The protagonist, a young man named Hazel Motes, sits in a train car across from a slightly grotesque-looking a woman. The woman, Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, attempts to talk to Hazel, asking him if he is going home. He ignores her, but she begins to make observations about him: he is wearing a new, blue suit, a stiff hat like a country preacher’s, and the army duffel bag at his feet suggests that he is returning from the war.
Already there is a sense that Hazel is set apart, isolated from the people around him. Since the reader is introduced to Hazel through the perspective of Mrs. Hitchcock, there is an opportunity to observe those parts of him – his hat, and stiff demeanor – that others read as a sign that he is a preacher. O’Connor also registers the importance of the idea of a longed-for home.
Hazel continues to stare down the corridor at the train porter, and Mrs. Hitchcock is disturbed by the intensity of Hazel’s pecan-shell eyes, and the “insistent” outline of a skull under his skin. She reads the price tag still on his suit, and continues to stare into Hazel’s eyes, making one more attempt at conversation before he leaves to talk with the porter.
Mrs. Hitchcock is the first in a series of characters who are struck with confusion when confronted with the strange, obsessive intensity of Hazel Motes. He is an outsider in their world, and the skull imagery suggests a link to death and a harsh spirituality that transcends Mrs. Hitchcock’s petty focus on the suit’s price tag.
Hazel tries to talk to the porter (who is black) about Eastrod, his hometown, since he is convinced that he knows the porter from home. The porter says he is from Chicago, but Hazel doesn’t believe him. Hazel returns to his seat and thinks of Eastrod, before Mrs. Hitchcock interrupts to repeat her question about his destination. He tells her “sourly” that he is not going home. She takes this as invitation to talk about her trip to Florida, but Hazel quickly loses interest. He only reveals that he is headed to Taulkinham to “do some things [he] never [has] done before.”
The isolated Hazel searches for a connection to his hometown of Eastrod, though his intense and confrontational manner turns people away. His stated quest – to do something he has never done before – demonstrates a level of purpose and engagement with life’s bigger questions, and with his own personal development, that goes beyond the simple small talk of Mrs. Hitchcock.
Mrs. Hitchcock continues to engage Hazel in small talk, but he cuts her off to tell her about the porter’s supposed “lie.” Mrs. Hitchcock starts to tell Hazel about her nephews, but he cuts her off to ask if she thinks she’s been redeemed. He repeats himself sharply when she fails to answer at first. She blushes, says yes, and then suggests they go to the dining car.
Hazel is confrontational, revealing for the first of many times a deep anger wrapped up in the question of redemption, as well as a hatred for liars. The divide between him and Mrs. Hitchcock continues to widen, as he firmly positions himself as an outsider.
They wait in line for half an hour, with Hazel staring silently at the wall while Mrs. Hitchcock talks with another woman about her sister’s husband’s job. At the front of the line, a steward with greased black hair “like a crow” beckons to Mrs. Hitchcock and the woman, but sends Hazel back. Hazel reddens and tries at first to leave, then ends up seated alone with three young women “dressed like parrots,” lurching awkwardly to their table.
Hazel’s awkwardness and bristling hostility in the face of a world where he feels always out of place are in full view here. Mrs. Hitchcock’s babble feels petty and small, and the actions of the steward and the young women further isolate Hazel. O’Connor makes a point of emphasizing the animalistic aspects of these characters, adding to the sense of the grotesque in the novel, and also contrasting to the spiritual-minded Hazel Motes.
Hazel sits, “glum and intense,” not removing his hat, and the women laugh at him when he orders improperly. They are smoking, and Hazel tenses as one woman, with a “bold game-hen expression” blows smoke in his face. Hazel cracks, telling her that if she’s been redeemed, he wouldn’t want to be. He continues, insisting that he wouldn’t believe in Jesus even if he existed on this train with them. “Who said you had to?” the woman replies. Hazel eats angrily and self-consciously, while the women watch. When he finishes, Hazel tries to pay, but the waiter purposefully stays away, winking at the women, who are enjoying his discomfort.
