On Hazel’s second night in the city, he walks around town past the storefronts, contemplating the stars while people shop late. Hazel’s shadow mingles with others on the sidewalk, and his blue suit looks purple in the light of the signs. Eventually he stops in front of a salesman selling potato peelers on the street, performing live demonstrations of his device while addressing a crowd of passersby. For a volunteer, the man singles out a fox-faced boy named Enoch Emery.
Hazel is preoccupied with the stars – typically a home of the spiritual – while those around him are stuck in the commercial world of neon light. Here Hazel encounters for the first time O’Connor’s second protagonist, Enoch. It’s notable that Enoch is first presented as an eager, animal-like boy. The street salesman and his crowd are reminiscent of the crowds that gathered to hear Hazel’s grandfather.
The salesman’s demonstration is then interrupted by a tall, thin man dressed all in black and with a scarred face, who is followed by a young girl. Hazel stares at them. He is oblivious to the salesman, who tries to speak to Hazel, until Enoch punches his arm. Hazel explains that he has no wife or “dear old mother” to give the potato peeler to, and the man jokes that perhaps he needs one just to keep him company. Enoch finds this hilarious, and fumbles for change in his pocket to buy himself a peeler.
Here, the characters of Asa and Sabbath Hawks are introduced – although O’Connor doesn’t name them yet, thus building a sense of mystery around the dark figures. The salesman’s insult cuts Hazel where it hurts most, reminding him of his lost home and family, but in the absurd context of a confrontation over a potato peeler. Enoch is portrayed as simple-minded and easily amused.
Meanwhile, the man in black, who is blind, begs from the assembled crowd, threatening to preach, and asking for a nickel if they won’t repent. The salesman tries to drive him away, as he sees the crowd dispersing, but the blind preacher ignores him. The girl follows behind, handing out pamphlets. Hazel grabs one of these, which reads “Jesus Calls You,” and tears it into confetti. The salesman goes into a rage, but then controls his anger when he sees people watching. Hazel drops the scraps of pamphlet to the ground, and then looks up to see the young girl staring at him, shocked.
The street preacher, although he seems equally concerned with begging for money, immediately catches Hazel’s attention—whereas no one else in the crowd seems at all moved, aside from the salesmen whose pitch is being disrupted. Hazel ripping up the pamphlet is a deliberate, violent denial of the power religion has over him, but at the same time the pamphlets clearly affect Hazel more than anyone else there. Hazel’s future connection to the girl is also foreshadowed here.
Enoch is still trying to get the salesman’s attention to buy a peeler, but the salesman is still angrily engaged with the blind preacher. The young girl defiantly tries to buy a peeler, but she doesn’t have enough money. Neither does Enoch, and the salesman rejects his bartering. As the blind man and girl walk away, Hazel impulsively buys a peeler, paying too much, and then runs after the two, with Enoch following him, looking like a “friendly hound dog.”
Enoch’s desire for a potato peeler and his interaction with the salesman are typical of his childish character. Sabbath’s proud defiance of the salesman associates her with Hazel’s disdain for the world, in a way, and this may be what drives him to follow her. Enoch’s animal nature is clear in O’Connor’s description. He is almost Hazel’s opposite, but at the same time he too seeks connection, and (like Hazel) goes about it in a confrontational and unsuccessful way.
Enoch tries to make conversation with Hazel, bragging that he is only eighteen, has been in town for two months, and already works for the city. Hazel is barely responsive, however, and stays focused on the pair they are following. Enoch tries to engage him about religion, telling him about his experience staying for four weeks at the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy, but Hazel’s focus is absolute—he even crosses a street in front of passing cars, causing a policeman to blow his whistle and stop them. Hazel doesn’t engage the policeman, who makes a racist joke about the traffic signal to the assembled onlookers. Enoch steps in, telling the cop (dishonestly) that he was born and raised in Taulkinham, and that he will take responsibility for the newcomer, Hazel, who has by now already left.
The collision of these two opposite types – one overly serious, spiritual in spite of himself, dark, and brooding, and the other talkative, earnest, animal, instinctual, and shallow – is comic, certainly, but there is also a strange kinship between them. Both are outsiders, rejected by the world or somehow ill at ease within it. The racist policeman adds to the sense that the people in the city are grotesque, and driven by low, animal impulses. Enoch’s lie is an attempt to assert ownership of, or connection to, both a place (Taulkinham) and a person (Hazel), when neither seems to care for him at all.
