Christian Themes

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The Christian themes of this work are informed by three considerations: Flannery O’Connor’s own Roman Catholic faith, her use of the grotesque style, and the southern agrarian tradition.

O’Connor wrote from the perspective of a Catholic author who viewed humanity as “fallen” and thus in need of the redemption that can come only through Christ. In Catholicism, such redemption was accomplished through the sacraments, which were the visible and physical signs of invisible and supernatural grace. What O’Connor insightfully grasped was the “violence” that lay at the heart of these rituals. Baptism was not just a rite of cleansing; it was the destruction of the old self that must precede the birth of the new. The Eucharist was not simply a shared meal of bread and wine; it both symbolized and actualized the crucifixion of Christ as the perpetual action of redemption. Although none of the characters in Wise Blood are Catholic (Hazel assures his landlady that the Church Without Christ is indeed Protestant), they represent fallen humanity to whom grace must come through physical violence. Thus, the senseless demolition of his car is the “sacrament” that brings redemption to Hazel, who then symbolizes his new “spiritual sight” by the destruction of his physical ability to see.

By her use of the grotesque style, O’Connor emphasized this sacramental perspective in which the physical world is intermeshed with, and therefore reflects, spiritual realities. Southern writers such as William Faulkner had utilized grotesque characters to challenge cultural stereotypes; but O’Connor uses the exaggerated and distorted style of the grotesque to represent universal images of humanity’s unredeemed condition. Her grotesque characters became the medium of her own evangelistic message in her Mystery and Manners (1969): “to the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

The grotesque had also been used by Southern writers to underscore the existential problems of modern urban society, a principal concern of the agrarian movement of the 1930’s. In Wise Blood, the city of Taulkinham provides the antithesis not of agrarian values but of the Christian ethos, symbolized by the bloodless “new jesus” who inhabits the heart of the city. Similarly, the Essex, “built by people with their eyes wide open that knew where they were at,” is a modern machine that proves unable to transport Hazel beyond his existential angst; therefore its destruction must precede his redemption.


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The question of integrity is dominant in Wise Blood. It is important to Hazel that he reject Christ in the correct way, and that a person do penance in truly honest ways. It is neither correct to profiteer off Christ as Hawks does, pretending to sacrifice his vision to God when he only wants to gather collections, nor as Hoover Shoats (Onnie Jay Holy) does, pretending to love the fellow man he actually scorns and pandering to people's desires to have an obligation-free faith "based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible, friends." O'Connor's mockery of evangelism and the "ordination" of self called preachers with no formal training is evident here, as is her scorn for popularized anti-intellectual religion. As Shoats assures the crowds in the streets, "If you don't understand it, it ain't true, and that's all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends." To Motes, blasphemy is the only way, not cynical exploitation of Christianity. Toward this end, he also rejects the "new jesus" found by his one disciple, Enoch Emery, in the Museum in the park — a small mummy that is to represent to the future converts the concept...

(This entire section contains 261 words.)

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of no Jesus at all, missing the point.

In his attempt to replace Jesus with materialistic goods, Hazel also reflects O'Connor's view of society. Here, his old Essex serves both as the vehicle he will use to preach his new nonchurch and as the replacement for Christ in Motes's life. As he tells Sabbath Lily, "No one with a good car needs to be justified."


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God and Religion Christ's redemption of humanity comprises the main theme of Wise Blood. The characters exhibit the qualities of people who have a misdirected sense of spiritual purpose, if they have any spiritual purpose at all. Motes, for example, endeavors to turn his back on his strict religious background by publicly denouncing Christ, engaging in illicit sex, and establishing the "Church Without Christ." Other characters, such as Shoats and Hawks, use religion as a means of making money. Yet as strongly as Motes deems Christ's presence in his life he cannot resist Christ's salvation in the end.

