By Flannery O’Connor
In her letter (O’Connor was a prolific letter writer) responding to reader Ben Griffith (3/54), O’Connor remarked halfway through about Wise Blood this way: “…it is entirely Redemption-centered in thought….perhaps it is hard to see because H. Motes is such an admirable nihilist.” And, indeed, it would seem redemption is the theme, as in the end Motes does come back as a corpse to his landlady Mrs. Flood, who sums things up succinctly: “Well, Mr. Motes, I see you’ve come home!” Of course, as readers discover after a bit of consideration, there’s more to see here in addition to and mostly in support of the redemption idea.
For Motes’ return concludes a rough journey that turns on the conflict of free will vs. determinism, but which also allows O’Connor to address other concerns, among them the question of what constitutes truth, blind faith vs. empiricism, humankind’s spiritual aspiration vs. animalism, human isolation even in a crowded world, and violence.
Some of these strike the reader immediately and on nearly every page of the novella, most particularly the conflict between free will and determinism. For example, Motes is in full rebellion against religion in which he had been inculcated since boyhood. Returning home from war a wounded vet, he rejects religion and even tries establishing and proselytizing his own anti-religion, the Church Without Christ. To no avail, though, as to everybody who sees him, he appears marked as a preacher. The suit and hat certainly don’t help much, nor his constant ranting about Truth. He cannot seem, no matter how hard he tries, to escape his fate; it has been ordained for him. The Truth he espouses is the empirical: what we see, feel, and experience in our temporal world. This doesn’t allow for religious trappings, like a soul, redemption, or salvation, The Truth to the vast majority, including O’Connor.
O’Connor paints a pretty bleak picture of Taulkinham, barren lands, dirty streets, confining rooms, and a preponderance of pigs roaming the landscape, not to mention a citizenry that often feels alien in its grotesqueness. Among these folks are Asa Hawks (the ersatz blind preacher), Sabbath Lily Hawks (the 15-year-old daughter who sets about to seduce Motes, providing a sin for redemption), Onnie Jay Holy (the charlatan preacher who steals and corrupts Motes’ church and Motes’ concept of Truth, prompting another sin by Motes), Mrs. Flood (the landlady), and Enoch Emery, the 18-old-boy in search of human companionship.
Enoch lives up to his name in his dedication to Motes, in spite of Motes constantly ignoring and outrightly rejecting him. More, though, Enoch aspires to one thing: friendship. Pitched out as a child and shunned by Taulkinham, he bemoans the town as thoroughly unfriendly. Warm companionship is purely aspirational for Enoch, for his Wise Blood, his instinctual driver, forces him to do things quite alienating, like peeping on women at the local swimming pool, indulging in sweets (his animal desires), regularly insulting people, and the like. He also holds a fascination for animals (the animal nature of humans) and works at the zoo. In the end, his aspiration for friendship falls away and he finds himself in a kind of hell; that is, in an ape costume spurned by humankind.
Further on this concept of baseness, Mrs. Flood exhibits distrustfulness. It’s interesting that Motes comes to spend a version of eternity with her in his little hermit’s nest, for she has been suspicious throughout the story that Motes is trying to put something over on her. She can’t figure out what it is but she knows it’s there. (This, as an aside, is a trait Othello would have benefited from regarding Iago.)
As for the other concerns of the novel, isolation and violence, you’ll find ample examples scattered throughout, not the least of which is Motes’ withdrawal from the world, characterized by his self-blinding and tiny room, and the brutal treatment of children and the murders committed by the key characters.
In short, while Wise Blood may appear simple, and certainly is short, O’Connor crowds and layers its pages with a lot of weighty contemplation on the salvation of humankind, thought provoking ideas that force readers to slow down and dig deeper into the text and themselves. w/c