Themes of Faith and Religion in Wise Blood

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The world of Wise Blood is a spiritually empty, morally blind, cold, and hostile place. Over the years, critics have often referred to Flannery O'Connor's first novel as dark and grotesque. They then use words such as repulsive, depraved, and unredeemable to describe its characters. There can be no denying...

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The world of Wise Blood is a spiritually empty, morally blind, cold, and hostile place. Over the years, critics have often referred to Flannery O'Connor's first novel as dark and grotesque. They then use words such as repulsive, depraved, and unredeemable to describe its characters. There can be no denying that the inhabitants of Wise Blood are frequently deceptive, chronically unkind, and brutally violent. Both the principal character, Hazel "Haze" Motes, and his young and simple follower, Enoch Emery, inflict and become the victims of acts of violence. Haze murders a man by running him over with his car, while Enoch beats and strips a man for his own personal gain. Yet despite the violence and seemingly unconscionable behavior exhibited by these and other characters, the cast of displaced wanderers who populate Wise Blood do have another trait in common: they are searching for something better.

In her Introduction to the second edition of Wise Blood, O'Connor describes Hazel Motes as a "Christian malgré lui" (a Christian in spite of himself). At twelve, Haze thought himself destined to become a preacher like his grandfather, but by the time he reaches early adulthood he convinces himself that he does not have a soul. Claiming that he does not "believe in anything," Motes embarks on a desperate mission to rid himself of his deeply-rooted Christian beliefs. He founds the Church Without Christ and begins preaching a new jesus that is "all man, without blood to waste." According to Robert Brinkmeyer, Jr., Haze's preaching constitutes his attempt to "sunder forever the body and the spirit." It is also his way of negating the "nameless unplaced guilt" instilled in him during childhood by his mother and grandfather. However, Haze's attempt to eradicate the presence of Jesus from his life is ultimately unsuccessful. For O'Connor, a Christian writer who wrote about Christian concerns, it is Haze's inability to escape Christ and realize his conversion to nothing that raises him above the novel's other characters.

In addition to his religious struggles, Haze must also contend with solitude and homelessness. Upon his release from the army, he returns to his home town of Eastrod, Tennessee, only to find it run-down and deserted. When he arrives in Taulkinham the following day, his situation does not improve: he is confronted with the realization that he has no place to go. This rootlessness and sense of displacement is, in fact, a condition shared by most of the novel's characters. Enoch Emery, for example, has only been in Taulkinham for two months and has spent much of his life moving and being moved. The same is true of Asa and Sabbath Hawks, who also move from place to place, begging for money and handing out religious pamphlets. Such widespread and long-lasting restlessness suggest that there is something seriously wrong with the world in which these characters live. It also suggests a common desire for something better.

The link between displacement and the striving for something other, or better, is made explicit when Haze purchases the rundown Essex. He tells the man who sells him the car that he wants it "mostly to be a house" because he "ain't got any place to be." But it becomes evident that Haze buys the car not to provide himself with a place to be, but for its ability to bring him someplace else. He brags that his car will get him anywhere he wants to go, and plans to make a new start in a new city. Such a plan is made possible by "the advantage of having a car," something that could move "to the place you wanted to be."

Significantly, it is also atop the nose of his Essex that Haze preaches his new jesus to a flow of exiting moviegoers. But the faith Haze places in both his car and his new savior is misguided. Instead of becoming the means through which he finds inner peace ("nobody with a good car needs to be justified," he tells Hawks), Haze uses his Essex to maul and kill another human being. The car leads Haze past signs that read "Jesus Saves," but he does not heed them. It is not until the car is destroyed that he recognizes his mistake and ceases to flee that which he knows he must accept. Similarly, it is only when Enoch delivers the manifestation of the new jesus to Haze's door that he recognizes its worthlessness. He realizes, as Margaret Peller Feeley suggests, that his false idol is "merely the incarnation of all people who reject the true God and make a god in their own image."

Like Hazel, Enoch follows a misguided path in an effort to find his reward. Hurt and dejected by the unfriendly reception he has received in Taulkinham, a city where everybody wants "to knock you down," Enoch longs to become a somebody. He wishes to better his condition and be like the young men he sees displayed in insurance ads. But instead of working towards that goal, Enoch buries himself in the rigidity of a daily routine. Even after he steals the "new jesus" from the museum, his brief moment of action is once again followed by passivity. He sits at home waiting for something to happen but, not surprisingly, the fake savior does nothing.

