Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Wise Blood opens with Hazel Motes on a train to the city of Taulkinham. His bright blue suit and broad-brimmed hat make people mistake him for a “preacher,” but it soon becomes evident that although Hazel is consumed by the idea of redemption, he is not a Christian in any ordinary sense. For Hazel, Jesus is not a loving savior but rather “a wild ragged figure” who moves “from tree to tree in the back of his mind,” always beckoning him to step into the dark. This image had been planted by his grandfather, a circuit preacher who had often used his grandson as an object lesson, declaring that even for the unworthy child, Jesus would have died “ten million deaths” to redeem him. In the city, Hazel intends to demonstrate that he needs neither Jesus nor the sanguine redemption he provides.
In Taulkinham, Hazel meets Enoch Emery, an oafish young man who becomes an unwelcome companion. Together, they encounter a street evangelist, Asa Hawks, and his homely young daughter Sabbath Lily. Hazel is drawn to Hawks, whose name seems to mock the fact that he is blind. In an effort to demonstrate his rejection of both the necessity for redemption and the idea of sin that requires it, Hazel decides to seduce Sabbath, and on the following day, he seeks out Enoch to obtain Hawks’s address.
Enoch is driven instinctually by his “wise blood,” and he cannot surrender the information until Hazel agrees to accompany him in his daily routine, which culminates in the MVSEVM in a park in the heart of the city. Here, Enoch leads Hazel to a mummified dwarf, the central mystery in Enoch’s constricted world. Frustrated by this diversion, Hazel attacks Enoch and sets out alone to find Hawks.
That evening, Hazel locates the boarding house where Asa and Sabbath live, but before he confronts them, he decides to mimic Hawks’s ministry. Climbing on the hood of his Essex—a “rat-colored” rattletrap—Hazel preaches his first sermon for the Church Without Christ, “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Despite his blatant sacrilege, Hazel understands better than his auditors—who regard him with mild amusement if they regard him at all—the...
(The entire section is 912 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When Hazel Motes is released from the army, he finds his old home place deserted. Eastrod is the home of his grandfather, a backwoods preacher who assured Hazel that Jesus is hungry for his soul. Hazel packs up his mother’s Bible and reading glasses and catches the train for Taulkinham. He rides uneasily in his $11.98 suit, startling one middle-class lady by suddenly telling her, “If you’ve been redeemed . . . I wouldn’t want to be.”
In the army, Hazel decides that his grandfather’s preaching was false, that sin does not exist. In Taulkinham, Hazel intends to prove this to himself, but even the cabdriver who takes him to his first room identifies him as a preacher.
On his second night in the city, Hazel meets Enoch Emery as they watch a sidewalk potato-peeler salesman. Enoch comes to Taulkinham from the country and finds a job working for the city zoo. He is desperately lonely, and despite Hazel’s surliness, Enoch immediately attaches himself to Hazel as a potential friend. Hazel’s attention, however, is focused on a blind man whose face is scarred. The blind man’s daughter, Sabbath Lily, accompanies him, handing out religious pamphlets. Hazel and Enoch follow the pair until the blind man, Asa Hawks, insists that he can smell sin on Hazel and that he was marked by some past preacher. Hazel denies it, saying that the only thing that matters to him is that Jesus does not exist.
The next day Hazel buys a car. Even at forty dollars it is no bargain, an ancient Essex that barely runs, but it pleases Hazel. Later that day he meets Enoch Emery at the zoo so that Enoch can show Hazel something at the museum. Enoch leads Hazel to a case that contains a tiny mummified man. Enoch finds the mummy very compelling and believes that he received a sign to show it to Hazel, whose only response is to demand Hawks’s address.
That evening Hazel begins his career as a street preacher; he calls...
(The entire section is 794 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 1625 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Hazel Motes is sitting on a train, heading to Taulkinham. He is twenty-two years old and dressed like an elderly country preacher, including a new suit with the tag still stapled to his sleeve. Across from him sits Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, a fat woman who tries to chat with the uncommunicative Motes. He has an army duffel bag at his feet, and she assumes he has been recently discharged. It is his eyes, deep-set and brown like pecans, which the woman finds so compelling. Motes avoids eye contact with her; instead, he watches intently the Negro porter down the aisle as he begins making up berths.
