Wise Blood

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Editors: Diane Telgen and Kevin Hile
Date: 1998
Novels for Students
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 3. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 23
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Wise Blood

Flannery O'Connor


The story of a man named Hazel Motes, who denies his Christianity and takes desperate measures to prove his disbelief, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood made its debut in 1952. Harcourt Brace published the novel right after O'Connor spent a difficult winter suffering from symptoms that doctors later diagnosed as systemic lupus erythematosus. Critics concur that the disease greatly affected O'Connor's life and work, while they question the specific effects it had on her fiction. Many think that O'Connor's use of the grotesque arose from her own experiences with a disease-ravaged body, yet the general consensus is that O'Connor's religious southern upbringing was the most important influence on her writing.

When Wise Blood first appeared, critics gave it little attention and few accolades. O'Connor was not well known, and she was writing at the same time as famous writers William Faulkner and Daphne du Maurier. Critics viewed O'Connor as a minor writer, and put her in the same category as other Southern writers of the time, based on her use of violence and bizarre characters. The novel's religious meaning, later to become its strength, escaped recognition. Critic Isaac Rosenfeld, for example, stated in New Republic that Motes "is nothing more than the poor, sick, ugly, raving lunatic that he happens to be."

While most reviewers believed O'Connor's own testimony to the religious meaning in Wise Blood, novelist John Hawkes criticized O'Connor as being somewhat captivated by the Devil. SincePage 322  |  Top of Article that time in 1962, however, critics have defended O'Connor's purpose. They applaud her ability to present her basic theme of Christ's redemption of mankind. In the final analysis, critics now view Wise Blood as an outstanding religious novel.

Author Biography

Flannery O'Connor wrote from her experiences as a Roman Catholic raised in the Protestant South. Her religion and regional upbringing greatly contributed to her themes and writing style. Yet critics agree that her father's death from lupus—as well as her own later suffering from the same disease—were also significant influences on her writing.

Born Mary Flannery O'Connor to Edward Francis and Regina Cline O'Connor on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, O'Connor lived in that southern city until the Great Depression forced the family to seek job opportunities elsewhere. O'Connor and her parents moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, where her grandparents lived and where she attended high school and college. While the family was living in Milledgeville, O'Connor's father died of systemic lupus erythematosus ("lupus" or "SLE"), a disease that results when the body's immune system goes out of control. O'Connor was thirteen at the time.

During her high school and college years, O'Connor demonstrated a talent for cartooning and writing. The characters she drew and the writing she did provided an often sarcastic view of the difficulties of growing up. O'Connor graduated from Peabody High School in 1942 and continued to write. She completed an A.B. degree in 1945 at the Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College at Milledgeville) and, in 1947, a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

O'Connor worked on her first novel, Wise Blood, during late 1948 and early 1949 while living in Connecticut and New York. She submitted it to Harcourt Brace for publication during the winter of 1950-51. At that same time, she began to show early symptoms of the disease that killed her father. Suffering from fatigue and aching joints, the twenty-five-year-old O'Connor moved back to the southern climate in Milledgeville, where she was living when she received her diagnosis of lupus.

While lupus attacked her body with greater force over the years, O'Connor continued to write,

Flannery OConnor Flannery O'Connor

and always with spiritual undertones. She endured pain and disfigurement from the disease and its treatments without allowing them to shake her faith. She constantly believed that the human body was not the real body; the only true body was the body of the resurrected. Critics agree that her writing reflects this unwavering trust. For example, O'Connor's characters often exhibited grotesque appearances, actions, or personality traits—the imperfections resulting from a society that has lost its sense of spiritual purpose.

During the fourteen years after her diagnosis, O'Connor authored another novel and several short stories. She was the recipient of the a number of awards, including O. Henry Memorial Awards in 1957, 1963, and 1964; a Ford Foundation grant in 1959; a National Catholic Book award in 1966; and the National Book Award in 1972, which she won for her book The Complete Short Stories. O'Connor died of lupus-related renal failure on August 3, 1964, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Plot Summary

A New Church

Set in the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee, Flannery O'Connor's first novel, WisePage 323  |  Top of Article Blood, tells the story of a confused and isolated young man who attempts to shed his obsessions with Jesus and Christian redemption. As a child, Hazel Motes—"Haze" for short—felt certain that he was destined to become a preacher like his grandfather. This certainty begins to fade when, at eighteen, he is drafted by the army and sent overseas. Haze spends four years away from home and, as a result, finds ample time to study his soul and assure himself "that it was not there." The novel explores the repercussions of that decision and chronicles Haze's life from the time he is released from the army until his death a short time later.

Upon leaving the army, Haze returns to his hometown of Eastrod only to find it run down and deserted. He takes a train to nearby Taulkinham, where, as he tells one of the passengers, he plans to do some of the things he has never done before. He spends his first night in town with a prostitute whose name he finds written on a bathroom wall. However, it is not long before his inner conflicts lead him elsewhere. The following night, he is handed a religious pamphlet by a young girl accompanying a blind preacher. Haze discards the leaflet but is drawn to the pair and follows them down the street. He is himself followed by Enoch Emery, a lonely eighteen-year-old boy who repeatedly informs Haze that Taulkinham is an unfriendly city.

When Haze and Enoch catch up to the preacher and the girl, the blind man tells Haze that he can "smell the sin on [his] breath" and "hear the urge for Jesus in his voice." Haze responds by saying that he does not believe in sin and that Jesus does not exist. He then announces that he, too, is a preacher, and that he is going to preach a new church: the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified. The name is eventually shortened to The Church Without Christ.

A New Jesus

The next morning, Haze suddenly decides to buy a car. He finds an old Essex on a used car lot and drives to the park where Enoch spends his afternoons. He has come to ask the boy for the preacher's address, but Enoch, who has long awaited the chance to share his "secret mystery," tells Haze that he must first show him something. Enoch leads Haze through a daily routine of pointless rituals until finally bringing him to a museum in the center of the park. The building is filled with glass cases and Enoch's "secret mystery"—the body of a small naked man shrunken by Arabs—is contained in one of them. Frustrated by the boy's foolishness, Haze hits Enoch on the forehead with a rock and leaves.

Haze eventually finds the blind preacher and rents a room in the boarding house, where he and the girl live. Hawks, the preacher, shows Haze a newspaper clipping explaining how he promised to blind himself to prove that Jesus had redeemed him. Haze reads the clipping three times before leaving. He claims that nobody with a good car needs to be justified. After he is gone, the narrator reveals the existence of a second clipping telling how Hawks lost his nerve and did not actually blind himself.

Meanwhile, Enoch has decided that his life will never be the same. He believes that he has "wise blood" and is certain that something awful is expected of him. He tries to resist but eventually succumbs to the urgings of his blood. Led by his resignation, he happens across Haze preaching from his car. Enoch does not know about the Church Without Christ and is surprised to hear Haze talk of redemption and of the need for a new jesus. When Haze then asks to be shown where this new jesus can be found, Enoch, almost paralyzed in shock, whispers, "I got him, I can get him. You seen him yourself."

Despite Enoch's reaction, Haze does not have much luck attracting followers. Then, one night, an apparent disciple appears. As Haze's listeners begin to disperse, a man named Hoover Shoats steps up and tells how the prophet (Haze) changed his life. However, Shoats distorts Haze's words by telling the crowd that the new church is based on the Bible. He later threatens to put Haze out of business when he learns that the new jesus does not actually exist. The following night, while Haze is again preaching from the nose of his car, Shoats arrives with his own hired prophet: a man dressed exactly like Haze. Haze is shocked by the image he sees and leaves.

During this time, Enoch, thinking that he has found the new jesus, steals the shrunken figure from its glass case. He is on his way to deliver his discovery when he passes a crowd of kids waiting to meet Gonga the gorilla, a movie star. Enoch waits his turn to shake the ape's hand, but when his turn comes the apesuited man tells Enoch to go to hell. Enoch runs off in humiliation and delivers his package to Haze. The latter is not impressed by the shrivelled body of the dust-filled figure and throws it out the door.

After an afternoon spent fidgeting in his room, Enoch experiences an "awakening" when he finds the schedule for Gonga's tour. He quickly travelsPage 324  |  Top of Article to the star's next public appearance, where he attacks and strips the gorilla in the back of his truck. Enoch then runs into the woods, buries his clothes, and puts on the ape suit. He proceeds to mimic the gorilla's gestures of hand shaking, repeatedly extending his hand and shaking at nothing, but his efforts prove futile. After a few moments of practice, Enoch approaches a young couple, hand extended and still wearing the ape suit, but they run away.

On the night Hoover Shoats and his hired prophet, Solace Layfield, appear for a second time, Haze follows his twin home. He forces Solace to stop on the side of the road and runs him over with his car. Haze then tells the injured man that there are two things he cannot stand, "a man that ain't true and one that mocks what is." Solace dies and Haze, intending to leave town, drives off. Haze's plans change when his car is pushed over an embankment by a patrolman who initially pulled him over because, as he tells Haze, "I just don't like your face." Left without any means of transportation, Haze walks back to town and buys a bucket and some quicklime. He has decided to blind himself.

A New Hope?

In the final chapter, Haze, now referred to as the blind man, continues to live in the boarding house. His landlady, the complacent Mrs. Flood, thinks there may be some money to be made off the blind man and makes plans to marry him and have him committed. But she becomes accustomed to watching his face and soon decides that she would like to keep him. She suspects that he knows something and wishes she could penetrate the darkness and see for herself what was there. However, when she finally brings up marriage, the blind man gets up and leaves the house. Two days later, he is found lying in a ditch by two policemen; he dies moments later. The policemen bring him back to Mrs. Flood, who, upon looking into Haze's eyes to find out what has cheated her, feels that "she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn't begin." She then sees the blind man moving "farther and farther into the darkness until he was [but a] pinpoint of light."