Enoch's final actions are even more pathetic and futile. Impressed by the line of people who wait to meet Gonga, a Hollywood movie star, he dreams of someday seeing a "line of people waiting to shake his hand." Unfortunately, he chooses to realize this dream by borrowing Gonga's persona and stripping the hired gorilla-man of his animal suit. Instead of becoming a somebody, Enoch loses himself completely and disappears into the suit. Such a strategy is doomed, Robert Donahoo argues, because the change is "superficial." According to his reading of the novel, Enoch's bestial transformation is representative of the "American tendency to address a problem by changing its appearance." Enoch's plan ultimately fails, and he is last seen alone and unchanged.

One of the major themes of the novel is faith and religious belief but, for most of the characters, faith has become little more than an annoyance that is sold on city streets. It is not a relevant or meaningful part of their lives. Hoover Shoats, for instance, uses religion as a means for commercial profit, preying on the easily manipulated and the easily swayed. He is attracted to Haze's idea of a new jesus, not for any spiritual reasons, but because he thinks it is a lucrative opportunity that simply needs a little promotion. Conversely, Asa Hawks is made uncomfortable by Haze's religious preoccupations and refers to the young anti-preacher as a "Goddam Jesus-hog." Hawks, of course, has personal reasons for disliking Haze's activities—reasons that resurface when Sabbath reminds him that he too was once like Haze but eventually "got over it."

The idea that faith and religious belief are things one must get over, an obstacle to be overcome, is echoed by Mrs. Flood. She is unable to understand Haze's motives for blinding himself or for his walking with rocks in his shoes, much less for the more extreme act of wrapping himself in barbed wire. She tells him that these kinds of acts are no longer done, that they are something people have quit doing. Her attitudes and complacency reflect those of the society around her and provide an important clue as to why so many of the characters in Wise Blood are dissatisfied with their current situations. An oft-quoted passage from William Rodney Allen's reading of the novel explains what O'Connor seems to imply. Allen likens secular man living without God's grace to the many caged animals in the novel—both are hopelessly trapped. Stripped of its spiritual dimension, Allen argues that the world "is merely a prison for an odd collection of inmates—a zoo for the human animal."

Haze takes his first real steps away from that zoo after his car is rolled over the embankment. It is at this moment that Haze experiences what many critics agree is his moment of awakening: staring into the "entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank grey sky that went on, depth after depth, into space," Haze appears to perceive that which has eluded everyone else. The sky, complete with blinding white clouds with curls and a beard, is frequently described in Wise Blood but is never noticed by the people walking beneath it. Brinkmeyer has suggested that these celestial descriptions are the only hints of the divine in the novel. One might even read them as suggesting the presence of God. Whatever it is Haze sees, it is his recognition and appreciation of the depth before him that finally allows him to end his quest for some other place. It is also immediately after this revelation that he decides to blind himself. Allen has suggested that as Haze stares into the distance, his illusion of freedom destroyed, he perceives the dimension of spiritual freedom and blinds himself to see even deeper into that freedom.

But not every critic focuses on the religious aspects of O'Connor's novel. Jon Lance Bacon, for example, offers a reading of the novel that provides a different twist to some of the scenes already discussed. He argues that in Wise Blood O'Connor depicts a society pervaded by advertising and marketing techniques. In short, Bacon reads the novel as a critique of American consumer culture. Citing influential texts such as Marshall McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride, Bacon discusses the increasing influence that corporate capitalism exerts over individual identity. He observes that the citizens of Taulkinham are inundated with commercial appeals and that the boundaries of the urban setting are defined by electric signs. He offers Enoch as the character most identified with consumerism, describing him as "pathetically vulnerable to advertisers' messages." It is by appropriating the imagery of consumerism, Bacon argues, that Enoch hopes to become a new man; he anticipates a new and improved self, but the ape suit only leads to a loss of identity. Similarly, the value Haze attaches to his car is indicative of his susceptibility to the kind of thinking fostered by consumer society: the ownership of an automobile allows him to conceive himself as a totally free individual. It is only after the car is destroyed, Bacon notes, that he is forced to consider a reality other than the material world.

Still, a reading of O'Connor's fiction must take into account the author's religious concerns. In her introduction to Three by Flannery O'Connor, Sally Fitzgerald reminds readers that O'Connor herself thought the novel "a very hopeful book." It is true that Haze's act of self-mutilation does have a positive effect on the selfish and self-centered Mrs. Flood. Her attitudes change when, at the very end of the novel, she begins to feel that she has been cheated of something of a non-material nature. Initially, she felt cheated financially, but when Haze dies she thinks that he may have known something she did not. In the final scene, she stares deeply into the dead man's eyes, hoping to find the way into the pinpoint of light she sees before her. Brinkmeyer argues that this final chapter shows Mrs. Flood's faith slowly emerging; her selfish common sense "giving way to something closer to kindness and charity." Moreover, Feeley reads this as the most affirmative of O'Connor's endings: "That so limited and venal a creature can be moved signifies hope for all." Ultimately, it is up to each reader to decide whether or not hope and affirmation are to be found in O'Connor's twisted tale.

Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Lilburn is a writer and translator specializing in twentieth-century American and Canadian literature.

From Face Value to the Value in Faces: Wise Blood and the Limits of Literalism

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3198

In Wise Blood Flannery O'Connor continually seems to stare at the faces of her characters. She does not just describe and constantly refer to the faces of Haze Motes and his fellow sinners with the hard, sharp eye that served her as a cartoonist in college and with the deep awareness that produced a haunting self-portrait with peacock in later life. She also focuses in vivid detail on the nameless faces of minor figures whose very existence in the novel depends on their description as they are suddenly caught by O'Connor in close-up. Enoch Emery remembers that the Welfare woman who cared for him was not old "'but she sho was ugly. She had theseyer brown glasses and her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull.'" A red-haired waitress at Walgreen's has "green eyes set in pink" so that she looks like a picture of a Lime Cherry Surprise, while another at the Paris Diner shows "a big yellow dental plate and the same color hair done up in a black hairnet." A woman with "a square red face and her hair … freshly set" carries a "cat-faced" baby as she listens to Haze preach.

All of these faces in O'Connor's portrait gallery of a novel lack both depth and completeness. As an artist, she flattens a three-dimensional world into two so that her characters resemble Haze's face at the moment it is pressed to the glass of his car watching Asa and his daughter: "a paper face pasted there." Moreover, O'Connor avoids portraying all the features of these faces, preferring to concentrate on striking and invariably ugly physical characteristics. Her extreme selectivity and exaggeration turn characters into spiritual cartoons. The unholy fools of Wise Blood exist not so much in the fullness of their flesh and blood but in the reduction to a set of yellow teeth, a pair of icy eyes, a patch of blotchy skin. Yet if O'Connor's gaze obliterates much, it leaves the essentials of the soul to be seen in the distorted outlines of the body.

O'Connor's caricatures illustrate her creed as novelist and believer. In her essays she repeatedly stresses that the writer must start where all human knowledge begins—the senses. Her art does not originate with philosophical questions, abstract problems, or social issues but with whatever is near at hand and in front of her face. She quotes with approval Ford Madox Ford's injunction that the novelist cannot have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story without providing enough detail to make the reader see him. The starting point of literature is thus the literal. Because of her commitment to the surfaces of the world, O'Connor cannot do other than begin with the faces of her characters….

Since her characters so often live on this two-dimensional plane, far removed from their divine origins, she renders their faces in the most superficial terms. In Wise Blood O'Connor demonstrates that although literalism is a necessary approach to the world, it is unwise and sometimes even bloody as the final means of understanding it. The mistake that all of her comic caricatures make is that they only take the world at its face value and never really see the value in faces.

O'Connor dramatizes the limits of such literalism at the novel's beginning in the purblind sight of Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock. As she sits "facing Motes in the section" of the train, she is forced to look at his deep-set, pecan eyes and prominent skull. Haze's face invites the aspiring visionary to go beyond her sentimentalized faith that "yes, life was an inspiration." Captivated yet baffled by Haze's eyes, drawn continually to them yet irked because she can only try to see into them, Mrs. Hitchcock nearly confronts the tremendous and fascinating realm of the holy in the human world. Yet she never discovers the image and likeness of God in his creation, for she will not surrender herself to the depths beyond depths of Haze's face. Instead, she stubbornly defends herself against its challenge by concentrating only on face value. As she squints at the price tag on the sleeve of Haze's suit, she learns that it "had cost him $11.98. She felt that that placed him and looked at his face again as if she were fortified against it now."

Mrs. Hitchcock can only look at Haze if she abstracts him into a class and category. Having reduced a person to a price tag, she tries to protect herself against the summons from the mystery that she dimly senses by keeping her eye on the surface offered by Haze's face. O'Connor provides the first description of Motes from the viewpoint of Mrs. Hitchcock as if this lady were trying to steel herself against the invitation of his eyes by immersing herself in the superficial details of the rest of his features: shrike's nose, creased mouth, and flattened hair. Mrs. Hitchcock prefers to see only the two-dimensional reality directly in front of her face rather than what O'Connor calls "the image at the heart of things." O'Connor represents Mrs. Hitchcock's failure to perceive the world in all its roundness by appropriately flattening her out. Glimpsed by Haze on her way to her berth, her hair a mass of knots and knobs that "framed her face like dark toadstools," she becomes nothing more than surfaces herself in O'Connor's mercilessly precise portraiture.

Mrs. Hitchcock is the first of O'Connor's literalists who, lacking their creator's profounder vision, view the world only on one level. Virtually every other character in the novel repeats her sin….

