Flannery O'Connor's Support of the Devil

by , 2004

John Hawkes claims in his essay "Flannery O'Connor's Devil" that although O'Connor was a devout Catholic and meant her novel Wise Blood to be satirical, she really is in the devil's party without even knowing it. A close reading of Wise Blood shows that Hawke is accurate in his claim. A number of paradoxes appear throughout the story that portray a sense that mankind is really living in a world controlled by the devil and not by God.

Hazel Motes' entire life seems to disprove the existence of godly men strong in their faith. According to the narrator, Haze "knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher" (22). He came from a deeply religious family and was seemingly bred with the teachings of Jesus in his blood. As a young man, Haze "had a strong confidence in his power to resist evil: it was something he had inherited, like his face, from his grandfather" (23). There seemed to be no way that Hazel could turn out as anything less than a God fearing religious man. Yet, Hazel's reasons for avoiding temptation are contrary to what they should be: he thinks "that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin" (22). He tries to avoid sin so that he would not have to have a deep personal relationship with Jesus and so that he would not have to ask him for forgiveness. He fears going to war because he thought it was a trap that would pull him into a sinful life. He still ends up joining the army and serving his time and is able to avoid sin the entire time he is away, but when he returns to his Southern home and travels to Taulkinham, he immediately goes out to find a prostitute. On the taxi ride over to her house, the cabbie says to Hazel, "You look like a preacher" (31). Haze responds by adamantly denying that he is a preacher three times, in much the same way that Peter denied his association with Jesus three times just after the crucifixion in the New Testament. This scene marks the beginning of one of the biggest paradoxes in the novel: Hazel Motes, the grandson of a preacher who knew he would be a preacher himself even as a little boy, constantly denies that he is a preacher of Jesus' word.

Throughout Wise Blood, religion is employed by the characters as a way to make money; religion is a moneymaking business, not a soul-saving theology. The first time we see the blind preacher, he and his daughter are handing out tracts and viewed as direct competition by a man selling potato peelers. Angered that they were distracting his potential customers, the salesman yells, "These damn Jesus fanatics... I got this crowd together!" (41). The salesman's anger at the preacher points to something gone wrong with the way in which people are evangelizing. A blind preacher handing out tracts should not be seen as a hostile attempt to take over customers, but it was. The salesman was selling potato peelers; the blind preacher was selling Jesus. Of course the tracts were not being sold, but the preacher expected donations. People could buy a potato peeler for their kitchen or they could buy peace of mind by supporting the blind preacher. The preacher was not acting out of benevolence; he was trying to find a way to make money from the townspeople. If he was really just evangelizing and not looking for money, he would not have been seen as competition to the potato peeler salesman. Another clear example of religion as a moneymaking business comes later in the novel with the actions of Onnie Jay Holy. After he fails to convince Hazel to preach with him, he hires a fake prophet to take his place and goes on preaching: "The Prophet got three dollars an evening for his services" (201). The fact that a prophet could be hired at a set wage makes the act of prophesizing seem like nothing more than just a common job. Because of Onnie Jay Holy's investment in the services of the prophet, he "made fifteen dollars and thirty-five cents clear" (201) on his first night out preaching. Fifteen dollars was a significant amount of money for the people of Tauklinham and Onnie Jay Holy would not have been able to make that much if he had not had a new religion to do it with. The way in which religion is a profitable competition to business throughout the novel mocks the conception of organized religion.

