Many subgenres constitute Gothic writing style among them Southern gothic which is a unique element of American literature. Like its parent genre, the plot structure of Southern gothic writing relies heavily on irony, unusual events, or the supernatural. Unlike its predecessor, Southern Gothic utilizes the aforementioned tools to describe the cultural persona as well as explore social issues pertinent to the American South. Prevalent antebellum euphoric stereotypes such as the contented slave, the chivalrous gentlemen, the demure Southern belle, or the righteous preacher are presented in a more realistic and contemporary fashion – oftentimes with sinister and ulterior motive orientated. Most importantly, the grotesque – mental/spiritual deformity as opposed to physicality – exceedingly permeates Southern gothic style in terms of characters, settings, and situations. Repugnant traits such as egotistical self-righteousness, racial bigotry, etc. are common qualities of the protagonists. Despite these cringe-inducing traits, the characters maintain a certain level of interest to the reader. Through the lens of these deeply flawed/grotesque personages, Southern authors – without being overly moralistic and literal – exercise more narrative range and opportunity to highlight disturbing aspects of Southern culture. William Faulkner, Erskine, Caldwell, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Harper Lee – to name a few – are noteworthy Southern authors whose works reflect this genre. Among this cadre of prolific writers was American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Flannery O’Connor.
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Born Mary Flannery O’Connor, O’Connor was born on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia – the only child of Edward F. and Regina Cline O’Connor. The author of two novels, 32 short stories, and numerous commentaries/essays and reviews, she was a significant voice in American literature. Like her Southern contemporaries, the South is the setting for O’Connor’s text, the issue of race looms in the background, and her characters are typically morally flawed and/or grotesque. “…anything that comes out of the South” O’Connor commented, “is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic (Fitzgerald, p. 40).” Blunt foreshadowing, letting the reader know the end result in advance, was her trademark.
Although O’Connor begged to differ, adjectives such as brutal, cynical, sarcastic, even horrific were usually assigned to her works by critics. In defense of her works, O’Connor stated “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror (Fitzgerald, p. 90).” Christian realism for O’Connor stemmed from Catholicism. Living in the “Bible Belt” Protestant South, O’Connor was a devout Catholic.
Her immense faith as well as her battle with lupus (a debilitating blood disease to which her father and she eventually succumbed) profoundly shaped her writing as well.
Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel. Initially, the first chapter was a short story that partially comprised O’Connor’s master’s thesis for a writer’s workshop sponsored by the University of Iowa. The novel’s picturesque and episodic structure infers that it was a compilation of short stories and vignettes that was eventually edited into a linear form or completed novel. Four chapters were respectively published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review in 1948 and 1949. Wise Blood, published in its entirety by Harcourt Brace, debuted in May of 1952.
That winter O’Connor had just been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus.
Set in the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee, Wise Blood’s main protagonist is Hazel Motes, an isolated and perplexed young man who throughout the novel desperately tries to shed/negate his obsession with Christian redemption and Jesus Christ. Hazel is more so Christ-haunted as opposed to Christ-centered. His name, similitude of his own spiritual blindness, is a biblical allegory in itself, taken from Jesus’ teachings in Mathew 7:3 and Luke 6:41. Like many of O’Connor’s characters, he is a victim of radical Southern Calvinism – more or less the misunderstanding of it.
Hazel’s initial views on salvation, sin, redemption, etc. are rooted in the teachings of his evangelical grandfather.
He was taught, like so many, that Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind, and for this reason, he seeks retribution. Sinners are at the mercy of angry God and salvation in essence is a form of punishment. Hazel felt, that like his grandfather he was destined to become a minister. Hazel deduces that the only way to avoid such a destiny for and save his soul is to not have a soul. Having spent several years in military service during World War II, his war experience further entrenches his nihilism. He returns from the war only to find his hometown in ruins and family members either deceased or missing.
His faith gone awry, Hazel decides that he must establish a new church with a new Jesus/gospel. “The only way to truth is through blasphemy” he purports. As a result, he travels to Taulkinham and establishes the Church Without Christ which advocates humanistic reliance on self as opposed to God in which “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way.” As a new anti-priest, Hazel sets out to save people from salvation. Although inwardly he despises preachers and does not want to be identified as one – his bright blue preacher suit and black hat speak to the contrary. Throughout the novel, he encounters a bizarre group of villains in Taulkinham who challenge his new Godless/faithless belief. All of the characters in Wise Blood are paradoxical. Linda Rohrer Paige, in her paper White trash, low class, and no class at all: Perverse portraits of phallic power in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, comments that the majority of O’Connor’s characters epitomize the “obverse side of perfection “and “appear like walking paradoxes.”
Hazel spends his first night in town with a casual prostitute, Mrs. Leora Watts. He then meets Hoover Shoats a.k.a. Onnie Jay Holy who immediately adapts his new gospel.
Shoats wants to use it as a money-making scheme in which new followers would have to pay one dollar to join the new church. Shoats proposes that they join forces but Hazel declines. Shoats hires a man – the Prophet – who not only dresses like Hazel but looks strikingly similar to Hazel.
