Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925, in Savannah, Georgia. Growing up she faced many hardships as she lost her father as a teenager. Her writing career began in high school where she was involved in her school paper. She studied writing at the University of Iowa and published “The Geranium,” her first short story, in 1946. She wrote some novels, but was best known for her short story collections. In 1952, she released her novel Wise Blood. Sadly in the same year she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease. Growing up she was a devout Catholic. From 1956 through 1964, she wrote more than one hundred book reviews for two Catholic newspapers in Georgia. These reviews showed here high intelligence as she consistently confronted theological and ethical themes in the books that she reviewed. After a struggling battle against lupus for over a decade, Flannery O'Connor died on August 3, 1964, in Milledgeville, Georgia. For her work during her life, she received many honors, including an O. Henry Award in 1957 and the National Book Award in 1972. The south and her religion were essential to most of what she wrote. She uses grotesque imagery and situations as well as taking on theological themes throughout her stories and novels. Her characters usually live in the south and are morally flawed, and frequently have interactions with the disabled or disabled themselves. This is certainly true throughout her critically acclaimed novel Wise Blood.
Wise Blood is a novel that depicts the struggling and empty Hazel “Haze” Motes. After returning home from war to Eastrod, Tennessee, the twenty two year old Motes finds himself in unending struggle against his inborn, desperate fate. When he returns he finds his old home and town deserted. With this discovery he decides to try and escape from his haunting and disturbing past that involved frightening visions of death, as well of his fiery preacher grandfather who instilled in him a disturbing fear of Jesus as a shadowy figure. He leaves for Taulkinham where he the novel mainly takes place. There he begins his shocking and violent journey to find himself and evade his past. Here he falls under the spell of a "blind" street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Sabbath Lily. In an ironic, malicious gesture of his own non-faith, he starts his own “Church Without God” where he preaches to his followers that Jesus is a liar and that there is no sin or redemption arguing that he only needs the “truth”. Also while in Taulkinham he meets Enoch Emery, a young park ranger who has only been in the city for a couple of months. Enoch becomes a loyal follower to Hazel because he follows the commands of his “Wise Blood” rather than thinking his decisions through.
One day during one of Hazel’s preaching sessions a Huckster appears named Hoover Shoats and wants to turn Hazel’s preaching into a money maker. Hazel rebuffs Shoats and is shocked when later Shoats shows up with an imposter of Hazel as they preach Hazel’s “Church Without God” to a paying crowd. Infuriated Hazel tracks his his imposter down and runs him over in a violent act of rage. After trying to leave to city Hazel is meet by a police man who destroys his car. He walks all the way back to Taulkinham where blinds himself with limes. In the final events of his life Hazel unders goes masochistic things such as wrapping barbed wire around his chest and placing stones in his shoes. This causes his landlady, Mrs. Flood, to take an interest in him. She is intrigued by his soulless eyes, and end up asking him to marry her. Hazel rejects her and leaves his home and is found by the Police dead in a ditch on the side of the road. Not realizing that he is dead, Mrs. Flood tries to look into Hazel's ruined eyes and something inside of them changes her.
Flannery O’Connor’s use of grotesque and morally flawed characters as well as violent and appalling circumstances makes for some of the most riveting characters in American literature history. Through her novel Wise Blood, O’Connor dives into the themes of religion, faith, and retribution through Hazel Motes’ crushing struggle with religion. Wise Blood has also been characterized as a “Quest Novel” yet O’Connor discusses how Hazel Motes’ quest deviates from those of protagonists in traditional quest novels. His quest overall in the novel is for the truth about his own religious turmoil and to figure out what he should believe in. Hazel’s story has many connections to those of Oedipus Rex because of a few, yet strong, characteristics that they have in common. Those characteristics include their constant fight against there fate and the self punishment and harm they do to themselves at the end of it. This connection is unsurprising as O’Connor as she was well accustomed to the stories and tragedy in Greek Mythology.
Throughout Hazel Motes return to Tennessee the themes of religion and faith are explored throughout by O’Connor. 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 (Lilburn). Most if not all of the characters go through some kind of internal struggle throughout the novel. Characters such as Hazel, Enoch, and Mrs. Flood embody these characteristics and struggle with religion and finding themselves. 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 (Lilburn).