Enoch Emery

Enoch Emery meets Hazel Motes on Motes's second night in town. He becomes Motes's most dedicated follower, taking to heart Motes's call for a new jesus. A welfare woman who believed in the "old" Jesus had removed Emery from his father's care at the age of twelve. The woman had then sent him away to attend a Bible academy and threatened him with life in the penitentiary if he did not do what she demanded of him. After having successfully escaped the woman, Emery wants nothing to do with "the Jesus kind."

Emery returns to his father's home only to be thrown out at the age of eighteen. With a pimply face that resembles a fox's, Emery does not make friends easily. To pass the time, he maintains a daily routine that consists of work and a visit to the park at the end of his shift. It is at the park that he first climbs into bushes and spies on women at the pool. He then goes to a refreshment stand, where he orders a milkshake and makes lewd remarks to the waitress. Next, he views caged animals, hating and loving them at the same time. Finally, he visits a museum in the center of the park that houses a shriveled mummy. The mummy represents something important to him, something that he does not quite understand.

Emery feels compelled to show the mummy to someone, yet he does not know who that person is. He awakens one morning with a feeling in his blood, "wise blood like his daddy," that the person to whom he will show the mummy will appear. When Hazel Motes drives by the park that day, Emery realizes that his blood had been telling him the truth. After showing Motes the mummy, Emery again feels that his blood is telling him something—that he is going to be a part of something big that is only beginning.

Mrs. Flood

Mrs. Flood owns the boarding house in which Motes lives. After Motes blinds himself, she intends to marry and institutionalize him so that she can get the pension he receives from the government. She feels that the government owes her for the taxes she has paid over the years that were used to support people who did not deserve the help. Even though she raises Motes's room and board to get a larger share of his money, she still feels cheated. She believes Motes must have a plan for something more and that he is not sharing it with her.

Against her will, Mrs. Flood begins to enjoy her time spent with Motes. She tries to understand why he has blinded himself and why he has no interest in doing anything but sitting on her porch.Page 325  |  Top of Article She puzzles over why he wears his shoes with rocks and glass in them and puts barbs of wire around his chest. When Motes becomes ill with the flu, Mrs. Flood decides to marry him and keep him. He dies, however, before she can complete her plan. She tries to look into his dead eyes to see how and by whom she was cheated, but she sees nothing. When she closes her own eyes, she sees a point of light far off in the distance that eventually becomes Motes. She has a feeling that she "finally got to the beginning of something she couldn't begin."

Asa Hawks

Scar-faced Asa Hawks pretends to be a preacher who has blinded himself for Jesus. Dressed in black, wearing dark glasses, and pale enough to look like a corpse, Hawks uses a white cane and carries a tin cup. He implores people to repent, but if they will not he asks them to help by putting coins in his cup. His daughter, Sabbath Lily, follows Hawks, handing out pamphlets that say "Jesus calls you."

While Hawks did have good spiritual intentions at one time, along with a congregation who believed in him, he has lost his sense of purpose. This loss of direction resulted from a failure in his own faith, when he lost his courage to blind himself to justify his belief in Jesus. He senses the true Jesus in Motes, while he himself has become nothing more than a beggar, competing with street "hawkers" for the buyers' money.

Sabbath Lily Hawks

Sabbath Lily Hawks imitates her father's false morality by handing out pamphlets that proclaim Jesus's desire for people to follow him. Fifteen-year-old Sabbath Lily's large red lips contrast vividly with skin that is almost as pale as her father's and the innocence that her homely appearance might imply.

Sabbath Lily tells her father "I never seen a boy that I liked the looks of any better," and wants her father to help her get Motes. She tries desperately to seduce Motes, telling him how she has written to the lovelorn column in the newspaper asking if she should go all the way or not. Nothing Sabbath Lily tries works to change Motes's mind, until she appears one night in his bed. She tells him that she knows he is "pure filthy right down to the guts" like her, and that she can teach him to like being that way.

While Sabbath Lily does succeed in seducing Motes, it does not result in the permanent relationship with Motes that she had hoped would free her from her father. Her father leaves her, and Motes ignores her. While she says that "she hadn't counted on no honest-to-Jesus blind man," she makes such a nuisance of herself at Motes's home that the landlady finally calls social services and has her put in a detention center.


See Hazel Motes

Mrs. Hitchcock

At the beginning of the novel, Motes finds himself seated on the train across from a fat woman who has pear-shaped legs that do not reach the floor. She identifies herself as Mrs. Hitchcock and tells Motes that she is traveling to Florida to visit her daughter. Dressed in pink with a flat, reddish face, Mrs. Hitchcock tries to get Motes to talk about himself. While she is drawn to Motes's eyes, she fears something in them and looks, instead, at the price tag still dangling from his coat. She represents the first of the characters who irritate Motes by trying to associate him with preaching.

Onnie Jay Holy

See Hoover Shoats

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Media Adaptations

  • Director John Huston adapted Wise Blood to film in 1979. Brad Dourif starred as Hazel Motes. Other cast members included Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Dan Shor, and Amy Wright. Rated PG, the film is distributed by Universal Studios Home Video.

Solace Layfield

Shoats hires Solace Layfield to pose as the True Prophet because he drives a rat-colored car and wears a blue suit like Motes's. Suffering from tuberculosis, Layfield coughs continually from thePage 326  |  Top of Article depths of his hollow-chested, gaunt body. Layfield only preaches for Shoats to earn money to support his wife and six children. Motes hates him for being "a man that ain't true and one that mocks what is." Motes follows Layfield one night, forces him to take off his suit, and runs over him with his car. Layfield's last words are "Jesus hep me."

Hazel Motes

O'Connor portrays Hazel Motes, the main character, as a man who takes everything at face value and wants to deny God's existence. People see Motes as a preacher, a label which he strongly protests. Even the taxi driver tells Motes that his hat and "a look in your face somewheres" make him look like a preacher.

Motes judges everyone by their appearances, yet he cannot help but search their faces for some indication of their worth. He yearns for proof that people have no connection to the divine. While he objects to his own spiritual connection, Motes feels a pull towards Christ, or "the wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark."

Motes's name and appearance depict a man who peers into the beyond. Appropriately, the name "Hazel" comes from the Hebrew for "he who sees God." Motes's prominent forehead, hooked nose, creased mouth, and flattened hair prompt the land-lady to note that his "face had a peculiar pushing look as if it were going forward after something it could just distinguish in the distance." In addition, Motes's deep-set, pecan-colored eyes beckon people to surrender their wills to one who is stronger. For example, when Mrs. Hitchcock meets Motes on the train, she feels drawn to his eyes, like they were "passages leading somewhere," but she senses danger in them, too.

In his efforts to deny God's existence, Motes attempts to establish the "Church Without Christ." He buys a car and uses it as his church, preaching from its hood. The car becomes a symbol of Motes's rejection of Christ. He claims that "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified." Motes preaches that since God does not exist, neither do sin or redemption. He offers people a new jesus that they can see, one who can save them in a way that their Jesus has not been able to. Ironically, it is the loss of his car that results in Motes's salvation.


See Hazel Motes

Hoover Shoats

Hoover Shoats is a plump, curly-haired man who wears sideburns and a black suit with silver stripes. Shoats recognizes a way to make money when he sees one. When he hears Motes preaching his Church Without Christ message and losing his audience, he steps in and tries to sell himself as a man who has followed—and has absolute faith in—Motes and his church. Smiling, and with an honest look on his face, Shoats can convince people of almost anything.

Motes, however, does not appreciate Shoats's trying to take over. He especially dislikes his changing the church's name from the Church Without Christ to the Church of Christ Without Christ. Even though Shoats does his best to convince Motes that selling the public on the new jesus has great financial possibilities, Motes turns him down. In retaliation, Shoats hires Solace Layfield to pose as the "True Prophet" and preach the message of the Church of Christ Without Christ.

True Prophet

See Solace Layfield

Mrs. Watts

Mrs. Watts owns a house of ill repute in Taulkinham. When Motes arrives in town, he has the taxi driver take him there. He wants to prove to the driver, and to himself, that he is not a preacher and has no connection to Christ. Motes engages in illicit sex with Mrs. Watts to try to finalize this denial of religion in his life. To Motes, having sex with Mrs. Watts demonstrates that he believes in nothing.


God and Religion

Christ's redemption of humanity comprises the main theme of Wise Blood. The characters exhibit the qualities of people who have a misdirected sense of spiritual purpose, if they have any spiritual purpose at all. Motes, for example, endeavors to turn his back on his strict religious background by publicly denouncing Christ, engaging in illicit sex, and establishing the "Church Without Christ." Other characters, such as Shoats and Hawks, use religion as a means of making money. Yet as strongly as Motes denies Christ's presence in his life he cannot resist Christ's salvation in the end.

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Moral Corruption

Materialism corrupts mankind. If people focus on acquiring wealth and material goods, then they have little time for spiritual growth and awareness. They will engage in immoral acts because they must ignore the difference between right and wrong to prosper. For example, Motes and Emery see having a car and living the life of modern society, respectively, as ways to accomplish their goals. They kill without remorse, feeling justified in doing what is necessary to succeed. Additionally, Hawks lives a lie to make a living, and Shoats uses Layfield to con people out of their money. Other references to money throughout the novel emphasize the characters' preoccupation with it: Mrs. Hitchcock observes the price of Motes's coat; street vendors and car salesmen argue over prices; Shoats and Layfield reveal their salaries; and so on. Spiritual chaos reigns as a result of mankind's obsession with material prosperity.

