Wise Blood was the first of Flannery O’Connor’s novels to be published. It bears some marks of the writer’s learning her way, but it also contains many of the elements that mark O’Connor’s mature fiction—her strong sense of character and voice, her comic vision, and her concern with religious themes.
It is in the novel’s structure that some scholars have seen Wise Blood as suffering from O’Connor’s apprenticeship. Although the early scenes of Hazel Motes on the train, his confrontations with the passengers, and his first day in Taulkinham begin to establish Hazel’s character, they seem not to be tied securely to the novel’s main narrative. The same might be said for O’Connor’s disposal of Enoch Emery and his retreat into the world of beasts. It may be an appropriate conclusion for a character like Enoch, but it seems detached from the novel’s central concerns. Concerns about minor failures of structure seem insignificant, however, in the light of the novel’s successes, particularly in its characters and their language. Hazel is one of many of O’Connor’s Christ-haunted characters. Inarticulate, uneducated, unsophisticated, and distrustful of sophistication (and rightly so, O’Connor implies), he nevertheless is able to focus on one of life’s most important concerns—the gospel’s message of salvation. Hazel’s attempt to reject that message is the central action of the novel, and the fact that it cannot be rejected is O’Connor’s chief theme. Even after he tries to create an antichurch, after he distracts himself with the world in the form of his car and Sabbath Lily, Hazel is still left with his sense that Jesus is hunting him down. Hazel’s murder of the person he calls the false prophet, Solace Layfield, is in some ways the crisis of the novel. Layfield is hired to mimic Hazel’s preaching; he even dresses like Hazel. In killing him, Hazel seems to be killing himself. Only after the murder does Hazel take on the penances he acts out at the end of his life.
The voices of O’Connor’s characters often reveal their author’s skill at re-creating southern speech. Hazel says, for example, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” Enoch relates how he escaped the head teacher at Rodemill Boys Bible Academy when he “giver a heart attack.” Sabbath Lily describes a woman whose allergies made her break out in “welps.” The inflections of the rural South become a point of entry to O’Connor’s comic vision of the world.
O’Connor’s is a dark world and her humor is often satiric, portraying a secular society in which God is essentially irrelevant. Sabbath Lily, for example, once writes to an advice columnist, Mary Brittle, in an attempt to reconcile her belief that her illegitimacy condemns her with her interest in men. The heart of the columnist’s answer lies in her last sentence: “A religious experience can be a beautiful addition to living if you put it in the proper perspective and do not let it warf you.” Toward the end of the novel, when the blind Hazel moves into Mrs. Flood’s house, she questions him about the barbed wire he wears under his shirt. When he says it is natural, she retorts: “Well, it’s not normal . . . it’s something that people have quit doing—like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats.”
O’Connor prods the reader to recognize and to laugh at the ugly and vulgar in her characters’ worlds. Enoch’s rented room contains a picture of a moose whose gaze intimidates him. He loses his front teeth to the spring in a can of gag gift candy. The movies...
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Enoch attends are either violent or sentimental.
The sense that the world is fraudulent is tied directly to O’Connor’s central theme: In a world of falsities, the only reality is the grace that leads to salvation. This is the reality that Hazel tries to deny throughout the novel. At the end, however, his ruined eyes looking like the star at Bethlehem, he seems to have submitted to the inexorable call of the Jesus who haunts him. As a character, Hazel is so inarticulate that by the end of his tortured life he is quite incapable of talking to anyone about his spiritual state. Readers draw their conclusions about the significance of the ending through the viewpoint of Mrs. Flood, a woman who is little given to insights about others. It is she who thinks of Bethlehem when she looks at Hazel’s eyes. At the very end of the novel, she believes that in Hazel’s empty eye sockets she sees him retreating away from her into tiny pinpoints of light, and she suspects that somehow she was cheated of something. O’Connor implies that she loses what she refuses to be found by—the Christ who insists on finding Hazel.