I came to Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood' through my admiration of John Huston's 1979 film adaptation of the novel: the film is now neglected and little seen, but in my opinion remains on of the best examples of the independent, adventurous American cinema that flourished in the 1970s. I recall the bizarre, almost surreal narrative of Huston's film and was interested to find out how it compared to the source novel. O'Connor's book did not disappoint. I am not sure that I like it as much as the film, but it is certainly like no other book I have read.
The novel was published in 1952 and describes small town America in its Southern state of Tennessee. It has been described as a work of the 'Southern Gothic' genre, drawing on the religious eccentricities and superstitions that persist in the relatively backward rural communities of the Old South.
The novel is short and episodic, having been assembled from a number of short stories and sketches that O'Connor had written for magazines. We discover the central figure of Hazel Motes aboard a homebound train as he returns from World War 2 nursing psychological as well as physical damage. He finds his old house deserted, his community dispersed, and on impulse he boards the next train to the town of Taulkinham harbouring some strange notion of founding his own church there. We learn that Motes' grandfather had been a travelling preacher and it seems that Motes shares his oratorial ambitions.
However, scarred by his experience of war, Motes has lost whatever faith he may have had, and he is intent on spreading his vision of a religion without a saviour: the Church Without Christ. The story is rich in religious symbolism and fine detail, and paints a world that will be unfamiliar to most readers but one that was very real to the author. The writing is sharp, often cutting, and blends wit with woe. I found myself grinning on many occasions at the black humour that runs throughout the story. It is a comedy as much as it is a tragedy, as it mocks human vanity and ambition.
Every character in the story appears to be twisted and self-interested, with few if any redeeming features. Motes does, at least, seem to be seeking some sort of truth and spiritual direction, however bleak and negative his vision becomes, and the manic zookeeper Enoch Emery - who sees Motes as some kind of a messiah - believes that Motes shares the "wise blood" that he, Emery, inherited from his father. This wise blood manifests itself as an intuitive knowledge, independent of any rational or theological direction, that guides the bearer through life. However, everyone that Motes encounters in Taulkinham seeks to use him for their own ends. The populace remains disinterested in his preachings, although willing to listen and engage with the fraudsters and conmen there that preach their own promises of salvation.
There is a streak of human cruelty running through the story, which turns shockingly brutal on one casual occasion. At other points the narrative takes on surreal and absurd tones (there are men dressed in gorilla suits, a mummified dwarf ...), particularly when we follow Enoch Emery on his personal quest to find whatever it is that he must find. This tangential story of Emery (a reworked version of O'Connor's short story 'Enoch and the Gorilla' incorporated into the novel) leaves Motes' disciple isolated, outside the community, as he sat on a rock and "stared over the valley at the uneven skyline of the city."
I am not sure that I really understood the character of Motes or what he was seeking, nor am I clear as to what O'Connor was trying to say in the novel. What she wrote in a foreword to the 1962 edition suggests that she adhered to her strict Catholic upbringing, and that the moral of the story lies in Motes' failure to cast off his need for religious belief, for some kind of redemption: "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to."
Nevertheless, I feel that there is much more than this going on here. O'Connor lost her father to the degenerative disease lupus when she was just 15 and was diagnosed as having lupus herself when 26 years old, with a prognosis that she would live no longer than 5 years more. Thus when she wrote 'Wise Blood' she must have been struggling to reconcile the loss of her father and her own brief mortality with her devout Catholic belief in a benevolent deity. I think that when Motes rails against religion and calls into question its fundamental belief in salvation, O'Connor may have been testing her own religious integrity. It is certainly a work that is open to both religious and atheistic interpretation.
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Faber Non Fiction; 1 edition (1 July 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0571179134
- ISBN-13: 978-0571179138
- Product Dimensions: 13.6 x 1.9 x 20.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 281 g
- Customer Reviews: 170 customer ratings