Wise Blood

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1952

I read it: July 2016

wise blood

Here’s a strange little tale about a drifting young man who just can’t shake that good old-time religion. Hazel Motes has a war wound, and that’s about all he does have to show. His family is gone when he returns from the war, and his only tie to them seems to be a chiffarobe in the abandoned house. To stave off future looters, he leaves a note about how no one is to touch it, then he makes for a new town. His parents are dead, for reasons unspecified.

Hazel’s move to a biggish population makes him insignificant in the grand scheme, and this is apparently the exact thing he cannot stand. You can piece together that he must have been raised strictly religious, but his new passion is asserting his atheism. He quickly finds himself in a bind: he wants to sin to be able to show his rebellion, but his new stance does not allow sin to even exist. Hazel, you see, is religious to the core and just can’t face the fact.

The story gathers a rather small cast that includes several con artist preachers, such as the blind (but not really) Asa, and the annoyingly fascinating Enoch Emery. Enoch is several steps down on the intellectual rung from Hazel, and wears his emotions (such as his conflicted feelings about his father) on his sleeve. He also has the vague spiritual gift, which is one of his only retorts to Hazel, who is unrelentingly mean to him.

“You act like you think you got wiser blood than anybody else, but you ain’t! I’m the one has it. Not you. Me.”

So Enoch sort of has a higher purpose but he can’t grasp what it is, while Hazel becomes a preacher just as wily as the rest:

“I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

As the novel goes on, you can see how it might benefit from the English class treatment. There is a lot of margin space just waiting for notes, as well as the presumably intentional references, such as the names. Hazel goes by “Haze” and his last name has the connotation of “mote,” both of which reiterate the theme of searching and blindness, as well as the direct line from Matthew 7:3. Hazel is figuratively blind to the fact that he holds a faith that he can’t shed. For example, when he buys a car he feels absolutely certain he can take it anywhere. He pulls one over on himself by having more faith in his rustbucket than the actual car salesman has. The vehicle lets him down, though he does pull off a final tragic act with it.

The finale of the book pivots strangely to illustrate Hazel’s most desperate act: trying to become the most extreme—and therefore righteous—type of anti-believer that he can be. The last chapter is not narrated from his perspective, but rather from that of his landlady, Mrs. Flood (another Biblical nod?). She’s fascinated by his monklike ways, and can’t make heads or tails of it in her down-to-earth world. It’s a mystery whether or not Hazel himself has a grasp on things.

This has been mostly a summary review, because I can’t quite figure out how to feel about the book. I think it may have come across as a bit more insightful had I read it shortly after I got into my own atheism phase. Or perhaps a historical framework would help in knowing whether or not any of the characters would have seemed radical when this book was published. As is, I still think it would fit best in a classroom setting. As a book on the bus, it’s more a quick curiosity than anything else. There’s a film of haze over it all.

Music corner: My knowledge of the existence of this book was 100% based on the reference from Kurt Vile’s “I’m an Outlaw.” One of his twangier tunes, it features the phrase “wise blood” and being “on the brink of self-implosion,” which I suppose is as good a way of any as describing ol’ Haze Motes.

3 thoughts on “Wise Blood

  1. I really like Flannery O’Connor, but I think she was out of her element with novels. I’ve read both this one and The Violent Bear It Away and thought they were both mixed-bags. Her short stories always worked so much better for me.

    • That’s interesting to hear. With just two novels, I’d like to read them both out of curiosity. But I’ll definitely try to keep her short stories in mind as well. I think I read somewhere that even Wise Blood was pieced together from smaller stories, and I could see that. I think with novels I expect a more rounded experience and purpose, whereas with short stories I’m okay when authors remain a little mysterious or ambiguous. Sounds like that’s O’Connor’s better format.

      • I hadn’t heard about her stitching together Wise Blood from short stories before, but that makes sense.

        For me, O’Connor really excels at atmosphere and characters but not at plot so much, and her short stories work well with her skills but novels tend to reveal more of her flaws than her strengths.

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