Hazel’s hat is a symbol of his outsider status, and of the spiritual calling that separates him from the animal actions of the people around him. The women, again compared to birds, humiliate the bitter Hazel, whose insistence that he doesn’t believe in Jesus or redemption falls on deaf ears – a sign of what is to come in the novel. This world of creature-like characters seems united against the overly serious Hazel, mocking his atheistic sincerity, strange habits, and austere appearance.
When he finally escapes the dining car, Hazel tries again to confront the porter, but the porter ignores him. Hazel wants to get into his upper berth to lie down, but he needs the porter for this. Hazel bumps into a half-blind Mrs. Hitchcock in the hallway, her face framed by curlers like “toadstools.” When Hazel finally finds the porter again, he tries to tell him about their Eastrod connection once more, but the porter insists that he isn’t who Hazel thinks he is, annoyed.
The grotesque features of the bumbling Mrs. Hitchcock are typical of O’Connor’s characters, and the idea of blindness will recur throughout the novel. Hazel continues to pursue his connection to home through the impatient porter, convinced that he is lying. He finds no one sympathetic to his plight.
Hazel climbs the porter’s ladder into the upper berth, which is low and dark, but he wishes the darkness were absolute. Half asleep, he feels like he is in a coffin. Hazel remembers the first coffin he ever saw, which contained his grandfather, a fierce country preacher. He remembers being certain, watching his grandfather in the open coffin, that he wouldn’t let it close, and then being surprised when it did. Hazel remembers his younger brothers’ coffins, one tiny, one about half-size. Asleep now, he dreams of his father’s funeral, and the way that his body, pressed onto his knees by his own wish, had flattened out into the coffin when they dropped it into the grave.
The darkness of the bunk foreshadows the dark expanse of Hazel’s mind as imagined by Mrs. Flood at the end of the novel. Hazel’s memories reveal a deep fear of death, and a basic confusion about how a life could really end. At the same time, they emphasize the lonely, tragic life he has lived, watching so many of his family members die. This begins to explain his seriousness, and also the difficulty that he has in relating to other people. His grandfather – the country preacher – is a major influence on his view of religion.
Waking up, Hazel’s memories of death continue. Eastrod, his hometown, is empty now. He left for the war when he was eighteen. At first he had planned to shoot himself in the foot to avoid being enlisted, since a preacher—which he initially aspired to be, like his grandfather—didn’t need two good feet. Hazel remembers his grandfather, shouting to the assembled crowd from atop his car. His grandfather would single out Hazel, who resembled him, in the crowd, and ask everyone to consider the fact that Jesus would have died ten million deaths even for a “mean, unthinking, sinful” boy like Hazel. Jesus would have Hazel, no matter what.
Here O’Connor provides a further window into Hazel’s past, revealing his youthful plan to become a preacher, and also the fact that his hometown is now deserted, leaving him alone in the world. Hazel was clearly serious and morbid even as a teen, and the image of his grandfather on the hood of a car will recur when Hazel takes up preaching in Taulkinham. His grandfather’s targeting of Hazel as dirty and sinful begins to explain his angry rejection of the idea of sin and redemption.
The young Hazel already held a deep conviction that he would be a preacher, and that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. Jesus, in his mind, was a dark ragged figure darting between trees, who wanted to draw him out onto the water where he would drown once his faith was tested. All Hazel wanted was to stay and work in Eastrod, but he decided to go into the army for just four months, confident he could emerge uncorrupted. He stayed for four years.
Hazel’s conception of Jesus is different from the usual one portrayed by Christianity. For Hazel, Jesus is a dark figure that haunts his childhood, so that Hazel’s desire to be a preacher comes more from an urge to escape Jesus than to become closer to him. This glimpse into Hazel’s past—the plans he had and the ways they went awry—also reveals an early chapter in the struggle between free will and fate that governs the novel.
