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Wise Blood

Published in 1952, Wise Blood was Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. When it first appeared, the American author’s darkly comic tale of truth, freedom, and belief received mixed reviews. However, the novel has become widely read and studied in the intervening years.

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Published in 1952, Wise Blood was Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. When it first appeared, the American author’s darkly comic tale of truth, freedom, and belief received mixed reviews. However, the novel has become widely read and studied in the intervening years.

Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O’Connor

Published in 1952, Wise Blood was American author Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. It tells the story of Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran who returns home to Tennessee to find his family home abandoned. Disillusioned and faithless after his experiences in war, Hazel decides to found an anti-religion, the Church Without Christ.

Several of the novel’s chapters were initially published as short stories, and the first chapter began as part of O’Connor’s thesis for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. O’Connor later reworked and expanded these stores to create the novel.

When it was published, Wise Blood received mostly poor reviews and was generally misunderstood by critics. It has since become a celebrated novel, even earning a place on The Guardian’s list of 100 best novels.

Wise Blood: A Summary

Wise Blood begins with Hazel Motes, often called Haze, looking out a train window. He recently returned from service in World War II and, upon visiting his family home in Eastrod, Tennessee, found it empty and abandoned. Hazel is now on his way to the fictional city of Taulkinham.

Wise Blood, Train Seats, StudySmarter

He wears a blue suit and a black, broad-brimmed hat that makes his fellow passengers think of a preacher. In fact, Hazel’s grandfather was a preacher. As a boy, Hazel was raised very religiously and thought he would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. However, he struggled with his faith throughout his life, and his four years at war have turned him into a devout and cynical atheist.

When Hazel arrives in Taulkinham, he finds the address of Mrs. Leora Watts, a prostitute, written on a bathroom wall and loses his virginity to her.

The next day, Hazel is walking the streets of Taulkinham when he sees a man demonstrating the use of some potato peelers he sells. Among the crowd watching the potato-peeling demonstration is Enoch Emery, an enthusiastic young man who is quite taken by the product.

However, the salesman’s demonstration is interrupted by the appearance of a blind man claiming to be an unemployed preacher asking for nickels and accompanied by a girl distributing religious pamphlets.

Hazel and Enoch follow the pair, learning that the man is Asa Hawks and the girl is his daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. However, Hazel becomes angry when Hawks tries to talk to him about redemption. He shouts that he will start his own church, a kind of anti-religion without Jesus.

Only Enoch is excited by this idea, and he pesters Hazel back to Mrs. Watts’ house.

The next day, Hazel has his heart set on buying a car. He spends the morning visiting lots and finally purchases one for forty dollars. Next, he goes in search of Enoch, hoping he will give Hazel the Hawks’ address.

Hazel finds Enoch at the park, hiding in the bushes to watch a woman swimming in the pool. He asks Enoch for the address, but the boy is elusive, insisting he wants to show Hazel something first. Enoch takes Hazel to the zoo where he works, then leads him into a museum to show Hazel a mummified dwarf.

Hazel eventually loses patience and hits Enoch with a rock when he fails to provide the Hawks’ address.

After leaving Enoch unconscious, Hazel drives around until he sees Asa Hawks and his daughter again, sitting in front of their boarding house. Hazel rents a room in the same house and decides that he will try to seduce the fifteen-year-old Sabbath Lily. However, Hazel is unprepared for Sabbath’s attempts to seduce him in return.

Hazel also learns that Asa supposedly blinded himself with lime years before as a demonstration of his faith. However, Asa lost his nerve at the last minute and has been lying about his blindness for years.

Meanwhile, a con man, Hoover Shoats, has been inspired by Hazel. He changes his name to Onnie Jay Holy and creates his own anti-church. Members join for one dollar, mostly as a joke. Hazel becomes angry. He believes strongly in the truth of his atheistic message and feels that Shoats is mocking him.