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Topics For Further Study

  • Wise Blood depicts a man who denies Christianity to the point of extremes. Like Hazel Motes, many people feel a pull towards holiness that can result in destructiveness when the impulse is carried too far. Psychologists often study this phenomenon in cult followers. Research one of the recent cult suicides/massacres (e.g., Jonestown, Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate) to try to understand the "cult mentality." Explain cult members' actions in terms of Hazel Motes' actions in the novel and in terms of impulse carried too far.
  • Form a panel of "specialists" who will come together to present their views on the characters' motives in Wise Blood. These "specialists" should include a psychologist, a member of the clergy, a business person, and a representative of the community at large. The "specialists" must speak as experts in their particular areas of expertise and be prepared to cite examples of the characters' actions that will validate their views.
  • Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery both see their obtaining material prosperity as a way for them to accomplish their goals. What do Hazel and Enoch acquire and accomplish, respectively, that symbolizes their prosperity and proves to them that they have "made it?" How do people today prove to others that they have "made it"? Be ready to defend your thoughts.
  • Create a mask for one of the characters from Wise Blood that depicts the character's particular expression in a specific scene from the story. (For example, show Sabbath Lily Hawks at her most seductive.) Be prepared to explain the scene and the reasons for the expression you have chosen for your character.

Change and Transformation

Two characters in Wise Blood undergo changes that directly reflect the book's major themes. According to Erik Nielsen in New Orleans Review, Motes experiences several obvious transformations throughout the novel, while Mrs. Flood's single metamorphosis culminates the story. Motes's first transformation occurs when he decides in boot camp that he has no soul. He turns his back on his strict religious upbringing and becomes an atheist driven to immoral behavior. His second change results in his telling the taxi driver that he does not believe in anything; he becomes a nihilist. Motes's blinding himself represents his third transformation—a final effort at destroying his conscience. Living as a dutiful Christian in Mrs. Flood's house, Motes lives out his final stage in life. His ultimate transformation is from life to death. Mrs. Flood's transformation begins when Motes blinds himself. While she originally plannedPage 328  |  Top of Article to marry him to acquire his money, she eventually grew fond of Motes and decided to care for him out of concern. According to M. J. Fitzgerald in The Reference Guide to American Literature, "There is only one person in the book who retains a human ambiguity in response to the call of religion and of Christianity and yet is transformed and converted by contact with Hazel."

Free Will

Hazel Motes tries desperately to find freedom from his conscience by choosing to ignore his belief in God. He believes that if he eliminates morality from his life, he can avoid Jesus. Once free of this hindrance, he will be able to do anything he wants without his conscience bothering him. He takes the opportunity to end his association with God when his boot camp buddies ask him if he is sure he has a soul. He decides at that point to exchange his soul for nothingness. Neither he nor any other of the characters, however, ever fully find the freedom they seek. While Motes endeavors to deny Christ, Motes's very association with the other characters forces them to momentarily realize Christ's presence.

Flesh vs. Spirit

The "Hazel Motes without a soul" can behave in any manner he wants. If he believes in nothing, then right and wrong do not exist. Thus, Motes tells the taxi driver he believes in nothing, then engages in sex with Mrs. Watts to prove to himself that he has eliminated his conscience, the religious upbringing that has always guided his recognition of right and wrong.


Motes preaches that the conscience is a trick. He tells people that "if you think it does [exist], you had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it, because it's no more than your face in the mirror is or your shadow behind you." Motes thinks that he has succeeded in eliminating his conscience. Yet Solace Layfield represents to Motes what is left of his conscience—his consciousness, or his remaining thoughts of his religious past. He hunts down and kills Layfield to try to rid himself of his consciousness once and for all.

Appearances and Reality

Often, appearance and reality oppose one another. In Wise Blood, however, appearance and reality both support and oppose one another. First, Motes looks like a preacher. Everyone thinks he is a preacher. In fact, while Motes hotly denies it, he actually is a preacher. On the other hand, even though Motes tries to act like someone who has no religion, the reality is that he can not escape it. From Motes's point of view, his appearance denies his reality. From everyone else's viewpoint, Motes's appearance reflects his true nature.

American Dream

Emery wants "to become something. He wants to better his condition until he is the best. He wants to be THE young man of the future, like the ones in the insurance ads. He wants, some day, to see a line of people waiting to shake his hand." To Emery, the city and its institutions represent the American Dream. They become his daily routine because he believes that being a part of the city's prosperous lifestyle will help him achieve his ambition. Motes, too, sees the American Dream as being a goal he can achieve through material prosperity. While he does not aspire to BE someone, he views car ownership as proof that he has accomplished his goal in life—to deny his relationship with God through the establishment of the Church Without Christ. Like people who are living the American Dream, Motes feels that his car is the mark of a person who has "made it."


Point of View

Until Mrs. Flood enters the story at the end of the book, Flannery O'Connor writes Wise Blood from an "all-knowing" point of view, or, in other words, from a narrator's point of view. From this perspective, the author can enter the minds of all the characters and tell their thoughts. For example, O'Connor divulges that Emery secretly believes that the waitress at the Frosty Bottle is in love with him. At the end of the novel, however, O'Connor switches to the partially omniscient point of view, with Mrs. Flood telling the story. This switch comes in Chapter 14, where Mrs. Flood ponders her relationship with Motes. O'Connor has Motes act and speak, but she does not reveal his thoughts.


Taulkinham, a small town in Tennessee, sets the stage for the events that take place in Wise Blood. Although the author does not provide a particular time in history, critics believe that the book takes place in the mid-twentieth century.

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Many symbolic images exist in Wise Blood to help portray Motes's denial of Christ. The reader first encounters the symbols of material prosperity that relate to Enoch Emery and Hazel Motes. Emery seeks to "become something." He views the zoo, park, pool, museum, and theater as conveniences that people who have achieved success can enjoy. Motes sees his car, a modern luxury, as proof that he has achieved his success in denying his religious upbringing: "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified," he declares.

In addition to the symbols of prosperity, literary experts have noted symbolic representation in characters' actions. First, both Motes's leaving Sabbath Lily and his throwing out the new jesus and his mother's glasses stand for his initial efforts to rid himself of his religious past. Second, killing his "twin," Layfield, represents Motes's destruction of another portion of his conscience. Motes's final symbolic attempt to deny his connection to Christ occurs when he blinds himself.


O'Connor portrays her characters as grotesque, or bizarre, in their appearances and natures. While many critics disagree over O'Connor's reasons for her use of grotesque characterization in Wise Blood, Marshall Bruce Gentry offers a unique view in a Modern Fiction Studies article. He suggests that while the characters' grotesqueness might be what critics view as a negative sign of their helplessness and individualism in an uncaring society, it might also present the positive traits that allow them to rejoin a community with whom they feel a kinship. In Mystery and Manners, O'Connor says of her own work that her characters "have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected." Gentry submits that while readers might interpret Motes's actions as basically evil, those actions actually stem from an inner adherence to a belief system that eventually leads him to salvation, or a rejoining with his religious past.


Critics agree that the characters in Wise Blood exhibit animal-like tendencies. Not only do their names and appearances suggest beasts, but their actions also simulate those of animals. For example, Daniel Littlefield, Jr., says in Mississippi Quarterly that Hawks's name corresponds with the bird of prey, and that he turns his back on his daughter like a bird might throw its baby out of the nest. Littlefield also notes that several animal images relate to Emery, who resembles a hound dog with mange. Like a dog, he crawls on his belly and burrows under bushes to watch the woman at the pool. He even "becomes" a gorilla. Literary experts speculate that O'Connor uses animal images in this story to emphasize the characters' grotesqueness and their distorted spirituality.


O'Connor uses Solace Layfield as Motes's doppelganger to represent part of Motes's consciousness. "Doppelganger" means spirit-like twin or counterpart. Layfield resembles Motes so much that one woman in the book asks, "Him and you twins?"


Two flashbacks occur in Wise Blood. One happens when Motes is riding the train and dreaming about his grandfather. He pictures his grandfather preaching from the car hood and pointing Motes out as an example for sinners. Motes's night with Mrs. Watts prompts the second flashback. He remembers attending a carnival at age ten, seeing a naked woman, and his mother's punishing him for it. Both incidents depict Motes's strict upbringing and unhappy childhood.

Historical Context

According to Michael Kreyling in the introduction to New Essays on Wise Blood, O'Connor's attention to religious themes in her writing render her writing timeless. He also states that "the historical context of O'Connor's work has been the least-explored critical territory." O'Connor places the events of the story Wise Blood in Taulkinham, Tennessee, but does not specify exact dates. Given the events in the story and the time O'Connor wrote it, however, critics set the story sometime in the mid-twentieth century. One event that lends credence to critics' timeline for the story is Motes's reflection on his stint in the army and the war injury that sent him home. Given the fact that O'Connor wrote the book in the late '40s, and Harcourt published it in 1952, Motes probably served in World War II. The events of the story, then, most likely occur in the latter half of the 1940s.

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Evangelist Tom Presnell draws a crowd in Chicago with the energetic, fire-and-brimstone style typical of so many preachers during the 1950s. Evangelist Tom Presnell draws a crowd in Chicago with the energetic, fire-and-brimstone style typical of so many preachers during the 1950s.

Post-World War II Growth and Prosperity

Immediately after World War II, Americans enjoyed a surge of population growth and prosperity. By 1950, the more than 151 million Americans could take advantage of many innovations that would make their lives easier and safer, and their leisure time more enjoyable. For example, technological advances created microwave ovens and fast foods, conveniences that helped provide Americans with more time. Medical researchers developed polio and measles vaccinations, as well as the birthcontrol pill, enabling children to live longer and couples to plan their families better. Since people had more time and were in better health, they found new ways to enjoy their free time. Commercial hotel chains and jet transport, modern turnpikes, and faster cars contributed to increased travel in America in the 1950s. Americans became passionate about automobiles and the conveniences cars allowed.