Enoch catches Hazel up, and suggests they go buy a soda. Hazel dismisses Enoch, but he continues to follow him, chattering about his experience with the Welfare woman who took him away from his father and trapped him in her brick house to learn about Jesus. A man jostles Enoch in the street and Enoch growls at him, to which the man responds with a vicious snarl.
Enoch’s persistence stems from a desperate loneliness, like a lost dog, and the snarling exchange with the man who bumps him reinforces this impression. He too has a dark past with religion, which is only offered to us in bits and pieces. Hazel is occupied with his quest to find Asa Hawks.
Enoch jogs to catch up to Hazel, continuing his story. The Welfare woman sent him to the Bible Academy after he tried to run away. After four weeks Enoch ran away from the Academy as well, but was found and returned to the woman’s house. He was desperate to leave, so he prayed to Jesus to show him a way out short of killing her. Inspiration struck, and one morning he crept up on the woman in bed with no pants on. He pulled the sheet off of her, giving her a “heart attact.” Then he left.
The dark comedy of this situation—in which Enoch is trapped in the home of a smothering woman and, through prayer, finds this unusual means of escape—comes from the fact that Enoch uses his animal instinct, in connection with a faith in something higher, to overcome the serious, menacing religion of the woman and the Rodemill Bible Academy. There is a kind of purity, or innocence, in his animal actions.
Enoch is sure that Hazel is a wealthy man and tells him so, but Hazel remains silent. Enoch goes on talking about the city, and how difficult it is to make friends there. They begin to catch up to the blind man and the young girl, who are headed toward a large domed building surrounded by parked cars. Pulling his hat forward at an angle, Hazel approaches the blind preacher and stands silently in front of him, leaning in. The blind man tells Hazel that he can smell the sin on his breath, and asks why he has been following them. Hazel leans back and denies that he has been following the preacher, as the young girl stares at him. “I followed her,” he says, and thrusts out the peeler.
Enoch is really opening himself up to Hazel, hungry for a connection. Hazel, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the mystery of the blind man and the young girl, clutching his hat as armor almost against the threat he perceives in them – since they represent the religious path he now despises, and the destiny he has thrown away. The blind man’s talk of sin is exactly what Hazel most hates about his memory of religion, but he is also drawn to it somehow. His single-minded obsession regarding religion is now focused on these two people.
The young girl rejects the device at first, but the blind man threatens her and she reluctantly takes it from the persistent Hazel. Hazel explains that he followed her to say that he “ain’t beholden for none of her fast eye.” The girl reacts in anger, explaining to the blind preacher about the pamphlet Hazel tore up. The blind man is still convinced Hazel followed him, saying that he hears the urge for Jesus in his voice.
The blind preacher’s insistence that Hazel has followed them because of his “urge for Jesus” only angers Hazel more, since it strikes at the core of the religious destiny he is so strenuously trying to avoid. He continues to deflect by claiming that the girl was eyeing him, and the potato-peeler at the center of the whole scene lends comedy.
Hazel blasphemes, sitting down with his hand on the step near the young girl’s sneaker, and muttering “My Jesus,” which she takes as evidence that he did not come for the preacher. The blind man laughs, ignoring the girl, and tells Hazel that he can’t run from Jesus. Enoch pipes up about the Bible Academy, but everyone ignores him. Hazel insists that he’s come halfway around the world since he believed in anything, but the blind man points out that he still followed him. He reaches out and puts his hand over Hazel’s face. After a second Hazel knocks it away, faintly protesting that the man knows nothing about him.
Hazel’s hand near Sabbath’s foot echoes the way he sat on the bed beside Mrs. Watts in the previous chapter. He blasphemes, saying “My Jesus,” but somehow his blasphemies seem only to reinforce the idea that he can never really escape the importance of religion in his life. Enoch is an outsider here, as usual. Hazel is stubborn in his denial of belief, but the blind man makes a fair point – why is he so obsessed with the street preacher if it is true that he believes in nothing?