O'Connor, in her novel, not only to shows that preachers are often looking for money, but also to shows that they are often insincere in the way that they live their lives. Asa Hawks, the blind preacher, lives a life that is a lie. He is consistently referred to as 'the blind preacher,' but he is not really blind. One night, while sitting in Hawks' apartment, Haze asks him, "If Jesus cured blind men, howcome you don't get Him to cure you?" (111). He was trying to make a point by suggesting that if Jesus was really all that he was supposed to be, he would not allow one of his believers to suffer through blindness. Just a moment later, Haze asks the preacher about the scars on his face and the preacher responds by handing him a newspaper clipping that said that Hawks "had promised to blind himself to justify his belief that Christ Jesus had redeemed him" (112). This fanaticism seems to be a mockery of the actions that the deeply religious often take. A deep faith should not have to be proven with outward physical marks. Worse than the fact that he seemingly blinded himself for the sake of Jesus is the fact that Asa Hawks actually failed to blind himself but lived his life as though he had anyway. After Haze leaves, Hawks' daughter Sabbath brings out another newspaper clipping that reads, "Evangelist's nerve fails" (113). The preacher's belief in Jesus failed him at the last minute, but he was too ashamed to ever relate that to the rest of the world. He lives his life as a lie, telling people that he had blinded himself. Later in the novel, Haze, who seemingly does not believe in Jesus at all, decides to actually blind himself out of faith. Believing in no Jesus is shown to be a stronger belief than believing in Jesus. Asa Hawks daughter, after Haze's blinding, "hung around pestering [Haze] for a few days and then she had gone on off; she said she hadn't counted on no honest-to-Jesus blind man and she was homesick for her Papa" (215). It is ironic that she uses the term "honest-to-Jesus" to describe a man who claims he does not believe in Jesus in comparison with a preacher. O'Connor seems to be showing that belief itself is more important than what is believed in; Hazel Motes belief in no Jesus is more powerful than Asa Hawks belief in Jesus.

Similarly, O'Connor shows Jesus is just an arbitrary focus of people's belief by replacing him with a totally insignificant, unholy object in Haze's new religion. Enoch Emery steals a preserved shrunken corpse from the Taulkinham Museum and gives him to Haze as the new 'jesus' for his religion. The way O'Connor describes the little corpse a 'jesus' in lower case takes Jesus' significance as the one true holy redeemer away. Jesus transforms from the one true Son of God to a jesus that can easily be replaced. O'Connor's choice of the new savior seems to mock Christianity even more. The new jesus is described in very poor condition: "One side of his face had been partly mashed in and on the other side, his eyelid had split and a pale dist was seeping out of it" (184). Not only was Jesus' substitution a shrunken corpse, but it was not even in good condition. It was falling apart. Even looking so beat up, Sabbath immediately forms a deep attachment to it and carries it around like she would a baby, saying to it, "Well I declare... you're right cute, ain't you?" (185). The description of the new jesus would make him seem anything but cute. Sabbath overlooks the fact that the new jesus is a damaged, shrunken corpse and clings to him like she would to a baby. For Sabbath to describe the idol as cute seems to be O'Connor's way of displaying that people's belief in a savior overlooks any flaws that savior might have.

Finally, the way in which O'Connor describes violent scenes more vividly than other scenes creates a sense of pleasure in the violence. When Haze catches up with Onnie Jay Holy's hired prophet, he forces him to take off his suit and begin running. Before the fake prophet could finish getting undressed, Haze's car "knocked him flat and ran over him" (204). Not only did he run over him once, but Haze made the violent action even more severe by throwing his car in reverse and backing over the man's body again. O'Connor describes in vivid detail the way that the injured man was losing blood and "was motionless all but for one finger that moved up and down in front of his face as if he were marking time with it" (204). The scene of a dying man only being able to move his finger is vivid and brings us as readers very close to the action. The intense description makes the violent act seem more important than other scenes and gives the violence a certain sort of pleasure. The grotesque energy O'Connor uses to describe the violence is paradoxical in that it makes the violent scene more fun to read than the moments of deep devotion in the novel.

All of these paradoxical elements of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes' denial of his calling to be a preacher of Christ, the use of religion as a moneymaking business, the falsity of the only 'real' preacher described, the replacement of Jesus with a shrunken corpse, and the descriptions of pleasurable violence, all combine to create a sense that true belief in Jesus does not exist in this world. Although she was being satirical, Flannery O'Connor unintentionally disproved the idea that religion could be a beneficial aid to man in his struggle through life. She was, as Hawkes claimed, in the devil's party without knowing it.