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.
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 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...
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