, April 30, 2009
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.