Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, an amalgam of various short stories centered around Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran experiencing a crisis of faith. In a note appended to the novel’s second edition, O’Connor diagnoses what she sees as the central impediment to the reader’s understanding of her work: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to. Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.” With astonishing economy of language, O’Connor presents an embodiment of Christian guilt, a man attempting to reconcile the realities of his own imperfection with the demands his faith, and, by his own estimation, falling hopelessly short.

One of my enduring images of Christopher Hitchens involves the orator, red-faced and short of breath, standing behind a podium and intoning, repeatedly, that the teaching of the concept of hell to children is a form of child abuse. Hazel Motes, then, is a character study in such abuses. Though he professes disbelief and goes so far as to proselytize for The Church of Christ Without Christ, a sect of his own founding, his actions are at all times motivated by an inner certainty that he is “unclean,” a blasphemer without hope of redemption. His attempts at unbelief, then, are merely a means of allaying the guilt he feels for actions that most would describe as within the bounds of normal human curiosity. Even as a heretic, however, O’Connor is careful to show that Hazel possesses an integrity not shared by the avowed believers of the novel. The difference between Hazel and his contemporaries is not in piety or goodness – there are no saints in O’Connor’s world, as there are none in ours – but in the guilt he experiences at his inability to be a saint.

The novel displays in full force the qualities that have made her one of the enduring masters of the short story form: her ability to condense within a sentence or a paragraph more detail, emotion and dramatic weight than lesser writers can incorporate in a whole novel