O’Connor always saw herself as writing from an explicitly Christian point of view; indeed, given her convictions, that was the only way she could consider writing. She saw her religion as liberation and considered it a vocation in much the way one might be called to the priesthood. At the same time, she resented the sentimental expectations that people frequently hold toward what they might call “religious” fiction—maudlin stories about deathbed conversions and inspirational saints’ lives.
O’Connor undermined those expectations by her use of humor; she avoided pious characters and conventionally “churchy” settings. Instead, she drew her characters and settings from the rural South she knew so well. Those characters were sometimes labeled grotesques by critics and scholars, but she rejected the term, feeling that it originated with writers who understood the South as little as they understood Christianity, a condition of ignorance she intended to remedy. She understood that she was writing to a secular world, and she intended to instruct it in the Christian understanding of grace and redemption as the elements most central to human life. At the same time, O’Connor recognized the dangers of becoming a sermonizer instead of an artist (she talked about that issue in some of her addresses), although the satiric humor in her style, the violence in her plots, and her strange characters made it unlikely that she would fall into that difficulty.
O’Connor’s themes return to the issue of grace and redemption again and again. In her first novel, Wise Blood, the central character, Hazel Motes, begins as a man who is determined to escape the compelling image of Jesus which haunts him. His death, however, is an affirmation of grace, as O’Connor is careful to make clear in imagery which suggests that in his death Hazel is returning to Bethlehem.
O’Connor’s other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has a similar major theme. Its central character is Francis Marion Tarwater, a boy who, like Motes, is attempting to escape a calling. At the end of the novel, however, he is setting out to return to the city in his new role as prophet. What both Motes and Tarwater have experienced is the lacerating effect of God’s grace, a grace which, O’Connor implies, is far removed from its syrupy portrayal in popular hymns. Instead, it seems to have more in common with the terrifying experiences of Old Testament prophets, for whom it is manifested as God’s relentless insistence on bestowing mercy as he chooses.
O’Connor’s short stories reveal similar thematic material. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), one sees a foolish and self-centered old woman who comes to a moment of grace just as she ceases mouthing platitudes to a mass murderer who is going to kill her seconds later. In “Revelation” (1964), smug, self-satisfied Ruby Turpin has a vision that teaches her what she never before understood—that the last shall be first in Heaven and that her material well-being is not necessarily a mark of divine favor. Similarly, in “The River” (1955), the little boy simply accepts the preacher’s assertion that baptism in the river leads to the kingdom of Christ. It also leads to his death by drowning, but, as O’Connor shows from the rest of the characters, he has paradoxically died into life, while people such as his worldly parents are caught in a sort of living death.
Violence is often an element in O’Connor’s stories; in fact, she once said that her own faith made her conscious of the constant presence of death in the world, and her illness must have had the same effect. That probably explains the large number of deaths in her stories, and it may also account for the strong sense of danger in many of them. In “Good Country People” (1955), for example, Hulga’s wooden leg is stolen by a dishonest Bible salesman. In “Revelation,” mentioned above, Mrs. Turpin is attacked in the doctor’s office by a girl who has suddenly gone mad.
Events and characters such as these are the source of the charge that O’Connor’s characters are grotesques. The word seems to imply that they are too exaggerated to belong in realistic fiction. Early critics, especially, had a difficult time understanding what O’Connor intended, and they often believed that characters such as Tarwater and Hazel Motes were simply insane or too out of touch with modern values (which the critics themselves, O’Connor felt, too often embodied) to be taken seriously. O’Connor’s comments about her own work, however, make clear that she was quite serious about them. Her backwoods preachers, she believed, came closer to understanding the human condition in relationship to God than any number of psychologists, teachers, and sociologists, none of whom ever appear very flatteringly in her fiction.
Another way of looking at the issue of the grotesque in O’Connor’s work, however, may lend more weight to the charge. Her novels and stories are peopled almost entirely with characters who are the result of O’Connor’s satiric view of the world. They are often funny, but they are almost always unpleasant.