All of these foolish faces in Wise Blood seem blind to Paul's vision of how "we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18). However, O'Connor with open face herself shows in Haze how one human image is made to conform to the divine model. Haze Motes develops from the literalism of Enoch Emery to the anagogical vision of Flannery O'Connor. Throughout much of the novel he consistently judges people by their face value. Although one mechanic already warned him that his dilapidated Essex could not be saved, he entrusts it to a huckster at a different garage, "certain that it was in honest hands." The scarred face and dark glasses of Asa Hawks, another salesman of salvation, convince Haze that this fraud once blinded himself for Jesus. The naif cannot understand how such a preacher could have fathered an illegitimate daughter like Sabbath Lily. When Haze looks at her homely face, he wisely reasons that the innocence of Sunday's child, normally full of grace, virtually beckons his blood to seduction. Actually, this paleface with her large, red lips hopes to seduce him because she has never seen a boy that she "'liked the looks of any better.'"

Each fails to lead the other into temptation on their trip into the country. Although Sabbath poses alluringly on the ground, Haze lies a few feet away and covers his face with his hat. His very literalism is a far greater lust, for in the dark this would-be Solomon tries to determine whether a bastard like Sabbath Hawks can be saved in his new religion. He finally concludes, "'There wouldn't be any sense to the word, bastard, in the Church Without Christ.'" His inclusiveness, however, does not result from discovering the Father's prodigal love which transcends all superficial distinctions but from deciding to take language merely at face value. Since Haze believes in the Church Without Christ, he must speak a language without any inherent Logos. The Word, indeed any word, even bastard, is just a sound devoid of sense. Hence, sin has no existence outside of speech. When Asa Hawks quite accurately charges Haze with "'Fornication and blasphemy and what else?'" Haze dismisses the accusation, "'They ain't nothing but words … I don't believe in sin.'"

Just as Haze separates word from concept until a name means nothing, he divorces Jesus' humanity from his divinity. His literalism drives him to seek a new jesus, "'one that's all man, without blood to waste.'" This jesus is purely human, for Haze's nihilism denies the plenitude of being which characterizes divinity. A jesus who cannot spend himself extravagantly is hardly God. The consequence of rejecting the incarnation is that there may be crucifixion but no resurrection, suffering but no redemption. Such a divorce destroys all significance, leaving behind merely emptied physical signs. "'Where in your time and your body has Jesus redeemed you?'" Haze asks the few faces who listen to him for proof in the flesh. "'Show me where because I don't see the place.'" Salvation becomes as meaningless as sin if the senses provide the sole guide to reality. When someone seems to suggest that the site of salvation may be in the conscience, Haze warns that conscience must be hunted and killed "'because it's no more than your face in the mirror is.'" Since Haze's face values exalt the letter over the spirit, Enoch brings him a literal version of his new jesus. A jesus without blood to waste is nothing more than an embalmed corpse. Haze's word for word reading of the world eliminates the divine Word so that only dead flesh and hollowed language remain.

Such blindness causes Haze constantly to overlook the visible features of the invisible God. He lives in the desert of Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday" where there is "No place of grace for those who avoid the face." Throughout his aborted idyll with Sabbath, he misses the significance of the brilliant white cloud "with curls and a beard" that follows his car. As Richard Giannone notes [in Thought, Vol. 59, 1984], the portrait in the heavens recalls the face of Moses which glowed so brightly with divine glory that he had to veil it from the Israelites. Again God shows his presence by shining forth upon his creation, but Hazel, Hebrew for "he who sees God," puts on his own veil by covering his face with his hat.

Always in the dark, Haze misses another theophany when the car that he trusted to the supposedly honest mechanic breaks down. A one-armed attendant of a service station gives him a can of gas and his car a push—all gratis. These freely done services shine forth as rare and mysterious acts of goodness in a novel where so many prophets are profiteers. Like Haze but in a radically different sense, this good man so hard to find works for nothing. But his gratuitous kindness only provokes one more expression of Haze's nihilistic egotism. "'I don't need no favors from him,'" Haze boasts to save face. And when Sabbath praises his Essex, he completes the one-upsmanship of his lame triumph, '"It ain't been built by a bunch of foreigners or niggers or one-arm men.'" Haze can only respond to this stranger's generosity by labelling his appearance. Such reductionism removes the attendant's graciousness from the realm of amazing grace so that he becomes nothing more than what is observed, a man with one arm. By taking him at his face value Haze avoids an encounter with mystery which might expose his true dependency and demand that he bestow favor on others.