O'Connor uses America's obsession with prosperity and its love affair with cars to provide a basis for the spiritual chaos the characters in Wise Blood experience. O'Connor states in The Living Novel: A Symposium that she believes "unparalleled prosperity" results in a "distorted sense of spiritual purpose." Wise Blood expands that theme more than any of her other works. Throughout the novel, O'Connor presents motifs and images portraying a prosperous society. Money reigns as king: Mrs. Hitchcock checks the price tag on Motes's coat; street vendors and used-car salesmen haggle over prices; and fake preachers brag about their salaries. In addition, commercial advertising takes over the landscape in the form of signs on buildings, billboards along the roadside, and the business establishments themselves. The novel's characters focus so intently on money-related issues and prosperity that their spirituality disappears and their morals disintegrate.


Religion attracted scores of Americans during the 1950s. Not only did church affiliation soar to 63.6 percent of the population, but also religious contributions, media attention, films, and books increased tremendously. For example, people's average yearly donations to the church peaked, and movies about biblical stories, such as The Robe, drew huge crowds. Ministers who brought modern, positive messages attracted the thousands who believed that having a religious identification was synonymous with being an American. Even politicalPage 331  |  Top of Article advertising extolled the virtues of religion. Politicians allowed the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and adopted "In God We Trust" as the national motto. Some religious critics, however, wondered whether this wholesale acceptance of religion was sincere, or whether it was just another symbol adopted by people to demonstrate their status and prosperity.

Hazel Motes denies religion as vehemently as people of the 1950s embraced it. M. J. Fitzgerald states in the Reference Guide to American Literature that the "mystery of the impulse towards holiness… and the destructiveness of that impulse when carried to extremes" is the basis of Wise Blood. Motes's acts of violence suggest extremism, as does the seemingly blind adoption of religion by Americans living in the 1950s. O'Connor draws the parallel between the novel and real life with images of a prosperous society and of people who lack spiritual purpose as a result of it.

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Compare & Contrast

  • Late 1930s and 1940s: Reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, Americans conserved their money.

    1950s: Americans became avid consumers, spending more and more money to buy the new products that technological advances provided them.

    Today: With the advent of shopping services on the Internet and television, as well as the proliferation of shopping malls (which first began in the 1950s), and a strong economy, consumerism defines much of American life.

  • Late 1930s and 1940s: Population growth was at a virtual standstill. People did not want to have children for whom they could not provide.

    1950s: America experienced a baby boom related to the improved economy. The American people thought that having more Americans would better support the growing economy.

    Today: The Baby Boomers are aging, causing increased concerns about health care, while an increasing percentage of population growth is due to a new influx of immigrants from Asia, Mexico, and the Middle East.

  • Late 1930s and 1940s: Americans viewed cars as workhorses; they took people where they wanted to go.

    1950s: Americans began their love affair with automobiles. Faster, sleeker cars were available as well as better roads and services. Cars became symbols of prosperity and luxury.

    Today: Cars are still a central part of American culture and a major status symbol; people are often defined by whether they drive a minivan, a sport utility vehicle, or a compact car. Cars become increasingly expensive due, in part, to safety regulations, spurring an increase in used car sales.

  • Late 1930s and 1940s: People went to church as a matter of routine. The Protestant ethic dominated.

    1950s: A religious awakening began, with church affiliation at an all-time high. The Catholic Church became an American institution.

    Today: Increasing numbers of people are staying away from traditional churches, such as the Catholic Church, to the point that many religious leaders are concerned about shrinking memberships. More people who still wish to go to church are attending nondenominational congregations that stress social issues as much as—or even more than—religion.

Critical Overview

While criticism of O'Connor's work varies from discussions of her ability to write short stories and novels to the question of her place among regional writers, the religious nature of her workPage 332  |  Top of Article reigns as the most important issue. Four theories have evolved over time.

First, O'Connor's earliest critics held that O'Connor's work had no connection to religion. Isaac Rosenfeld, one of O'Connor's primary critics, vehemently denied seeing any religious meaning in Wise Blood. This reflected the general consensus of other reviewers at the time. He said in a 1952 issue of New Republic that Hazel Motes "is nothing more than the poor, sick, ugly, raving lunatic that he happens to be." Some critics still hold this theory.

Other early critics spoke of O'Connor's writing with nearly as much hostility, yet they could not deny that her writing had to be taken seriously, if not admired. Influential magazines such as Time and the Kenyon Review published reviews of her work, giving it more attention than most beginning writers could even imagine. In 1955, there were twenty-seven articles published about her work; in 1960, the number doubled.

Skeptics still existed, however, and still do today. Critics adhering to the second school of thought related to O'Connor's work accept her religious intent, but they question whether her own religious vision was sufficiently positive to relay her intended message. They wonder if her views were too negative, represented by characters who are too grotesque to give her religious message credence. It is claimed by some that O'Connor's writing connects very little to real life or real problems. A few have felt that, though there may be some religious overtones in the book, the characters are more like creatures than people. Lewis Lawson writes in Flannery O'Connor that Haze is like a cartoon character, "unreal" and "a vehicle whose attitudes and actions would personify a spiritual view which [O'Connor] wished to reveal." Critics like Lawson place O'Connor's work in the School of Southern Gothic.

A third school of thought maintains that while religious themes do underlie O'Connor's writing, they appear to have a somewhat satanic influence. Andre Bleikasten, for example, writes in The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor "Even though O'Connor defended her use of the grotesque as a necessary strategy of her art, one is left with the impression that in her work it eventually became the means of a savage revilement of the whole of creation…. One may wonder whether her Catholi cism was not, to some extent, an alibi for misanthropy. And one may also wonder whether so much black derision is compatible with Christian faith, and ask what distinguished the extreme bleakness of her vision from plain nihilism."

The reviews published in 1960 reflect the trend towards positive criticism of O'Connor's work that began in 1958 with an article written by Caroline Gordon, O'Connor's friend and mentor. Gordon's views represent the final school of thought on O'Connor's writing. Adherents to this theory claim that O'Connor stands far above other writers in her ability to get to the heart of theological reasoning and to create characters that react realistically to their varying religious instincts. Gordon attacks several of O'Connor's most vocal critics in an issue of Critique that is devoted entirely to the work of O'Connor and J. F. Powers, a fellow Catholic. Gordon condemns O'Connor's contemporaries for their inability to create characters or plots that were true to religious doctrine. Gordon believed that O'Connor not only wrote with sincere religious intent, but proficiently portrayed that intent in her characters and plots.

Today, critics applaud O'Connor for her artistry. They recognize Wise Blood as a standard against which other writers should measure their work. They praise O'Connor's expert portrayal of the South, her concise and yet lively style, and her distinct ability to use grotesque characterization to emphasize the irony of life. Finally, critics honor her unwavering Christian faith, which underlies all of her writing. They understand that her unfailing belief offers hope for her characters as well as her readers.


Jeffrey M. Lilburn

Jeffrey M. Lilburn is a writer and translator specializing in twentieth-century American and Canadian literature. In the following essay, he discusses the themes of faith and religion in Wise Blood.

The world of Wise Blood is a spiritually empty, morally blind, cold, and hostile place. Over the years, critics have often referred to Flannery O'Connor's first novel as dark and grotesque. They then use words such as repulsive, depraved, and unredeemable to describe its characters. There can be no denying that the inhabitants of Wise Blood are frequently deceptive, chronically unkind, and brutally violent. Both the principal character, HazelPage 333  |  Top of Article "Haze" Motes, and his young and simple follower, Enoch Emery, inflict and become the victims of acts of violence. Haze murders a man by running him over with his car, while Enoch beats and strips a man for his own personal gain. Yet despite the violence and seemingly unconscionable behavior exhibited by these and other characters, the cast of displaced wanderers who populate Wise Blood do have another trait in common: they are searching for something better.

In her Introduction to the second edition of Wise Blood, O'Connor describes Hazel Motes as a "Christian malgré lui" (a Christian in spite of himself). At twelve, Haze thought himself destined to become a preacher like his grandfather, but by the time he reaches early adulthood he convinces himself that he does not have a soul. Claiming that he does not "believe in anything," Motes embarks on a desperate mission to rid himself of his deeply rooted Christian beliefs. He founds the Church Without Christ and begins preaching a new jesus that is "all man, without blood to waste." According to Robert Brinkmeyer, Jr., Haze's preaching constitutes his attempt to "sunder forever the body and the spirit." It is also his way of negating the "nameless unplaced guilt" instilled in him during childhood by his mother and grandfather. However, Haze's attempt to eradicate the presence of Jesus from his life is ultimately unsuccessful. For O'Connor, a Christian writer who wrote about Christian concerns, it is Haze's inability to escape Christ and realize his conversion to nothing that raises him above the novel's other characters.

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Flannery O'Connor's "Everything that Rises Must Converge," first published in 1964, and included in the 1965 short story collection of the same title, comprises such themes as acculturation, aging, death and dying, disease and health, and the African-American experience. Set in the newly integrated South of the 1960s, it tells the story of Julian, a recent college graduate who is too attached to his mother. His prejudiced mother suffers a stroke during an incident with a black woman, and Julian feels the overwhelming effects of his dependency.
  • "The Lame Shall Enter First," another short story included in the Everything that Rises Must Converge collection, weaves a disturbing story of a father's misdirected love, and his son's resulting suicide. The widowed father and grieving son seek solace beyond each other's embrace and are both influenced by a disturbed and disfigured young man who claims to be under Satan's power.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find is the title story of O'Connor's 1955 short-story collection by the same name. Originally published in 1953, the story is about a self-centered, smug grand-mother and her family, who are traveling through the South, where a murderer is rumored to be hiding. When the family wrecks the car, three men confront them; Grandmother recognizes the murderer as "The Misfit." He kills the rest of the family first and then toys with Grandmother's emotions before killing her.
  • William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, published in 1930, influenced O'Connor's thinking and writing. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style using grotesque characterization, the story explores the nature of grieving, community, family, and society.
  • Nathaniel West's writing also influenced Flannery O'Connor's thinking and style. She recommended Miss Lonelyhearts, in particular, to her friends. Published in 1933, the novel concerns a male newspaper columnist who tries desperately to give advice to the lovelorn. When he becomes involved with one of his correspondents, he is killed.

