The Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

“There are two kinds of grace: white grace which makes us pleasing to God, and black grace in which we feel his absence. Most people in the world today feel his absence—really feel it, even the atheists.”  ∼ Ven. Fulton Sheen

For Hazel Motes, the “Christ-haunted” sinner in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Jesus is a “wild ragged figure” moving from “tree to tree in the back of his mind,” menacing the psyche’s deep shades. The grandson of a preacher who held “Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger,” Motes flees the shabby deity who “motion[s] him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” Keeping his “two eyes open” and “his hands always handling the familiar thing,” twenty-two-year-old Motes returns from war with shrapnel in his chest but no soul, having studied this putative part of himself long enough to declare its absence.

Like the prodigal son spending himself amidst prostitutes and pigsties in a far country, Motes runs to a region of grotesque unlikeness. Spotting, in a latrine, a drunkenly scribbled promotion for Mrs. Leora Watts—“The friendliest bed in town!”—Motes visits a “big woman” with a “greasy” face and green-speckled teeth “cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors,” grinning at him until his senses are “stirred to the limit.” Despite ending up “like something washed ashore on her,” he soon returns, waking up afterwards with the overpowering desire to buy a car. Convinced that “nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” Motes founds “the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified,” preaching in the street that “every one of you people are clean.” “What do I need with Jesus?” he cries. “I got Leora Watts.”

So grotesque an art has seemed scandalous to more than one religious reader. Yet O’Connor insists in her essays that the freakishness of her fiction’s “maimed souls” is no greater than that of the “ordinary fallen man.” Writing for what she calls a “hostile audience,” drawing “large and startling figures” for “the almost blind,” O’Connor dramatizes the conviction that sin is not, for all modernity’s Nietzschean rhetoric of grandeur, brave and sheeny and glorious. Sin is stubbornly ugly, deflating. O’Connor trenchantly cuts away every pretense of glamour—of Nietzsche’s grandiosity in the Dionysian “intoxication” of wayward sensuality and destruction and “an overloaded and distended will”—as Motes appears like some zoo animal, his heart “grip[ping] him like a little ape clutching the bars of his cage,” before he undresses in the dark with Mrs. Watts.

Wise Blood covStill blaring Nietzsche’s pseudo-divine cry, “Evil, be thou my good,” Motes plots to ruin a preacher’s daughter so that her father, Asa Hawks, might “realize that he was in earnest when he said he preached the Church Without Christ,” realize that “he didn’t believe in sin since he practiced what was called it.” This Nietzschean anti-religion, to borrow a formulation from Ven. Sheen, is “not the mental atheism of the sophomore, who knows a smattering of science and comparative religion, but an atheism of the will, which sets itself up as God.” Yet Motes’s repetitious sermon that everyone is “clean” spawns increasingly freakish results. His call for a “new jesus … that’s all man, without blood to waste” provokes a zookeeper with “wise blood” to steal a three-foot embalmed man from his museum case; his denial of original sin inspires a would-be “gittarr”-strumming preacher who looks like “an ex-cowboy turned mortician” to charge listeners one dollar to “unlock that little rose of sweetness inside” of them. Climbing atop his Essex once more, Motes preaches that anyone who still believes in conscience “had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it,” presaging assaults of violence so gnarled as to render the fiction of unfallenness absurd.

And yet the sting of black grace, the anguish of self-banishment from God, never ceases to hound this sourly misshapen land. Motes “wanted the light off,” as in a “coffin”—he “wanted it all dark, he didn’t want it diluted”—but the specter of Jesus intrudes even here, provoking the ceaseless accusation that Motes doesn’t “want nothing but Jesus.” Motes may swear that Jesus is “too foul a notion for a sane person to carry in his head,” may “curse and blaspheme Jesus…with such conviction” that the boy pumping his gas stops to gape, but, as St. Gregory the Great observes, the one who “glories in sin,” who “seems on the outside as if he commits evil deeds boldly,” inwardly “trembles because of them.” Nostalgic for a younger self who walked in the woods with stones in his shoes to repent for viewing a lewd carnival show, obsessed with Hawks’s fake story of blinding himself in commiseration with St. Paul, Motes finally performs a stunning act of physical penance that plunges him into the darkness to which the “wild ragged figure” had beckoned.

For “tired” modern readers whose “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether,” who have “forgotten the price of restoration” and wish to be “transported, instantly” to a “mock innocence,” O’Connor demonstrates, with the severity of a prophet, that Motes’s “fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity.” Puzzling over why Motes is “being ugly,” musing that “if she had felt that bad” she “would simply have put her head in an oven or maybe have given herself too many painless sleeping pills,” Motes’s landlady chides him for a penitential regimen that is “not natural”: “It’s like one of them gory stories, it’s something that people have quit doing—like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats.” “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it,” Motes says. “I’m not clean.” But the landlady with “race-horse legs” and “hair clustered like grapes over her brow” tells him to “get you a washwoman”—for, of course, “[t]here’s only one kind of clean.” Deriding him for being “some kind of a agent of the pope,” she stares at Motes’s broken body as at an absurd spectacle even as she cannot escape the sense that he is “cheating her in some secret way” with his will to “pay” for some bewildering guilt. That Motes emerges as a misfit, a veritable freak, more for his penance than for his sin is, surely, the moral artist’s greatest rebuke to our purblind age.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from the 1979 film Wise Blood, directed by John Huston and featuring Brad Dourif who plays the lead character Hazel Motes.

Julia Meloni

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Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Yale and a master's degree in English from Harvard.

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