In the beginning of the novel O’Connor describes Hazel as a “Christian malgrë lui” (a Christian in spite of himself). At a young age, 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,” Hazel 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” (Lilburn). He wants to eradicate Jesus from his life so badly that he starts his own “Church Without Christ”. Yet his attempt to rid himself of Christ is unsuccessful and it his realization of this that separates him a cut above the rest of the characters. He realization of this seems to awaken him and he immediately blinds himself. He does this to look deeper into himself.
Enoch Emery is a very strange character who gravitates towards Hazel when they first meet. 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 not taking any over the top risks to achieve his goal. (Lilburn). He judgement is also clouded by his “Wise Blood” which he uses to make decisions and actions rather than thinking these things thoroughly. 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” (O’Connor). 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 (Lilburn). He wants to be someone so different than himself that he ends up losing sight of himself.
Mrs. Flood is a very interesting and dynamic character in the last couple of chapters in the novel. 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 (Lilburn). She tries to tell him that people don’t do this anymore, and fails to see the truth. 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 (Lilburn). 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 Hazel 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 (Lilburn). The final chapter is included in the novel to show Mrs. Flood’s emerging sense of faith and gives hope for at least one character in the novel.
The themes of religion and faith are echoed throughout the novel and are portrayed differently in the riveting characters that O’Connor has created. Hazel Motes spends his time trying to avoid jesus and trying to escape him. He goes to drastic measures only to realize the truth. Enoch Emery’s wise blood controls much of his decisions and actions and ultimately he loses his identity trying to be someone he is not while using evil actions to accomplish them. Mrs. Flood’s is one of, if not the only one, who ends the novel with hope. Hazel’s death seems to awaken her faith inside herself that had not been discovered and the reader is left with that sense of hope for Mrs. Flood.
Many critics believe that Wise Blood is a quest novel. His quest is for truth and throughout his story he seems to be searching for it. Hazel wants to escape jesus yet he wants to find the truth about himself and his faith. His quest falls under jeopardy many times over the course of the novel. Another character who is on a quest is Enoch Emery. Throughout the novel Enoch searches for some strange god who will bestow upon him the boon of friendship and importance. Unlike Hazel, Enoch has no unconscious yearning for Christ (Rechnitz). At the end of the novel both characters find the answers to their quest yet they come with losing most of what they have.
Hazel’s quest is at first to lose christ and memories of his past including his preacher grandfather. Haze had become convinced that the only way to avoid this terrifying Saviour was to avoid sin. To his own satisfaction, he managed to do this for a while; but the task became more difficult while he was in the army (Rechnitz). But it becomes more clear later on in the novel that his quest is for the truth. The novel is composed of Haze's early indoctrination in the religious fundamentalism of his grandfather, and his rejection of this religion. This prefaces his quest for atheistic certainty and his eventual return, after great suffering, to a belief in God, a ruthless, demanding God who will not let Haze lose his soul. Put another way, the novel portrays Haze's painful discovery that being "converted to nothing" is the spiritual equivalent of being converted to evil (Rechnitz).
Enoch Emery is another character on a quest similar to Hazel yet, his quest is different in many unique ways. His quest is to acquire friendships and gain a sense of importance, as well as respect and admiration from others. Enoch in the novel works towards this by being a follower of Hazel. He chooses to realize this dream by borrowing an actor named Gonga's persona and stripping the hired gorilla-man of his animal suit to get the attention and gratification of others around him.
Both Hazel and Enoch are set on their quest for two different answers. Yet the answers they receive come at a price and is of tragic proportions. Hazel comes to the realization that by being fully committed to atheism he only makes the affirmation of God stronger. Because of this he blinds himself in search of a deeper truth. Enoch on the other hand finds out that after he steals the Gonga’s identity that he loses himself in the suit. Both of the quests end tragically for both men, yet they find the truth and the answers at a high price.
Wise Blood today can be looked back on as a quest novel because of Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery. Hazel’s quest for the truth begins with trying to lose christ and become and atheist, as well as figure out the truth. Enoch’s quest is to find friendship and significance. Both men figure out and complete their quest at the price of blindness, and losing their identity.