In addition to his religious struggles, Haze must also contend with solitude and homelessness. Upon his release from the army, he returns to hisPage 334  |  Top of Article home town of Eastrod, Tennessee, only to find it run down and deserted. When he arrives in Taulkinham the following day, his situation does not improve: he is confronted with the realization that he has no place to go. This rootlessness and sense of displacement is, in fact, a condition shared by most of the novel's characters. Enoch Emery, for example, has only been in Taulkinham for two months and has spent much of his life moving and being moved. The same is true of Asa and Sabbath Hawks, who also move from place to place, begging for money and handing out religious pamphlets. Such widespread and longlasting restlessness suggest that there is something seriously wrong with the world in which these characters live. It also suggests a common desire for something better.

The link between displacement and the striving for something other, or better, is made explicit when Haze purchases the rundown Essex. He tells the man who sells him the car that he wants it "mostly to be a house" because he "ain't got any place to be." But it becomes evident that Haze buys the car not to provide himself with a place to be, but for its ability to bring him someplace else. He brags that his car will get him anywhere he wants to go, and plans to make a new start in a new city. Such a plan is made possible by "the advantage of having a car," something that could move "to the place you wanted to be."

Significantly, it is also atop the nose of his Essex that Haze preaches his new jesus to a flow of exiting moviegoers. But the faith Haze places in both his car and his new savior is misguided. Instead of becoming the means through which he finds inner peace ("nobody with a good car needs to be justified," he tells Hawks), Haze uses his Essex to maim and kill another human being. The car leads Haze past signs that read "Jesus Saves," but he does not heed them. It is not until the car is destroyed that he recognizes his mistake and ceases to flee that which he knows he must accept. Similarly, it is only when Enoch delivers the manifestation of the new jesus to Haze's door that he recognizes its worthlessness. He realizes, as Margaret Peller Feeley suggests, that his false idol is "merely the incarnation of all people who reject the true God and make a god in their own image."

Like Hazel, Enoch follows a misguided path in an effort to find his reward. Hurt and dejected by the unfriendly reception he has received in Taulkinham, a city where everybody wants "to knock you down," Enoch longs to become a somebody. He wishes to better his condition and be like the young men he sees displayed in insurance ads. But instead of working towards that goal, Enoch buries himself in the rigidity of a daily routine. Even after he steals the "new jesus" from the museum, his brief moment of action is once again followed by passivity. He sits at home waiting for something to happen but, not surprisingly, the fake savior does nothing.

Enoch's final actions are even more pathetic and futile. Impressed by the line of people who wait to meet Gonga, a Hollywood movie star, he dreams of someday seeing a "line of people waiting to shake his hand." Unfortunately, he chooses to realize this dream by borrowing Gonga's persona and stripping the hired gorilla-man of his animal suit. Instead of becoming a somebody, Enoch loses himself completely and disappears into the suit. Such a strategy is doomed, Robert Donahoo argues, because the change is "superficial." According to his reading of the novel, Enoch's bestial transformation is representative of the "American tendency to address a problem by changing its appearance." Enoch's plan ultimately fails, and he is last seen alone and unchanged.

One of the major themes of the novel is faith and religious belief, but for most of the characters faith has become little more than an annoyance that is sold on city streets. It is not a relevant or meaningful part of their lives. Hoover Shoats, for instance, uses religion as a means for commercial profit, preying on the easily manipulated and the easily swayed. He is attracted to Haze's idea of a new jesus, not for any spiritual reasons, but because he thinks it is a lucrative opportunity that simply needs a little promotion. Conversely, Asa Hawks is made uncomfortable by Haze's religious preoccupations and refers to the young antipreacher as a "Goddam Jesushog." Hawks, of course, has personal reasons for disliking Haze's activities—reasons that resurface when Sabbath reminds him that he too was once like Haze but eventually "got over it."

The idea that faith and religious belief are things one must get over, an obstacle to be overcome, is echoed by Mrs. Flood. She is unable to understand Haze's motives for blinding himself or for his walking with rocks in his shoes, much less for the more extreme act of wrapping himself in barbed wire. She tells him that these kinds of acts are no longer done, that they are something people have quit doing. Her attitudes and complacency reflect those of the society around her and provide an important clue as to why so many of the characters in Wise Blood are dissatisfied with their current situations. An oftquoted passage from William RodneyPage 335  |  Top of Article Allen's reading of the novel explains what O'Connor seems to imply. Allen likens secular man living without God's grace to the many caged animals in the novel—both are hopelessly trapped. Stripped of its spiritual dimension, Allen argues that the world "is merely a prison for an odd collection of inmates—a zoo for the human animal."

Haze takes his first real steps away from that zoo after his car is rolled over the embankment. It is at this moment that Haze experiences what many critics agree is his moment of awakening. Staring into the "entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank grey sky that went on, depth after depth, into space," Haze appears to perceive that which has eluded everyone else. The sky, complete with blinding white clouds with curls and a beard, is frequently described in Wise Blood but is never noticed by the people walking beneath it. Brinkmeyer has suggested that these celestial descriptions are the only hints of the divine in the novel. One might even read them as suggesting the presence of God. Whatever it is Haze sees, it is his recognition and appreciation of the depth before him that finally allows him to end his quest for some other place. It is also immediately after this revelation that he decides to blind himself. Allen has suggested that as Haze stares into the distance, his illusion of freedom destroyed, he perceives the dimension of spiritual freedom and blinds himself to see even deeper into that freedom.

But not every critic focusses on the religious aspects of O'Connor's novel. Jon Lance Bacon, for example, offers a reading of the novel that provides a different twist to some of the scenes already discussed. He argues that in Wise Blood O'Connor depicts a society pervaded by advertising and marketing techniques. In short, Bacon reads the novel as a critique of American consumer culture. Citing influential texts such as Marshall McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride, Bacon discusses the increasing influence that corporate capitalism exerts over individual identity. He observes that the citizens of Taulkinham are inundated with commercial appeals and that the boundaries of the urban setting are defined by electric signs. He offers Enoch as the character most identified with consumerism, describing him as "pathetically vulnerable to advertisers' messages." It is by appropriating the imagery of consumerism, Bacon argues, that Enoch hopes to become a new man; he anticipates a new and improved self, but the ape suit only leads to a loss of identity. Similarly, the value Haze attaches to his car is indicative of his susceptibility to the kind of thinking fostered by consumer society: the ownership of an automobile allows him to conceive himself as a totally free individual. It is only after the car is destroyed, Bacon notes, that he is forced to consider a reality other than the material world.

Still, a reading of O'Connor's fiction must take into account the author's religious concerns. In her introduction to Three by Flannery O'Connor, Sally Fitzgerald reminds readers that O'Connor herself thought the novel "a very hopeful book." It is true that Haze's act of self-mutilation does have a positive effect on the selfish and self-centered Mrs. Flood. Her attitudes change when, at the very end of the novel, she begins to feel that she has been cheated of something of a non-material nature. Initially, she felt cheated financially, but when Haze dies she thinks that he may have known something she did not. In the final scene, she stares deeply into the dead man's eyes, hoping to find the way into the pinpoint of light she sees before her. Brinkmeyer argues that this final chapter shows Mrs. Flood's faith slowly emerging; her selfish common sense "giving way to something closer to kindness and charity." Moreover, Feeley reads this as the most affirmative of O'Connor's endings: "That so limited and venal a creature can be moved signifies hope for all." Ultimately, it is up to each reader to decide whether or not hope and affirmation are to be found in O'Connor's twisted tale.

Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Gary M. Ciuba

In the following excerpt, Ciuba examines how most of the characters in Wise Blood are unable to look beyond the surface of people and things. Only Hazel Motes, who himself begins by judging people at "face value, " learns how to look beyond the literal and thus understand the divine nature of the universe.

In Wise Blood Flannery O'Connor continually seems to stare at the faces of her characters. She does not just describe and constantly refer to the faces of Haze Motes and his fellow sinners with the hard, sharp eye that served her as a cartoonist in college and with the deep awareness that produced a haunting self-portrait with peacock in later life. She also focuses in vivid detail on the nameless faces of minor figures whose very existence in the novel depends on their description as they are suddenly caught by O'Connor in close-up. Enoch Emery remembers that the Welfare woman who cared for him was not old " 'but she sho was ugly. She had theseyer brown glasses and her hair wasPage 336  |  Top of Article so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull.'" A red-haired waitress at Walgreen's has "green eyes set in pink" so that she looks like a picture of a Lime Cherry Surprise, while another at the Paris Diner shows "a big yellow dental plate and the same color hair done up in a black hairnet." A woman with "a square red face and her hair… freshly set" carries a "cat-faced" baby as she listens to Haze preach.

All of these faces in O'Connor's portrait gallery of a novel lack both depth and completeness. As an artist, she flattens a three-dimensional world into two so that her characters resemble Haze's face at the moment it is pressed to the glass of his car watching Asa and his daughter: "a paper face pasted there." Moreover, O'Connor avoids portraying all the features of these faces, preferring to concentrate on striking and invariably ugly physical characteristics. Her extreme selectivity and exaggeration turn characters into spiritual cartoons. The unholy fools of Wise Blood exist not so much in the fullness of their flesh and blood but in the reduction to a set of yellow teeth, a pair of icy eyes, a patch of blotchy skin. Yet if O'Connor's gaze obliterates much, it leaves the essentials of the soul to be seen in the distorted outlines of the body.

O'Connor's caricatures illustrate her creed as novelist and believer. In her essays she repeatedly stresses that the writer must start where all human knowledge begins—the senses. Her art does not originate with philosophical questions, abstract problems or social issues but with whatever is near at hand and in front of her face. She quotes with approval Ford Madox Ford's injunction that the novelist cannot have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story without providing enough detail to make the reader see him. The starting point of literature is thus the literal. Because of her commitment to the surfaces of the world, O'Connor cannot do other than begin with the faces of her characters….