Convinced that Hazel needs a “new jesus” for the Church Without Christ, Enoch steals the mummified dwarf from the museum. Afterward, he waits in line to shake hands with “Gonga,” a man dressed up as a gorilla to promote the opening of a new movie. When he reaches the front of the line, however, Enoch begins to tell Gonga about his life, and the actor tells him to go to hell. Shocked and humiliated, Enoch delivers the mummy to Sabbath for her to present to Hazel, then tracks down the man, kills him, and puts on the gorilla costume himself.

Fig. 2 - Enoch is humiliated by an actor dressed in a gorilla costume.

Enoch is humiliated by an actor dressed in a gorilla costume, StudySmarter

When Hazel sees Sabbath with the mummy, she cradles it in her arms like a baby and appears almost like the Madonna and Child. Hazel is disgusted and throws the mummy out of a window.

Since Hazel will not join up with Shoats to turn the ministry into a business venture, Shoats hires his own Prophet, a drunk named Solace Layfield, and dresses him up to resemble Hazel.

Hazel, who has recently learned that Asa Hawks was lying about his blindness, is very upset with this new development and runs Solace over with his car, killing him.

The next day, a policeman stops Hazel for driving without a license. He asks Hazel to get out of the car and then pushes it off a cliff. On his way home, Hazel buys a bag of lime and a bucket. He blinds himself as Asa wasn’t able to.

After blinding himself, Hazel begins acting more and more strangely. He stops spending money and begins walking with glass and stones in his shoes and wrapping barbed wire around his chest.

Wise Blood, Bible and barbed wire crown, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Hazel begins to make himself suffer as penance.

Mrs. Flood, Hazel’s landlady, thinks she can marry Hazel and then have him hospitalized and become the recipient of his army pension. However, Mrs. Flood also begins to fall for Hazel.

When she finally suggests marriage to Hazel, he is horrified and leaves the house. Two days later, a pair of policemen find him much weakened in a ditch. They pull him out, and one of the cops accidentally kills Hazel when he hits him in the head with his club. Although Hazel is dead, no one seems to notice. The policemen take him home, and Mrs. Flood puts him to bed. She stares into his ruined eyes, searching for some unknown thing and feeling as if she is finally close to understanding him.

Wise Blood: Characters

  • Hazel Motes is the novel’s main character. He is a young man, twenty-two years old, who has recently returned from four years of service in World War II. After growing up in a very religious Southern family, Hazel experiences a crisis of faith and decides to found his own anti-religion, the Church Without Christ.
  • Enoch Emery is an eighteen-year-old boy who works as a guard at the zoo in Taulkinham. He has only been in the town for two months and feels isolated and alone. He often acts based on messages he receives from his “wise blood,” a sort of intuition he claims runs in his family.
  • Asa Hawks is an evangelical preacher who announced that he would blind himself in front of his congregation as an act of faith. However, his courage failed him in the moment, and he has pretended to be blind ever since.
  • Sabbath Lily Hawks is Asa Hawks’ fifteen-year-old daughter. She is outspoken and makes sexual advances toward Hazel.
  • Hoover Shoats (Onnie Jay Holy) is a man who is inspired by Hazel Motes’ anti-religion and tries to start his own.
  • Solace Layfield is a homeless drunk who Shoats hires to play his Prophet. Hazel murders him by running him over with his car.
  • Mrs. Flood is the landlady of the boarding house where Hazel lives. As Hazel’s behavior becomes more and more unsettling, Mrs. Flood begins to fall in love with him and suggests they get married.

Hazel Motes sometimes goes by the nickname “Haze.” What could this signify regarding the importance of sight, blindness, and truth in the novel?

Wise Blood: Literary Criticism

When Wise Blood was first published, it received mixed reviews from critics. O’Connor’s unconventional use of humor, irony, religion, and Southern language was lost on much of her audience, particularly those unfamiliar with the culture from which she was writing. One review even went so far as to call the novel “pretty obviously derivative.”1 However, over the years, and within the context of O’Connor’s other work, Wise Blood has become widely read and studied in the literary community.

Wise Blood: Key Themes and Analysis

Some key themes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood are religion and belief, freedom and free will, and truth.

