Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
Like all Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Wise Blood is intended to articulate religious truths that O’Connor, writing from her faith as a Roman Catholic, took very seriously. Typically, she clothed those truths in comic, even satiric, pictures of the rural South and its inhabitants, the very world O’Connor lived in almost all of her life. O’Connor always protested the labeling of her comic characters as grotesque, claiming them to be realistic pictures of the people around her. Thus, her portrayal of Hazel Motes is both comic and serious, and Hazel’s journey embodies the novel’s central themes.
In a novel filled with people who make claims on religion, only Hazel Motes is truly serious about it, so serious that he feels compelled to deny religion until he is forced to face the truth. Throughout most of the novel, Hazel does everything he can to evade the truth that he finally faces. The most striking example is his “Church Without Christ,” with which he intends to demonstrate the irrelevance of the Christ his grandfather preached so intently. His denial is blocked at every turn, however, as people recognize that Hazel is somehow marked by God.
Even Hazel’s church is not spared; Hoover Shoates’s false claims about Hazel’s powers as a prophet are a mere attempt to extort money from passersby. In short, Shoates intends to corrupt Hazel’s “church” in exactly the same way that he would try to corrupt any other religious movement. Like most of the novel’s characters, he cannot imagine that anyone is serious about religion.
An important exception is Enoch Emery. In his desperate need for human contact, he is so willing to accept whatever Hazel says about himself or his church that he finds himself drawn into Hazel’s claims, almost without conscious awareness of what is happening to him. After stealing the mummy, Enoch somehow intuits that it must be the “new jesus” of Hazel’s anti-church. After he has delivered the mummy to Hazel, Enoch’s role is at an end. At that point, he is symbolically reduced from man to beast when, in one of the novel’s best comic scenes, he steals the gorilla suit from the actor who plays Gonga the Gorilla (Gonga has always been Enoch’s hero). The reader’s last view of Enoch shows him discarding his human clothing, evidently prepared to go through life as an ape.
The turning point in Hazel’s attempt to escape the Jesus who haunts him comes when he kills Solace Layfield, the “True Prophet” whom Hoover Shoates hired to retaliate against Hazel for refusing to let him use the Church Without Christ for his own profit. Shoates has given Layfield a suit of clothes that is identical to Hazel’s, and the message that he shouts from the curbside seems to people on the sidewalk to be identical to what Hazel says. Layfield has become Hazel’s double, and Hazel somehow knows that he must kill him. He carries out the murder by running over Layfield in his Essex. As the “True Prophet” lies dying, he mutters out a confession of the major sins of his life. Hazel bends close to hear that confession and Layfield’s call on Jesus for help.
Significantly, just before Layfield’s death, Hazel finds Sabbath Lily and the “new jesus” in his room. Hazel cannot see clearly, because he is wearing the spectacles his mother once wore to read the Bible, but in a symbolic gesture, Hazel smashes the mummy against the wall and its worthless stuffings dribble to the floor. Once he has rid himself of the useless “new jesus,” Hazel is ready to rid himself of his double, Solace Layfield. The double’s death (which in some sense is Hazel’s own death), however, seems to force Hazel to see the truth.
Like Oedipus, once Hazel sees the truth, he blinds himself. In fact, he spends the last months of his life in a fury of self-punishment. Here, the novel’s point of view shifts to that of his venal landlady, Mrs. Flood, who cannot understand what Hazel is doing. Still, at the novel’s end, even she has a sense that behind the hollows of Hazel’s dead eyes lies a vision of light like the light of the star of Bethlehem, and in the novel’s last lines O’Connor suggests that Mrs. Flood, like Hazel, may have begun to see that light.