Born in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor attended Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University) graduating in 1945 with a degree in Social Sciences. A year later, she enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she studied journalism. While at the Workshop, O’Connor first drafted her seminal novel, Wise Blood. Later, she published the novel, The Violent Bear It Away, and two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Her writing is informed, often paradoxically, by her devout Catholicism and the grotesque. She died in 1963, at the age of 39, of complications from lupus. Posthumously, the University of Georgia Press honored O’Connor with an award in her name: the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
An Association Instead of a Lifestyle
Christianity in its American context has promoted a rather individualistic system. In opposition to Catholic and Orthodox traditions that value the Church community and centuries of tradition, the church in the United States often elevates the preacher to a centralized role. Christianity, then, becomes an association instead of a lifestyle.
In Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, her characters react to this cult of personality. The book’s central character, Hazel Motes, is a family-less World War II veteran living on a government pension. He travels to Taulkinham, Tennessee to begin life anew.
The Church of Christ without Christ
As the grandson of a preacher, Motes translates his war experiences into an atheism that vehemently denies Jesus, sin, and redemption.
While in Taulkinham, Hazel meets a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath Lily. Since the preacher discerns that Hazel needs religion, Motes decides to respond by forming a new ministry named the Church of Christ without Christ.
“’Church of Christ!” Haze repeated. ‘Well, I preach the Church 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’” (101).
A Disciple that Nobody Loves
Hazel’s first disciple is a teenage zookeeper named Enoch Emery who has “wise blood” – an instinctive ability to discern when to act. A tragic character, Enoch moved to the city after his father kicked him out of the house. The town considers Enoch an annoyance at best and a person worth ignoring at worst.
At one point when Enoch has the opportunity to meet a character from a movie, O’Connor writes,
“There were only two children in front of him now. The first one shook hands and stepped aside. Enoch’s heart was beating violently. The child in front of him finished and stepped aside and left him facing the ape, who took his hand with an automatic motion.
It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft.
For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. ‘My name is Enoch Emery,’ he mumbled. ‘I attended the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I’m only eighteen year old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me com…’ and his voice cracked.
The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. ‘You go to hell,’ a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand jerked away” (181-182).
The Sacred and the Macabre
Wise Blood is brutally macabre. O’Connor’s themes are dark and disturbing. And yet, she uses her characters as theological arguments. Even though Hazel proclaims himself an atheist, he has a nagging sense of piety. Always in love with utilizing animals as a metaphor, O’Connor writes,
“’It’s empty!’ he shouted. ‘What you have to look in that ole empty cage for? You come on!’ He stood there, sweating and purple. ‘It’s empty!’ he shouted. And then he saw it wasn’t empty. Over in one corner on the floor of the cage, there was an eye. The eye was in the middle of something that looked like a piece of mop sitting on an old rag. He squinted close to the wire and saw that the piece of mop was an owl with one eye open. It was looking directly at Hazel Motes. ‘That ain’t nothing but a ole hoot owl,’ he moaned. ‘You seen them things before.’
‘I AM clean,’ Haze said to the eye” (91).
In what is originally perceived as an empty cage, Motes finds it necessary to justify his existence to an owl. While slightly absurd, the passage expands on the very thing that influences Hazel. Running away from his family and the church, Motes returns to religion through preaching and an insistence of piety despite his unbelief. Negatively influenced by the cult of personality that defines the protestant preacher, Hazel becomes the cult of personality protestant preacher.
The Altar Call
Although I appreciate the book, Wise Blood feels scattered. Digging into O’Connor’s background, it makes sense that Wise Blood is a compilation of multiple short stories. With the length of a novella, her characters have little depth. Yet, she uses them to build her theological cases. As a devout Catholic living in the South, she certainly draws from firsthand experience. Since it’s a quick read, I recommend Wise Blood to anyone interested in a provocative theological novel.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5