Enoch continues to interject, telling everyone that his daddy looks just like Jesus, with long hair and a scar—although he’s never seen his mother. The blind man and Hazel continue to ignore him. The young girl steps in and tells a story about a woman who “didn’t have nothing but her good looks,” who tried to get rid of her baby, eventually strangling it with a pair of stockings, but was forever haunted by its beauty.
Enoch’s persistence is ignored, as he is seen as “lower” than this spiritual discussion. The young girl’s story is the first in a series that she will tell over the course of the novel about children who haunt their cruel guardians. She clearly has some issues with her own guardian, Asa, and a secret desire for children of her own.
At this point the conversation is interrupted by the large crowd about to exit the building, which the blind man calls his congregation. He distributes pamphlets and splits the four of them into two teams, one for each door, despite the protests of both Hazel and the young girl. Hazel tries to escape, rejecting the blind man’s invitation to repent by telling him that he is just as clean as the preacher, that he doesn’t believe in sin, and that Jesus doesn’t exist. Finally, in frustration, Hazel takes a stack of pamphlets to throw into the bushes. The blind man claims that he can see more than Hazel can, and says that Hazel will have to open his eyes sometime.
Somehow, Hazel – who claims to be steadfastly atheist – finds himself swept into a street preaching operation. He violently rejects this, but his rejection is, as usual, ignored by those around him. Hazel’s beliefs are articulated a bit more clearly here, as he specifically targets the idea of sin and guilt. Asa’s response—that he, the blind man, can see more than Hazel can—foreshadows what happens at the end of the novel, when Hazel does “open his eyes,” in a way—even after Asa is proven to be a fraud.
Against the rush of the crowd, at the top of the large building’s steps, Hazel begins to warn people against the preacher waiting for them. In between muttering “My Jesus” over and over, Hazel gives a speech, telling them that they are all clean. He tells them that he is a preacher himself, but a preacher of the truth—that Jesus did not dies to make them clean. Hazel then announces a new church—the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified—which will be free to join. He gets a few glances as the crowd thins out and disappears. Hazel announces to the blind man and the young girl that he doesn’t need Jesus, since he has Leora Watts.
In a way Hazel is taking up his destiny by deciding to found this Church without Christ, even though he does it to assert his free will. There is a sense that he is finding what he was “meant to do” by coming here. He feels compelled to defend the passersby from the ideas of sin that were so harmful to him in the past, and to offer them truth instead—not out of any sense of benevolence or philanthropy, but rather as a way of fiercely asserting what he sees as truth and attacking the religion he wants to escape. Hazel announces defiantly that, in place of Jesus and the spiritual, he has taken up Leora Watts – symbol of the human, and the animal.
Hazel starts to leave the building behind, but the voice of the blind man stops him. The man shouts out his name—Asa Hawks—to make it easier for Hazel to follow him next time. Hawks yells at Hazel to repent, and is nearly hit by a car in the street. Hazel continues on, only turning at the sound of Enoch’s footsteps behind him. He tries to lose Enoch, walking quickly, but Enoch follows doggedly on, explaining that he knows no one in this city, and that Hazel looks familiar. He says that his daddy made him come to the city, and he begins to cry as he chases Hazel along the street.
Asa Hawks’ confidence that Hazel will return is a reminder that religion seems like Hazel’s destiny, and he is perhaps not in control of his actions. Hawks’ near miss with the car is an echo of Hazel’s single-minded crossing of the street a few pages earlier, when he was almost hit—and also a foreshadowing of the car accident to come. Hawks and Hazel are similar in other ways, too: both fanatical, unconcerned with the world around them, sharp, and stubborn. Enoch’s dogged pursuit of Hazel, desperate to the point of tears, is again reminiscent of a lost dog in search of its master. He is alone here, just like Hazel.
Enoch half-invites Hazel to a brothel, but as they turn up Leora Watts’ street, Hazel finally stops and confronts him, telling Enoch that he already has a woman, and that he’s going to visit her. Enoch doesn’t believe him, and offers to pay him back for the brothel next week—from his wages as a guard at the city zoo. When Hazel continues to reject him, Enoch tells Hazel that he isn’t friendly, and that he’s known since he first saw him that Hazel has no woman, has no one but Jesus.