Despite his reduction of salvation to the superficial, Haze hears a call to see beyond the surface. He escapes being another of the novel's spiritual caricatures by becoming what Lewis A. Lawson calls [in his Another Generation: Southern Fiction since World War II, 1984] "an oxymoron as character." Haze searches for the value in faces malgré lui. As if the need for such wisdom were in his blood, he has the same face as his grandfather, a fiery fundamentalist preacher. The way he sits on the train in chapter one typifies his spiritual posture throughout the novel: he strains forward to see. He especially longs to look into the eyes of Asa Hawks that are hidden by dark glasses. And although he gives Asa's daughter the fast eye, he sends her a note that demonstrates a deeper understanding of language than Enoch's taking each word at its face value: "BABE, I NEVER SAW ANYBODY THAT LOOKED AS GOOD AS YOU BEFORE IS WHY I CAME HERE." When this rare good woman asks him whether he meant the adjective in its physical or moral sense, he answers, "'The both.'" A confirmed literalist like Enoch would not even perceive a possible pun.

Since Haze recognizes such double dimensions as well as constantly resists them, his literalism makes him half right rather than completely wrong. His attention to surfaces could become the starting point for a return to the divine source on which O'Connor always keeps her eye. When he criticizes a crowd so apathetic to the atonement that even if Jesus had saved them, "'You wouldn't do nothing about it. Your faces wouldn't move, neither this way nor that,'" he is as much insightful as overly insistent. He may emphasize appearance too much, but he recognizes that redemption should transform the stoney expressions of their spiritually stolid lives.

O'Connor forces Haze to face the limits of his literalism in two scenes that demonstrate the absurdity of taking the world at face value. After putting on his mother's glasses, Haze sees in the mirror "his mother's face in his." He hastens to take off the spectacles, for he recognizes his own sinfulness in the accusing image of his guilt-obsessed parent. Yet before he can remove them, "the door opened and two more faces floated into his line of vision." Sabbath enters the room like a mock-Madonna, cradling the pseudo-savior of Enoch Emery whom she shows Haze as his own child. O'Connor stages a horribly fitting Christmas tableau for Haze's new religion. In the Church Without Christ, the Virgin with Child becomes a whore with a dwarfed corpse, and Haze, the founder and father of lies, plays the role of daddy to a dead god.

Haze stares at this burlesque nativity with his head "thrust forward as if he had to use his whole face to see with" and then lunges at the "squinting face" of his shrivelled infant. The mommy and the mummy reflect the same image which Haze just spied in the looking glass. Glimpsing the depths of his own nothingness, he destroys the empty offspring of sin which his whole nihilistic faith has fathered. The iconoclast seems to brace himself for a blow of retribution, but it does not come immediately. He tries to flee in his car the truth of Sabbath's charge that he has never wanted anything except Jesus, but his flight ends in an about-face so that his way is God-ward (2 Cor. 3:4).

The violence which Haze expected as punishment is also a stroke of good fortune. Although O'Connor mentions that Haze was driving very fast, the patrolman offers neither speeding nor travelling on the wrong side of the road as reasons for stopping him. Rather, he simply says,"'I just don't like your face,'" and calmly pushes Haze's car over the cliff. Even if the officer's summary justice results from seeing "the ramshackle car and its unlicensed driver as a public threat" [Sr. Kathleen Feely notes in Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock, 1972], his method of law enforcement is so extreme that mere motives cannot adequately explain it. The very perverseness is O'Connor's point, for the scene dramatizes the consequences of living in a world where appearance has become the absolute law. When reality extends no farther than the surface, a person's face provides sufficient justification for pronouncing last judgment.

O'Connor could have planned no more appropriate climax for Haze's career. Having taken the world at face value, he is himself taken at face value. He suffers because of his own sin, but the effect of this chastisement is revelatory. As he gazes into the blank sky, he comes face to face with his own void. "His face didn't change and he didn't turn it toward the patrolman. It seemed to be concentrated on space." However, this vision is decidedly not superficial, for the empty heavens extend "depth after depth, into space." Haze "sees beyond the visage of evil," Jonathan Baumbach observes [in The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, 1965], "the ugly veil masking the real world, to the sight of limitless space—a manifestation of the infinite." In the face of such a sublime panorama, Haze discovers his profound nothingness. For the rest of his life he must submit himself to the consuming power of this same three-dimensional negation, converting physical deprivation into spiritual purification.

The superficial Mrs. Flood cannot understand such a paradoxical road to salvation. In words that might be applicable to virtually every literalist in the novel, O'Connor comments that Haze's landlady "was not a woman who felt more violence in one word than in another; she took every word at its face value but all the faces were the same." Mrs. Flood reads life word for word and understands each as a repetition of its predecessor. By turning God's word into just another linguistic face in the crowd, she denies the saving presence of the Logos which assumed a human image. Obsessed with Haze's face, she tries to take him at face value, yet she consistently fails to categorize or understand him. She notices that his "face had a peculiar pushing look, as if it were going forward after something it could just distinguish in the distance," but her own eyes prove that Haze surely cannot see: he has burned out his sight with lime. When he explains that he does penance because "'I'm not clean,'" Mrs. Flood, blind to the figurative dimension of language, replies, "'I know it … you got blood on that night shirt and on the bed. You ought to get you a washwoman.'"