Enoch Emery in Wise Blood is an excellent example of this kind of characterizing. Almost everything about him is simultaneously funny and terrible. His ignorance is responsible for much of his grotesque response to the world. He hates and fears the zoo animals he guards; he never knows how ludicrous he looks to others, and so he imagines that the ugly cook at the snack shop is in love with him and that no one knows he hides in the bushes to watch the women at the swimming pool. His only real hero is Gonga the Gorilla from films. It is characteristic of O’Connor’s work that even Enoch Emery’s father, who never appears in the novel at all, is another example of ugliness and brutality. On his return from the penitentiary, Enoch’s father gave him a gag gift: a can that appeared to contain peanut brittle but, when opened, released a steel spring that popped out and broke Enoch’s two front teeth.
Again and again O’Connor offers comic but extremely unflattering pictures of the people who inhabit her characters’ worlds. In “Revelation,” for example, all the people in the doctor’s office are grimly funny reminders of the varieties of human ugliness—Mrs. Turpin, who offends the reader with smugness and bigotry; Mary Grace, the mad girl who goes to college but who makes her ugliness even worse by making faces at Mrs. Turpin; the “white trash” family that sits immobile in poverty, ignorance, and dirt. Even Mrs. Turpin’s husband, Claud, a man she really loves, is revealed by his racist jokes to be as corrupt as everyone else in the story.
Unremitting human ugliness is a source of much of O’Connor’s humor. She is able to present the dirty, the disfigured, and the stupid as also funny and recognizable as inhabitants of the real world. Because they are almost the only inhabitants of O’Connor’s fictional world, they probably justify the term grotesque.
Another characteristic of O’Connor’s style that concerns her characters is her use of southern dialects, especially those associated with poor white people. In her earlier stories, she often indicated some of their quality with spelling. In Wise Blood, for example, the phrase “worse than having them” is spelled “worsen havinum.” O’Connor reduced the number of such dialect indicators in her later work, but she always took joy in the sounds and sometimes the flamboyance of southern speech. “THE PROPHET I RAISE UP OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN,” old Tarwater writes to his worldly nephew. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit quotes his father speaking about him: “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters.”
One other issue about O’Connor’s characters deserves mention, and that concerns race. O’Connor’s stories almost all contain black characters—not surprisingly, as all but one are set in the South. O’Connor wrote much of her work in the period just before the first nationwide attention to civil rights, so it may seem curious that she never addressed that issue directly in her fiction. Some scholars have made an effort to find evidence of her sympathy for the growing Civil Rights movement in her work, but such evidence is very slight, if it exists at all.
O’Connor herself implied that southern black and white people inhabited worlds that were so different that a white writer could never really expect to understand the black world. Still, her black characters seem no less attractive than her white ones (none of them is very sympathetic anyway), and the racist comments in her stories come from characters who are themselves racists and would be likely to say such things (a good example is the doctor’s office conversations in “Revelation”).
In contrast to her basically satiric view of human characters, O’Connor’s physical descriptions of people and landscapes are often serious, dramatic, and weighted with symbolism. References to eyes and their color and to the various colors and qualities of the sky are numerous in almost every story. The sky and particularly the sun often seem intended to evoke images of God and Christ looking down on the world. The sun is an ancient symbol for Christ, and O’Connor’s descriptions make clear that the references are intentional. Another frequent symbol in her work is the use of birds to suggest the Holy Spirit or even, in the case of peacocks, Christ himself. Other animals sometimes appear as well, particularly pigs and monkeys, which often seem intended to suggest the bestial nature of fallen humanity, intelligent but debased and corrupt (the pigs in “Revelation” and Gonga in Wise Blood are good examples).
Like many writers, O’Connor often gave symbolic or evocative names to her characters, and they are often worth considering in that light. Mary Grace in “Revelation,” for example, is certainly an agent of divine grace in that story. Hazel (“Haze”) Motes’s name seems to draw one’s attention to his cloudy or hazy vision, reminding the reader of the biblical injunction not to try to take the mote or speck from another’s eye until one has removed the beam from one’s own. Tarwater, the protagonist of The Violent Bear It Away, simply has the name of an old folk remedy.
O’Connor’s literary reputation has risen steadily since her death. Modern readers are increasingly likely to see her serious intentions while relishing her humor. Her debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne has long been noted, but some scholars have begun to notice, too, her debt to Mark Twain—the former for his concern for moral issues, the latter for his comic view. It is on that combination of qualities that O’Connor’s reputation rests.
