Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912
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 seriousness of his message. Redemption is unnecessary if sin is denied; therefore the blood of Jesus need not “foul” the Church Without Christ. Over the next few evenings, Hazel continues to preach from the hood of his Essex, which becomes both his pulpit and his symbol of freedom from Christ and sin. “Nobody with a good car,” he claims, “needs to be justified.”
There is significant irony in Hazel’s inability to “see” that his “good car” is a decrepit piece of junk, since “sight” is an important metaphor throughout the book. Hazel’s nickname is “Haze,” a metonym for his spiritual blindness, and his earliest recalled sin involved his “seeing” a forbidden sideshow. He still keeps his mother’s glasses, although he used them only when he used to read from her Bible. Most important, Asa Hawks’s physical blindness fascinates Hazel, especially when he discovers that Hawks has blinded himself deliberately as a public display of his faith that Christ had redeemed him.
Things are not as they appear, however. As Hazel discovers, Hawks is not blind; a failure of nerve (and faith) left him scarred but with sight. Neither is Sabbath the innocent child that Hazel had presumed. The offspring of an illicit union, Sabbath is convinced that as a “bastard” she can never enter Heaven, and so she has determined to take full advantage of her inevitable damnation. She begins to pursue Hazel with her father’s blessing.
Although frustrated in his plans to corrupt Sabbath and disgrace Hawks, Hazel continues his activities as “preacher and member” of the Church Without Christ. Paradoxically, he decides that his church needs a “new jesus,” one without any blood to waste. The idea of the new jesus attracts a potential disciple, but Onnie Jay Holy mistakes Hazel’s earnest blasphemy for a confidence scam. When Hazel rejects Holy’s facile hypocrisy, Holy hires a haggard man called The Prophet who, as a mirror image of Hazel, becomes the preacher for the competing Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.
Hazel’s message of a new jesus also inspires Enoch. He has stolen the mummy from the MVSEVM and hidden it in a specially gilded cabinet. Now, driven by his blood, he removes the mummy from its tabernacle and delivers it to Sabbath. His mission complete, Enoch dons a gorilla suit and loses what remains of his human nature. When Hazel—wearing his mother’s glasses—sees Sabbath holding the mummy, he violently destroys the dust-filled corpse. Later that same evening, he tracks down The Prophet and kills him by repeatedly running over him with the Essex.
The following day, Hazel attempts to leave town and continue his ministry, but he is stopped by a police officer who inexplicably destroys the Essex. Hazel returns to the boarding house with a bucket of lime and blinds himself. This act, and other self-imposed mortifications, hold a strange attraction for his landlady, Mrs. Flood, who has to summon the police to find Hazel after he wanders away. Although the police who find him also beat him to death, Mrs. Flood places his body in her bed where she stares into his empty eye sockets.