It is almost impossible to write about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, especially her 1952 novel Wise Blood, without addressing the issues of religiosity and the depiction of the grotesque. For O’Connor, the two were often intertwined. In her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor opines that:
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. (pp. 817-818)
A half-century later, there is certainly much truth still to this observation. Walk (or rather, drive, as the roads are not conducive for walking any more) down the streets and by-ways of almost any-size Southern town or hamlet and you will likely see signs advertising the upcoming revival or tent meeting. Perhaps some of the old general stores that were shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s as Walmart invaded like the Zebra Mussel have reopened as storefront churches, with canvas signs stretched over the remains of old mobile electric signage (with the arrowheads, no longer flashing in the night, serving as a relic of a more secular past), advertising a new “man of God” who has come to lead the wayward home before the Rapture comes and the Elect are swept up en masse, leaving the sinners behind to grovel for mercy from an unrelenting Lord. There is no appearance of joy in places like “The Word Chapel” (former home of a used car dealership) or “The Holiness Fellowship” (where ten years before was a men’s clothing store). Instead, there is an air of expectant apocalypse hanging in these dark and cheerless former cathedrals to American small business. The sinners have congregated here in hopes of having the Christ-ghost exorcised from them in meeting halls that are part PTA meetings and part sanitariums where the collective guilt is expiated through thunderous “AMEN!s” and the trembles and shakes overwhelm those who seek a connection, no matter how tenuous, with the luminous.
For those who live outside this environment, such happenings would be beyond strange; they would seem to herald a sort of mass psychosis that perhaps represents a threat to a whole host of social and cultural causes long championed as being just and right for human society. When one sees the world as a sort of quasi-Manichean struggle between an omnipotent (yes, he saw you sneaking away with that pilfered cupcake!) God and a clever, temptatious Devil who embodied all of our desires and lusts, anything that appears to favor proscribed behaviors is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright fear and hatred. Yet this “Christ-haunted” soul (and “soul” is the appropriate word here) rejects the banality of existence. If there is a God (and by presumption, an Enemy), then it bears consideration that humanity is more than the sum of its Egos, Ids, and Superegos. It may not be a comfortable worldview for many to consider, but if one is going to understand Hazel Motes and the characters that populate O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood, then this worldview has to be at least considered on its own terms.
Wise Blood centers around four individuals, each of whom have become disillusioned with life and the faith that imbues local life: a recently-discharged WWII veteran, Hazel Motes, who has become an atheist in the wake of a crisis of faith; the prostitute/boarding house owner Leora Watts; an 18 year-old zookeeper, Enoch Emery, who has been kicked out of his home by his abusive father; and a local con-artist, Hoover Shoats, who takes Hazel’s ideas and turns them into a new antireligious church movement. Each of the characters is presented as being at once a modern form of a (heretical) holy person and a fool, with wry observations and black comedy often employed to underscore the (in)sincere craziness of their (dis)beliefs. Take for instance this passage in Chapter 3, where Hazel speaks of his vision for a church that has no Christ in it:
“My Jesus,” Haze said. He learned forward near an old woman with blue hair and a collar of red wooden beads. “You better get on the other side, lady,” he said. “There’s a fool down there giving out tracts.” The crowd behind the old woman pushed her on, but she looked at him for an instant with two bright flea eyes. He started toward her through the people but she was already too far away and he pushed back to where he had been standing against the wall. “Sweet Jesus Christ Crucified,” he said, “I want to tell you people something. Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe. Well you are clean, let me tell you that. Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong. I don’t say he wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you. Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth.” The crowd was moving fast. It was a large spread raveling and the separate threads disappeared down the dark streets. “Don’t I know what exists and what don’t?” he cried. “Don’t I have eyes in my head? Am I a blind man? Listenhere,” he called, “I’m going to preach a new church – the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified. It won’t cost you nothing to join my church. It’s not started yet but it’s going to be.” The few people who were left glanced at him once or twice. There were tracts scattered below over the sidewalk and out on the street. The blind man was sitting on the bottom step. Enoch Emery was on the other side, standing on the lion’s head, trying to balance himself, and the child was standing near him, watching Haze. “I don’t need Jesus,” Haze said. “What do I need with Jesus? I got Leora Watts.” (pp. 30-31)
In plain yet impassioned words, Hazel lays out a vision in which those who feel guilty over not living up to the high call of Christ can find cleanness through their rejection of an ideology that has segregated them from any possible communion with God. It sounds ridiculous on the surface and the more one contemplates it, the dafter it becomes. Yet for those souls who desire peace from the worries of damnation from a divinity that they consciously reject yet subconsciously suspect is hovering right over them unseen yet felt, this is like manna from heaven or water flowing from the rock struck in the desert. O’Connor here has sympathy for these benighted fools even as she shows, through scenes such as the purportedly blind preacher, Asa Hawks (who supposedly put quicklime in his eyes as a testimony of his faith), removing his shades to reveal that his eyes were not in fact damaged, that there is a hollowness to these new religious movements that seek to grasp the essence of faith without understanding just what it was they were trying to seize. Her characters, metaphorically (and later, literally) blind to what it was they were reaching for, turn to con games, to meetings that temporarily assuage guilt before despair drives them to acts of lust, greed, and violence. It is not hard to see these characters as desperate fools, but desperate, sincere fools can generate sympathy from both the author and the reader and for the most part, the sympathies that are engendered through actions late in the novel touch us because we have come to see these acts as extensions of the misplaced yet fascinating (non)faith that the characters have come to embody.
Wise Blood is a strange novel in that black comedy is used to accentuate the foibles of the characters yet the main effect is an odd sort of tragic nobility that envelops (devours?) the characters before their arcs conclude. It is a shrewd social commentary of a region that even today is viewed askance by outsiders for its peculiar social customs and seeming hostility to modern cultural and social advancements. Yet the deeper the reader tries to understand the worldviews of Wise Blood‘s characters (and by extension, those of O’Connor’s characters in her other stories), the more moving and disturbing the work becomes. There is no simple denouement, no easy, pat conclusion to the story. Instead, the issues raised early in the novel about matters of faith and desire are left suspended in front of the reader, awaiting for us to consider them at our own leisure in our own ways. That is the subtle beauty of Wise Blood and 61 years after its initial publication, it still is one of O’Connor’s most widely-discussed stories.