First published: 1952
Type of work: Novel
A backwoods preacher attempts to escape his call but at last gives in to a sort of martyrdom.
Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel; she began work on it while she was still in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It embodies most of her major themes, and it contains some of her best comedy. It is flawed, however, by her difficulties in pulling the two parts of the plot together. The Enoch Emery story is never fully integrated into the Hazel Motes story. O’Connor also had difficulties clarifying the issues about Motes’s past that have turned him into what she called a “Christian malgre lui,” a Christian in spite of himself.
The novel opens on a train as Hazel Motes leaves the Army. He is the grandson of a backwoods preacher, but he finds the image of a Jesus who insists on claiming the human recipients of his mercy to be unbearably disturbing. He has resisted inheriting his grandfather’s role, that of preaching from the hood of a car to listeners on a small-town square. Hazel has long decided that he wants to avoid that Jesus, first by trying to avoid sin and later by asserting that Jesus is nothing more than a trick.
Even on the train, however, O’Connor makes clear that Hazel’s cheap blue suit—brand-new, with the price tag ($11.98) still attached—and his black hat look exactly like the traditional garb of the preacher he refuses to be. Nevertheless, Hazel startles his worldly fellow passengers by suddenly claiming that if they are saved he would not want to be. Like many such comments in O’Connor’s work, this carries an ironic weight, for it is quite clear that salvation is the last thing the ladies in the dining car desire.
When Hazel arrives in the city of Taulkinham, he heads for the house of a prostitute, Leora Watts, as the next step in asserting that sin is an irrelevant issue in his life. Significantly, however, both the cab driver and Leora herself identify Hazel as a preacher, an identification he violently rejects. Soon Hazel sees a street preacher, Asa Hawks, who claims to have blinded himself as a demonstration of faith, although early in the novel the reader learns that his blindness is a sham. Hazel is both drawn to and repelled by Hawks and his adolescent daughter Sabbath Lily. Gradually it comes to Hazel that seducing Hawks’s daughter would make a dramatic assertion of sin’s irrelevance.
In the course of seeking Hawks’s house, Hazel meets Enoch Emery. Enoch is eager to tell Hazel—or anyone—his story, about how his father gave him to a welfare woman who sent him off to the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy and from whom he later escaped. Now he works for the city as a zoo guard. Desperately lonely and not very smart, Enoch ignores Hazel’s rebuffs and follows him like a puppy, offering to help him find where Hawks lives. Like Hawks, Enoch senses Hazel’s intense concern with Jesus. Hawks, in fact, says that some preacher has left his mark on Haze, but Hazel insists that he believes in nothing at all.
To prove his point, Hazel sets about buying a car, an ancient, rat-colored Essex, for which he pays forty dollars. The car seems to be Hazel’s vision of American materialism (“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he says), but significantly he uses it exactly as his grandfather had used his Ford, as a platform to preach from. His one attempt to use the car in a “traditional” American way, for a date with Sabbath Lily, turns out to be a travesty. It is notable that the first thing Hazel does with his car is to stop in the middle of the highway to read a “Jesus Saves” sign.
Meanwhile, Enoch Emery is acting out his own sort of religion. Enoch claims to have “wise blood,” which tells him what to do, and, in fact, he acts mostly from instinct. He insists that Hazel meet him at the park where he works, and after an elaborate set of ritual activities that include going through the zoo to ridicule the animals, Enoch leads Hazel to the city museum. Enoch finds it a place of enormous mystery because its name is carved, Roman-style, on the front, MVSEVM, creating a word that Enoch is unable to pronounce—like Yahweh, the unutterable name of God in the Old Testament. Inside the museum, Enoch shows Hazel the tiny, mummified man which has captured his imagination, but Hazel is unimpressed.
Hazel has rented a room in the house where Hawks and his daughter live, begun his plan to seduce Sabbath Lily (a plan he executes with a remarkable lack of finesse), and started a sort of church, the Church of Christ Without Christ, to dramatize his rejection of faith. Hazel’s preaching is met with public indifference; however, after a few nights, he gains a disciple in the form of a former radio preacher, Onnie Jay Holy (his real name is Hoover Shoats),...
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