Motes finally approaches the man, telling him he is from Eastrod but is going into the city. The porter is terse and tells...
(The entire section is 1220 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Motes does not arrive in the city until the next evening at 6:00. This morning he got off the train to get some fresh air, and when he was not paying attention, it slipped away. He started to run after it, but his hat blew off and he had to retrieve it. Fortunately, he had taken his duffel bag off the train with him, afraid someone might steal something from it. He waited six hours at the junction stop for another train into Taulkinham.
The first thing he sees are flashing neon lights frantically blinking and moving, advertising everything imaginable. Motes paces the station, duffel in hand. He walks slowly and appears determined under the brim of his hat. No one who is watching could know that he has no place to go. He...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
On his second night in Taulkinham, Motes walks downtown without looking at any of the stores. It is a Thursday, so everything is open late. He stops to watch a lean-faced man with a card table set up like an altar in front of a department store. A few people have gathered to watch as he demonstrates a potato peeler; he targets one boy, Enoch Emery, for a sale. As the man tries to close the deal, a tall, thin man with a black suit and hat laughs harshly. He is wearing gloves and dark glasses, and the lines on his face appear to have been painted on and then faded. As he laughs, he jingles a cup of coins and taps his white cane in front of him. He is followed by a young girl in a black dress and black knitted cap passing out...
(The entire section is 1258 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Motes gets out of Mrs. Watts' bed early the next morning with one thought in mind: he is going to buy a car. It is an odd thought, since he has never thought of buying a car before; in fact, he has never wanted one, has rarely driven one, and has no license. But he has fifty dollars and he goes to the car lot by the railroad tracks to find one.
He wanders about the lot, ignoring the salesman who wants to show him their stock. Eventually, he comes across a white boy sitting on a gasoline can in front of a tin shack. The boy cries that he must show him the automobiles, but Motes pays no mind. He finally finds the car.
It is in the last row and it is high and rat-colored. The boy catches up to Motes,...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Every day when Emery is finished with his shift as a guard at the City Forest Park, he has a specific routine. First he goes to the park swimming pool where he sits on the bank above the pool and watches the swimmers. He watches one woman who comes to swim every Monday from the bushes where he will not be seen. He does the same when other women come to sunbathe. The “looseness” of the city is always shocking to him.
There is a secret place in the center of the park which he has discovered, a mystery right out in the open for everyone to see. Emery cannot show this discovery to just anyone, but he feels as if there is a “terrible knowledge” in him which must be released or he will do something awful. But he never...
(The entire section is 1261 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Motes drives around until he finds the blind preacher and his daughter. He follows them from a distance as they walk four blocks to a small two-story house near the railroad yards. As they enter the house, the girl twists her head and looks at the car; inside the vehicle, Motes has plastered his face against the glass, looking at a sign on the house that announces rooms for rent. He continues driving until he reaches downtown and parks his car in front of a movie theater.
As people are leaving the theater, Motes stands on the hood of his Essex and begins preaching, as if he were standing in a pulpit. He asks people where the Christ's blood has touched them, and immediately the crowd begins to taunt him. When someone...
(The entire section is 1291 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
After Motes picks up his car the next day, he drives into the country to see how well it has been repaired; suddenly he hears someone in the back seat clearing her throat. It is Hawks’ daughter, wearing dandelions in her hair and red lipstick. At first he is angry with her for hiding in his car, but then he remembers he intends to seduce her and manages the semblance of a smile.
