Religion, spirituality redemption are aspects of religious literary works. Flannery O’ Connor, the writer, grew up as a devout Catholic. Her literary works reflect her spiritual beliefs. The use of animal imagery in shaping the characters of the story portrays the satirical humor represented throughout the novel. The deformed characters in this work are the subjects to animal imagery. Wise Blood is the first novel by the Georgian writer, published in 1952. Set in the post world war period the Southern genre of religion is poignantly depicted in this historical literary work, written in religious context.
The plot unfolds with the return of Hazel Motes from the war after several years. He comes back to a world, where his family home is in ruins and most of the members missing or dead. On a journey of self discovery, he moves to Taulkinham city and starts preaching in the “Church Without Christ,” which he establishes. He professed for faith in one’s own self rather than on “God,” through his church. While serving his term in the United States Army, Hazel realized that dispensing with the soul is the way to escaping sin. Motes’ journey of denouncing religious faith starts with the establishment of the church.
Enoch Emery, Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily Hawks are three other prime characters that play an important part in the story. Asa Hawks is a blind preacher, served by Emery. Sabbath Lily is the illegitimate daughter of Hawks. Asa Hawks had supposedly blinded himself with lye to preach redemption and its joy.
Meanwhile a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” is established by a man called Hoover Shoats. The latter establishes the church as a potential moneymaking venture. Hoover even appoints a “prophet,” who bears a striking resemblance to Hazel. One day Hazel follows the “prophet” in his car and kills him in the process. Hazel is caught the following day, for driving without a permit. Post this incident, Hazel used lime to blind his eyes and lives the life of an ascetic.
The subplot of Enoch Emery worshiping a mummy as a “new Christ” and giving it to Sabbath has been cleverly woven into the main plot. Enoch believed that he like his father had “wise blood.” The stealing of a gorilla suit by Enoch from a former foe killing him in the process, to the climax when he dons on the suit to frighten a couple is scripted with a grotesque humorous tone that underlines the theme of the plot. This is also where the strong suggestion of animal imagery comes in.
The redemption of Christ for human kind is the main theme that outlines the plot of Wise Blood. The various characters in the story are shown to exhibit a strange set of characteristics, likened to animals. Most of the characters are in search of a spiritual direction. Yet most of them denounce religious spirituality. Wise blood explores the spiritual blindness of the various characters. Growth and metamorphosis is depicted as part of violence (emotional and physical). A moment of grace is similarly portrayed as a tryst with holiness.
The plot unfolds with a dark comical tone. The story typically portrays the satirical vein that defines the secular commercial culture of America. The religious belief or the lack of it and the subsequent actions depicted in the characterization defines the main theme of the story – religion. Hazel Motes on one hand defies his religious beliefs and on the other hand visualizes Christ, at the back of his mind, as a ragged figure.
The imagery of animals has been used brilliantly to showcase the characterization. The theories of redemption, sin and free will too have been explained by effective use of allegory in the novel. The use of animal imagery induces a comic tone that simplifies the complexities of these theories.
Enoch Emery dressing up in a gorilla suit is yet another example of animal imagery used by the writer. The latter has also been likened to a hound dog. Emery’s actions like crawling on his belly and burrowing under the bushes to watch the woman at the pool; are further proof of the animal imagery used by the author.
Another example is Hazel Motes buying a “rat colored car.” The car becomes his vehicle for professing the teachings of the “Church Without Christ.” The likeness to the color of rat is perhaps the author’s way of projecting the dark tone that highlights the story of redemption, faith and belief. The writer describes Motes’ nose as a shrike’s bill.
Animal imagery is also evident in the names of the characters. The name “Hawks” is a classic example. Asa Hawks, too like the bird of prey (hawk) turns away from his daughter. As the bird throws its baby out of the nest, he too abandons his daughter.
The interlinking of satire and grotesqueness in the novel presents a socially relevant picture of America post the world war period. The period of Southern Calvinism is captured in the character of Hazel Motes.
Critics of the Wise Blood are of the opinion that O’ Connor uses animal imagery to highlight the imprisonment of the characters, existing in a dimension that is not spiritual. Such a world has been termed as a zoo for animals, who are essentially humans. Motes’ killing the “prophet,” even is viewed in the light of animal imagery that is used by the writer. He like a “predatory haze” had killed his prey (the “prophet”) with his car. [Sweeney,The Explicator,Vol 56,1998].
The earlier reviewers of Wise Blood were skeptical of the “religious” context. However today, it is believed to be a celebrated American literary work of religion. [ Kreyling, Page 3]. Critics have often compared the book to Kafka. The author, Flannery O’ Conner had denied any Kafka connection. In response to a letter in 1954 she spoke of her Catholic upbringing and denied knowing about Kafka. [Kreyling, Page: 8].
Critics of the Wise Blood are of the opinion that grotesqueness is actually the flip side of something positive. Taulkinham, the setting for the grotesque chain of events also serves as the place where Hazel finds his salvation and identifies his own grotesqueness. [Kreyling, Page: 13].