Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor

"Wise Blood" is written in the Southern Gothic genre. Southern Gothic, a subgenre of the Gothic writing style, is unique to American literature. Like its parent genre, it relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. Unlike the Gothic writing style, Southern Gothic uses these tools not for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South. Flannery O'Connor proved herself to be a giant in this genre, joining many other celebrated Southern writers such as: William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Cormac McCarthy and Katherine Ann Porter among many others. Over the years, critics have often referred to Flannery 0' Connor's first novel as dark and grotesque.

Flannery O'Connor was the only child of Edward F. O'Connor and Regina Cline O'Connor. Born in Savannah, GA in 1925, she attended Peabody High School and Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College and State University), where she majored in English and Sociology.

In 1949 O'Connor met and eventually accepted an invitation to stay with Robert Fitzgerald, a translator of Greek plays and epic poems and a respected poet in his own right, and his wife, Sally, in Redding, Connecticut. In 1951 she was diagnosed with lupus, and subsequently returned to her ancestral farm, known as Andalusia, in Milledgeville, GA where she died at the age of 39 years on August 3, 1964.

I am particularly interested in the short story which has become less popular in our times. "Wise Blood" originally appeared as four chapters published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review in 1948 and 1949. O'Connor then published it as a complete novel in 1952, and the publisher, Signet, advertised it as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption."

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, "Flannery O'Connor was a Roman Catholic living in the American South, and her fictions consistently illustrate not merely religious, but theological points of view. By the time of "Wise Blood", O'Connor was herself diagnosed with lupus and was receiving treatment with hydrocortisone therapy at Emory University hospitals in Atlanta."

After her first major attack of lupus in 1950, she had been forced to return home to live with her mother on the family farm. O'Connor's father had died of lupus, leaving her with no illusions about the outcome. Having previously lived in Iowa and in and around New York City, she found her mother's company and the general area of Milledgeville to be difficult. The smart-aleck child coming home, and resentment of mother figures and parents in general, permeates all of O'Connor's fiction, and "Wise Blood" is true to this context and the exploration of life and religious views.

O'Connor explores her recurring concept of an alienated young person returning home coupled with the theme of the struggle of the individual to understand Christianity in Wise Blood. The main character, a young man named Hazel Motes, sneers at communal and social experiences of Christianity. Having returned from serving in the army Hazel is travelling by train to the fictional city of Taulkinham, having just discovered that his family home has been abandoned. His grandfather was a tent revival preacher, and Hazel is told repeatedly that he "looks like a preacher," and although he purporsts to despise preachers, Hazel is facinated by them and attempts to become an anti-preacher.

An interesting cast of characters follows including Miss Leora Watts, Enoch Emery, and a blind preacher, Asa Hawks and his young daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. Leora Watts is a prostitute, Enoch Emery is attracted to Hazel's new "Church Without Christ" and believes himself to have wise blood, Asa Hawks is a blind preacher who is not blind, and Sabbath Lily has a wild side and has fixated on having Hazel for her own.

Hazel Motes tries desperately to find freedom from his conscience by choosing to ignore his belief in God. He believes that if he eliminates morality from his life, he can avoid Jesus. The cast of characters in "Wise Blood" are frequently deceptive, chronically unkind, and brutally violent. "Wise Blood" is a spiritually empty, morally blind, cold, hostile place.

In 1979 "Wise Blood" was made into a movie. According to the Rotten Tomatoes website, "from the The Maltese Falcon to the The Dead, filmmaker John Huston created provocative adaptations of stories and novels -- and Wise Blood is considered to be among his most daring."