A Review of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

21 Jan

Wise BloodWise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first by O’Connor.

Story and theme aside, there is something about her style that is very addicting. I found myself speeding through this book in two days. Her prose has a no-nonsense directness that is amplified by the occasional (cunningly apt) metaphor, and by her darkly human characters – grotesque, self-serving, dishonest, indifferent, cruel, desperate.

Much is made about the author’s religious views, but in O’Connor’s uniquely questing artistry, what comes to the fore is not doctrine, but rather the tangled root of her beliefs, which really reflect a universal problem of seeking meaning.

Our protagonist is Haze Motes (a name which I learned references a Biblical passage regarding judgement – “do not remove the mote from your neighbor’s eye without first removing your own”). This allusion to eyes is part of the central concern of the book, that of vision (and blindness). Haze’s eyes are described like a sacred mystery by the young girl who is fascinated by him, eyes that “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking.” Haze is constantly looking, but rarely and reluctantly at the external world.

What he is looking for is a truth that the Church no longer provides him. A derelict veteran, he finds a calling to become a vocal anti-theist, even while his conflicts and behavior show him to have an indelibly “religious” persona in spite of his denouncements – a backwards nihilist monk, committed to his own special mission. He becomes an anti-preacher, trying to open people’s eyes to the needlessness of their moral suffering, yet really projecting his own sense of being lost. He is reactive and materially indifferent. And he occupies his own world, inwardly focused on his concerns for redemption and truth. Other characters try to penetrate this world, to see what is behind those eyes, attracted to his suffering. The last quarter of the book brings the author’s ideas together beautifully in a suddenly tightened knot that left me feeling a touch breathless.

Flannery O’Connor is brilliant at layering symbolism and exploring an idea from seemingly casual, tangential angles. Her depth catches you suddenly and off-guard, like realizing you’ve tread too far from the shore. I am looking forward very much to exploring more of her work.

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