to Flannery O'Connor.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author, Stephen Sparrow.

THE AUTHOR

Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Sigrid Undset. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children.

Copyright © 2002 Stephen Sparrow


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