Mrs Flood recognizes sight but not insight, physical but not spiritual cleanliness. Haze has moved beyond such a literal view. He has turned the facial vision often developed by the blind into the gaze of a soul which has turned its face to God. His strange and violent actions force his landlady to search for the divine dimensions that she prefers to ignore. Holding his dead body, she struggles to go beyond face value. She peers into his face, now just a skull beneath the skin, and tries to penetrate the deep tunnels of his eyes. Although Mrs. Flood has not yet attained Haze's beatific vision, she has at least become dissatisfied with her former way of reading the world. If she could ever get beyond "the beginning of something she couldn't begin," Mrs. Flood might discover like Jacob (Gn. 33:10) the truth which O'Connor's own artistry incarnates: seeing the face of a man in all its graciousness could be like beholding the very countenance of God.

Source: Gary M. Ciuba, "From Face Value to the Value in Faces: Wise Blood and the Limits of Literalism," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp 72-80.

Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: "Unparalleled Prosperity" and Spiritual Chaos

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2739

Much of the criticism of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952) has centered around her themes. For the most part, such criticism has illustrated and therefore confirmed, through analyses of her fiction, what Miss O'Connor had said about herself that as a writer she is orthodox Christian (specifically Catholic), that her major theme in fiction is the redemption of man by Christ, and that she depicts the grotesque in society.

But the critics have ignored a significant point of her personal philosophy that appears as a motif in her fiction: that material prosperity has had ill effects on man's spiritual well-being. It is basic to the grotesqueness in modern society, it stunts man's spiritual growth, and it makes man's salvation more difficult, if not impossible. Wise Blood is her longest and most significant rendering of these ideas although they clearly appear in many of her other works….

Wise Blood takes as its theme the redemption of man by Christ, a theme basic to most of O'Connor's work. It is the story of Hazel Motes, "a Christian malgré lui," who in his attempt to deny his belief in Christ establishes his Church Without Christ, but who cannot avoid the visitation of grace upon him and subsequently blinds himself to "justify" his belief in Christ. The reader sees in Hazel, as well as in the other characters, a grotesqueness, a distortion of spiritual purpose that O'Connor speaks of….

The major characters—Hazel Motes, Enoch Emory, Asa Hawks, Sabbath Lily Hawks, Hoover Shoats, Mrs. Flood—all have one thing in common; they are all motivated by religion in one way or another. Melvin J. Friedman says [in "Flannery O'Connor: Another Legend in Southern Fiction," in Flannery O'Connor, ed. Robert E. Reiter] that "Hazel Motes meets a succession of false religionists and we are intended to measure the sincerity of his convictions against the hypocrisy of theirs." He includes Enoch among the hypocrites, but as will be shown later, Enoch is every bit as sincere as Haze (he was worshipping the new jesus, even though he did not know what it was, before he heard Haze preach). The significant thing here is that the division of characters into the sincere and hypocritical also separates the characters according to the way in which material prosperity affects their motives: the latter pursue it as an end while the former use it (though often symbolically) as a means to an end.

Prosperity does not mean wealth here, for as Miss O'Connor has said, most of her characters are poor. No character in this novel attains material prosperity, but a number of them pursue it. As a basis of that pursuit, most of them use religion—either a perversion or distortion of Christianity or religion in general. They adopt the tone and jargon of the high-pressure salesman and offer the people the "bargain" or the "something-for-nothing" routine.

Early in the novel the reader finds a man selling potato peelers on the street. He draws a crowd and offers his "bargain" to them. Then Asa Hawks and his daughter Sabbath Lily appear on the scene. She is handing out pamphlets that say "Jesus Calls You" (one is reminded here of the Uncle Sam posters), and he is begging, using religion as his persuader: "Help a blind preacher. If you won't repent, give up a nickel." The potato peeler salesman recognizes immediately that Hawks has a "gimmick" or a "racket," that he is hawking his wares, as his name implies, just as if they were potato peelers. The salesman says, "What the hell do you think you are doing?… I got these people together, how do you think you can horn in?" In other words, he recognizes Hawks for what he is—business competition. Hawks is an ex-evangelist of sorts who ten years before had promised his congregation to blind himself to justify his belief in Jesus. But his nerve had failed. Since that time he has faked blindness, which he uses to gain sympathy in begging. Here obviously is a man whose sense of spiritual purpose is distorted; yet, ironically, he has insight into Haze's problem. When Hawks first meets Haze, he says, "I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice." Haze curses him and he says, "Listen boy, … you can't run away from Jesus. Jesus is a fact."

