Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

September 15, 2009

wise blood Plot summary (with spoilers): Hazel Motes has just left the Army after World War II and is on his way to Taulkinham, TN. He’s simply wandering around, as he couldn’t find his family when he returned to his hometown. Hazel doesn’t have firm plans for the immediate future. This is evidenced by his impulsive decision to visit Mrs. Watts, a prostitute he learns about from a scribbling in a bathroom stall.

As Hazel hangs around Taulkinham, he encounters some strange folks. Among them are a blind preacher Asa Hawks and his young daughter Sabbath. Hazel comes upon them while watching a salesman demonstrate potato peelers, and is intrigued enough to follow the two. Meanwhile, Hazel himself is followed by an 18-year-old kid named Enoch Emery, who is supremely lonely after having been abandoned by his father. Hazel tries to follow Hawks and his daughter, while Enoch tags along with him. But when Sabbath realizes what is going on, she screams at Hazel to stay away — despite being attracted to him.

Hazel, whose own grandfather was a street preacher like Hawks, decides that he will start his own church and call it the Church Without Christ. In his heretical views, there will be no need for salvation because there’s no Jesus.

As the novel progresses, the characters find themselves getting into strange situations and end up taking rash actions that they never really intended. For instance, the unbalanced Enoch steals a mummy from a museum because he thinks it’s the new prophet of Hazel’s church, and he later stabs a performer in order to steal a gorilla costume. Hazel allows himself to be seduced by Sabbath, runs over a man hired to act like a prophet for the competing Holy Church of Christ Without Christ started by Onnie Jay Holy (aka Hoover Shoats), and then blinds himself with lime as penance — as Asa Hawks was supposed to have done.

Finally, Hazel ends up all alone at Mrs. Flood’s boarding house where he doesn’t seem to care for anything. He throws money away and doesn’t bother feeding himself. One day, after Mrs. Flood proposes marriage, Hazel leaves, and ends up in a ditch, where he’s subsequently found by police. They beat him with a baton just to make sure he doesn’t give them any trouble, causing him to die in the squad car.

My Reaction: Wise Blood isn’t the sort of book that I can break down easily into “Likes” and “Dislikes” as I usually do. After this first reading, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing the point of the novel, that a lot of symbolism or meaning has escaped me. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t think I understood all that O’Connor intended to convey with this work.

But, thanks to the summary on Wikipedia and interpretations published in other places, I’ve been able to learn a little bit more about the book. Apparently, this novel can be interpreted as being a “grotesque” comedy because of the extreme situations that the characters get into. I can see how Enoch Emery’s storyline could be construed that way, but I don’t agree that Hazel’s situation was grotesque. I don’t know what word I would use to describe it, but grotesque somehow doesn’t seem to fit.

That said, I thought Hazel was a fascinating character. I mean, not a whole lot happened in this book in terms of action, yet I felt compelled to keep on reading because I wanted to learn what Hazel’s end game was. What was he after? What was his telos, his aim, his purpose? The conflicting ideas of heresy and redemption were thought-provoking as well, and made me truly interested in what was driving Hazel.

Overall, I think Wise Blood is a book that I’ll need to read again at some point in the future in order to absorb the story and characters more and derive additional meaning from it. As it is, I’m giving my first pass through 4 stars out of 5.

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