Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2008.
Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, was first published in 1949. It’s a rather odd, slightly disturbing, tale set in America’s evangelical Deep South after the Second World War.
The story follows a young man, Hazel Motes, from Eastrod, Tennessee, who returns to the South after four years in the Army. We know little of his background other than his grandfather had been a preacher, his younger brother died in infancy and his other brother fell in front of a mowing machine when he was seven years old.
We also know that as a child he had wanted to follow family tradition and become a preacher, but somewhere along the line — most likely in the war — he has turned completely against religion and does not believe that Jesus exists.
When he arrives back home he comes across a “blind” preacher, Asa Hawkes, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath, and is so infuriated by their “message” that he decides to set up his own anti-religion. It is called The Church Without Christ.
“I’m a 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.”
He then buys a car (even though he doesn’t have a driving licence) and travels the streets looking for convenient places — usually out the front of a movie house — to preach his message, where he is generally given short shrift. When another man “adopts” his religion but calls it the Holy Church Without Christ things get complicated — and violent.
A comic novel — or a macabre one?
In the Author’s Note to my edition, Flannery O’Connor writes (in 1962) that Wise Blood is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui. But I have to admit I didn’t see much that was funny and was often disturbed by the undertone of menace throughout and the ways in which the narrative often turned on violent or macabre events.
But there’s a lot to mull over here because even though the book is just 160 pages long, it’s jam-packed with ideas and issues and moves along at a clipping pace. I often had to re-read entire pages because I had missed a crucial piece of information and I think I could probably read the book for a second time and still not feel I had grasped everything to which the author alludes.
For instance, I’m still not quite sure of the purpose of a secondary character, Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old loner who befriends Hazel on his second day in town. Enoch believes he has a purpose but he doesn’t quite know what it is — and even when he steals a museum artefact as a “religious icon” for Hazel’s church, he still doesn’t know why he’s behaved in such a manner. Perhaps he’s a metaphor for blind faith, for simply following a religion without knowing why?
The role of the character of Sabbath Hawkes is much more obvious: she’s a temptress who Hazel initially wants to seduce. When he later changes his mind, she pursues him with a kind of religious fervour.
For such a short book, there is certainly a lot to think about. And as a reading experience, I was constantly uneasy and unsettled as I turned the pages. Hazel might be joyless, cold and uncaring — in fact, I might go so far as to say he’s psychopathic — but somewhere along the line, you begin to care about him, especially when he goes to extraordinary lengths to punish himself. That in itself — the ability of a writer to make you feel for a truly unlikable character — is a talent not to be underestimated.
I wouldn’t say Wise Blood is a fun book, but it’s certainly a wonderful Gothic tale that tickles the brain matter and I’m glad I finally found the courage to pluck it from my TBR where it has sat undisturbed for several years.
‘Wise Blood’ by Flannery O’Connor, first published in 1952, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is said to have been one of several American novels that have gone on to “define the so-called ‘Southern Gothic’ genre” since publication.
6 thoughts on “‘Wise Blood’ by Flannery O’Connor”
I’m interested in Gothic tales at the moment – will check this out.
This sounds rather interesting. I love the photo on the cover with nothing but churches!
I remember looking at this many times in the mid-late 90s when it was part of the Faber Library (lovely hardback editions with very plain covers, one work representing each year between 1930 and 1990), books I’d have loved a full set of but which were far beyond the reach of my student grant (I did end up buying a couple – Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ and Philip Larkin’s fabulous ‘Jill’). Flannery O’Connor’s name rather slipped from my mind after that until I started reading short stories in earnest last year – she was of course a noted story writer and has a prize named after her – and I’ve been meaning to have a look at her work. ‘Wise Blood’ (though a novel) sounds rather intriguing so I may pick up a copy soon (even if it won’t be that lovely Faber Library edition).
I haven’t read much of Flannery O’Connor – which is odd because one of my first literary obsessions was Southern Gothic. She seems to hold a strange place in that genre and I always felt she was trying to outdo Faulkner – in that the menace in her novels and short stories crosses the lines that Faulkner skirts (if that makes sense). She’s definitely much more interested in implied violence – “psychopathic” is an adjective I see used a lot to describe her characters.
This novel sounds incredibly dark, but definitely interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.
Ah, thats interesting. I know next to nothing about her, so was surprised at the level of violence in this one. Im always loathe to medically diagnose characters, but I really do think this guy had psychopathic tendencies!
O’Connor’s Catholicism informs everything she writes and to me her books in particular are extended parables. I think that accounts for the unique position she holds among writers characterised as Southern Gothic. I loved Wise Blood and I love The Violent Bear It Away even more. Her collected letters, published as The Habit of Being, are a really good window into what she was trying to do in her books — and she can be very funny in them.