Just as he did with Asa, Hazel uses his connection to Leora Watts – tentative though it is – as an excuse to escape from Enoch. Like Asa, Enoch doesn’t quite believe that this serious, spiritual-seeming figure could “have a woman.” In fact, his final insult to Hazel – that he has no one but Jesus – is further proof that, to the people around him, Hazel seems destined for religion.
Hazel turns in toward Mrs. Watts’ house, ignoring Enoch. Enoch then reveals that he has the potato peeler box. He says that the young girl gave it to him and asked him to bring Hazel back to their house. Enoch says that Hazel might think he has “wiser blood” than anyone else, but he doesn’t—it is he, Enoch, who does. Hazel stands, rigid and silent, on Mrs. Watts’ steps, and then hurls the stack of pamphlets at Enoch’s chest, knocking his mouth open. Enoch turns and runs away.
Hazel escapes from Enoch’s accusation—that he is tied to Jesus by destiny—by taking refuge in the animal instincts of Mrs. Watts. Enoch’s claim to the “wise blood” of the title is a sign of what is to come. Hazel hits Enoch with the stack of religious pamphlets, which he is still carrying for some reason, rejecting Enoch’s persistent, dog-like attempts at friendship.
Hazel’s experience with Leora Watts had “not been very successful.” It was the first time he had slept with a woman, and afterward “he was like someone washed ashore on her.” He is not sure how she will receive him, but he opens the door. When Mrs. Watts sees him, she laughs. Hazel puts on his hat before entering, but takes it off when it knocks against the electric light. He moves around her room, examining things, and then comes to sit on the edge of the bed, desperately nervous. Mrs. Watts knowingly removes her nightgown, and reaches over to take the “Jesus-seeing hat,” posing in it on the bed. Hazel stares, makes “three quick noises that were laughs,” and then leaps to turn off the light and take off his clothes.
The previously defiant and proud Hazel is reduced to a pitiful, comic state by Mrs. Watts. His uncertainty is clear, and she laughs at his inexperience and awkwardness. Hazel’s hat—his usual shield from the world, and a symbol of the spiritual destiny he denies—is mocked by the nude figure of Mrs. Watts. This is exactly the kind of irreverent, animal action that Hazel most desires, since it blasphemes against his past and what those around him see as his destiny. He turns into an animal himself at the sight of this image, leaping into the arms of Mrs. Watts.
Hazel remembers that when he was small, his father took him to a carnival, where there was a special, higher priced tent to one side. Hazel eventually convinced the barker, who had denied him entry because of his age, to let him in to see this tent. Once inside, Hazel climbed up on a bench to peer over into a coffin-like box, where a naked woman was writhing. He then heard his father’s voice and fled, hiding in a truck. When he returned home, Hazel could not shake the memory of the woman in the coffin. His mother accused him, saying “What you seen?” When Hazel told her, she hit him with a stick and told him that Jesus died to redeem him, to which Hazel responded, “I never ast him.”
Here O’Connor shows us the origins of this conflicted view of sin, sex, and redemption that roils at the core of Hazel. His curiosity, a desire to see more of the world’s mysteries, draws him into this tent. Once there, the sight of this animalistic activity, taking place as it does in a coffin—a symbol of death—frightens the young Hazel, who is struck by the hypocrisy of his father and the group of men gathered to watch the naked woman. His mother, a vengeful, strict figure, then reminds him forcefully that he is guilty and indebted to Jesus for his redemption. This is perhaps the beginning of Hazel’s rebellion, as he explains that he never wanted Jesus to die for him—he had no choice.
The next morning young Hazel filled his shoes with rocks and walked a mile to the creek as a way of repenting for what he had done. He removed his shoes at the creek and sunk his damaged feet into the sand, waiting for a sign from God, but received none. He then walked a half-mile back with his shoes on before he finally took them off.
Even with the realization that he never wanted Jesus to die for him, Hazel’s guilt at seeing the woman is so deep that he takes it upon himself to punish his unclean actions. The young Hazel repents through self-harm, enacting a dark penitence reminiscent of the more extreme Catholic saints—and foreshadowing his self-harm at the novel’s end.