Summer of Southern Women: Wise Blood

We end our jaunt into the wild and weird world of Flannery O'Connor in the midst of Harper Lee fever with the recent release of Go Set a Watchman. But before we can dive into the book that everyone is talking about, Victoria and I first got together to discuss O'Connor and Wise Blood.

M: I'm not going to lie, that one was a doozy. I had a notion of what to expect. I've read stories by O'Connor and am familiar with her brand of Southern Gothic, but this book is as weird and chock full of symbols and messages to deconstruct as everyone warned. And warned is definitely the right word here. Several people asked Victoria or myself if we knew what we were getting into with this pick. We did! We promise! We wanted to delve in to this complex and sometimes problematic novel not only because Southern Gothic needed to be represented on our list but because it proves our point about the variability of female authors and the stories they have to tell.

So, Wise Blood. Enjoyed is not a word I feel I can use about this reading experience because it is just so bleak, but I am definitely enjoying thinking about it and attempting to work through those thoughts. One thing that I kept thinking about was how frustrated O'Connor must have been as a Catholic minority. I grew up Baptist but the majority of my family is Catholic and I've had to field my share of questions about this religion that is so dark, archaic, and often other (as it is in many places in the south, though southern Louisiana is not one). It is understandable that a writer would take that frustration out on her characters. In that vein, I found Shoats to be a really interesting (and comic) character. O'Connor uses him to lash out at Evangelists who seek to profit on the human desire for the comfort that faith provides. She even takes it another step forward by having many of his followers go in on the joke; passing along their dollars as more of a lark than true faith. And faith, wow. Victoria, I want to hear what you have to say before I get on the subject of Hazel Motes and faith...we might be here awhile.

V: You're definitely right about the doozy. I honestly stumbled a bit on this one and wasn't sure I would make it to the end, but I rallied and pulled it off! There are some stories that simply don't click with me, ones I have a difficult time prying depth and meaning from, and this is one of those stories. I have no illusions about it and recognize that this is a personal thing and not something particularly wrong with the book, but it makes it difficult to get through nonetheless. I think everyone has at least one book like that. One thing about this book that I did greatly enjoy was O'Connor's insane and amazing descriptions of things. You and I both shared some excellent quotes on twitter, and I could't help but grin every time I came across another gem of a sentence.

For me, this book is made of stars that I cannot fathom into constellations, to ruin a perfectly good John Green quote, so Michelle I'd like to hear a bit or your analysis before I attempt some confused musings of my own! As you've said, faith is a major idea in this text.

M: Faith and redemption are the heart of this novel. We follow Hazel Motes as he loses his faith in the things he believed, founds the Church without Christ, and ultimately repents for his wandering and dies. Ultimately, I think it is about the fact that faith is the only thing that keeps us going. When Motes loses his faith in Christ he tries to find a new avenue to fulfill his great need; he goes as far as killing for it, but finally realizes that the Church without Christ is hollow. In the end, Motes tries to redeem himself through his acts by blinding himself (he couldn't see spiritually and now he cannot see literally) and living as an ascetic, but he doesn't talk about Christ anymore. He merely struggles in vain. It brought me back to the beginning of the novel, with Motes angrily asking of strangers "have you been redeemed?" or arguing "you must think you have been redeemed!" as though it were something we could decide. To Flannery O'Connor the wise blood is the blood of Christ that redeems everyone through faith. Like Enoch Emery being compelled to act by his father's "wise blood", the children of God are compelled to faith and thus redeemed by the wise blood of their Father.

As you can see, this is an intense novel. I can definitely see how it was difficult for you to read, and it is hard to wrestle with the myriad themes and symbolism. Everything in the novel is more than it seems. I'm not going to even try to argue that I was picking up everything O'Connor was putting down, but I liked wading through and picking up what I could.

V: You picked up on a whole lot more than I did, that's for sure! I think my favorite part of the book is just the inherent irony in just about everything that goes on. Motes founds the Church without Christ with the idea that not believing in redemption means you can't be sinful, but he starts thinking about his new religion and using it in much the way of other religions that he seems so dead set against. There's the scene particularly where Motes starts wondering about whether bastards can be saved in the Church without Christ and decides ultimately that they can't, and the irony of scenes like that really amused me and made me think about this stuff and how we talk and think about that kind of faith. Hazel Motes has a difficult time operating without a belief in something, and throughout the book his church comes to represent and convey much the same type of things that Christianity represents and conveys, just in Motes' twisted and often backward way. I also thought it was interesting that Hazel Motes seemed to feel he possessed the ability, through his non-belief in Jesus, to make Jesus not exist entirely. He came across to me as having this selfish kind of belief that if he chose not to believe in Jesus, then Jesus wasn't there and couldn't hurt him, but it was never something that I thought he truly believed. I would compare him to a child who puts his fingers in his ears, closes his eyes, and hums to himself to try to convince himself that there's nothing big or scary standing in front of him...but that doesn't make the big, scary thing disappear, it just insures you can't see it there.

Overall this was quite a tough book to tackle, and I personally am very glad we have Harper Lee next to help wash this book down.

M: Irony is a big part of the novel and it really plays into the dark comedy of it all. That is definitely what I enjoyed the most. I mean, "hair like ham gravy." O'Connor's darkness and bleak outlook is brilliantly laced with humor.

This was a difficult book and as you say, I'm looking forward to To Kill a Mockingbird to go down a little more smoothly. But with all of the recent reveals about Go Set a Watchman I worry that that is the book we aren't truly ready for! I guess we'll find out soon enough!

Wise Blood: A Novel (FSG Classics) By Flannery O'Connor Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374530631
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - March 6th, 2007

The American short story master Flannery O'Connor's haunting first novel of faith, false prophets, and redemptive wisdom.