5/13/2015 A Second Look at Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood
I saw the movie and read the book and thought wow, what a crazy story filled with weird characters doing strange things. Recently I’ve been reading about symbolism in literature. A discussion of symbolism in any book can sometimes be off-putting for some readers, especially if they missed the meaning. They rebut that sometimes a story is just a story. And that’s true too. But I’m talking about Flannery O’Connor now, a deeply religious person, a practicing Catholic living in the South.
So, what’s it all about?
Let’s start with the first two words of the story: Hazel Motes. This is the main character and we see him on a train. It’s an unusual name and we might ask ourselves, what is a mote? There is a reference in the New Testament, Matthew 7:3 where Jesus says, why worry about the mote in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye. And then later in the story we see that Hazel is often referred to as Haze. Among the meanings for haze are fog and mist, in other words, things that obstruct vision. The fact that he’s on a train suggests this story is about his journey (or quest if you will) to find something, but that will be difficult because between the mote and the haze he will have vision problems.
When Motes arrives at his destination the first person he meets is a teenager named Enoch Emery. Here is another biblical reference. Enoch is found in the Book of Genesis and is believed to have never died, but instead “God took him away.” Enoch introduces Motes to the concept of “wise blood,” the idea that he possesses an innate knowledge that requires no spiritual guidance. Together they come across a blind preacher and his daughter. The preacher’s name is Asa Hawks, and his daughter’s name is Sabbath Lily. Again we see a biblical name, Asa, but of greater interest is the name Hawks for a blind character. One of the attributes of hawks is their superior vision. And then there is Sabbath Lily. We normally associate lilies with Easter.
Is O’Conner trying to tell us her story has something to do with the resurrection of Christ, with his blood sacrifice, with redemption and salvation?
A conflict arises between Motes and Hawks that drives Motes to start his own anti-God church. His only follower is the teenager, Enoch Emery. Motes discovers Hawks is not really blind, and Hawks flees town. Seems clear that O’Connor is saying something about hypocrisy in religion with Hawks’ fake blindness.
The next person Motes meets is Hoover Shoats. Again we look for symbols in a name. We associate Hoover with vacuum cleaners, but what is a shoat? Turns out it is a young pig. We then see Shoats’ piggishness when he starts his own street ministry “Church of Christ Without Christ,” and charges a dollar for people to join. Locals get the joke and start throwing in their money. Shoats, in a figurative way, is vacuuming up the townspeople’s money. This really upsets Motes, who can’t get these same people to join his free ministry.
O’Conner brings Enoch back into the story, and without going into detail, I’ll just say something involving a gorilla costume happens with Enoch Emery. I’ll admit I had no idea what, if anything, the gorilla costume symbolized. So I sought the opinion of a literature professor. He suggests it is Enoch’s reaction to being shunned by the community, and even by Motes. He sees crowds drawn to Gonga the Gorilla, a costumed man promoting a film, and in envy abandons his humanity to take on the character of an animal. Unfortunately, he is thwarted there as well.
Then we read about Motes killing a man who posed as a prophet for Shoat’s ministry. As the man is dying he confesses his sins to Motes. This has a profound impact on Motes and he blinds himself using quicklime. He wraps himself in barbed wire and puts gravel and sharp glass into his shoes. The pain of the objects forces him to walk with a limp.
At this point the reader can make several interpretations. Motes tells his landlady, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.” So does this mean as a blind man he can see more than when he had sight? Does he now see God? The barbed wire sure seems like a clear symbol for Christ’s Crown of Thorns, even though Motes has wrapped it around his body instead of his head. Is Motes replicating Christ’s walk to Calvary or is O’Connor introducing the Catholic concept of penance as a way of Motes paying for his sins?
Motes leaves and that night there is an icy driving rain. When he doesn’t return his landlady notifies the police. They find him three days later. Three days!
A reader might think that O’Connor was saying Motes is a Christ-figure, or that Motes is on a quest seeking redemption and salvation, or the story is just about a crazy guy that meets some really strange people in a odd little southern town. Ultimately, it is the reader’s decision.