Since her characters so often live on this two-dimensional plane, far removed from their divine origins, she renders their faces in the most superficial terms. In Wise Blood O'Connor demonstrates that although literalism is a necessary approach to the world, it is unwise and sometimes even bloody as the final means of understanding it. The mistake that all of her comic caricatures make is that they only take the world at its face value and never really see the value in faces.

O'Connor dramatizes the limits of such literalism at the novel's beginning in the purblind sight of Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock. As she sits "facing Motes in the section" of the train, she is forced to look at his deepset, pecan eyes and prominent skull. Haze's face invites the aspiring visionary to go beyond her sentimentalized faith that "yes, life was an inspiration." Captivated yet baffled by Haze's eyes, drawn continually to them yet irked because she can only try to see into them, Mrs. Hitchcock nearly confronts the tremendous and fascinating realm of the holy in the human world. Yet she never discovers the image and likeness of God in his creation, for she will not surrender herself to the depths beyond depths of Haze's face. Instead, she stubbornly defends herself against its challenge by concentrating only on face value. As she squints at the price tag on the sleeve of Haze's suit, she learns that it "had cost him $11.98. She felt that that placed him and looked at his face again as if she were fortified against it now."

Mrs. Hitchcock can only look at Haze if she abstracts him into a class and category. Having reduced a person to a price tag, she tries to protect herself against the summons from the mystery that she dimly senses by keeping her eye on the surface offered by Haze's face. O'Connor provides the first description of Motes from the viewpoint of Mrs. Hitchcock as if this lady were trying to steel herself against the invitation of his eyes by immersing herself in the superficial details of the rest of his features: shrike's nose, creased mouth and flattened hair. Mrs. Hitchcock prefers to see only the two-dimensional reality directly in front of her face rather than what O'Connor calls "the image at the heart of things." O'Connor represents Mrs. Hitchcock's failure to perceive the world in all its roundness by appropriately flattening her out. Glimpsed by Haze on her way to her berth, her hair a mass of knots and knobs that "framed her face like dark toadstools," she becomes nothing more than surfaces herself in O'Connor's mercilessly precise portraiture.

Mrs. Hitchcock is the first of O'Connor's literalists who, lacking their creator's profounder vision, view the world only on one level. Virtually every other character in the novel repeats her sin….

All of these foolish faces in Wise Blood seem blind to Paul's vision of how "we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18). However, O'Connor with open face herself shows in Haze how one human image is made to conform to the divine model. Haze Motes developsPage 337  |  Top of Article from the literalism of Enoch Emery to the anagogical vision of Flannery O'Connor. Throughout much of the novel he consistently judges people by their face value. Although one mechanic already warned him that his dilapidated Essex could not be saved, he entrusts it to a huckster at a different garage, "certain that it was in honest hands." The scarred face and dark glasses of Asa Hawks, another salesman of salvation, convince Haze that this fraud once blinded himself for Jesus. The naif cannot understand how such a preacher could have fathered an illegitimate daughter like Sabbath Lily. When Haze looks at her homely face, he wisely reasons that the innocence of Sunday's child, normally full of grace, virtually beckons his blood to seduction. Actually, this paleface with her large, red lips hopes to seduce him because she has never seen a boy that she " 'liked the looks of any better.'"

Each fails to lead the other into temptation on their trip into the country. Although Sabbath poses alluringly on the ground, Haze lies a few feet away and covers his face with his hat. His very literalism is a far greater lust, for in the dark this would-be Solomon tries to determine whether a bastard like Sabbath Hawks can be saved in his new religion. He finally concludes, "'There wouldn't be any sense to the word, bastard, in the Church Without Christ.' " His inclusiveness, however, does not result from discovering the Father's prodigal love which transcends all superficial distinctions but from deciding to take language merely at face value. Since Haze believes in the Church Without Christ, he must speak a language without any inherent Logos. The Word, indeed any word, even bastard, is just a sound devoid of sense. Hence, sin has no existence outside of speech. When Asa Hawks quite accurately charges Haze with " 'Fornication and blasphemy and what else?' " Haze dismisses the accusation,"'They ain't nothing but words … I don't believe in sin.'"

Just as Haze separates word from concept until a name means nothing, he divorces Jesus' humanity from his divinity. His literalism drives him to seek a new jesus, "'one that's all man, without blood to waste.'" This jesus is purely human, for Haze's nihilism denies the plenitude of being which characterizes divinity. A jesus who cannot spend himself extravagantly is hardly God. The consequence of rejecting the incarnation is that there may be crucifixion but no resurrection, suffering but no redemption. Such a divorce destroys all significance, leaving behind merely emptied physical signs. " 'Where in your time and your body has Jesus redeemed you?' " Haze asks the few faces who listen to him for proof in the flesh. " 'Show me where because I don't see the place.'" Salvation becomes as meaningless as sin if the senses provide the sole guide to reality. When someone seems to suggest that the site of salvation may be in the conscience, Haze warns that conscience must be hunted and killed " 'because it's no more than your face in the mirror is.'" Since Haze's face values exalt the letter over the spirit, Enoch brings him a literal version of his new jesus. A jesus without blood to waste is nothing more than an embalmed corpse. Haze's word for word reading of the world eliminates the divine Word so that only dead flesh and hollowed language remain.

Such blindness causes Haze constantly to overlook the visible features of the invisible God. He lives in the desert of Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday" where there is "No place of grace for those who avoid the face." Throughout his aborted idyll with Sabbath, he misses the significance of the brilliant white cloud "with curls and a beard" that follows his car. As Richard Giannone notes [in Thought, Vol. 59, 1984], the portrait in the heavens recalls the face of Moses, which glowed so brightly with divine glory that he had to veil it from the Israelites. Again God shows his presence by shining forth upon his creation, but Hazel, Hebrew for "he who sees God," puts on his own veil by covering his face with his hat.

Always in the dark, Haze misses another theophany when the car that he trusted to the supposedly honest mechanic breaks down. A one-armed attendant of a service station gives him a can of gas and his car a push—all gratis. These freely done services shine forth as rare and mysterious acts of goodness in a novel where so many prophets are profiteers. Like Haze but in a radically different sense, this good man so hard to find works for nothing. But his gratuitous kindness only provokes one more expression of Haze's nihilistic egotism. "'I don't need no favors from him,'" Haze boasts to save face. And when Sabbath praises his Essex, he completes the oneupsmanship of his lame triumph, " 'It ain't been built by a bunch of foreigners or niggers or one-arm men.'" Haze can only respond to this stranger's generosity by labelling his appearance. Such reductionism removes the attendant's graciousness from the realm of amazing grace so that he becomes nothing more than what is observed, a man with one arm. By taking him at his face value Haze avoids an encounter with mystery which might expose his true dependency and demand that he bestow favor on others.

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Despite his reduction of salvation to the superficial, Haze hears a call to see beyond the surface. He escapes being another of the novel's spiritual caricatures by becoming what Lewis A. Lawson calls [in his Another Generation: Southern Fiction since World War II, 1984] "an oxymoron as character." Haze searches for the value in faces malgré lui. As if the need for such wisdom were in his blood, he has the same face as his grandfather, a fiery fundamentalist preacher. The way he sits on the train in chapter one typifies his spiritual posture throughout the novel: he strains forward to see. He especially longs to look into the eyes of Asa Hawks that are hidden by dark glasses. And although he gives Asa's daughter the fast eye, he sends her a note that demonstrates a deeper understanding of language than Enoch's taking each word at its face value: "BABE, I NEVER SAW ANYBODY THAT LOOKED AS GOOD AS YOU BEFORE IS WHY I CAME HERE." When this rare good woman asks him whether he meant the adjective in its physical or moral sense, he answers, "'The both.'" A confirmed literalist like Enoch would not even perceive a possible pun.

Since Haze recognizes such double dimensions as well as constantly resists them, his literalism makes him half right rather than completely wrong. His attention to surfaces could become the starting point for a return to the divine source on which O'Connor always keeps her eye. When he criticizes a crowd so apathetic to the atonement that even if Jesus had saved them, "'You wouldn't do nothing about it. Your faces wouldn't move, neither this way nor that,' " he is as much insightful as overly insistent. He may emphasize appearance too much, but he recognizes that redemption should transform the stoney expressions of their spiritually stolid lives.

O'Connor forces Haze to face the limits of his literalism in two scenes that demonstrate the absurdity of taking the world at face value. After putting on his mother's glasses, Haze sees in the mirror "his mother's face in his." He hastens to take off the spectacles, for he recognizes his own sinfulness in the accusing image of his guilt-obsessed parent. Yet before he can remove them, "the door opened and two more faces floated into his line of vision." Sabbath enters the room like a mock-Madonna, cradling the pseudo-savior of Enoch Emery whom she shows Haze as his own child. O'Connor stages a horribly fitting Christmas tableau for Haze's new religion. In the Church Without Christ, the Virgin with Child becomes a whore with a dwarfed corpse, and Haze, the founder and father of lies, plays the role of daddy to a dead god.

Haze stares at this burlesque nativity with his head "thrust forward as if he had to use his whole face to see with" and then lunges at the "squinting face" of his shrivelled infant. The mommy and the mummy reflect the same image which Haze just spied in the looking glass. Glimpsing the depths of his own nothingness, he destroys the empty offspring of sin which his whole nihilistic faith has fathered. The iconoclast seems to brace himself for a blow of retribution, but it does not come immediately. He tries to flee in his car the truth of Sabbath's charge that he has never wanted anything except Jesus, but his flight ends in an about-face so that his way is God-ward (2 Cor. 3:4).

