“Wise Blood” is a 1952 novel by the American author Flannery O’Connor. It was O’Connor’s debut novel and was put together from four separate stories that were first published in three different magazines.
The novel centers around a young returning army veteran named Hazel Motes who has decided that he is a staunch atheist after the war crushed his faith in God. After he meets a blind street preacher, Motes begins preaching his atheism to combat the message of God and invents the Church Without Christ.
Meanwhile, a teenager named Enoch attempts to befriend Motes only to be rebuffed. Enoch believes that he has an intuition that makes him near psychic. He calls this “wise blood” and goes along with it when it tells him to steal a small mummy from a museum and deliver it to Motes as the “new Jesus”. Motes is shocked when a follower of his suddenly turns on him and begins preaching about his own church, hiring an impersonator who looks exactly like Motes to join him. Motes is so enraged that he runs the impersonator down in his car, killing the man.
Afterward, he has a crisis of conscience, stops preaching and begins punishing himself by blinding himself and putting rocks and broken glass in his shoes. In the end, Motes wanders out into a snowstorm and gets lost, eventually freezing to death. The novel was not initially very successful but gained a following later for it’s strange comedy and dark themes. It was adapted into a film in 1979.
The book opens with the main character, a twenty-two year old man named Hazel Motes, sitting in a train car across from a strange woman. The woman attempts to make small talk with Motes, and points out his strange attire. He is wearing a new suit and a hat that is like a country preacher’s. Motes also has an army duffel bag at his feet. Motes ignores the woman but eventually admits that he is not going home. He is headed to Taulkinham, his hometown to do something that he has never done before.
Motes initially intended to be a preacher like his grandfather but instead he enlisted in the army, intending to stay for only 4 months. But eventually he felt as though the army corrupted him and he lost his faith in God. Motes arrives in Taulkinham and is overwhelmed by the changes that have occurred since the last time he was there. He goes to the men’s bathroom to have a moment to himself and finds the number for a woman named Leora Watts scrawled on the wall. Motes writes the number down on his hand only to have it spotted later by a taxi driver. The taxi driver asks why he has the number, since Leora does not normally entertain preachers. Motes insists that he is not a preacher but the driver says that something in his face makes him look like one. Motes insists that he doesn’t believe in anything.
The taxi driver drops Motes off at Leora Watts’ home where he spies her sitting on a bed, trimming her toenails through a crack in the door. Leora Watts sees Motes and stares at him for a moment before going back to her task. Motes goes into the house and examines the room in silence and gets pulled into bed by the yellow-teethed Watts.
On Motes’ second night in town, he wanders past the storefronts at night, looking up at the stars . He stops in front of a salesman who is selling potato peelers and demonstrating their use live. The salesman speaks to the gathered crowd in a commanding voice. He asks for a volunteer and points to a young man named Enoch Emery.
The sales pitch is then interrupted by a thin, blind man dressed all in black with a scarred face who comes into the crowd. The man is followed closely by a young girl. Motes stares at them, losing track of his surroundings. He does not realize that the salesman is trying to speak to him until Enoch punches his arm to get his attention. Motes tells the salesman that he does not have a wife or a mother to buy the potato peeler for. The salesman jokes that he needs to find one to keep him company and Enoch laughs. Enoch decides to buy himself a peeler.
The man in black and the young girl begin preaching to the crowd. The man asks for a nickel if the people will not repent. The crowd begins to break up and the salesman tries to drive the blind man away to win back the crowd with no success. The girl hands out pamphlets that say “Jesus Calls You.” Motes takes a pamphlet and tears it to pieces. He drops the pamphlet to the ground and looks up to see the girl staring at him in horror.
Meanwhile, Enoch tries to get the attention of the salesman to buy a peeler but the salesman continues to fight with the preacher. The young girl tries to buy a peeler in defiance but she does not have enough money. Finally Enoch gets the man’s attention, but he does not have enough money to buy the peeler and the salesman rejects him. As the preacher and the girl leave, Motes buys a peeler impulsively and runs after them with Enoch trailing at his heels.
Enoch tells Motes that he is only 18 but has been working for the city for two months. Enoch tries to talk to him about religion, but Motes ignores him and keeps following the preacher and the girl. Enoch continues to try to impress Motes until they finally catch up with the pair. The preacher asks Motes why he has been following him. Motes hands the peeler to the girl and she reluctantly takes it after the preacher threatens her.
Motes talks to the pair and the preacher tries to reach out to him. Motes rebuffs him and the preacher tries to get him to distribute pamphlets. Running away, Motes tells the oncoming crowd about the preacher waiting to ambush them. He says that he, himself is a preacher of truth and that Jesus is not real. He tells them that he is from the Church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified. Before he can leave, the preacher shouts that his name is Asa Hawks to make it easier for Motes to follow him next time.
