Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, first published in 1952, was this author’s first novel. Followed by The Violent Bear it Away, another novel, and A Good Man is Hard to Find, a collection of short stories, it was reissued in a new hardcover in 1962 as a nod how much O’Connor’s audience had grown in the intervening years.

O’Connor was best known for fiction (primarily short stories) in the form of morally driven narratives populated with flawed characters sometimes described as grotesque. As she herself reminded readers in her essay “The Teaching of Literature”:

“The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state. The only time he should be disturbing to us is when he is held up as a whole man.”

Sabbath Lily and Hazel Motes

Francis Booth, author of Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-20th Century Women’s Novel, encapsulates Wise Blood:

In her name and personality, Sabbath Lily is very different from the earlier Frankie Addams and Mick Kelly, both girls with boy’s names written by another Southerner with a gender-ambiguous name, Carson McCullers, and from the slightly later Scout Finch, a another girl with a boy’s name, in To Kill a Mockingbird, written by yet another Southern author with a gender-ambiguous name: Harper Lee; the steamy, fervid, Deep South world of O’Connor’s novel is similar to McCullers’ and Lee’s but even darker.

Best known for her Southern Gothic short stories, O’Connor wrote the highly Gothic novel Wise Blood about troubled former soldier Hazel Motes, who comes into a small southern town and meets an array of strange, intense characters who make Carson McCullers’ cranky creations seem quite benign.

Among them is the ‘blind’ preacher Asa Hawks – he is not in fact blind, it’s just a scam – and his precocious, predatory fifteen-year-old daughter Sabbath Lily who “guides” him around as he preaches and distribute leaflets. (She was played in the 1979 John Huston movie by the twenty-nine-year-old Amy Wright.)

Hazel at first follows them and is determined to seduce Sabbath, but things soon go the other way. Sabbath tells Hazel that her parents were not married and therefore she is a bastard; she has been wondering whether this means it is okay for her to have sex and has been consulting advice columns, though she does not at all seem either the Sub-Deb or the Seventeen magazine type – ‘neck or not’ was a frequent topic these magazines in the 1950s. In one scene, they are in Hazel’s car driving down a dirt road; Sabbath had been hiding on the back seat waiting for him.

Hazel moves into the same rooming house as Asa and Sabbath and soon after, the preacher leaves his daughter without apparent reason and without any prior warning to his daughter or the reader, and disappears from the novel. Sabbath turns up in Hazel’s room. Hazel doesn’t want to hit her and is not sure whether he wants her to go or not.

‘Listen,’ she said, with a quick change of tone, ‘from the minute I set eyes on you I said to myself, that’s what I got to have, just give me some of him! I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide anything, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t. Yes sir!’ she said. ‘I like being that way, and I can teach you how to like it. Don’t you want to learn how to like it?’

He does. ‘”Come on! Make haste,”’ she says to him. ‘”Take off your hat, king of the beasts,” she said gruffly and her hand came up behind his head and snatched the hat off and sent it flying across the room in the dark.’

Not surprisingly, the relationship doesn’t last; Hazel, who does not believe in anything except that ‘Jesus was a liar,’ tries to form the Church Without Christ, leaves town and leaves Sabbath Lily, who leaves the novel; we never find out what happened to her.

Never realizing that Sabbath’s father was a fake, and not blind, Hazel blinds himself, in true Gothic fashion.

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Worth a second look: A 1962 review of Wise Blood

From the August 24, 1962 edition of Oakland Tribune: Wise Blood unquestionably deserves a second reading. As a first effort, it has several uncommon qualities. Among them is a sense of economy and selection in the writing. We aren’t asked to ferret out the promising passages from the masses of tedious verbiage.

No less effective is the author’s artistic objectivity and her ability to create a small world and people it with creatures of the imagination. Miss O’Connor’a prose is never excessive, always maintaining a sort of tough precision.

If Miss O’Connor has artistic debts as a writer, they are to Sherwood Anderson. Her novel is filled with a gallery of fascinating grotesques. And while they perhaps do not have the largeness of the citizens of Winesburg, Ohio, they are a haunting lot.

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A good man is hard to find and other stories by Flannery O'Connor

See also A Good Man is Hard to Find: An Analysis
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Introducing Hazel Motes

The central figure of Wise Blood is a young man from Tennessee named Hazel Motes. At twenty-two, Hazel is released from the Army and goes to a Southern town to make his way. The obsession that has made a grotesque figure of Hazel is a religious one. Outwardly, he tries valiantly to deny Christ in a particularly violent way.

Standing on the hood of his ancient car, he loudly addresses unsuspecting crowds as they leave movie theaters. Hazel declares that he is the preacher of a new and different sort of religion, a “Church without Christ.”

But he is unable to find converts, and his obsessive denial of Christ — always in fierce battle with his hidden need to return to the conventional teachings of his childhood — takes more violent forms.

The religious charlatan Asa Hawks

At large in the city, Hazel meets Asa Hawks, a religious fanatic who feigns blindness, and his predatory daughter, Sabbath. Although Hazel believes himself completely at odds with the Christian doctrines of Hawks, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to the old charlatan and his daughter.

Hazel finds another friend of sorts in Enoch, who loves to browse at lengths in supermarkets inspecting the labels of the canned goods and reading the picture stories on the backs of cereal boxes.

Enoch is a guard at the city zoo and his great need to belong to the human community brings him to some grimly comic actions. Like those of Hazel, Enoch’s pathetic efforts often evoke a kind of grotesque comedy.

Flannery O’Connor’s people are not drawn from life in the manner with which we are most familiar. Yet in another way they are, for in this author’s hands they embody more than the characteristics of individuals. Wise Blood is an unusual and highly satisfying reading experience.

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The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor (1960) cover

See also: A review of The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor

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