Impressions before Reading
I think I attempted Flannery O’Connor too young. Or maybe I should give my 15 year old self some credit and just admit that reading half a short story while wandering around a Home Depot behind my parents while they were buying cupboards wasn’t the best situation in which to discover O’Connor’s grotesquerie. That’s all I really knew about her–she wrote some weird characters and plots that seem to go beyond the demands of oddness in Southern Gothic. I’d also heard about the religious subtext in just about every page. A 10th grade teacher cheered this up for the class by adding a postscript to that message, clearly in a bid to entice the facebook generation–O’Connor raised chickens for a good deal of her short life, even teaching them to walk backwards. Despite this “zany” image, she appeared to have earned that connotation that “serious literature” seems to get–bleak as baldness. Reading the opening description of a Flannery O’Connor character, even in my first crack at any of her full-length writings in the form of Wise Blood, I could guess that these characters wouldn’t end up happy. They’re doomed. These people have the same chances of getting out alive as a Stephen King bully figure or the slutty cheerleader from a slasher film.
And I really had no expectations going into this novel other than a short read–131 pages in my copy–and the pleasure of reading a book that a favorite teacher has been putting off for years.
Upon finishing this book in a mad rush, however, I now have to read all four of O’Connor’s published books. And part of the fun with reading an author who writes such frightening, intense, imaginative, and–yes–completely weird fiction is looking up photographs.
For the purposes of letting the author speak for herself, here’s a revealing quote about O’Connor’s art: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
Hazel Motes, recently discharged from World War II, is determined to set up his Church Without Christ in small town Tennessee. In his single-minded quest he mingles with Enoch Emery, an 18 year old who is desperate to fulfill the promise of his “wiser blood,” and a blind man who preaches on the streets with his teenage daughter.
Man, I really love Southern writers. Faulkner and McCullers, Porter and Harper Lee, Welty and Truman Capote.
O’Connor’s subject matter was, therefore, slightly expected. What really held me to this story from the first was her style. When reading, I had an ineffable sense of the right words spilling out over page with the right mixture of fussiness and spontaneity. I could sense that each sentence had been looked at sharply to give the prose its polished edge, and indeed O’Connor wrote in June of 1948 that “I have been on the novel a year and a half and will probably be two more years finishing it.” The novel was published in 1952, which shows a determined writer who probably spent more time editing than she did writing. I really admire a tightly constructed short novel and, to judge by some short stories that I’ve just read by her, O’Connor tried to give her short pieces the same heft and structure as a novel.
Hazel Motes certainly inherited some of his author’s determination. In the first sentence he sits “at a forward angle” and looks out the window “as if he might want to jump out of it.” This combination also implies a twitchy man, but in Hazel’s case it is definitely a danger sign. The reader gets a good sense of his relationships with others. When Hazel is on the train home, he takes several opportunity to share the same basic sentence: “I reckon you think you been redeemed.” He is confrontational and, as O’Connor’s psychological prose informs us, he is the exact physical copy of his preacher grandfather. Despite his lack of faith in Jesus, Hazel never seems like an atheist. This is largely because he is so constantly riveted to questions of faith and how he can assert his beliefs on others. I think the best explanation for this behavior is one that Hazel himself gives, and for once I trust what a fanatic character is telling me: “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything.” He is fearless and occasionally violent because he is out to prove that “he [doesn’t] believe in sin since he practiced what was called it.” To blaspheme is to live without worrying about the fall or redemption because neither of them happened. If man has always been the way he is now, somewhere roughly south of a state of grace and perhaps a bit above the Mason-Dixon line of devilish, then all that matters is that “Jesus is a liar.”
O’Connor also does some great psychological transitions. She subtly maneuvers Hazel’s thoughts about the crack of light above the curtain in his sleeping berth to coffins. He is death-obsessed and several childhood sights are still following him into the dark, still fully capable of scaring him.
When he gets to his destination, the narrator interjects to say that “no one observing him would have known that he had no place to go.” It is an apt summation of Hazel, who wants desperately to believe in nothing and be a nihilist so long as he can convince others to follow him.
