Places: Wise Blood

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Places DiscussedTaulkinham

Taulkinham. Wise BloodImaginary Alabama city that is the setting for most of the action of Wise Blood; loosely modeled on Birmingham, Alabama. Hazel Motes decides to go to Taulkinham when he discovers, after leaving the Army, that none of his family remains in the family home in Eastrod, Tennessee. Taulkinham is filled with characters and locations that are rooted in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Its street preachers, movie promotions, car salesmen, prostitutes, and bumpkins can be found in any time or place, but Flannery O’Connor gives these a southern flavor.

Hazel’s first evening in Taulkinham offers a good example of O’Connor’s use of the city. As Hazel walks through the garish streets of the commercial district, O’Connor paints a picture of shoddy cheapness in direct contrast to the sky full of stars, which suggests the majestic beauty of God. Not surprisingly, the people of Taulkinham are ignoring the sky in favor of watching a man selling potato peelers.

The settings of Taulkinham–the prostitute Leora Watts’s house; Hazel’s rented room; Enoch Emery’s room, in which even the pictures make him feel guilty; the used car lot; and the street corners on which Hazel preaches his depressing message of meaninglessness–all suggest the emptiness of Hazel’s own vision (a vision that changes when his faith returns after he blinds himself).

A location of particular interest in the city is the museum from which Enoch Emery steals a mummy. The museum is a classical building and carved into its face is the Latin-styled inscription in which the letter u is replaced with v–MVSEVM. Enoch finds the word terrifying (he pronounces it muvseevum) and can hardly bring himself to say it aloud, as if it were a sacred word. Appropriately enough, Enoch believes that the mummy he has stolen from such a holy place is the “new jesus,” and he tries to persuade Hazel of its power.

O’Connor wrote as a committed Catholic surrounded by southern Protestantism, and as such she wanted to make her fiction represent those moments in which God’s grace touches human souls. However, she also wanted to write about the world she and her readers knew. The result was her representation of places like Taulkinham, the secular city and its inhabitants. Although some readers have called O’Connor’s people grotesques, she claimed they were simply realistic pictures of a world where people are more quickly drawn to street hawkers and fraudulent preachers than to matters of true faith. It is not surprising that when Hazel’s landlady realizes he has wound barbed wire around his chest, evidently in penance, she tells him no one does such things any more, “like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats.”

Eastrod

Eastrod. Tennessee crossroads community in which Hazel Motes’s family once lived. Hazel returns to Eastrod (which once was home to twenty-five people) when he gets out of the Army only to discover that both the town and his family’s house have been abandoned. The general store is boarded up, the barn is in collapse, and Hazel’s house is reduced to a “skeleton” and empty of everything but an old chifforobe (a combination dresser and wardrobe) his mother had once bought for thirty dollars. Later, on the train, Hazel dreams of the chifforobe, blending it with his mother’s coffin in his dream. It is on this train that Hazel announces his loss of faith and his abandonment of his youthful plan to return to Eastrod and become a preacher like his grandfather.

Sources for Further StudyBaumgaertner, Jill P. Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring. Wheaton, Ill.: Shaw, 1988. This study deals with O’Connor’s work as religious fiction, including essays on her most frequently collected short stories and her novels. Baumgaertner treats Wise Blood as a semiallegory about a “Christian in spite of himself.” Includes a bibliography.Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Brinkmeyer’s “Narrator and Narrative” chapter includes a lengthy discussion of Wise Blood, concentrating on the texture of the novel’s world and on the relationship of point of view to theme.Giannone, Richard. Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Giannone devotes a thirty-five page chapter to Wise Blood, arguing that the novel articulates the disparity between “inept human bungling” and the power of God. Includes a bibliography.Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Hendin discusses Wise Blood as a sort of coming-of-age novel. She sees the light in Hazel’s eyes at the conclusion as ambiguous.Kreyling, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Wise Blood.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Four essays (plus an introduction) that offer new methodological approaches to Wise Blood, ranging from feminist psychoanalysis to theology.Lawson, Lewis. “The Perfect Deformity: Wise Blood.” In Modern Critical Views: Flannery O’Connor, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Lawson examines the use of physical deformities as symbolic in the novel.O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. A collection of some of O’Connor’s nonfiction; absolutely essential for any understanding of O’Connor’s own perspective on her literary work.Srigley, Susan. Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Art. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. O’Connor’s key works interpreted from the perspective of theological analysis, particularly focused on what the author terms O’Connor’s “ethic of responsibility.”Stephens, Martha. The Question of Flannery O’Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. Stephens devotes a fifty-two-page chapter to Wise Blood, concentrating particularly on the novel’s structural problems.Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Twayne, 1973. Like most of the Twayne series, this is a good general introduction to O’Connor’s work. The twenty-page chapter on Wise Blood discusses its early critical reception, summarizes the action, and analyzes its religious themes.Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004. An analysis of O’Connor’s Catholic theological vision within its Southern milieu.
Categories: Places