Deepening the Mystery: The Shifting Point of View in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

by Steve Otfinoski[easy-media med=”7990″ mark=”gallery-hhYp39″]

“Freedom is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen,” wrote Flannery O’Connor in the 10th anniversary Signet edition of her first novel Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, O’Connor’s tormented protagonist, is driven by forces beyond his control to become a self-styled preacher for his Church Without Christ as he wanders the streets of Tauklinham, Georgia, filled with O’Connor’s comic Southern grotesqueries.

For much of the novel, we see events through the eyes of Haze in third-person close, but as he approaches his final martyrdom, O’Connor pulls away from Haze and only allows us to see his decline and death from the point of view of a character we have barely met before, his landlady Mrs. Flood. After a sardonic police officer has destroyed his clunky car, Haze returns to the boardinghouse with quicklime and a bucket he has bought at a hardware store. Mrs. Flood watches him mix the lime and water in the bucket with growing interest:

“What you going to do with that, Mr. Motes?” she asked.
“Blind myself,” he said and went on in the house. [114]

From here on, we see Motes’s final days exclusively from Mrs. Flood’s point of view. She is immediately recognizable as another of the respectable, middle-aged Southern white ladies who populate O’Connor’s fiction. She is nosey, talkative, holds religion at arm’s length, and is practical to a fault.

In the novel’s final chapter, Mrs. Flood is perplexed not just by Motes’ self-blinding but his sudden reclusiveness. She encourages him to return to preaching, seeing his blindness as a new attraction for his audience. “`You could get one of these seeing dogs,’ she said, ‘and you could get up a good crowd. People’ll always go to see a dog.’” [120]. But Haze is too busy walking the streets. Later, Mrs. Flood discovers to her horror that he puts rocks and glass in his shoes and wraps barbed wire around himself. While he may be against Jesus, Haze seems bent on imitating his suffering.

Why does O’Connor cut us off from Motes’ thoughts and feelings at the very moment when he finally comes to grips with the mystery of religion that has confounded him throughout the novel? O’Connor’s Christianity, as it emerges time and again in her fiction, is a hard and demanding religion, a far cry from the cozy world of Christmas crèches and Sunday morning services. It is beyond the ken of the complacent Mrs. Floods of the world. O’Connor wants us to discover Christianity’s transcendence for ourselves (if we choose to) and leaves Motes’s salvation the mystery she believes it is.

Yet at the same time, we experience Motes’ transcendence through Mrs. Flood’s eyes and see it transform her as well. She goes from wanting to exploit her blind tenant no less ruthlessly than the self-serving preacher Hoover Shoats does earlier, to wanting to mother and protect him. Her proposal of marriage, at first opportunistic, becomes something very different from the crude designs of the nymphomaniac Sabbath Hawks and the town whore Mrs. Watts. It becomes for Mrs. Flood a way to slake her own thirst for the spirit. “Watching his face had become a habit with her; she wanted to penetrate the darkness behind it and see for herself what are there.” [123] Earlier, she imagines Haze in the blindness being drawn to a pinpoint of light. “She saw it as some kind of star, like the star on Christmas cards. She saw him going backwards to Bethlehem and she had to laugh.” [119]

But her laughter fades, as she longs to see what he sees. As she tells him, “If we don’t help each other, Mr. Motes, there’s nobody to help us…The world is an empty place.” [124]. But her desperate attempt to make contact only drives him away.

Two more of O’Connor’s sadistic (but dense) officers of the law find a semi-conscious Haze after he spent a night exposed to the elements. The officers proceed to accidentally beat him to death and bring him back to Mrs. Flood, thinking he is still alive. The landlady tries one final time to unravel the mystery of her tenant as he lies on her bed.

She leaned closer and closer to his face, looking deeper into them [his eyes], trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn’t see anything….She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes,…and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light. [126]

Faith, through her adept use of point of view, remains a mystery in O’Connor’s world. It is not based on reason or human understanding. It lies far deeper in the human psyche, in the wisdom of blood, as the idiotic Enoch Emery, Haze’s only friend, recognizes. If Hazel Motes is ultimately saved because of what, in the author’s words, “he is not able to do” – banish the figure of Jesus from his mind – then there is hope for Mrs. Flood and the rest of us, who are equally haunted by the gaunt, unforgettable, Christ-like figure of Hazel Motes.

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