Sabbath Lily Hawks helps her father beg by handing out pamphlets. She is a fifteen-year-old bastard who spouts perverted scriptures ("A bastard shall not enter the kingdom of heaven!") and tells gruesome tales about Jesus's visitation of horrible punishment on the sinful. She is "pure filthy right down to the guts…." She tells Haze, "I like being that way, and I can teach you how to like it. Don't you want to learn how to like it?" Through Sabbath, O'Connor makes significant commentary on one aspect of our prosperous society: the panacean approach to moral and spiritual problems. In this case, it takes the form of the lovelorn column in the newspaper. She writes Mary Brittle to find out if she should "neck" or not. Since she is a bastard and bastards do not enter the kingdom of heaven, she wants to know what difference it makes. Mary replies,"'Light necking is acceptable, but I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life. A religious experience can be a beautiful addition to living if you put it in the proper perspective and do not let it warp you. Read some good books on Ethical Culture!'" As if this were not enough, O'Connor gives Sabbath's reply to it: "'What I really want to know is should I go the whole hog or not? That's my real problem. I'm adjusted okay to the modern world.'" Here we see the humorous and the serious, the normal and the abnormal—in short, the grotesque. But the ironic truth is that, for O'Connor, Sabbath is "adjusted okay to the modern world" to the extent that it has produced this spiritual chaos in which she and the other characters wander.

Hoover Shoats, alias Onnie J. Holy, sees this panacean approach to spiritual problems as a money-making "gimmick." He knows that Haze's Church Without Christ is an idea to capitalize upon, and he wants to form a business partnership with Haze. One night when Haze begins to lose his crowd, Shoats steps in and begins the pre-selling technique of selling himself: "I want to tell you all about me." Then he gives a testimonial about what the Prophet (Haze) has done for him. He follows that with the "something-for-nothing" technique: "I'm not selling a thing, I'm giving something away!" Shoats then preaches the value of the Church of Christ Without Christ (a change in title which Haze does not like). Like any good salesman, he tries to create faith in his product and make it appealing: "you can absolutely trust this church—it's based on the Bible." Each member can "interpit" the Bible any way he chooses. The church is also up-to-date. Shoats then asks for the dollar it takes to become a member. And what is a dollar? "A few dimes! Not too much to pay to unlock that little rose of sweetness inside you!"

Shoats gives Haze his qualifications for the business partnership. He once had a radio program called "Soulsease," fifteen minutes of "Mood, Melody, and Mentality," the title of which sounds more like a commercial for a mattress manufacturer than a program of spiritual inspiration. He sees that the idea of a new jesus has possibilities: "All it would need is a little promotion." But Haze rejects the partnership and slams the car door on Shoats's thumb. Shoats threatens, "I'm going to run you out of business. I can get my own new jesus and I can get Prophets for peanuts…." He then hires Solace Layfield, who looks like Haze and has a car like Haze's, to pose as the True Prophet. Thus, Miss O'Connor again reveals the distorted sense of spiritual purpose in the form of commercialized religion.

Mrs. Flood, Haze's landlady, also pursues material prosperity as an end. She plans to take advantage of Haze's blindness and asceticism. Since he has no use for money, she plans to marry him in order to get control of his government pension. When the policemen kill Haze, she feels that she has been cheated in some way, but in what way she is not sure.

The two characters who use material prosperity, though often symbolically, as a means to an end are Enoch Emory and Hazel Motes, the central character. Enoch's ambition is "to become something. He wanted to better his condition until he was the best. He wanted to be THE young man of the future, like the ones in the insurance ads. He wanted, some day, to see a line of people waiting to shake his hand." The achievement of this goal will be his reward from the new jesus. All of his actions are motivated by his religion.

The symbols most closely related to Enoch are those of the city and its institutions—the zoo, the park, the pool, the museum—and the movie theatre, all of which represent the leisure afforded by the prosperous society. When we first meet Emory, he tells Haze that he has been in Taulkinham only two months and that he already works for the city. We find that he works at the zoo and that his life has become the routine life of modern society.