Moral Corruption Materialism corrupts mankind. If people focus on acquiring wealth and material goods, then they have little time for spiritual growth and awareness. They will engage in immoral acts because they must ignore the difference between right and wrong to prosper. For example, Motes and Emery see having a car and living the life of modern society, respectively, as ways to accomplish their goals. They kill without remorse, feeling justified in doing what is necessary to succeed. Additionally, Hawks lives a lie to make a living, and Shoats uses Layfield to con people out of their money. Other references to money throughout the novel emphasize the characters' preoccupation with it: Mrs. Hitchcock observes the price of Motes's coat; street vendors and car salesmen argue over prices; Shoats and Layfield reveal their salaries; and so on. Spiritual chaos reigns as a result of mankind's obsession with material prosperity.

Change and Transformation Two characters in Wise Blood undergo changes that directly reflect the book's major themes. According to Erik Nielsen in New Orleans Review, Motes experiences several obvious transformations throughout the novel, while Mrs. Flood's single metamorphosis culminates the story. Motes's first transformation occurs when he decides in boot camp that he has no soul. He turns his back on his strict religious upbringing and becomes an atheist driven to immoral behavior. His second change results in his telling the taxi driver that he does not believe in anything; he becomes a nihilist. Motes's blinding himself represents his third transformation—a final effort at destroying his conscience. Living as a dutiful Christian in Mrs. Flood's house, Motes lives out his final stage in life. His ultimate transformation is from life to death. Mrs. Flood's transformation begins when Motes blinds himself. While she originally planned to marry him to acquire his money, she eventually grew fond of Motes and decided to care for him out of concern. According to M. J. Fitzgerald in The Reference Guide to American Literature, "There is only one person in the book who retains a human ambiguity in response to the call of religion and of Christianity and yet is transformed and converted by contact with Hazel."

Free Will Hazel Motes tries desperately to find freedom from his conscience by choosing to ignore his belief in God. He believes that if he eliminates morality from his life, he can avoid Jesus. Once free of this hindrance, he will be able to do anything he wants without his conscience bothering him. He takes the opportunity to end his association with God when his boot camp buddies ask him if he is sure he has a soul. He decides at that point to exchange his soul for nothingness. Neither he nor any other of the characters, however, ever fully find the freedom they seek. While Motes endeavors to deny Christ, Motes's very association with the other characters forces them to momentarily realize Christ's presence.

Flesh vs. Spirit The "Hazel Motes without a soul" can behave in any manner he wants. If he believes in nothing, then right and wrong do not exist. Thus, Motes tells the taxi driver he believes in nothing, then engages in sex with Mrs. Watts to prove to himself that he has eliminated his conscience, the religious upbringing that has always guided his recognition of right and wrong.

Conscience Motes preaches that the conscience is a trick. He tells people that "if you think it does [exist], you had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it, because it's no more than your face in the mirror is or your shadow behind you." Motes thinks that he has succeeded in eliminating his conscience. Yet Solace Layfield represents to Motes what is left of his conscience—his consciousness, or his remaining thoughts of his religious past. He hunts down and kills Layfield to try to rid himself of his consciousness once and for all.

Appearances and Reality Often, appearance and reality oppose one another. In Wise Blood, however, appearance and reality both support and oppose one another. First, Motes looks like a preacher. Everyone thinks he is a preacher. In fact, while Motes hotly denies it, he actually is a preacher. On the other hand, even though Motes tries to act like someone who has no religion, the reality is that he can not escape it. From Motes's point of view, his appearance denies his reality. From everyone else's viewpoint, Motes's appearance reflects his true nature.

American Dream Emery wants "to become something. He wants to better his condition until he is the best. He wants to be THE young man of the future, like the ones in the insurance ads. He wants, some day, to see a line of people waiting to shake his hand." To Emery, the city and its institutions represent the American Dream. They become his daily routine because he believes that being a part of the city's prosperous lifestyle will help him achieve his ambition. Motes, too, sees the American Dream as being a goal he can achieve through material prosperity. While he does not aspire to BE someone, he views car ownership as proof that he has accomplished his goal in life—to deny his relationship with God through the establishment of the Church Without Christ. Like people who are living the American Dream, Motes feels that his car is the mark of a person who has "made it."


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