(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.)