This routine is best revealed in his worship of the new jesus, which he had discovered but did not recognize until he heard Haze preach. His religious ritual becomes a daily routine, all of which takes place in and involves those institutions maintained by the city: "Every day when he got off duty, he went into the park, and every day when he went in, he did the same things." He goes to the pool and hides in the bushes to watch women. This is among the things he must do to "build up to" visiting the center of the park. His next step is to go to the FROSTY BOTTLE, "a hotdog stand in the shape of an Orange Crush…." There he makes suggestive remarks to the waitress who he thinks secretly loves him. The FROSTY BOTTLE, a symbol of crass commercialism (and, therefore, material prosperity) intruding upon ground usually denied it, becomes a part of his religious ritual. His next stop is the zoo where he looks at the animals with awe and hate. He has to go by them before he can proceed with the ritual. He feels that they wait "evil-eyed for him, ready to throw him off time." One is reminded here of what was evidently one of Miss O'Connor's favorite quotations from St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." The animals are the dragon he has to pass to get to his new jesus. The temple of worship, in which dwells the new jesus (a mummified man, three feet long), is called M V S E V M, and Enoch shivers to pronounce it: "Muvseevum."

Enoch steals the new jesus for Haze, expecting a reward for his action to follow: "He pictured himself, after it was over, as an entirely new man, with an even better personality than he had now." Ironically, he is later transformed, and he finds his method of achieving that transformation on his way to deliver the new jesus to Haze. In front of a movie marquee he sees Gonga the gorilla, a great movie star. Enoch immediately recognizes Gonga as a symbol of success in the modern world. Here is someone who has "become something." Moreover, he has a long line of children waiting to shake hands with him. This product of the motion-picture industry becomes Enoch's motivating force. He usurps the position of the man in the gorilla suit by evidently killing him and stealing the suit in an effort to realize his ambitions.

With Hazel Motes, as with Enoch, material prosperity is basic to the achievement of his goal— to establish the Church Without Christ. The major symbol here is the automobile, perhaps the symbol (if there is such a thing) of the modern, mechanized, prosperous world. Haze's car is an old Essex with one door tied on, a horn that does not work, and windshield wipers that "clatter like two idiots clapping in church." In the car-buying scene, O'Connor sends the reader through the sales routines again. There is the haggling over prices; the salesman demonstrates how the car runs and stresses its quality. He wouldn't take a Chrysler for it, and it wasn't made by a "bunch of niggers" or, as Haze later says, "Jews or one-armed men."

That Miss O'Connor devotes a chapter to this event is significant. The car becomes literally and figuratively the rock upon which Haze builds his church. Literally, it is his church. He climbs up on the hood and preaches his Church Without Christ, just as his grandfather had preached from the hood of his old Ford. Figuratively, it becomes the symbol of his disavowing the existence of Christ. When he finds that Asa Hawks has supposedly blinded himself to justify his belief in Jesus, he says, "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified." It becomes his escape, literally from Taulkinham and figuratively from Christ. It is what saves him from a visitation of grace. After the patrolman pushes the Essex over the hill and destroys it, Haze gives himself over to Christ, blinds himself to justify his belief, and mortifies his flesh by wearing barbed wire around his chest and putting rocks and glass in his shoes. He has no concern for money, and even throws it away. Material prosperity makes man's salvation more difficult or impossible. The only one saved is Haze, and that is possible only after a long struggle and after he loses his car—the symbol of material prosperity….

Miss O'Connor devotes very little space in Wise Blood to filling in the details of the setting within which these characters move. However, she quite often focuses our attention on certain details that relate to the motifs and images of the prosperous society. Throughout the novel is an emphasis on money. On the first page we find the lady on the train squinting to see the price tag on Haze's suit. There are the street venders and the used-car salesmen who haggle over prices. We are even told to the cent how much Shoats and Layfield make and what Layfield's salary is. The examples are endless. There is also an emphasis on commercialism in the form of advertising. One of the first things Haze sees in Taulkinham is signs: "PEANUTS, WESTERN UNION, AJAX, TAXI, HOTEL, CANDY." Several times O'Connor brings to our attention the CCC snuff and the 666 (a cure-all patent medicine) advertisements that appear on the roadsides. She also tells us of a cow dressed as a housewife and of calendars that advertise funeral homes and tire manufacturers. The FROSTY BOTTLE is itself an advertisement. Such details are used to purpose in a novel that contains so few details of setting. They support the motifs and images of material prosperity that underlie the themes of this novel.

In Wise Blood, Miss O'Connor presents her basic theme of the redemption of man by Christ. That redemption is difficult because of the distorted sense of moral purpose in the characters. They wander in moral and spiritual chaos, and only one of them is redeemed. The rest remain grotesque and bestial. In her presentation of these themes, as well as the characters and their motives, Miss O'Connor uses symbols, images, and details drawn from the society of "unparalleled prosperity," a society which provides little assurance of the joy of life. Thus, she produces in Wise Blood an underlying theme that material prosperity is basic to the spiritual chaos which she felt was rampant in our society.

Source: Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., "Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: 'Unparalleled Prosperity' and Spiritual Chaos," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp 121-33.

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