I was introduced to the works of Flannery O'Conner through the influence of my brother Ian. One Christmas, he gave me a book entitled A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The book was quite horrifying. How it won a Pulitzer beggars belief. Ian's promised that once I finished that book, he would send me the next one. His being a masters student in English gave me a sense of security that he would not have me read tripe or trash. Finding my disgust at Toole disconcerting, he sent me a succession of more mainstream novels: Cold Sassy Tree, Gone with the Wind, and The Brothers Karamazov.
Based on his recommendation, I have just finished reading Flannery O'Conner's novel Wise Blood. While not as troubling as Confederacy, its freakish characters did give me pause. I rang my brother for an explanation of the intent of the author. He explained some of the symbolism that allowed me to appreciate the direction of the novel, but I still wondered at the use of the absurd characters. Remembering a quote from the dust cover with reference to the story, I examined the collection of essays by O'Conner to discover the one entitled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” In it I happened upon one particularly helpful paragraph.
Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.This simple paragraph in the heart of a very challenging essay with regard to one's perspective of literature in general, clearly demonstrates O'Conner's perspective on what we may kindly call "non-standard" character types. In her final paragraph she says ironically that she rues the day when Southern literature becomes occupied with characters in grey flannel suits without realizing that they are truly more freakish than the characters in her novels.
With this in mind, understanding Wise Blood becomes much easier. I would characterize the book as O'Conner's extended character study of the atheist. The main protagonist, Hazel Motes, functions as a broken prophet of the "Church without Christ." We see some of his history as a returning war veteran whose experience destroyed his tenuous grasp on Christianity. He enters the town dressed ironically in the garb of a pastor. Disgusted with the immediate associations, he does all he can to cast off all pretense at morality. He invests in a car, O'Conner's symbol of autonomy, and begins preaching his worldview to the masses from the hood of the car.
Along the way he meets a cavalcade of fellow atheistic freaks. An atheist mystic in the form of Enoch Emery whose father told him he had "wise blood." Hazel Motes despises this early disciple. Another disciple comes in the form of Sabbath Hawks, a daughter of a fraud preacher who promised to blind himself for Jesus and then did not go through with the procedure. She too becomes an object of Motes‘ disdain If the only people to swallow Motes' "religion" are the likes of these, the philosophy seems highly suspect.
An intelligent "disciple" brings this novel to its climax. Hoover Shoats listens to Hazel's preaching on the front of his car and becomes enamored of the philosophy, but twists it into a more palatable form of atheism. Instead of the "Church without Christ," he establishes a "Holy Church of Christ without Christ." Hazel rejects his proffer of support and send him away. Hazel loves preaching but none of his "converts." Hoover chooses to start his own preaching enterprise, but instead of Motes, he digs up a imitation of Motes to stand on another car silent while Hoover speaks for his "prophet." This drives Motes to murder the impostor "prophet."
The novel concludes with the descent of Motes into death. He blinds himself, doing what the false preacher could not. He walks on rocks and glass hidden in his shoes. He wraps his body in barbed wire hidden under his clothes. Eventually he catches an increasing string of virulent diseases and is found by two policemen lying half-dead in a gutter. Because the landlady had lied about Hazel's failure to pay the rent in order to elicit the law's help, the policeman says in dripping irony, "You got to pay your rent first. Ever' bit of it!" Hazel Motes dies before reaching the boarding house. The landlady, the final disciple has a vision of Hazel Motes as that speck of light that prevents her from entering into the darkness.
One particularly interesting event in the book takes place in chapter seven. The car that Motes buys breaks down while Motes and Sabbath Hawks have a picnic. They walk to a garage and a man comes out and drives them back to the car. Motes preaches to him his philosophy, but the man says nothing. The man looks at the engine and never touches anything. Finally, Motes, constantly confidently asserting that there is nothing wrong with his car, demands a push. The man complies and the car sputters to life. The man refuses to take any payment from Motes. As they approach the main road, the man in his truck and Motes in his car stare at one another. Motes says, "I told you this car would get me anywhere I wanted to go." The man replies, "Some things 'll get some folks some wheres." The chapter ends with a cloud becoming a bird and flying away from Motes.
I think this represents the final opportunity for Motes to change his ways. The bird with long thin wings seems reminiscent of the albatross that led the ship out of danger in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Motes turns away from the possibility of salvation out of freakishness towards the descent into death. The final judgment is pronounced by the law. Hazel must pay every wit that he owes for his continual rebellion against God.
We may cavil at the grotesqueness of O'Conner's writing, but before we condemn such things, we ought pause and reflect on true freakishness. My father upon recently viewing a comedic character remarked that he wouldn't want to live in a society in which this character lived. I countered that he possibly lived in that society now. Freakish characters in fiction tempt us to think that such people do not exist. This is untrue. Hazel Motes lives now more than ever. He no longer stands on his car to preach his atheism. He writes it in books, blogs, and tweets. Enoch Emery no longer clings to his desiccated cadaver, but to horoscopes and the scientific method. Hoover Shoats preaches every week in churches that profess Christian orthodoxy while their theology has been stripped of anything supernatural. One professor at seminary told me that the biggest danger facing the church today was unconverted pastors (in other words, Hoover Shoats’).
Flannery O'Conner and books like Wise Blood may not be de rigueur for a society drenched in realism. Then again, is realism necessary for good literature? Does not the medium of literature give us the opportunity to strip away the norms and examine that which polite society continually attempts to hide? As a communicative medium, literature gives the author the responsibility to make his work accessible to the reader. It took me a while to understand the work of O'Conner. However, it left me with a haunting question whether this delay came from O'Conner's failure to communicate, or my failure to understand. Have I become so used to the freaks, that I no longer sense their abnormality?