Religion is at the core of O’Connor’s novel, as Hazel Motes struggles against the belief he was born into, and Enoch follows his own strange mysteries, investing faithfully in private rites and rituals.
Raised by a preacher, Hazel believed that he would become a preacher himself, but after time abroad in the war he became an impassioned atheist. Now Hazel struggles against that faith, a struggle that is both external (he aggressively struggles against Christians and preachers he encounters) but also internal, as he is never entirely able to escape the Christian tradition into which he was born. He struggles against it, he denies it, but it still defines him. Hazel even goes on to found the Church Without Christ as a protest against the work of street preacher Asa Hawks, with whom he becomes obsessed.
Hazel is constantly being mistaken for a preacher, an impression that is reinforced by his suit and hat, as much as his serious air. His frustrated denial of any religious affiliation is received with simple disbelief by his cab driver, and with smiling dismissal by Leora Watts. Hazel’s over-the-top anger at these constant misunderstandings suggest that he is fleeing a spiritual calling that is somehow visible to those around him, but which he refuses to recognize. O’Connor fills Hazel’s landscape with evangelizing signs promoting Christianity and religious symbols, from hand-painted rocks to the image of the Madonna and Child formed by Sabbath Hawks cradling the shrunken corpse that Enoch steals from the museum. These signs chip away at his resolve, driving him into a rage.
Hazel is most passionately opposed to the idea that men are all born with sin, and can only be redeemed through a belief in Jesus. He argues at multiple points in the novel that everyone is clean, denying the existence of sin and asking his listeners to point to where, exactly, the redeeming blood of Jesus has touched them, denying the existence of any redemption that is not physically present in the here and now. At the same time, Hazel is clearly very deeply affected by a sense of inner guilt, and feels the need to repent with physical self-harm when he has done something wrong – a feeling that began when he found his way into an erotic sideshow at a local fair as a child, and later walked a mile in rock-filled shoes to redeem himself.
At the novel’s conclusion, it is revealed that Hazel has been silently punishing himself by wearing barbed wire beneath his shirt, presumably repenting for the murder he commits earlier in the novel, when he runs down the man hired to by Onnie Jay Holy as his imposter in a car. He tells Mrs. Flood, his landlady, that he is “unclean,” something that he has violently denied throughout he novel. This leaves the reader to question whether he has finally given in to the religious fate – the deep spiritual consciousness of sin, guilt, and redemption - that has followed him from childhood.
Enoch displays signs of faith as well, although not in a strictly Christian sense; he invests heavily in ritual and shows a reverence for the “purpose of things,” going about his days in a way that feels almost sacramental. He has an unshakeable, mystical belief in the ‘new jesus,’ a small, shrunken corpse that he steals from the city’s museum, and a deep, fearful appreciation for everything that he doesn’t understand. Ultimately, O’Connor’s novel seems to endorse a type of Christianity – personal, intense, uncompromising – that is tortuously difficult, if not impossible, to come to in today’s shallow world.
Religious Belief, Redemption, and Sin ThemeTracker
Religious Belief, Redemption, and Sin Quotes in Wise Blood
In his half-sleep he thought where he was lying was like a coffin. The first coffin he had seen with someone in it was his grandfather’s. They had left it propped open with a stick of kindling the night it had sat in the house with the old man in it, and Hazel had watched from a distance, thinking: he ain’t going to let them shut it on him; when the time comes, his elbow is going to shoot into the crack. His grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger. When it was time to bury him, they shut the top of his box down and he didn’t make a move.
The boy didn’t need to hear it. There was already a black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
They told him he didn’t have any soul and left him for their brothel. He took a long time to believe them because he wanted to believe them. All he wanted was to believe them and get rid of it once and for all, and he saw the opportunity here to get rid of it without corruption, to be converted to nothing instead of to evil.
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.”
“I come a long way,” Haze said, “since I would believe anything. I come halfway around the world.
“Me too,” Enoch Emery said.
“You ain’t come so far that you could keep from following me,” the blind man said. He reached out suddenly and his hands covered Haze’s face. For a second Haze didn’t move or make any sound. Then he knocked the hands off.
“Sweet Jesus Christ Crucified,” he said, “I want to tell you people something. Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe. Well you are clean, let me tell you that. Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong. I don’t say he wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you. Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth.”
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.
“What you seen?” she said, using the same tone of voice all the time. She hit him across the legs with the stick, but he was like part of the tree. “Jesus died to redeem you,” she said.
“I never ast him,” he muttered.
She didn’t hit him again but she stood looking at him, shut-mouthed, and he forgot the guilt of the tent for the nameless unplaced guilt that was in him.
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.
Ten years ago at a revival he had intended to blind himself and two hundred people or more were there, waiting for him to do it. He had preached for an hour on the blindness of Paul, working himself up until he had saw himself struck blind by a Divine flash of lightning and, with courage enough then, he had thrust his hands into the bucket of wet lime and streaked them down his face; but he hadn’t been able to let any of it get into his eyes. He had been possessed of as many devils as were necessary to do it, but at that instant, they disappeared, and he saw himself standing there as he was.
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.
Haze stayed in his car about an hour and had a bad experience in it: he dreamed he was not dead but only buried. He was not waiting on the Judgment because there was no Judgment, he was waiting on nothing. Various eyes looked through the back oval window at his situation, some with considerable reverence, like the boy from the zoo, and some only to see what they could see… Then a woman with two little boys on either side of her stopped and looked in, grinning. After a second, she pushed the boys out of view and indicated that she would climb in and keep him company for a while, but she couldn’t get through the glass and finally she went off.
“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.”
“I knew when I first seen you you were mean and evil,” a furious voice behind him said. “ I seen you wouldn’t let nobody have nothing. I seen you were mean enough to slam a baby against a wall. I seen you wouldn’t never have no fun or let anybody else because you didn’t want nothing but Jesus!”
He turned and raised his arm in a vicious gesture, almost losing his balance in the door. Drops of rain water were splattered over the front of the glasses and on his red face and here and there they hung sparkling from the brim of his hat. “I don’t want nothing but the truth!” he shouted, “and what you see is the truth and I’ve seen it!”
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.
“You shut up,” Haze said, leaning his head closer to hear the confession.
“Told where his still was and got five dollars for it,” the man gasped.
“You shut up now,” Haze said.
“Jesus…” the man said.
“Shut up like I told you to now,” Haze said.
“Jesus hep me,” the man wheezed.
Haze gave him a hard slap on the back and he was quiet. He leaned down to hear if he was going to say anything else but he wasn’t breathing any more.
Haze followed him around, telling him what it was right to believe. He said it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth. He said he had only a few days ago believed in blasphemy as the way to salvation, but that you couldn’t even believe in that because then you were believing in something to blaspheme. As for the Jesus who was reported to have been born at Bethlehem and crucified on Calvary for man’s sins, Haze said, He was too foul a notion for a sane person to carry in his head… he began to curse and blaspheme Jesus in a quiet but intense way but with such conviction that the boy paused from his work to listen.
“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.
She had never observed his face so composed and she grabbed his hand and held it to her heart. It was resistless and dry. The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared. She leaned closer and closer to his face, looking deep into them, trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn’t see anything. She shut her eyes and saw the pin point of light but so far away that she could not hold it steady in her mind. She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.