Faith and Cynicism: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

wise blood

Contains spoilers.

It took me about a week to get through this book, but it’s really quite short and if you can dedicate some reading time, it shouldn’t take very long to finish and get through it. It has good but simple prose- although there are some parts where I had to re-read because it makes use of Southern slang and mannerisms. Wise Blood also serves as my introduction to the Southern Gothic genre and made me want to read more. There is also apparently a film adaptation of this which I haven’t seen, but I might at some point.

It also made me very uncomfortable-in a good way.

If I hadn’t already known that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic, I’d have made that assumption anyway. There’s something about this book which captures my imagination and the way it critiques religion-or perhaps just a specific subset of it. It’s odd and I found myself thinking about this days even after I finished this book. It feels like a biting critique of Protestantism and in doing so, almost borders on the absurd. Was Wise Blood meant to be a critique of Protestantism? I’ve been reading articles on the subject and I find that this is the most common interpretation of the work. Now, I’m hardly the best person to critique religion or talk about religious motifs but you can’t divorce religion from this book so I’ll have to try my best.

Hazel Motes is a man haunted by Jesus. He blasphemes, he curses His name, and he has a very odd but rather extreme attachment to religion, and Jesus in particular. To say that he is ‘Christ-haunted’ is an apt description. He was a war veteran and after struggling with doubts regarding his religion his entire life and then experiencing war, he becomes an atheist. He is nihilistic and professes to believe in nothing, and yet he is continuously affected by it. From the very start, when he is mistaken for a preacher (this is common throughout the first few chapters until Hazel kind of snaps and decides to actually become a preacher), Hazel is followed by religion. Wherever he goes, he is haunted.

In particular, Hazel is most haunted by the ghost of his grandfather- not a literal ghost, but the memory of him. Some of his most vivid memories involve his grandfather who was a travelling preacher and who he takes a lot after. Throughout the book, the influence of his grandfather on his life is markedly apparent. He even starts to take after him as he becomes a preacher himself- a markedly nihilistic one, yes, but a preacher nonetheless.

We also meet other characters in this novel- a ‘blind’ preacher named Asa Hawks and a young man named Enoch who believes in the concept of a ‘wise blood’- a man who needs no spiritual guidance but instinctively knows what to do with his life. Asa Hawks is a preacher who pretends to have blinded himself in an act of piety. He shows a lot of the hypocrisy which Flannery O’Connor may have been criticizing in the book. At first, he annoys Hazel because he essentially claims that Hazel wants to repent and his soul yearns for Christ or something- which, to be fair isn’t exactly a wrong assumption. We see this towards the end of the novel when Hazel starts to be even more affected by religion and what he’s been doing.

In the book, Hazel establishes The Church Without Christ. He becomes its preacher and preaches about nihilism and why people don’t really need Jesus. Interestingly enough, the people of the fictional city of Taulkinham don’t really take note of his blasphemy and sacrilege. He’s treated like any other preacher and one con man even earns money off its absurdity and treating it like a joke.  I think it drags a little in the middle of the book especially as we start to see things in the pespective of the other characters, but it does get back on track towards the end. I also admit that I like Mrs. Flood’s point of view in the last chapter.

I note Hazel’s ‘relationship’ with Sabbath Lily, Asa’s daughter. I’m not certain as to her age but she is described as a ‘young girl’ and Hazel wants to seduce her at first, until it is revealed that she wants to do the same. Their relationship honestly bothers me a lot because of the age-difference and how one-sided it is. I’m not even sure if Hazel is interested in romantic relationships or he just uses them as a means to an end. In the end though, that ‘relationship’ just kinds of fades into the background and Sabbath leaves after Hazel blinds himself in an act which completes what her father had failed to do.

So many things happen in this novel that I can’t-and shouldn’t-discuss all of them. Most of the things here you really have to read for yourself- unless maybe you’re sensitive to religion in books and prefer not to. The religious themes are very prevalent and a lot of them border on the absurd. It definitely feels like a satirical take on religion, or the commercialized variant thereof.

To be honest, I am starting to understand why Flannery O’Connor wrote it in this manner. Sometimes, it be easy to grow cynical about both organized religion and the ‘preachers’ described in this book. Many religious authorities are such hypocrites that it can be difficult to focus on your beliefs, on what you actually worship. As a Catholic, this is something I struggle with a lot. It becomes easy to get wrapped up in the worldly aspect of your faith that you lose sight of the more important spiritual one.

In the end, Wise Blood is a very uncomfortable read. I rated it four out of five stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt like it started to drag in the middle, but the ending more than made up for it. This is the kind of book I’m not sure I’d re-read and will probably not recommend it to religious friends and family but as a satire of religion and example of the Southern Gothic genre, it’s worth reading.

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