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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Wise Blood chronicles the last few months of Hazel Motes’s life, beginning with his leaving the army and moving to the city and ending with his death there. His pilgrimage dramatizes his attempt to disprove the religion of his grandfather, an itinerant backwoods preacher. Two images—one of his grandfather preaching from the hood of his old car and another of a ragged Christ who stalks him from behind trees—have haunted him so thoroughly that Hazel feels compelled to test God.

From the beginning of the novel, Hazel concentrates on making a sort of antireligious testimony to anyone who will listen. He startles two women on the train to Taulkinham by suddenly announcing that he has no use for salvation. In a similar negative testimony, he spends his first few nights in the city with a prostitute, Leora Watts. Ironically, like the cab driver who took Hazel to Mrs. Watts’s house, Leora Watts recognizes immediately that Hazel is driven by religion, although she supposes that he is some sort of preacher.

It is Jesus whom Hazel most wants to escape, and thus, moved partly by the sight of the false preacher Asa Hawks, Hazel creates the Church Without Christ. He believes that his church will demonstrate the truth of his belief that Jesus is only a trick. For the same reason, Hazel buys a car, an ancient, rat-colored Essex. His claim that a man with a good car has no need of salvation is a sort of parody of all the slogans of the secular world. The more he tries to escape his grandfather’s vision of the purpose of life, however, the more he seems to imitate it, so that even Asa Hawks can say, in his not-quite-blindness, that a preacher has marked Hazel.

This portion of Hazel’s journal culminates in his experiences with Enoch Emery. Like the others, Enoch recognizes Hazel as a marked man almost from the moment they meet on the streets of Taulkinham. Early on, Enoch’s loneliness leads him to entice Hazel into a place of mystery and power—the city museum. Together, they gaze into a glass case at the tiny mummified man that has enthralled Enoch. Thus, it is no surprise when, after elaborate and ritualistic preparations, Enoch steals the mummy and presents it to Hazel as the “new jesus.”

Hazel finds the mummy in his room, cradled in the arms of Sabbath Lily, a parodic madonna and child. Rejecting the whole picture, Hazel smashes the mummy against the wall; the new jesus is worthless, filled with trash.

Soon afterward, Hazel has an even more powerful crisis. He murders the man whom Hoover Shoates hired to imitate him, Solace Layfield, the “True Prophet,” by driving over him in his car. As Hazel leaves the city, intent on starting the Church Without Christ in some other place that is more receptive to it, a policeman stops him for a traffic violation and pushes his unlicensed car over a cliff.

Hazel returns to his rooming house and lives through part of the winter in an agony of self-flagellation. He binds his chest with barbed wire, puts stones in his shoes, and eventually blinds himself. At last, after staggering blindly through the winter streets, feverish with pneumonia, he dies in a ditch. After his death, his landlady, Mrs. Flood, looks at him intently, for she seems to see in his face an indication that he has followed pinpoints of light that suggest the star of Bethlehem.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Taulkinham

Taulkinham. Imaginary Alabama city that is the setting for most of the action of Wise Blood; loosely modeled on Birmingham, Alabama. Hazel Motes decides to go to Taulkinham when he discovers, after leaving the Army, that none of his family remains in the family home in Eastrod, Tennessee. Taulkinham is filled with characters and locations that are rooted in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Its street preachers, movie promotions, car salesmen, prostitutes, and bumpkins can be found in any time or place, but Flannery O’Connor gives these a southern flavor.

Hazel’s first evening in Taulkinham offers a good example of O’Connor’s use of the city. As...

(The entire section is 5,861 words.)