The violence which Haze expected as punishment is also a stroke of good fortune. Although O'Connor mentions that Haze was driving very fast, the patrolman offers neither speeding nor travelling on the wrong side of the road as reasons for stopping him. Rather, he simply says, "'I just don't like your face,'" and calmly pushes Haze's car over the cliff. Even if the officer's summary justice results from seeing "the ramshackle car and its unlicensed driver as a public threat" [Sr. Kathleen Feely notes in Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock, 1972], his method of law enforcement is so extreme that mere motives cannot adequately explain it. The very perverseness is O'Connor's point, for the scene dramatizes the consequences of living in a world where appearance has become the absolute law. When reality extends no farther than the surface, a person's face provides sufficient justification for pronouncing last judgment.

O'Connor could have planned no more appropriate climax for Haze's career. Having taken the world at face value, he is himself taken at face value. He suffers because of his own sin, but the effect of this chastisement is revelatory. As he gazes into the blank sky, he comes face to face with his own void. "His face didn't change and he didn't turn it toward the patrolman. It seemed to be concentrated on space." However, this vision is decidedly not superficial, for the empty heavens extend "depth after depth, into space." Haze "sees beyond the visage of evil," Jonathan Baumbach observes [in The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, 1965], "the ugly veil masking the real world, to the sight of limitless space—a manifestation of the infinite." In the face of such a sublime panorama, Haze discovers his profound nothingness. For the rest of his life he must submit himself to the consuming powerPage 339  |  Top of Article of this same three-dimensional negation, converting physical deprivation into spiritual purification.

The superficial Mrs. Flood cannot understand such a paradoxical road to salvation. In words that might be applicable to virtually every literalist in the novel, O'Connor comments that Haze's land-lady "was not a woman who felt more violence in one word than in another; she took every word at its face value but all the faces were the same." Mrs. Flood reads life word for word and understands each as a repetition of its predecessor. By turning God's word into just another linguistic face in the crowd, she denies the saving presence of the Logos which assumed a human image. Obsessed with Haze's face, she tries to take him at face value, yet she consistently fails to categorize or understand him. She notices that his "face had a peculiar pushing look, as if it were going forward after something it could just distinguish in the distance," but her own eyes prove that Haze surely cannot see: he has burned out his sight with lime. When he explains that he does penance because "'I'm not clean,'" Mrs. Flood, blind to the figurative dimension of language, replies, "'I know it… you got blood on that night shirt and on the bed. You ought to get you a washwoman.'"

Mrs. Flood recognizes sight but not insight, physical but not spiritual cleanliness. Haze has moved beyond such a literal view. He has turned the facial vision often developed by the blind into the gaze of a soul which has turned its face to God. His strange and violent actions force his landlady to search for the divine dimensions that she prefers to ignore. Holding his dead body, she struggles to go beyond face value. She peers into his face, now just a skull beneath the skin, and tries to penetrate the deep tunnels of his eyes. Although Mrs. Flood has not yet attained Haze's beatific vision, she has at least become dissatisfied with her former way of reading the world. If she could ever get beyond "the beginning of something she couldn't begin," Mrs. Flood might discover like Jacob (Gn. 33:10) the truth which O'Connor's own artistry incarnates: seeing the face of a man in all its graciousness could be like beholding the very countenance of God.

Source: Gary M. Ciuba, "From Face Value to the Value in Faces: Wise Blood and the Limits of Literalism," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 72-80.

Daniel F. Littlefield

In the following excerpt, Littlefield explores how the materialism of modern society shown in Wise Blood helps articulate O'Connor's major themes of Christian redemption and the grotesque.

Much of the Criticism of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952) has centered around her themes. For the most part, such criticism has illustrated and therefore confirmed, through analyses of her fiction, what Miss O'Connor had said about herself: that as a writer she is orthodox Christian (specifically Catholic), that her major theme in fiction is the redemption of man by Christ, and that she depicts the grotesque in society.

But the critics have ignored a significant point of her personal philosophy that appears as a motif in her fiction: that material prosperity has had ill effects on man's spiritual well-being. It is basic to the grotesqueness in modern society, it stunts man's spiritual growth, and it makes man's salvation more difficult, if not impossible. Wise Blood is her longest and most significant rendering of these ideas although they clearly appear in many of her other works….

Wise Blood takes as its theme the redemption of man by Christ, a theme basic to most of O'Connor's work. It is the story of Hazel Motes, "a Christian malgré lui," who in his attempt to deny his belief in Christ establishes his Church Without Christ, but who cannot avoid the visitation of grace upon him and subsequently blinds himself to "justify" his belief in Christ. The reader sees in Hazel, as well as in the other characters, a grotesqueness, a distortion of spiritual purpose that O'Connor speaks of….

The major characters—Hazel Motes, Enoch Emory, Asa Hawks, Sabbath Lily Hawks, Hoover Shoats, Mrs. Flood—all have one thing in common; they are all motivated by religion in one way or another. Melvin J. Friedman says [in "Flannery O'Connor: Another Legend in Southern Fiction," in Flannery O'Connor, ed. Robert E. Reiter] that "Hazel Motes meets a succession of false religionists and we are intended to measure the sincerity of his convictions against the hypocrisy of theirs." He includes Enoch among the hypocrites, but as will be shown later, Enoch is every bit as sincere as Haze (he was worshipping the new jesus, even though he did not know what it was, before he heard Haze preach). The significant thing here is that the division of characters into the sincere and hypocritical also separates the characters according to the way in which material prosperity affects their motives: the latter pursue it as an end while the former use it (though often symbolically) as a means to an end.

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Prosperity does not mean wealth here, for as Miss O'Connor has said, most of her characters are poor. No character in this novel attains material prosperity, but a number of them pursue it. As a basis of that pursuit, most of them use religion—either a perversion or distortion of Christianity or religion in general. They adopt the tone and jargon of the high-pressure salesman and offer the people the "bargain" or the "something-for-nothing" rou-tine.

Early in the novel the reader finds a man selling potato peelers on the street. He draws a crowd and offers his "bargain" to them. Then Asa Hawks and his daughter Sabbath Lily appear on the scene. She is handing out pamphlets that say "Jesus Calls You" (one is reminded here of the Uncle Sam posters), and he is begging, using religion as his persuader: "Help a blind preacher. If you won't repent, give up a nickel." The potato peeler salesman recognizes immediately that Hawks has a "gimmick" or a "racket," that he is hawking his wares, as his name implies, just as if they were potato peelers. The salesman says, "What the hell do you think you are doing?… I got these people together, how do you think you can horn in?" In other words, he recognizes Hawks for what he is—business competition. Hawks is an exevangelist of sorts who ten years before had promised his congregation to blind himself to justify his belief in Jesus. But his nerve had failed. Since that time he has faked blindness, which he uses to gain sympathy in begging. Here obviously is a man whose sense of spiritual purpose is distorted; yet, ironically, he has insight into Haze's problem. When Hawks first meets Haze, he says, "I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice." Haze curses him and he says, "Listen boy, … you can't run away from Jesus. Jesus is a fact."

Sabbath Lily Hawks helps her father beg by handing out pamphlets. She is a fifteen-year-old bastard who spouts perverted scriptures ("A bastard shall not enter the kingdom of heaven!") and tells gruesome tales about Jesus's visitation of horrible punishment on the sinful. She is "pure filthy right down to the guts…." She tells Haze, "I like being that way, and I can teach you how to like it. Don't you want to learn how to like it?" Through Sabbath, O'Connor makes significant commentary on one aspect of our prosperous society: the panacean approach to moral and spiritual problems. In this case, it takes the form of the love-lorn column in the newspaper. She writes Mary Brittle to find out if she should "neck" or not. Since she is a bastard and bastards do not enter the kingdom of heaven, she wants to know what difference it makes. Mary replies, " 'Light necking is acceptable, but I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life. A religious experience can be a beautiful addition to living if you put it in the proper perspective and do not let it warf you. Read some good books on Ethical Culture!'" As if this were not enough, O'Connor gives Sabbath's reply to it: " 'What I really want to know is should I go the whole hog or not? That's my real problem. I'm adjusted okay to the modern world.'" Here we see the humorous and the serious, the normal and the abnormal—in short, the grotesque. But the ironic truth is that, for O'Connor, Sabbath is "adjusted okay to the modern world" to the extent that it has produced this spiritual chaos in which she and the other characters wander.

Hoover Shoats, alias Onnie J. Holy, sees this panacean approach to spiritual problems as a money-making "gimmick." He knows that Haze's Church Without Christ is an idea to capitalize upon, and he wants to form a business partnership with Haze. One night when Haze begins to lose his crowd, Shoats steps in and begins the preselling technique of selling himself: "I want to tell you all about me." Then he gives a testimonial about what the Prophet (Haze) has done for him. He follows that with the "something-for-nothing" technique: "I'm not selling a thing, I'm giving something away!" Shoats then preaches the value of the Church of Christ Without Christ (a change in title which Haze does not like). Like any good salesman, he tries to create faith in his product and make it appealing: "… you can absolutely trust this church—it's based on the Bible." Each member can "interpit" the Bible any way he chooses. The church is also up-to-date. Shoats then asks for the dollar it takes to become a member. And what is a dollar? "A few dimes! Not too much to pay to unlock that little rose of sweetness inside you!"

Shoats gives Haze his qualifications for the business partnership. He once had a radio program called "Soulsease," fifteen minutes of "Mood, Melody, and Mentality," the title of which sounds more like a commercial for a mattress manufacturer than a program of spiritual inspiration. He sees that the idea of a new jesus has possibilities: "All it would need is a little promotion." But Haze rejects the partnership and slams the car door on Shoats's thumb. Shoats threatens, "I'm going to run you out of business. I can get my own new jesus and I can get Prophets for peanuts…." He then hires SolacePage 341  |  Top of Article Layfield, who looks like Haze and has a car like Haze's, to pose as the True Prophet. Thus, Miss O'Connor again reveals the distorted sense of spiritual purpose in the form of commercialized religion.

