The novel’s treatment of its two main characters, Hazel and Enoch, illustrates a classic divide between the spiritual and the animal sides of humanity.
While Hazel constantly attempts to escape his spiritual calling and often acts instinctively as a means of avoiding it, he ultimately fails to escape his inner spiritualism. In the moment that he finally gives in to Sabbath Hawks’ attempts at seduction, for instance, she throws away his hat. This is the last item of his clothing, which is often thought of as separating men from animals, to be stripped off. It is also a symbol of his spiritual calling, since it often causes him to be mistaken for a preacher. As she removes the hat, Sabbath drives this transition from the spiritual to the animal home when she calls him the ‘king of the beasts.’ This animal moment does not last long, however – by the next morning Hazel is eager to escape again, deeply uncomfortable with Sabbath’s fleshly appetites. By the end of the novel, he has retreated completely from the world by blinding himself, withdrawing further and further into himself such that his landlady Mrs. Flood suggests that he ought to live in a “monkery.”
Enoch, in contrast, is a pure vessel for the animal urges of his ‘wise blood,’ driven by instincts that seem outside of his control until he is finally stripped of his humanity and takes on the form of a gorilla. Enoch’s antagonistic relationship to animals is a running theme of the novel, as he insults the bears at the zoo, feels threatened by a painting of a moose in his room, and is terrified by Gonga the Gorilla. His actions, though, are often animal-like, driven by instinct. He burrows down through a tunnel to hide in the bushes and eye the women swimming in the pool near the zoo, and prowls about town indulging his habits and appetites, reveling in ‘base’ pleasures – sugary food, women, insults. When the reader is first introduced to Enoch, he follows Hazel like a wounded animal looking for help, resembling nothing more than a lost puppy, doggedly pursuing a friend (or, even, a master). In some ways, though, Enoch’s intense devotion to the rituals of his life, the calling of his blood, and the mummy-like figure of the ‘new jesus,’ suggest an inner spiritualism, an animal-like fear and appreciation for mysteries he does not understand.
O’Connor doesn’t just limit her exploration of animal behaviors to Hazel and Enoch. In fact, the novel portrays a grotesque, animal aspect to all of the people in the town. Their uglier instincts rear up in the form of offhand racism, persistent sexism, and dishonesty. Many characters are driven by instinct or desire, and O’Connor’s prose does not give much room to the intellectual or spiritual side of these figures, whose animal nature sometimes seems to assail Hazel’s attempt to communicate a deeper spiritual truth. One striking image comes when, at the pool, the woman with two kids catches Hazel watching her and leers back, undoing her shoulder straps. Hazel is so taken aback by this open display – reminiscent of an animal’s mating ritual – that he jumps up violently, retreating to his car.
Instinct and the Animal ThemeTracker
Instinct and the Animal Quotes in Wise Blood
They stared at each other for almost a minute and neither moved. Then he said in a voice that was higher than his usual voice, “What I mean to have you know is I’m no goddamn preacher.”
Mrs. Watts eyed him steadily and with only a slight smirk. Then she put her other hand under his face and tickled it in a motherly way. “That’s okay, son,” she said. “Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher.”
Mrs. Watts’ grin was as curved and sharp as the blade of a sickle. It was plain that she was so well-adjusted that she didn’t have to think anymore. Her eyes took everything in whole, like quicksand. “That Jesus-seeing hat!” she said. She sat up and pulled her nightgown from under her and took it off. She reached for his hat and put it on her head and sat with her hands on her hips, walling her eyes in a comical way. Haze stared for a minute, then he made three quick noises that were laughs. He jumped for the electric light cord and took off his clothes in the dark.
He put his fingers to his forehead and then held them in front of his eyes. They were streaked with red. He turned his head and saw a drop of blood on the ground and as he looked at it, he thought it widened like a little spring. He sat straight up, frozen-skinned, and put his finger in it, and very faintly he could hear his blood beating, his secret blood, in the center of the city. Then he knew that whatever was expected of him was only just beginning.
Enoch Emery knew now that his life would never be the same again, because the thing that was going to happen to him had started to happen. He had always known that something was going to happen but he hadn’t known what. If he had been much given to thought, he might have thought that now was the time for him to justify his daddy’s blood, but he didn’t think in broad sweeps like that, he thought what he would do next. Sometimes he didn’t think, he only wondered; then before long he would find himself doing this or that, like a bird finds itself building a nest when it hasn’t actually been planning to.
I ain’t going in, he said.
Two doors flew open and he found himself moving down a long red foyer and then up a darker tunnel and then a higher, still darker tunnel. In a few minutes he was up in a high part of the maw, feeling around, like Jonah, for a seat. I ain’t going to look at it, he said furiously. He didn’t like any picture shows but colored musical ones.
“Who is that that says it’s your conscience?” he cried, looking around with a constricted face as if he could smell the particular person who thought that. “Your conscience is a trick,” he said, “it don’t exist though you may think it does, and if you think it does, you had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it, because it’s no more than your face in the mirror is or your shadow behind you.”
Then he slid his legs under the cover by her and sat there as if he were waiting to remember one more thing. She was breathing very quickly. “Take off your hat, king of the beasts,” she said gruffly and her hand came up behind his head and snatched the hat off and sent it flying across the room in the dark.
The child in front of him finished and stepped aside and left him facing the ape, who took his hand with an automatic motion. It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft. For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. “My name is Enoch Emery,” he mumbled…
The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. “You go to hell,” a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand was jerked away.
No gorilla in existence, whether in the jungles of Africa or California, or in New York City in the finest apartment in the world, was happier at that moment than this one, whose god had finally rewarded it.
“People have quit doing it,” she repeated. “What do you do it for?”
“I’m not clean,” he said.
She stood staring at him, unmindful of the broken dishes at her feet. “I know it,” she said after a minute, “you got blood on that night shirt and on the bed. You ought to get you a washwoman…”
“That’s not the kind of clean,” he said.
“There’s only one kind of clean, Mr. Motes,” she muttered.