Enoch follows Motes but runs off in a huff when Motes rebuffs his friendship. Motes begins seeing Ms. Watts regularly. One morning, he awakens in her bed and decides that he wants to buy himself a car, though he has only fifty dollars and no license. He goes to a junkyard and ignores the boy tries to stop him from entering in order to look at a poorly equipped, “rat-colored” car that he wants to buy. The boy runs after Motes, cursing. Motes asks to speak to the owner and the boy informs him that he is the owner.
Inside the car, the backseat has been ripped out and replaced by a wooden plank and there are green window shades on the windows. Motes asks the boy how much the car costs. The boy, still cursing, begins bartering with him but they are interrupted by the arrival of the boy’s father who is the actual owner of the junkyard. The owner, Slade, yells at the boy and sends him away. Slade offers to sell the car for seventy-five dollars and Motes accepts. However, Slade begins bargaining down his own offer, going to sixty. Motes offers him thirty and they settle on fifty.
Motes has not been in a car for years, and he struggles to drive the car at first. He tells the father and son that he is buying the car to live in. Enoch Emery wakes one morning a few days later knowing that he will finally share his secret with someone. That day, Enoch goes to his job as a guard at the zoo and leaves to go to the park where he hides in the bushes to watch women swimming in the pool.
The park is in the heart of the city, and Enoch’s “wise blood” that gives him a sense of “knowing” leads him there. The secret that he has discovered is on display in a glass case but there is a terrible secret about it that only Enoch knows. He feels that he needs to show it to someone but that his wise blood needs to tell him who. He is growing impatient as his need to commit terrible crimes like stealing and raping grows.
He feels that his special person will arrive today. Suddenly he sees Motes’ car driving by. Motes tells him that the guard who replaced Enoch told him to find the boy there hiding in the bushes. Motes asks where Asa Hawks lives. Enoch ignores this and says that he has something to show him. He takes him to the museum where they sneak past a sleeping guard to see the shriveled mummy of a small person. Motes is captivated and afraid. After Enoch gets startled and runs from the room, Motes follows him and demands to know the address. He says that he’s not even sure that he knows it and slumps against a tree. Motes throws a rock at him and knocks him out. When Enoch comes to his head is bleeding. He feels that he has only just begun his work.
That evening, Motes drives around in his new car. He soon finds the blind man – Asa Hawks – and the young girl. Following them home, he spots their house number and then leaves, driving to the cinema where a movie is just ending. Motes climbs onto the hood of his car as the crowd leaves the cinema and begins to preach about Jesus. He asks three men in red jackets where Jesus’ blood touched them. One of the men calls him a “wise guy.” Motes asks what church they go to. One of them answers in a high pitched voice “church of church”. Motes tells them that he preaches the Church Without Christ, “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”
The men leave and Motes tells them that he will take the truth that there was no redemption and Jesus was a liar, wherever he goes. Motes begins to preach to more people coming out of the cinema until the woman at the ticket counter threatens to call the police. He drives away, stopping to preach at three other cinemas before returning to Ms. Watts.
The following morning, Motes returns to Asa Hawks’ house and asks the landlady if he can rent a room. He tells her that he is a preacher in the Church Without Christ. The landlady is confused but shows him a room with a door that opens to a thirty-foot drop into the backyard. Motes pays for the room and immediately goes downstairs to knock on Hawks’ door. The young girl opens the door. Motes propositions her and the girl is offended. Asa shuts the door, confusing Motes who assumed that he would be welcome.
Inside the apartment, Asa removes his glasses, revealing that he is not really blind. He says something sarcastic about Motes and the girl defends him. She tries to convince Asa that she should seduce Motes so that Asa can go away like he wants to. Asa considers this and laughs, telling her that he wants to show her a “clipping”.
Downstairs, Motes decides that he wants to seduce the girl so that Asa will see that his daughter is “ruined” and lose his faith. That afternoon, Motes returns to the Hawks’ room. Motes asks about the scars on Asa’s face and is shown a newspaper clipping about Asa, who apparently vowed to blind himself to show that Christ had redeemed him. The young girl says that Asa blinded himself with lime and that hundreds of people were converted because of it. Motes gives the girl a note that says that he “never saw anybody looked as good” as her.
The next day, Motes discovers the girl hiding in his car. She says that her name is Sabbath Lily Hawks and that she is 15 years old. Motes questions her about her father’s past and finds out that he and her mother were not married which shocks him. The pair stop to enjoy the view by a large tree but Motes suddenly panics and tries to leave Sabbath there only to realize that his car is out of gas.
Motes puts gas in the car and takes it to a garage where a man with strange blue eyes tells works on it. The car starts and Motes tells the man that he owes him but the man says that he does not want anything at all. Enoch’s wise blood tells him that something big is coming and he begins saving his money and cleaning his decrepit old house. He feels compelled to buy paint and realizes when he gets home that he needs to paint the inside of a cabinet for something that is going to happen.