He becomes the new Prophet of Shoats Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. He encounters legendary blind preacher, Asa Hawks who preaches the joys of redemption and Sabbath Lily, his daughter, and aid. His supposed blindness, however, is only a scam. Hawks proves to be a raptor that preys upon those who pray. Appearing outwardly pure, Sabbath Lily is quite the opposite. Driven by an uncontrollable sexual desire, she uses her veneer of virginity and purity to amplify her sexual allure. With intent on leaving her, Hawks encourages Lily to seduce Hazel in hopes that they might come together. Hazel’s intentions are mutual but the relationship is never consummated.
Hawks and Sabbath Lily believe in nothing but themselves for self-gratification supersedes good and evil.
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Unlike Hazel, eighteen-year-old Enoch Emory is an ardent believer but from a carnal perspective. He too, like many O’Connor characters, cannot see beyond the body. He must have a physical Jesus. He is attracted to Hawks and especially Hazel who he instantly latches on to. Enoch’s intuition or wise blood, a trait he inherited from his father which tells him secrets about things, tells that Hazel is the new Jesus.
For Enoch, the blood has the ability to know even if the mind does not.
His wise blood then further makes him steal a mummified body from the museum believing that it be the new Jesus.
Meanwhile, the rival Holy Church of Christ Without Christ prospers greatly. In a jealous rage, Hazel kills the “Prophet” by running him over with his car.
While trying to flee to another town, Hazel is stopped by policemen for driving without drives permit. As a consequence, the policeman destroys Hazel’s car by rolling it over an embankment. Hazel’s “rat-colored car” was more than a means of transportation. It was not just his home but the platform of his new church, an embodiment of his past and present life. Christopher B. Heller purports in his review, “The Essex and Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” that “the car’s dilapidated state corresponds to Mote’s own spiritual decay, however, the initial quality of the car’s workmanship corresponds to Hazel’s Christian upbringing.”
The policeman’s malicious destruction of his car leaves Hazwl with nothing but his own body and mind as the new church.
Pushed over the edge, Hazel catapults himself into perpetual suffering.
He blinds himself with lime, encases his shoes with stones and glass, and binds himself in barbed wire. He eventually becomes a hallowed ascetic. On welfare and disability for being blind, use his money to pay rent. Any additional monies he receives, he vicarious throws away. Mrs. Flood, his landlady, initially conspires to take advantage of him by marrying him and eventually having him committed. Ironically she falls in love with Hazel and becomes preoccupied with caring for him. When she tells Hazel of her sincere desire to marry him, he wanders off. He is found by a policeman three days later in a ditch near death. Hazel dies while being driven in the car by the policeman who found him. In the end, he is taken back to Mrs. Flood.
Through its paradoxical characters, an array of prevalent themes are explored in Wise Blood. O’Connor depicts a landscape personified by sin, judgment, and guilty via her violent, perverse, and monstrous imagery. With its comedic and grotesque elements, it can be plainly read like a comedy of grotesques. From a philosophical standpoint, opposing views of reality are presented and conflict resolution rest with the reader. As a social/historical text, Wise Blood captures a tumultuous time in the South after World War II in which there was great tension among the rural and cosmopolitan populations as well the rise of tent-evangelical surreptitious preachers who profited from big-city marketing. Through a religious lens, Wise Blood is a bizarre case study of redemption and heresy.
It explores the repercussions of denying, via desperate measure, the existence of the soul. O’Connor’s characters are frequently victims of spiritual confusion and sacrilegious in nature. The psychological and spiritual crisis that created the state of grotesqueness exhibited by Hazel Motes and a host of others is usually explained by O’Connor. O’Connor creates a fictional world in which her characters are genuinely and sometimes ostensibly in search of faith. “O’Connor’s characters in Wise Blood reveal important truths about themselves and others, demonstrating their capacity for vision, despite their tendency to embark on perilous journeys in pursuit of truth’s opposite(Paige).” O’Connor’s spiritual world was a reflection of a spiritual universe she felt at times was increasingly secular and in need of a new infusion of faith.
Few accolades were given at the inception of its publication and the novel was greeted with mixed, most unfavorable reviews. O’Connor was not as well known at the time. Isaac Rosenfeld of the New Republic described Motes as “nothing more than the poor, sick, ugly, raving lunatic that he happens to be” and novelist John Hawkes criticized O’Connor for being too captivated by the Devil. Wise Blood “occasioned more critical controversy than any of her other major works (Robillard, p. 239).” The religious significance and fundamental theme – Christ’s redemption of mankind-would became dominant strength. Since 1962, Wise Blood is considered a masterpiece of farce and allegory, uniquely blending tragedy and humor. Viewed today by many as an outstanding religious novel, Wise Blood contributes to Flannery O’Connor’s outstanding literary legacy which will forever leave an indelible influence on American Literature.
Heller, Christopher B. “The Essex and Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood”. 2007. Web.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969: p. 40
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979: p. 90.
Paige, Linda Rohrer. “White trash, low class, and no class at all: Perverse portraits of phallic power in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood”. Papers on Language and Literature: Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Summer 1997.
Robillard, Douglas. The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004: p. 239.