Mrs. Flood, Haze's landlady, also pursues material prosperity as an end. She plans to take advantage of Haze's blindness and asceticism. Since he has no use for money, she plans to marry him in order to get control of his government pension. When the policemen kill Haze, she feels that she has been cheated in some way, but in what way she is not sure.

The two characters who use material prosperity, though often symbolically, as a means to an end are Enoch Emory and Hazel Motes, the central character. Enoch's ambition is "to become something. He wanted to better his condition until he was the best. He wanted to be THE young man of the future, like the ones in the insurance ads. He wanted, some day, to see a line of people waiting to shake his hand." The achievement of this goal will be his reward from the new jesus. All of his actions are motivated by his religion.

The symbols most closely related to Enoch are those of the city and its institutions—the zoo, the park, the pool, the museum—and the movie theatre, all of which represent the leisure afforded by the prosperous society. When we first meet Emory, he tells Haze that he has been in Taulkinham only two months and that he already works for the city. We find that he works at the zoo and that his life has become the routine life of modern society.

This routine is best revealed in his worship of the new jesus, which he had discovered but did not recognize until he heard Haze preach. His religious ritual becomes a daily routine, all of which takes place in and involves those institutions maintained by the city: "Every day when he got off duty, he went into the park, and every day when he went in, he did the same things." He goes to the pool and hides in the bushes to watch women. This is among the things he must do to "build up to" visiting the center of the park. His next step is to go to the FROSTY BOTTLE, "a hotdog stand in the shape of an Orange Crush…." There he makes sugges tive remarks to the waitress who he thinks secretly loves him. The FROSTY BOTTLE, a symbol of crass commercialism (and, therefore, material prosperity) intruding upon ground usually denied it, becomes a part of his religious ritual. His next stop is the zoo where he looks at the animals with awe and hate. He has to go by them before he can proceed with the ritual. He feels that they wait "evil-eyed for him, ready to throw him off time." One is reminded here of what was evidently one of Miss O'Connor's favorite quotations from St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." The animals are the dragon he has to pass to get to his new jesus. The temple of worship, in which dwells the new jesus (a mummified man, three feet long), is called M V S E V M, and Enoch shivers to pronounce it: "Muvseevum."

Enoch steals the new jesus for Haze, expecting a reward for his action to follow: "He pictured himself, after it was over, as an entirely new man, with an even better personality than he had now." Ironically, he is later transformed, and he finds his method of achieving that transformation on his way to deliver the new jesus to Haze. In front of a movie marquee he sees Gonga the gorilla, a great movie star. Enoch immediately recognizes Gonga as a symbol of success in the modern world. Here is someone who has "become something." Moreover, he has a long line of children waiting to shake hands with him. This product of the motion-picture industry becomes Enoch's motivating force. He usurps the position of the man in the gorilla suit by evidently killing him and stealing the suit in an effort to realize his ambitions.

With Hazel Motes, as with Enoch, material prosperity is basic to the achievement of his goal—to establish the Church Without Christ. The major symbol here is the automobile, perhaps the symbol (if there is such a thing) of the modern, mechanized, prosperous world. Haze's car is an old Essex with one door tied on, a horn that does not work, and windshield wipers that "clatter like two idiots clapping in church." In the car-buying scene, O'Connor sends the reader through the sales routines again. There is the haggling over prices; the salesman demonstrates how the car runs and stresses its quality. He wouldn't take a Chrysler for it, and it wasn't made by a "bunch of niggers" or, as Haze later says, Jews or one-armed men.

That Miss O'Connor devotes a chapter to this event is significant. The car becomes literally and figuratively the rock upon which Haze builds his church. Literally, it is his church. He climbs up on the hood and preaches his Church Without Christ, just as his grandfather had preached from the hood of his old Ford. Figuratively, it becomes the symbol of his disavowing the existence of Christ. When he finds that Asa Hawks has supposedly blindedPage 342  |  Top of Article himself to justify his belief in Jesus, he says, "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified." It becomes his escape, literally from Taulkinham and figuratively from Christ. It is what saves him from a visitation of grace. After the patrolman pushes the Essex over the hill and destroys it, Haze gives himself over to Christ, blinds himself to justify his belief, and mortifies his flesh by wearing barbed wire around his chest and putting rocks and glass in his shoes. He has no concern for money, and even throws it away. Material prosperity makes man's salvation more difficult or impossible. The only one saved is Haze, and that is possible only after a long struggle and after he loses his car—the symbol of material prosperity….

Miss O'Connor devotes very little space in Wise Blood to filling in the details of the setting within which these characters move. However, she quite often focuses our attention on certain details that relate to the motifs and images of the prosperous society. Throughout the novel is an emphasis on money. On the first page we find the lady on the train squinting to see the price tag on Haze's suit. There are the street venders and the used-car salesmen who haggle over prices. We are even told to the cent how much Shoats and Layfield make and what Layfield's salary is. The examples are endless. There is also an emphasis on commercialism in the form of advertising. One of the first things Haze sees in Taulkinham is signs: "PEANUTS, WESTERN UNION, AJAX, TAXI, HOTEL, CANDY." Several times O'Connor brings to our attention the CCC snuff and the 666 (a cure-all patent medicine) advertisements that appear on the roadsides. She also tells us of a cow dressed as a housewife and of calendars that advertise funeral homes and tire manufacturers. The FROSTY BOTTLE is itself an advertisement. Such details are used to purpose in a novel that contains so few details of setting. They support the motifs and images of material prosperity that underlie the themes of this novel.

In Wise Blood, Miss O'Connor presents her basic theme of the redemption of man by Christ. That redemption is difficult because of the distorted sense of moral purpose in the characters. They wander in moral and spiritual chaos, and only one of them is redeemed. The rest remain grotesque and bestial. In her presentation of these themes, as well as the characters and their motives, Miss O'Connor uses symbols, images, and details drawn from the society of "unparalleled prosperity," a society which provides little assurance of the joy of life. Thus, she produces in Wise Blood an underlying theme that material prosperity is basic to the spiritual chaos which she felt was rampant in our society.

Source: Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., "Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: 'Unparalleled Prosperity' and Spiritual Chaos," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 121-33.


William Rodney Allen, "The Cage of Matter: The World as Zoo in Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood,'" in American Literature, Vol. 58, No. 2, May, 1986, pp. 256-70.

Jon Lance Bacon, "A Fondness for Supermarkets: 'Wise Blood' and Consumer Culture," in New Essays on 'Wise Blood, ' edited by Michael Kreyling, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 25-49.

Andre Bleikasten, "The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor," in Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark, G. K. Hall, 1985, pp. 138-58.

Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., "'Jesus, Stab Me in the Heart': Wise Blood, Wounding, and Sacramental Aesthetics," in New Essays on "Wise Blood, " edited by Michael Kreyling, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 71-89.

Robert Donahoo, "The Problem with Peelers: 'Wise Blood' as Social Criticism," in Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. 21, 1992, pp. 43-57.

Margaret Peller Feeley, "Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood': The Negative Way," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1979, pp. 104-22.

M. J. Fitzgerald, review in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition, St. James Press, 1994, p. 1058.

Sally Fitzgerald, "Introduction to 'Three by Flannery O'Connor,'" in Three by Flannery O'Connor, Signet Classic, 1983, pp. vii-xxxiv.

Marshall Gentry, "The Eye vs. the Body: Individual and Communal Grotesquerie in Wise Blood," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 487-93.

Caroline Gordon, "Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood," in Critique, Vol. 2, 1958, pp. 3-10.

Michael Kreyling, "Introduction," in New Essays on Wise Blood, edited by Michael Kreyling, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 21.

Lewis Lawson, "Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque: Wise Blood," in Flannery O'Connor, edited by Robert Reiter, B. Herder Books, c. 1968, p. 52.

Daniel Littlefield, "Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: 'Unparalleled Prosperity' and Spiritual Chaos," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1970, p. 122.

Erik Nielsen, "The Hidden Structure of Wise Blood," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 19, Nos. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter, 1992, pp. 91-97.

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Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," in The Living Novel: A Symposium, edited by Granville Hicks, Macmillan, 1957, pp. 161-63.

Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979, pp. 43-44.

Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood, Noon Day Press, 1990.

Isaac Rosenfeld, "To Win by Default," in New Republic, July 7, 1952, pp. 19-20.

For Further Study

John Byars, "Notes and Discussion: Mimicry and Parody in Wise Blood," in College Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1984, pp. 276-79.

A review that describes ironies in the novel that O'Connor communicates through the use of twins: grandfather, Layfield, and Hawks. Byars also supports O'Connor's use of parody through various animal incidents.

Robert Fitzgerald, "Introduction" to Everything That Rises Must Converge, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.

Fitzgerald shares his personal memories of O'Connor as a close family friend. He describes her difficult times with lupus and provides insight into some of her writing.

Robert Golden and Mary Sullivan, Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1977.

This book provides a complete guide to reviews, articles, and books about Flannery O'Connor and her work. In addition, the introduction written by Golden explains criticism of O'Connor's works in terms of four schools of thought about the religious issues they raise.

Laura Kennedy, "Exhortation in Wise Blood: Rhetorical Theory as an Approach to Flannery O'Connor," in Flannery O'Connor: New Perspectives, edited by Sura Rath and Mary Shaw, University of Georgia Press, 1996, pp. 152-68.

Kennedy explains the three distinguishable features of exhortative discourse and demonstrates how O'Connor's work meets the requirements.

Robert Phillips, Coping with Lupus, Avery, 1991.

This book provides an explanation of lupus and the ways it can affect the body. Along with a straight-forward description of the function of the body's immune system, the book also addresses other effects on people—emotional, relational, and financial.

Jonathan Witt, "Wise Blood and the Irony of Redemption," in The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. 22, 1993-94, pp. 12-24.

This article presents evidence for the redemptive theme in the novel. The characters' names and their images take on new meaning through Witt's description.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3124800026