The next Monday, Enoch wakes with the certainty that the thing is going to happen that day. He spends all day anticipating it and finally bumps into Motes preaching about a “new Jesus” as he leaves the cinema. Enoch wants to reach out to Motes but is too nervous to do so. But suddenly, Enoch realizes that the cabinet he painted is going to hold the mummified corpse from the museum. He immediately rushes home. Motes does not speak to Asa for a while as the man avoids him. He abandons his plan to seduce Sabbath but has to dodge her persistent advances on him. Motes continues to try to gain followers in the Church Without Christ, but struggles to convince anyone.
One night, a man follows him to all four cinemas while preaches. As the crowd disperses at the last cinema, the man calls them back and begins a charming address that draws an even larger crowd. Motes is confused. The man says that his name is Onnie Jay Holy and lies that he met Motes two months ago and that Motes is a prophet that changed his life. Motes tries to tell the crowd that he is lying but they ignore him. Onnie continues charm the crowd and tells them that the church is based on their own interpretation of the Bible. He calls it “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.”
Motes becomes so angry that he jumps in his car and drives away. But Onnie manages to catch up with him. Onnie tells Motes that he reminds him of Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln. Outraged, Motes stops the car and tells him to get out. Onnie tries to get Motes to tell him about the “new Jesus” misunderstanding, as Enoch did, that it is only a figure of speech. When Motes tells him this, Onnie is upset and leaves, telling him that he will find his own new Jesus. Motes returns home and picks the lock on Asa’s door. Motes creeps up to Asa’s bed and strikes a match, waking the man up. The two make eye contact for a moment before Hawks tells Motes to leave him alone.
The next night, when Motes starts preaching again at the cinema, Onnie pulls up in his car with a man dressed exactly like Motes. Onnie and the imposter begin to preach and Motes is so flabbergasted that he drives away. When he returns home, Sabbath is waiting for him and ignores his demand that she leave. She tells him that she knows that he found out about Asa’s secret. She says that she knows that Motes is the man for her. She thinks that they are both evil and asks if he would like her to teach him how to like being evil. He agrees and they have sex for the first time.
Enoch steals the mummy and brings it to his cabinet but quickly realizes that he needs to bring it to Motes. On his way to Motes’ house, Enoch ducks under an awning at the cinema to get out of the rain. He sees a poster for ‘Gonga the Gorilla’ who is scheduled to appear that afternoon to meet with the local children. Enoch’s wise blood tells him that he needs to meet this gorilla and he gets in line with the children.
When the gorilla arrives, however, Enoch is devastated to learn that it is not a real gorilla but a man in a gorilla suit. When he shakes the man’s hand and tries to tell him his life story, the man tells him to go to hell. Overwhelmed, Enoch flees and continues to Motes’ house. There, he meets Sabbath whom he entrusts the mummy to. Sabbath opens the bundle with the mummy and jokingly pretends that it is a baby. In the next room, Motes wakes and immediately decides that he needs to leave town to preach elsewhere. He begins packing. Sabbath comes into the room, still pretending that the mummy is a baby and Motes is so horrified that he rips it out of her hands and dashed it against the wall. He then picks it up and drops it out of the door that leads to the back yard. Sabbath yells in anger. Motes tells her that he is leaving town.
Enoch finds out where Gonga is going to be appearing next and sneaks in, stabbing the man and taking the costume for himself. He buries his old clothes in the ground, assuming that he won’t need them anymore. Dressed in the gorilla costume, Enoch goes back into town and greets a man and a women who run away screaming at the sight of him.
Motes follows Onnie and the imposter in his car and runs them off the road. The imposter begins to walk away from the car and Motes runs him down. He tells the man that he cannot stand “a man that ain’t true and one that mocks what he is”. The imposter is dying and begins confessing his sins. Motes cleans the blood from his car and leaves.
The next day, Motes leaves town only to be stopped by a policeman who says that he pulled him over because he doesn’t like his face. The police officer has strange blue eyes. He tells Motes to get out of the car and then pushes it off a cliff. The policeman asks if he can give Motes a ride but Motes loses his will to move and falls to the ground. The policeman leaves, confused. Motes walks back to town and buys a sack of lime. He plans to blind himself like Asa pretended to do. Motes successfully blinds himself and continues to stay on in the house, silently. Sabbath is shocked by this and has a fit. The landlady, deciding that she will attempt to seduce Motes to get his government check, has Sabbath put into a Welfare home. Motes stops preaching and begins filling his shoes with rocks and glass to atone.
