Wise Blood

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Category: Classic
Date Published: March 6, 2007 (Originally published in 1952)
Number of Pages: 248
Print Price: $10.02
eBook Price: $9.99

True to Flannery O’Connor’s signature style of writing, her first novel Wise Blood  is a Southern Gothic story that masterfully blends religious themes centering on good and evil, and grace, and redemption.  It truly engages the reader with perplexing characters from the south who present grotesque qualities, hypocrisy, greed, spiritual and emotional confusion, a lack of identity, immorality, as well as ingenuity, and integrity. Events in their lives lead them into paths of confusion, a lack of faith, behaviors that are contrary to the good, and humorous situations, so the reader ultimately wonders if any of the characters are reliable, true to themselves and their beliefs, or if they hold themselves accountable for their actions in this fictional world.

The first scene in the novel introduces the main character Hazel Motes as a twenty-two year old soldier, riding in a train, initially, to his hometown of Eastrod, Tennessee, after his tour of duty in the Army. The narrator reflects,

“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 go 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. Where he wanted to stay was in Eastrod with his two eyes open, and his hands always handling the familiar thing, his feet on the known track, and his tongue not too loose . . . [But] he saw the war as a trick to lead him into temptation . . .”  

Motes’ plan of enlisting in the army only for a four-month stint to preserve his faith and innocence is undermined by a four-year assignment that alters his faith in God and man.

On the train ride home, Motes learns that his home, a reminder of his Christian upbringing, is abandoned, and there is no reason for him to stay in Eastrod. The results of these findings cause Motes to suffer from a lack of identity due to his feelings of abandonment and his estrangement from his beliefs in Christianity, which he once loved and practiced before becoming a soldier. 

As Motes predicted, he returns from the war a changed man.  More than four months of service and the negative influence of fellow soldiers and soldiering have transformed him emotionally and, most especially, spiritually. This change is revealed in a conversation he has with a woman on the train when he asks her, “Do you think I believe in Jesus?” he said, leaning toward her and speaking almost as if he were breathless. “Well I wouldn’t even if He existed.  Even if He was on this train.”  All of what Motes knows, loves, and believes in has been stripped from him.  He is a man in turmoil suffering from the loss of home, family, and faith.

 In a quick decision, Motes commits to starting a new life in a city near his hometown.  “'Going to Taulkinham,' he said, and ground himself into the seat and looked out the window. 'Don’t know nobody there, but I’m going to do some things. . . .You might as well go one place as another. '” The reader wonders what a spiritually lost, emotionally distraught young man is going to do in an unknown town with no family or friends. Will he find himself and be true to his core beliefs?

 Held in suspense by this question, the reader witnesses Motes’ philosophical and sometimes humorous aspirations in life take shape as he evangelizes a new sort of “faith.”  He dresses like a preacher but espouses that he is not a believer; he has lost his traditional faith.  With his newly acquired beliefs, Motes decides to form the Church of Christ Without Christ where members cannot sin because they do not have souls.  When Motes is questioned about such a church, he replies, “Well, I preach the Church Without Christ.  I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.  Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.” These beliefs are quite opposite from the religion he was taught as a child.

 In the course of establishng his church, Motes meets an array of odd characters trying to cope with their own individual crises in life, whether emotional, spiritual, or a combination of the two, which makes for a fast moving, intriguing, and almost surrealistic read. The audience comes to know Asa Hawks, a self-proclaimed blind preacher; his daughter, Sabbath Lily; Enoch Emory, an eighteen year-old with “wise blood”; and Hoover Shoats, who manages another preacher, Solace Layfield, a bum who impersonates Motes in style of dress, the vehicle that he drives, and his manner of speech; however, members of his church are charged a dollar to join whereas Motes’ church is free to all. All of these characters mingle in their distorted views of Christianity and morality, and through them  Motes is brought to the brink of spiritual tumult and a possibly irredeemable fall in the story.

 O’Connor’s novel is a 20th century American and Southern Gothic masterpiece that weaves strange, flawed, grotesque characters suffering from turmoil in their spiritual and emotional lives.  The themes of good and evil, sin, greed, hypocrisy, vengeance, grace, repentance and redemption are crucial to this allegorical tale.  More importantly, the character of Hazel Motes is strong, often times humorous, and full of integrity.  He knows he is at spiritual risk at the beginning of the book, and he seeks ways to relieve his conscience throughout the story. He is true to himself, and he accepts the grace of God to perform acts of penance “to pay” for his sins.

Wise Blood displays O’Connor's style as a Catholic writer to depict odd yet intriguing characters that are presented with spiritual conflicts.  The reader may abstractly associate with this human condition.  O’Connor’s point is that there are extremes in moral awareness and justification of sin when one has knowledge of God’s laws.  God is always there to extend his grace whether we are willing to accept it or not, and in return O'Connor's characters learn to embrace that love and grace. In Hazel Motes' case, he not only embraces God's love, but performs penance, like he did as a child, and finds the faith of his youth. As stated in the beginning of the book when the narrator reflects on Motes’ childhood, “That boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn’t going to leave him ever.  Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed.  What did the sinner think there was to be gained?  Jesus would have him in the end!”

ISBN-13: 978-0374530631
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches

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Therese M. Jones, Assistant Professor with a Master’s in Literature and Composition Studies from St. Xavier University, has been a part-time member of the Department since 1994, was promoted to half-time in 2000, and has been full-time since 2011. She is the Director of Writing Placement, administering the placement exam and assessing its efficacy (1999-present), and she is the current Editor, Designer, and Coordinator of Lewis\' annual journal, Windows Fine Arts Magazine (2003 to present). She regularly teaches all levels of the First-Year Writing sequence, as well as general education literature courses, particularly Experience of Literature and Introduction to Fiction. She serves the Department on numerous task forces, advises majors in all programs, and regularly presents papers at the ACCA Scholarship of Pedagogy, the annual NIU English Articulation Conference, and has recently applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to study African American Poets and Poetry. Prof. Jones is a published poet, short story author, and has published many papers on composition.

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