In Wise Blood the similarities between Hazel Motes and Oedipus Rex are largely apparent. It is possible to find characteristics with their births and childhoods. There is many details about Oedipus’ birth, and while Hazel's birth was not as tragic there is still this apparent degree of prophecy that both characters are encouraged to avoid. Both of these characters are burdened by fate and try as much as they can escape it yet are unsuccessful. And the most obvious of correlations is the use of physical punishment on oneself. After their fate comes to fruition they both decide to blind themselves. Their lives are two of the most tragic stories ever written.
Hazel’s prophecy at birth seems to stem from the position of his grandfather in society as a preacher delivering God’s message from his car, the tangible symbol of commercial mobility. Hazel’s formative years concern his knowing that he was destined to become a preacher like his grandfather when he comes of age, yet the start of the novel concerns his outright declarations against being a preacher, no matter how much closely he may resemble one (GradesFixer). Much like the grotesque, working class southerners of O’Connor’s fiction that struggle with the conflation of the engagement of sin, the desire to cling to something for a sense of truth in the world, and false confession, the protagonists are ultimately clinging to a “truth” that will fail them. Like Oedipus, Hazel Motes sets out into a world in the hopes that his transience and outspokenness against destiny will alter it in his favor. However, each man will ultimately recognize that destiny cannot be avoided and that prophecy will be fulfilled, regardless of their attempts at rebuttal (GradesFixer). Both of these characters fate’s were sealed at birth yet they still choose to fight against it.
Oedipus’s desire to escape is destiny correlates to Hazel’s wish to avoid his own destiny. Both characters’ efforts to escape and elude destiny simply bring them closer and closer towards its fulfillment, whether they realize it in the moment or not. Oedipus abandons Corinth in fear of the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother, only to unknowingly murder his father during this period of transition (GradesFixer). When Hazel sets out against his prophecy of becoming a preacher he makes his own “Church Without Christ” and becomes a preacher himself. In both stories that main character kills a man of significance. Oedipus killed his father, while Hazel killed is doppelganger by running him over. Both men, in doing this, set in motion the future mutilation and self punishment of themselves along with the completion of their fates. If Hazel so strongly believes that there is no such thing as sin, he fails at his ability to cope with his actions. Oedipus, likewise, must also come to terms with the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or unbelievable it may seem. Sin cannot simply be washed away and forgotten, as O’Connor’s grotesque southerners are portrayed to believe. Both men will be forced to come to terms with the true gravity of their situations, and, as a result, they will become physically blinded by everything they tried so hard to avoid coming to terms with. They can’t simply confess their sin and continue to live their lives in the same sinful manner, believing that they are redeemed as O’Connor’s southerners believe (GradesFixer).
The major connection between Hazel and Oedipus is that fact that they use self punishment on themselves after their destiny comes true. Although this self mutilation seems like emotional distress it can also be seen as an act of redemption. Hazel blinds himself in an effort to further see the truth. Hazel’s clouded vision throughout the course of the novel is peculiar in the way that it prevents him from consciously observing the details of the world that surrounds him. His inability to pay attention to what is going on around him is too much like Oedipus’ ignoring of the all of the obvious hints he receives about the prophecy being fulfilled (GradesFixer). Hazel even goes a step farther by putting rocks in his shoes and putting barbed wire around his chest. They self punishments are they final attempts to see the truth and to redeem themselves for being unable to see that their prophecies would come true.
Flannery O'Connor Hazel Motes can be viewed as a modern day retelling of Oedipus Rex set in a southern setting, with grotesque and vile themes of destiny. Their births and childhood are tragic and make their prophecy apparent from the very beginning. Both of these men try to avoid their own destiny only to make it become reality. And finally with the easiest connection of their self inflicted blindness to try and see the truth and a last effort of redemption.
Throughout the course of Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor uses the themes of religion and faith to showcase the effect it has on some of the most riveting characters in American literature history. These characters struggle to meet their goals and find the truth in themselves. Over the course of the novel Hazel Motes is on what many has characterized as a quest yet his quests deviate from that of thor protagonists in other novels. Hazel Motes is often times compared to the ancient Greek Mythology of Oedipus Rex. He displays throughout the book many similarities with tragedy. Flannery O’Connor has crafted a riveting piece of art that is intriguing and makes the reader ask questions. Her novel is called grotesque and dark, yet its dive into religion is what truly makes Wise Blood a considerably special novel.
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