Religion and Belief

There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” -Chapter One

Religion and belief are perhaps the most important themes in Wise Blood. From childhood, Hazel Motes believes he will become a preacher like his grandfather. However, he suffers a crisis of faith during his service in World War II and returns a committed atheist. In particular, he resists the idea that men are, by nature, unclean and can only be cleansed and redeemed through accepting Jesus. The doctrine that Hazel preaches rallies against this idea; however, he cannot escape the format of organized religion.

By the novel's end, Hazel refers to himself as unclean and has begun to make himself suffer, presumably as some kind of penance.

What kind of transformation does Hazel Motes undergo over the course of Wise Blood? Does his behavior at the end of the novel indicate that he has come to accept the idea of man as an unclean creature in need of salvation?

Freedom and Free Will

Enoch Emery introduces the idea of “wise blood” to the novel. He insists that his blood tells him things and knows things that he doesn’t. However, when his blood speaks to him, Enoch seems to have no choice but to obey.

Two doors flew open and he found himself moving down a long red foyer and then up a darker tunnel and then up a higher, still darker tunnel. In a few minutes he was up in a high part of the maw, feeling around, like Jonah, for a seat. I ain’t going to look at it, he said furiously. He didn’t like any picture shows but colored musical ones.” -Chapter Eight

In the above quote, he describes his blood pulling him to do things he has no real desire to do, and he is unable to act in opposition. Although he keeps telling himself he will not go to the movie theater, will not sit in the balcony, and will not watch the picture when it starts; he has no choice but to obey his blood.

Hazel Motes also seems to face a fate he cannot escape. His destiny to become a preacher is so strong that he is frequently mistaken for one by strangers.

Truth

Truth is at the heart of Hazel Motes’ message.

'I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth,’ he called. ‘No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.’” -Chapter Ten

Hazel asserts that the truth is only what is physically and empirically knowable; it cannot be found through faith. However, he blinds himself at the novel’s end, suggesting that he might actually be searching for truth that cannot be physically seen.

The theme of truth and lies also manifests itself in characters such as Asa Hawks and Hoover Shoats, both of whom use the so-called truth of religion to lie and con.

Wise Blood: Setting and Genre

Wise Blood is set in the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee, sometime in the mid-1940s. Setting is very important to much of O’Connor’s work, and many of her themes and plots are specific to the Southern United States. Characters have attributes characteristic of the American South, and their language situates them firmly in this time and place.

Because of its strong sense of place and its grotesque elements, Wise Blood is often referred to as a Southern Gothic novel.

Southern Gothic is a literary genre of work that is set in the Southern United States and features elements of the macabre or supernatural. Southern Gothic texts often include grotesque or unsettling imagery and focus on themes implicit in Southern society, such as racism, slavery, poverty, and classism.

What gothic elements can you identify in Wise Blood?

Wise Blood - Key takeaways

  • Wise Blood is a Southern Gothic novel written by Flannery O’Connor and published in 1952.
  • It tells the story of Hazel Motes, a recently returned World War II veteran who has become an atheist despite a strong religious upbringing and starts his own anti-religion.
  • Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel. It was largely overlooked by critics when it was first published, but since then has been widely read and studied.
  • Key themes include religion and belief, freedom and free will, and truth.
  • The novel is set in the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee, sometime in the mid-1940s.

1Davis, Joe Lee. Review of Wise Blood Kenyon Review (1953)

Frequently Asked Questions about Wise Blood

Wise Blood is about Hazel Motes, a recently returned World War II veteran who has become an atheist despite a strong religious upbringing and starts his own anti-religion.

The plot of Wise Blood follows Hazel Motes as he arrives in Taulkinham, Tennessee, encounters various other characters, and begins preaching his own anti-religion.

Some key themes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood are religion and redemption, freedom and free will, and truth.

Enoch Emery introduces the term “wise blood” to refer to a sort of intuition that runs in his family. He claims that sometimes his blood tells him what to do, and he has no choice but to listen.

Flannery O’Connor is the author of Wise Blood.

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