Enoch Emery feels a destiny in himself that he is desperate to share. This urge latches onto Hazel, despite the fact that Enoch is convinced that Hazel is a wanted man on the run from the police. His voice cracks and he cries at the thought of Hazel refusing to see the small details of Enoch’s life, his face becoming “seamed and wet” with a pitiable “purple-pink color.” He is a boy who thinks on the “terrible knowledge” of his primal nerves and intuitive blood as he hunches on all fours in the abelia bushes where he can spy on women in the pool without being seen. Enoch seems perpetually on the edge of boyhood stunts–he provides much of the novel’s lighter, comic touches–and manhood’s desperation.
His blood is “wiser” than anybody else’s and this instinct of his often causes him to act rashly, even when he observes the process happening step-by-step. He doesn’t do things rationally; his “brain [is] divided into two parts….the part in communication with his blood did the figuring but it never said anything in words.” Enoch is almost a character from a deterministic realist novel in this way, but he ultimately mocks that tradition through his actions. (No spoilers, but a gorilla is involved.) It is relatively easy to see why he is drawn to Hazel’s personality, even if the two never discuss religious matters. O’Connor may have written a religious themed story with a capital R, but she achieves something spectacular by not explaining religion and ethics through symbolism as many authors are wont to do. They merely describe the effect and symptoms of religious mania and doubt in multiple forms–O’Connor pulls back the curtain and describes the plain actions, allowing them to take precedence over authorial commentary.
As far as I’m concerned, despite O’Connor’s fervent Roman Catholicism, her writings strike me in the same manner as Dostoyevsky’s when it comes to discussions of faith. Although they are trying to show some proof of god, I only see how their characters and situations can just as equally disprove god. The atheists are very sympathetic figures. One of the strengths of O’Connor’s method is that she gives every character an equal playing field–she doesn’t play favorites or allow her narrating voice to endorse one character’s lifestyle above the others. She lets the reader make up his or her own mind, refusing to end her stories on clear moral judgments.
The main difference between the two, who are ultimately not that far apart in age (Hazel is 22), is that whereas Enoch hides in the bushes to stare Hazel sits calmly on the grass and watches the same woman. I believe this speaks volumes about their separate approaches to life and shame in the novel.
Well, I’ve gotten you through about a third of the book. I really don’t want to ruin anything so I’m stopping here–I think it’s important that a reader come to this book, as I did, without any hint of the storyline development. As a final statement, may I just say that the title of the book seems perfect to me. It really is the theme of the book and, despite what I’ve even said, the book isn’t solely on religion. O’Connor said in her preface to the Second Edition that “it is a comic novel” and “all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.” She also shared that “the book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way.” I didn’t need to be told. I didn’t get to that preface until I found it in the notes at the back of the book. Flannery “Zesty” O’Connor succeeded in her aims as far as I’m concerned.
PS – What is it with men in Southern literature who have Biblical or feminine names? eh?
“The army sent him halfway around the world and forgot him. He was wounded and they remembered him long enough to take the shrapnel out of his chest–they said they took it out but they never showed it to him and he felt it still in there, rusted, and poisoning him–and then they sent him to another desert and forgot him again.”
“This shiffer-robe belongs to Hazel Motes. Do not steal it or you will be hunted down and killed.”
“Since the night before was the first time he had slept with any woman, he had not been very successful with Mrs. Watts. When he finished, he was like something washed ashore on her, and she had made obscene comments about him, which he remembered off and on during the day.”
“It began to drizzle rain and he turned on the windshield wipers; they made a great clatter like two idiots clapping in church.”
“Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.”
‘The woman thumped the malted milk on the counter in front of him. “Fifteen cents,” she roared. “You’re worth more than that, baby girl,” Enoch said. He snickered and began gassing his malted milk through the straw.’
“He had on dark glasses and his cheeks were streaked with lines that looked as if they had been painted on and faded. They gave him the expression of a grinning mandrill.”
“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
“I ain’t any preacher,” Haze said, frowning. “I only seen her name in the toilet.”