Set in the deepest parts of the rural South in the early 1950’s, this highly exaggerated story, though definitely mesmerizing, portrays a South replete with grotesque, ignorant, and disturbed characters who can scarcely be comprehended. Religion literally suffuses the entire culture ��" all are always aware to what degree their thoughts and actions are consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
The story is centrally concerned with the short, troubled life of twenty-something Hazel Motes, a veteran, who returns home to find it abandoned and uninhabitable and then sets forth on a journey of indeterminate destination and purpose. Hazel is in a constant battle with the influence of his deceased father and grandfather, who were preachers. His strategy of avoiding belief issues by simply not sinning gives way before a stronger desire to associate with sleazy women.
Hazel is a man of few words, but has an inclination to ask others if they are redeemed, a question that seems to not be out of the ordinary in this culture. He purchases a rat-colored, dilapidated car from which he preaches the message of his Church without Christ. There are any number of immensely quirky characters who cross Hazel’s path. For example, there is the blind preacher Asa Hawks and his aggressive 15-year-old daughter Lily Sabbath, both of whom Hazel is drawn to but cannot work out just what kind of relationship he wants to have. And there is the totally bizarre 18-year-old Enoch Emery, who is new in town, works at the zoo, has “wise blood,” and cannot be dissuaded from pestering Hazel. Ultimately, the conflicted Hazel sees all of these characters as hindrances to his unspoken mission.
There is a certain terseness and incompleteness that pervades the entire story. Eccentric characters appear almost out of the woodwork with a predilection for weird behavior that is hard to totally grasp. The overall landscape in one of deprivation, if not devastation. There is a shortage of money, clothes, food, living space, etc, yet the characters are hardly aware of such.
The writing both reflects and exposes this spare, strange environment. It is abrupt, descriptive, colloquial, and repetitive, reflective of these deficient characters. The story is, in a way, fascinating, despite the fact that it is difficult to fully digest. Part of the struggle has to do with the date and setting, which is so far removed from modern life as to be almost beyond understanding. Nonetheless, it is entirely obvious that the author has a tremendous facility with language to create and capture an extraordinarily rich scenario.
timme076, April 30, 2009 (view all comments by timme076)
The Church Without Christ
“Behind every truth, there is only one truth, and that is that there is no truth,” stated Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor, an author “forthrightly charged by religious investigation”(1), incorporates her roots to create a dark and philosophic style that is distinctly her own. In O’Connor’s first work, Wise Blood, protagonist Hazel Motes’s disbelief in God drives his search for personal redemption, reaffirming O’Connor’s assumption that the South is “Christ-haunted” (10). In critique, the novel accomplishes the task of forcing readers to face their own personal truths.
O’Connor’s native Georgian roots tie her to the Southern Gothic style—a distinct genre that is considered “grotesque” and bizarre due to its twisted portrayal of characters, plot and setting. Characters are poorly mannered, unkempt in dress, and rudely outspoken. Hazel Motes blatantly states, “Jesus is a trick on niggers” (72), and, “I reckon you think you been redeemed” (8). While the reader may take offense to these statements, the other characters show little astonishment. Likewise, the genre’s dependence on black humor and supernatural elements convey a serious tone that many readers misunderstand. In conjunction with this bold style, O’Connor’s defined ideology for her characters helps to produce a unique piece.
While O’Connor’s characters may seem odd, they are driven by integrity. Her characters “lean away from typical social patterns” (10), but have “inner coherence” (10). She believes that Hazel Motes’s “integrity lies in not being able to rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind” (16). Thus, although he insists that “nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar” (101), Hazel’s complete consumption with Christ’s existence makes him a “Christian malgré lui” (16): a Christian in spite of himself. O’Connor’s Southern influence and religious views can also be seen within the plot of the novel.
Hazel Motes, a twenty-two year-old World War II veteran, travels to Taulkinham, a small town in the South. Hazel’s destiny seems innate: “he was going to be a preacher like his grandfather” (15). However, his faith lies not with God, but with “the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified” (51). Hazel meets an odd assortment of characters on his first day in the city: Asa Hawks, an evangelist who “promised to blind himself to justify his belief that Christ Jesus had redeemed him” (108); his daughter, Sabbath; and Enoch Emery, an eighteen year-old who trusts his “wise blood” (75) to lead his actions.
With little success, Hazel begins preaching the “Church Without Christ” (100) from “the nose” (100) of his car. He demands a “new jesus” (140) for the church to enshrine; therefore, Enoch, following his blood, steals a mummified child from a local museum to be the new lord. Hazel rejects it, throwing it out a window. Meanwhile, another preacher, Onnie Jay Holy, begins “The Church of Christ Without Christ” (151), and hires a prophet that dresses and acts like Hazel. Impulsively, Hazel confronts the prophet, “knock[ing] him flat and [running] over him” (206). With fear of getting arrested, Hazel tries to leave Taulkinham, only to be stopped by a policeman who then pushes his car off a hill, because he didn’t “have a license” (210). At this culmination, Hazel takes one simple, symbolic action to repent for his sins. Whether he is redeemed is left up to the reader. However, after reading, an evaluation of the novel shows many compliments and a few downfalls, as well.
Flannery O’Connor’s fascination with religious pursuit and dedication to the Southern Gothic style create a haunting glimpse into the workings of a soul in crisis. One of her greatest assets within the novel is innovative imagery, such as the line, “They made a great clatter like two idiots clapping in church” (70). Many Southern Gothic works were intentionally written with dark humor, as this line shows. Likewise, the novel’s detailed depictions of characters’ thoughts engross readers in the plot, and leave them constantly questioning the predictability of the next action. While the novel has plenty of positives aspects, it also has a few weaknesses.
One of Wise Blood’s greatest downfalls lies within the fact that most readers do not understand the irrational nature of Southern Gothic. Therefore, they will be confused unless they understand the basics of the genre. Similarly, the characters’ names, actions, and dialogue have indirect allusions to the Bible. Thus, if readers do not have a fairly extensive knowledge of the Bible, the entire novel comes across as a jumbled mess. Lastly, Wise Blood, following Southern Gothic, relies heavily on black humor. However, if readers take it too seriously, the plot becomes extremely eccentric, and the overall message of redemption is lost.
Wise Blood is an imaginative, graphic novel that is wildly driven by truth and redemption. The characters are tormented by belief and reject it violently because of how much it is a part of them. By incorporating the South’s “Christ-haunted” view of religion, Flannery O’Connor accurately depicts the struggle for truth. She creates a haunting piece that leaves the reader questioning religious motivation while searching for the “true” path to redemption.
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The Book Fairy, March 30, 2007 (view all comments by The Book Fairy)
Excruciatingly grotesque. This novel is to literature what coprology is to medicine: fascinating, hideous, and ultimately meaningless. There is not one redeeming virtue in any of the characters. Their illogical thinking results (logically) in bizarre, but hardly amusing, behavior. If I had to live among such folk, I would blind myself, too. "Muvseevum" may be the only worthwhile word in the book.
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by Brad Leithauser, The New Yorker,
"No other major American writer of our century has constructed a fictional world so energetically and forthrightly charged by religious investigation."
by Caroline Gordon,
"I was more impressed by Wise Blood than any novel I have read for a long time. Her picture of the world is literally terrifying. Kafka is almost the only one of our contemporaries who has achieved such effects. I have tremendous admiration for the work of this young writer."
Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor's astonishing and haunting first novel, is a classic of twentieth-century literature. Focused on the story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate fate, this tale of redemption, retribution, false prophets, blindness, blindings, and wisdoms gives us one of the most riveting characters in twentieth-century American fiction.
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