She climbs into the front seat, “one thin black-stockinged leg” at a time, and tells him her name is Sabbath Lily Hawks. Her mother named her that, she explains, because she was born on the Sabbath, but her mother rolled over and died before her daughter could even see her. All the pleasure of his repaired Essex and an afternoon drive...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Emery has always known that something big is going to happen to him, though he never knew what it would be. Now he knows it has begun, and if he were a thinking person, he might have thought that now is the time to “justify his daddy’s blood.” As it is, his mind is not equipped to do much planning, so he simply wonders what he will do next. Whatever is going to happen to him began when he showed Motes the horrifying thing in the glass case. It is "a mystery beyond his understanding,” but he knows whatever is going to be expected of him will be something terrible. His blood is still the most sensitive part of him, and it pulsates doom throughout his entire body, except perhaps for his brain. As a consequence, his tongue...
(The entire section is 1359 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Motes is determined to get back into Hawks’ house and see what is behind the dark glasses. Hawks is equally determined not to let Motes into his home or his life. When Motes knocks on the door, which he does several times a day, Hawks unbolts the door long enough to shove his daughter out and rebolts it behind her. Hawks is infuriated by the man’s insistence and does not want Motes to catch him drunk, which he often is. Motes cannot believe a preacher is not welcoming to such a lost soul as himself.
Every time he knocks on Hawks’ door, the girl is shoved out at him and she is a nuisance, following him into his car or his apartment and spoiling his life. He has abandoned the idea of seducing her and now just tries...
(The entire section is 1256 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The next night Motes again parks in front of a theater, climbs on his car, and begins to preach. He asks people to listen to the only real truth: that there is no truth. This is the foundation of the Church Without Christ. Nothing in the sky will reveal anything to them, and the Fall, Judgment, and Redemption are not real. If there were a place where Jesus redeemed them, they could go there, but there is no such place.
When several more people join his audience, Motes tells them their pangs of conscience are nothing but a trick because a man’s conscience is nothing more than his face in the mirror or his shadow behind him. Motes is preaching with such fervor and concentration that he does not notice a high,...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
About noon the next day, a person in a long black raincoat with his collar turned up and a hat pulled low moves quickly along the back streets of town, close to the walls of the buildings. In his arms is a baby-shaped bundle wrapped in newspapers, and his umbrella keeps slipping down and getting tangled in his feet. Soon it begins to rain and the man takes shelter between two store windows. Enoch Emery is on his way to see Motes. The bundle is the object he showed Motes at the museum; Emery stole it the day before.
He had dressed all in black, even covering his face and hands with brown shoe polish so if anyone saw him they would think he was a black man. When the guard was asleep, Emery smashed the glass with a wrench....
(The entire section is 1465 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Though he does not want to think about it, Emery still anticipates that the new jesus will do something for him in exchange for releasing him from his glass cage. It is a mixture of lust and hope, and he only has a vague idea of how he wants to be rewarded. Emery is a young man with ambition. What he does know is that he wants his condition to improve, that he wants to be “THE young man of the future.” One day he wants people to line up to shake his hand.
He spends the afternoon fidgeting and picks the silk off the borrowed umbrella until it is nothing but a black stick with a sharp point at one end and a dog’s head at the other. When he leaves at seven that evening, he carries the walking stick under his arm and...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Hoover Shoats grossed more than fifteen dollars the first night he preached. He paid the Prophet three dollars for his services and the use of his car. The twin Prophet’s name is Solace Layfield and he has consumption; this is as much work as he wants to do to provide for his wife and six children. When he took the job, Layfield had no idea it would be dangerous. He did not notice the high rat-colored car parked less than a block away or the white face inside, Motes, watching him with a dangerous intensity.
Motes watches for about an hour as the men work the crowds outside a theater until no one is left. He observes Shoats getting into the car and Layfield getting behind the wheel to drive him home, which is about ten...
(The entire section is 920 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Motes’ landlady continues to think about why a sane person would blind himself, because Motes continues to live in her house after he puts out his eyes. Initially, she told him to leave since he refused to wear dark glasses and the sight of his damaged eye sockets was both disconcerting and intriguing, but she lets him stay. Motes spends most afternoons sitting on her porch, but he only speaks when he is in the mood. If she asks him a question in the morning, he might not answer it until the afternoon—or perhaps never. He stays there because he knows his way around the building.
Every month Motes gets a disability check from the military for the injuries he suffered, and the landlady is intrigued by how this blind...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)