The landlady, Mrs. Flood attempts to seduce Motes but ends up genuinely falling in love with him. She confesses her love to him and Motes leaves, walking out into a snow storm. When he does not return, Mrs. Flood calls the police to report him missing. Two days later the police find Motes lying in a ditch, barely alive. One of the cops hits him over the head and Motes dies in the back of their squad car. The policemen don’t notice that he is dead and deliver his corpse to his home and Mrs. Flood. Mrs. Flood does not realize that he is dead either and lays him on the bed, saying that she will take care of him and that he can live rent free now.
Hazel Motes – the main character of the story. Motes is a young soldier freshly returning from war. Motes was raised in a religious family but lost his faith during the war and is now an atheist. In the beginning of the story, Motes is intent on living his own life and becomes offended when he is repeatedly mistaken for a preacher. But after he meets Asa Hawks he is so overwhelmed with hatred for what the man preaches that he impulsively decides to start his own “church”. The Church Without Christ is more of a concept that Motes intends to use to free people from what he determines to be the slavery of religion.
Motes soon begins to be energized by his message and begins preaching to crowds leaving movie theaters every night. But his plan goes awry when a strange man sees him preaching and decides to preach against him, mocking his message and hiring a man to pose as an imposter of Motes.
In general, Motes’ character is fueled by anger and pride. He is easily embarrassed and hates religion with a passion. After Motes murders the imposter, his hatred seems to drain from him and he spends the rest of the novel in a mostly silent, almost fugue like state, going through the motions of life. He punishes himself fiercely by blinding himself, putting gravel and broken glass in his shoes and putting barbed wire around his torso. Motes final march out into the storm could be seen as a form of suicide since he likely knew that he would get lost because of his blindness.
Enoch Emery – an eighteen year old boy who has just moved to town and is desperate for friendship. Enoch believes that he has “wise blood””, that is, a escalation of natural instinct that makes him psychic. Most of Enoch’s motivation and drive are hard to justify as it seems as though the boy probably suffers from some type of mental illness. He feels that he is always on the verge of committing a terrible crime and regularly spies on the women who swim in the park. He steals a mummy from a museum because he thinks that it will bring something monumental into his life. He stalks and stabs a man in a gorilla suit for insulting him.
Interestingly, Enoch’s story is largely separate from the rest of the characters and he is never given a real ending. He seems to continue on dressed as a gorilla, despite the young couple screaming and fleeing from him.
Sabbath Lily Hawks – the teenage daughter of Asa Hawks. Sabbath helps her father in his preaching and begging although she knows that he is a fake. She decides to seduce Motes and eventually beds him although he seems to be somewhat afraid of her wily and unpredictable nature. Like Enoch, Sabbath has a habit of telling stories to anyone that will listen and fills her stories with unwanted and dangerous children.
Asa Hawks – the preacher who fakes blindness in order to catch people’s attention and bilk them out of money. Asa once promised that he would blind himself to justify his faith but was unable to go through with the process, instead faking the blindness for many years.
Asa worries that Motes will discover his secret and pushes him away rather than trying to convert him as a real preacher would do with a man who has confessed to being an atheist. This is partly what alerts Motes to the fake blindness and he confirms the truth after breaking into Asa’s apartment late one night.
Flannery O’Connor Biography
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born on March 25th, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. The only child of a real estate agent, when she was a young girl she trained a chicken to walk backwards and made the local news as “Little Mary O’Connor and her trained chicken.” In 1940, O’Connor and her family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia to live on a farm that is now a museum dedicated to her work. In 1941, O’Connor’s father died of lupus. She and her mother continued to live in Milledgeville.
In the early 1940’s, O’Connor began working on the school newspaper at her high school. After graduating in 1942, she went on to Georgia State College for Women and graduated three years later with a degree in social sciences. In 1946, she was accepted into a prestigious writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa where she had gone to study journalism. While there she made several writer friends who later helped her get a foothold in the industry.
In 1947, she graduated with an MA and began working on her first novel, moving to Saratoga Springs, New York to live in an artist’s community. “Wise Blood” was released in 1952 and was met with critical success if not success with the wider public.
That same year, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus like her father. She returned to her mother’s home in Milledgeville and continued to write from there.
In 1960, O’Connor published her other novel “The Violent Bear It Away.” She also published two short story collections, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (posthumous 1965). Most of O’Connor’s stories take place in the south and revolve around deeply flawed characters. Though her work often contained dark themes, O’Connor did not like to think of them as being dark or sarcastic.
O’Connor spent the last 12 years of her life in Milledgeville, living seven years longer than her original diagnosis assumed that she would. In her final years she maintained a very active writing and lecture schedule despite the debilitating effect of the steroid drugs that she was taking for her illness. She raised hundreds of birds including peafowl, ducks, emus and toucans and wrote an essay on her peacocks titled “The King of Birds”.
O’Connor died on August 30th, 1964 at the age of 39 in Baldwin County Hospital. Her death was the result of a new attack of lupus following surgery. She is buried in Milledgeville, Georgia.