Wise Blood, 1

Reading: Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, to p. 115

Flannery O’Connor wrote Wise Blood to make a point — to offer a critique of modern, secular society and culture. Her 1962 author’s note provides us with some idea of what she was up to. The protagonist Hazel Motes, she tells us, was a Christian malgre lui — a Christian in spite of himself. Put another way, Hazel couldn’t escape from the reality of Christ. O’Connor also reveals that she admires this character for this very reason. Virtually echoing Niebuhr, she concluded her note by asserting: “Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery.”

At first glance, certainly, the novel seems to be something of a mystery, too. It’s crucial to note at the outset that this is a work of fiction, which means that O’Connor chose to make her point indirectly. In other words, the characters are not speaking directly for her, voicing her own opinions. In fact, there are very few statements in the book with which O’Connor would agree. How’s that for oblique? Ironically, one of the few statements that O’Connor would have believed was uttered by the fraudulent blind preacher: “you can’t run away from Jesus. Jesus is a fact” (51).

For another hint about O’Connor’s project, consider this reflection on her own writing, from 1957: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him [or her!], and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. . . . For the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners, 33-34).

Given the “startling figures” that she created in Wise Blood, it’s fair to say that she believed that she was writing the novel for Americans who were “almost-blind.” Haze and Enoch, in particular, can be seen as caricatures, as can many other characters in the novel. (Literary scholars have labeled O’Connor’s prose as “grotesque,” which is a literary style that features disturbing exaggerations.) Through the absurdities that she depicts, O’Connor mocked the absurdities that she saw in the modern, secular world.

So where does this leave us? The first half of this book probably raises more questions than it answers. O’Connor has not yet shown all of her cards. But there several important questions to consider. First, there is the puzzle of Haze’s preaching. Why does he start preaching, and what kind of message does he preach? Also, why does he pursue Asa Hawks and his daughter? In short, what seems to be driving him? Second, what’s the deal with Enoch? What does he mean when he refers to his “wise blood”? Finally, what message might O’Connor be sending through her creation of the general setting of the book? How would you describe the city in which Haze and Enoch meet? What might that city represent, in a symbolic sense? These questions are at least a start, but the novel will continue to develop in surprising directions in its second half!