In the army, Hazel had only a black Bible and his mother’s reading glasses from home—glasses that tired his eyes so he was not tempted to read too much. He looked forward, at first, to resisting the temptations of the army, thus affirming his purity. When Hazel first had the chance to do so, however, his righteousness had little effect on the soldiers who were inviting him to a brothel. He told them he was from Eastrod, and wouldn’t have his soul corrupted by the government or foreign lands. They told him he had no soul, and left.
These small tokens and links to Hazel’s past emphasize the importance of his home to his development. The tiring glasses are a darkly comic reflection of the type of religious background Hazel comes from – he is more influenced by the fiery speeches of his grandfather than any reading of the Bible. He is isolated from his fellow soldiers by his righteous seriousness, and his spiritual conviction has little effect on their animal desire.
Hazel was deeply attracted to the idea that he had no soul, and that instead of corruption leading him into evil, it would lead him into nothing. It took a long time for him to be convinced of this though—first he went halfway around the world, and was wounded. The army said they removed the shrapnel from his chest, but Hazel didn’t believe them. Later, abroad again, he decided that he had never had a soul—his longing for Jesus was really a longing for home. When Hazel was released, still “uncorrupted,” he wanted to return to Eastrod. He was still carrying his Bible (which he no longer read) and his mother’s glasses.
The interaction with the soldiers introduces to Hazel the idea that humanity is more aligned with the animal than the spiritual – and thus that he has no real soul. This is attractive to Hazel because it contradicts what he has been told over and over again: that he is dirty, sinful, and in need of redemption. Over the course of the war he comes to accept the idea that there is no soul, and that he is clean because he could never be dirty. Still, he clings to the Bible that represents home.
Hazel took the first train home he could find, and bought himself the suit and hat along the way, stuffing his army uniform into a trashbox. When at last he arrived in Eastrod, it was evening, and he didn’t realize at first that his house was only an empty shell, overgrown with weeds. By the light of a burning envelope, Hazel explored the house. He fell asleep on the kitchen floor, where a board fell on his head and cut his face. The only remnant of his family was a chifforobe (a wardrobe with drawers) of his mother’s. Hazel tied it up, and left a note warning anyone interested in stealing the “shiffer-robe” that they would be hunted down and killed.
Hazel, a natural outsider, never felt at home with the camaraderie of the army, and sheds his uniform here without hesitation. There is no connection waiting for him at home, either – his abandoned house shows us how alone he truly is, and even this space seems hostile to him, as boards drop comically onto his head. He feels fiercely defensive of his former home, though, and can’t fully accept that it is empty, as demonstrated by his threatening note to potential intruders.
Hazel reflects that his mother’s ghost will feel more at peace knowing the chifforobe is guarded. He remembers her worried face, glimpsing it through the crack in her coffin as they shut it on her when he was sixteen. As with his father, grandfather, and brothers, Hazel was convinced until the last moment that she would spring out and escape when the coffin was closed. Hazel awakens from his half-conscious memory, desperate to escape from the coffin-like sleeping berth, but he has been locked in. The porter stands outside, unwilling to let him out. Hazel begs him, saying “Jesus,” but the porter responds, triumphantly, that “Jesus been a long time gone.”
Hazel’s instinct to defend the chifforobe comes from a sense of duty to his family—as does his religious guilt, it seems. This guilt is amplified by the fear and loneliness that results from watching them all die, and seeing the coffin shut upon them once and for all. This fear makes him desperate to escape the bunk, but he has already alienated the porter, only person who could help him. Coffin’s thus ultimately symbolize Hazel’s harsh, spiritual-minded view of life—when he thinks of his family, he only thinks of their deaths, and when he thinks of life, he is only concerned with issues of sin, the soul, and truth. Hazel’s invocation of Jesus here is another sign that he has not escaped religion as fully as he lets on.