Flannery O’Connor’s novel follows the experience of two protagonists, Hazel Motes and Enoch Emory.
Hazel, or Haze, is from the small town of Eastrod, but everyone in his family is now dead, and he has no home to return to after serving in the army. He was raised very religiously and planned to become a preacher like his grandfather, who instilled in him a strong sense of his own guilt and the deadliness of sin, both of which require the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. Over the course of his time in the army, though, Hazel comes to believe that there is no such thing as a soul, and he becomes a passionate atheist.
As he makes his way to a new life in Taulkinham, Hazel has a series of awkward, bitter interactions with the people he encounters, who often mistake him for a preacher – he has a quarrel with Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock on the train, and a porter whom Hazel is convinced comes from Eastrod leaves him locked in his berth after he has a nightmare about coffins. Another quarrel about his identity as a preacher ensues with the taxi driver who takes Hazel from the train station to the home of Mrs. Leora Watts, a prostitute whose address Hazel finds in a bathroom stall. After Leora tells Hazel that “Momma don’t care” if he’s a preacher, he sleeps with her, the first time he has been with a woman. The next day he encounters the blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter, Sabbath Lily, and follows them, followed in turn by the eighteen-year-old Enoch Emory, who is a newcomer working at the zoo in Taulkinham.
After a confrontation with Asa Hawks, Hazel decides to found the Church Without Christ to preach his message that Jesus is a liar, that all men are “clean,” and there is no such thing as sin or redemption. Hazel buys himself a car with forty dollars, a beat-up old Essex that barely runs, but he is convinced it is perfect. He finds Enoch at the zoo, but cannot get Enoch to tell him the Hawks’ address. He follows the Hawks home one night, and ends up renting a room upstairs in their boarding house. He decides to seduce the daughter, Sabbath, as a means of proving his convictions to Asa, but fails to reckon with Sabbath’s wily, experienced, and persistent attempts to seduce him in return. Hazel begins to preach from on top of his car outside of movie theaters, but fails to gather any disciples – except for one, Onnie Jay Holy (whose real name is Hoover Shoats), who turns out to be a conman, interested only in using Hazel’s platform to make money. When Hazel rejects his efforts, revealing that the “new jesus” he has been preaching about is only a figure of speech, Shoats recruits another man, Solace Layfield, to impersonate Hazel, and begins to preach across the street from him.
Hazel is deeply affected by the sight of his double, combined with his discovery that Asa Hawks is a fraud – a man who lost his nerve and failed to blind himself in his early days as a committed preacher, but then pretended to be blind. Hazel returns home in his car to find Sabbath waiting in his bed. He undresses entirely, except for his hat, which she takes off for him, calling him the “king of the beasts” as he finally gives in to her romantic advances. The next day Hazel resolves to escape and leave the city, but seems to snap entirely when Sabbath appears in the doorway cradling a mummy that Enoch delivered that morning, forming a Madonna-like image. Hazel destroys the mummy, and that night he follows his impersonator, Solace Layfield, and confronts him in his car. Hazel tells Solace to take off his suit and hat, and then Hazels runs him over with his car, killing him.
Enoch, meanwhile, is a lonely eighteen-year-old boy, who has lived in Taulkinham for two months and works at the city zoo. He displays more “animal” tendencies in contrast to Hazel’s spiritual side, and is deeply affected by food, women, animals, and aggression in any form. Possibly mentally ill, Enoch is driven by the instincts he refers to as his “wise blood.” When he first encounters Hazel, Enoch follows him like a lost dog looking for a friend. Later, he draws Hazel into his daily ritual in the city park, desperate to show him the dark secret center of the city that only he knows about – a shrunken corpse in the city museum. Hazel runs away, however, and throws a stone at Enoch’s head when he tries to follow him.
Later, Enoch finds himself following the voice of his “wise blood,” despite his efforts to avoid its call. He cleans up a tabernacle-like cabinet in his room, and then feels compelled to go to the movie theater, where he finally runs out during a movie about an orangutan who saves children from a burning building – Enoch feels a deep antagonism toward animals. Hearing Hazel preaching afterward about the need for a “new jesus,” Enoch realizes that his task will be to steal the shrunken man from the museum. This is what the cabinet in his room has been prepared to receive. On his way to deliver the corpse to Hazel, though, burning with regret and tormented by the rain, Enoch stumbles upon a publicity event for Gonga the Gorilla, where the star will appear to shake the hands of a line of waiting children.
Planning to insult the gorilla, and ready for his “supreme moment,” Enoch waits in line, but when he shakes Gonga’s warm hand – the first that has been offered to him since he arrived in Taulkinham – he finds himself telling Gonga about himself and his life. The human actor behind the gorilla’s mask leans forward and tells him to go to hell, and Enoch runs away, humiliated. After delivering the damaged bundle to Sabbath Hawks, Enoch waits for his reward from the new jesus, and finds it in a newspaper advertisement for Gonga’s last appearance. Enoch sneaks into the back of the truck with the “gorilla,” and murders him with the sharp end of his broken umbrella. Then Enoch leaves the truck, strips, buries his clothes, and puts on the gorilla suit, transforming in a moment of ultimate joy. He comes across a couple on the edge of the woods and tries to shake their hands, but they run away. He is left sitting alone, looking out over the city.
Meanwhile, Hazel has cleaned off Solace’s blood from his car and decides to leave the city forever, eager to start a new life elsewhere. On the highway five miles out of town, though, he is stopped by a vengeful police officer, who tricks him into driving to the top of a hill and then pushes his car off the embankment. In that moment, Hazel seems to withdraw entirely into himself, and doesn’t respond to the policeman at all. He walks the five miles back to town, buys some lime and a bucket, and blinds himself, as Asa had promised and failed to do years earlier. Mrs. Flood, his landlady, becomes more and more obsessed with Hazel’s strange ways, as he goes on living a very monkish lifestyle in the house, throwing away whatever money he doesn’t spend on rent and barely speaking to anyone. Mrs. Flood discovers that Hazel is walking miles each day in shoes that are filled with stones and glass, and that he wears barbed wire around his chest. When Mrs. Flood confronts him about this, Hazel tells her that he has to pay, and that he is unclean. More and more curious about the mysteries that drive Hazel, Mrs. Flood proposes that they get married, but this horrifies him. After Mrs. Flood’s proposal, Hazel dresses and leaves, going out into a freezing storm. He is found two days later by a pair of policemen, one of whom accidentally kills Hazel by hitting him over the head with a billy club. Thinking he is still alive, the policemen deliver Hazel to Mrs. Flood. She props his dead body up in her bed and stares into his empty eye sockets, her own eyes closed, imagining the dark world inside of him gradually receding into the distance until all that is left is a single point of light.