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In Wise Blood, Flannery O’Conner creates a spiritually empty world in which her characters attempt to live life without morals or religion. Hazel Motes, the protagonist, creates the Church without Christ to escape organized religion all together. In her novel, Flannery O’ Conner explores humanity’s need for spiritual truth and purpose. She uses Hazel Motes, Enoch Emery, Asa Hawks, and Mrs. Flood to demonstrate that man cannot find spiritual fulfillment in material prosperity, but only through redemption by Christ.
O’Conner illustrates Christ’s redemption of humanity through Hazel Motes. She describes Hazel as a “Christian malgre lui” (a Christian in spite of himself) (Kreyling 71). At the age of twelve, Haze believes himself to be destined be become a preacher just like his father, but quickly deserts his Christian faith. He becomes convinced he does not have a soul, and establishes the Church without Christ to preaching of a new Jesus. He, however, is not the only one struggling with religion; in fact, all of O’ Conner’s character’s exhibit a misdirected sense of spiritual purpose, if one at all. He also shares with other characters feelings of solitude and displacement. As he returns home from the army, he finds his family gone with only a “shell… a skeleton” of the house left behind (O’Conner 20). Asa and Sabbath Hawks are also familiar with the sense of displacement, having spent most of their lives moving from place to place as beggars. Such widespread restlessness and dissatisfaction suggests that there is a common search for something greater.
Hazel Motes tries to satisfy his emptiness with material possessions. This becomes explicit when he buys an old Essex. He remarks that the car will be “mostly… a house since he “ain’t got any place to be” (O’Conner 69). Hazel tries to relieve his feelings of displacement with the car, but it quickly becomes more than simply a home. He boasts that his car can always take him “to the place [he] wanted to be” and believes that ownership of the car makes him a free individual (O’Conner 186). The Essex becomes the rock upon Hazel builds his church, both literally and figuratively. He would preach the gospel of a false Jesus of his own invention on top of the vehicle, and symbolically it represents his denial of Christ. He begins to put misguided faith in both his car and new religion, believing they give him the freedom to live life in whatever way he chooses. His life reflects his new attitude; he uses the car to murder a man by running him over. He continues to rely on his car as his source of freedom even after a mechanic breakdown. It is only after he receives free service from an attendant that the car begins to run again. Instead of turning away from with false beliefs with gratitude, undeserved kindness only further provokes his arrogance. “He mutters to himself, “’I don’t need no favors from him’” (O’Conner 124). It is not until his rolls over an embankment that he realizes his error and the worthlessness of his false religion as merely the incarnation of those who reject the true God.
Hazel begins to turn away from his condition once his car is destroyed. As he look sin to the “distance… from his eyes to the blank gray sky that [goes on] into space,” he experiences the presence of God in the world in such a powerful way that he quits resisting that which he was fleeing from his whole life: Christ’s grace (O’Conner 211). Upon receiving the revelation of a new spiritual freedom in Christ, Hazel blinds himself and binds himself with barbed wire to cut himself off from the material world and delve deeper into that freedom.
The author also uses Enoch Emery to show that spiritual happiness cannot be found outside of Christ’s salvation. He strives to make something great of himself and is drawn to the Jesus of Hazel Motes in anticipation of becoming a new man. In order to gain favor from Hazel, Emory steals a corpse from the museum to present it as the new Jesus. Sabbath Hawks cradles the false Jesus in her arms, and the whole event becomes a grotesque parody of Jesus’ birth in the manger. In the religion of the Church without Christ, the Virgin Mary is a young fifteen year old whore, the father is Hazel Motes himself, and the infant Jesus is the dwarfed corpse.
His efforts to accomplish his superficial goals are simply pathetic. When he sees Gonga, the Hollywood star, he once again becomes inspired and fantasizes of the day when he too will have “people waiting to shake his hand” (O’Conner 178). However, in order to make his dream a reality, he steals Gonga’s gorilla suit and impersonates him. This reflects the American tendency to fix a problem by only changing the appearance. Instead of becoming a new and improved self, he completely loses his identity in the ape suit and his search for fulfillment through superficial means is ultimately a disaster.
Flannery O’Conner demonstrates humanity’s need for Christ through the life of Asa Hawks. Hawks is an ex-preacher who ten ago vowed to blind himself to prove his faith for Jesus Christ. However, his courage failed him and he faked his blindness. Now, he pretends to be blind, drawing sympathy from others while begging for money. Although he once had good spiritual intentions, he has lost his purpose. Now, he lives life faking blindness in order to beg at street corners. Ironically, despite his own spiritual depravity, he provides insight into Hazel’s spiritual state. He tells him, “’Listen boy … you can’t run away from Jesus. Jesus is a fact’” (O’Conner 47). This shows that all of humanity does in fact need Jesus and that he is a reality from which nobody can escape. Indeed, Hazel Motes does comes to acknowledge the need for Christ in his life and becomes the first to step out of the foolish search for something greater.
The author uses Mrs. Flood to make evident that no one can find spiritual prosperity in material wealth but through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Mrs. Flood, Hazel’s landowner, all endeavors to find fulfillment in material possessions. The self-centered woman intends to marry Hazel so that when he dies, she can take the pension he receives from the government. After all, she has never benefited from the taxes she paid year after year. She feels bitter that the only she paid went to help those who never deserved help. This only comes to show how greedy and self-absorbed she is. When Hazel dies before she can see her plan to completion, she feels financially cheated. However, she suspects that Hazel knew something she didn’t and that she has also been cheated of something not of a material nature.
Mrs. Flood is always one to take life at face value. Unable to look beyond the literal view, she wonders why Hazel blinded himself and walked with rocks in his shoes. Now, his strange self-mutilating actions have a positive effect on her, forcing her to search in the spiritual dimensions she prefers to avoid. As she looks into the eyes of Motes and closes her own eyes, she sees a light in the distance and realizes that she has come “to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin” (O’Conner 236). This final chapter suggests that a newfound faith is emerging within Mrs. Flood. This possibility has immense implications: if even a narrow-minded and corrupt being like Mrs. Flood can find redemption and spiritual purpose, there is hope for all.
In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Conner presents her theme of the redemption of humanity through Christ. Achieving fulfillment by redemption is difficult because of a distorted and misguided sense of spiritual purpose found is chasing material prosperity. O’Conner demonstrates this through Hazel Motes, Enoch Emery, Asa Hawks, and Mrs. Flood. Therefore, she creates an underlying message that the pursuit of worldly wealth is basic to the spiritual turmoil prevalent throughout society.
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