ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 3 - Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: We finished Black Boy last time, and one of the big questions coming out of my discussion of that autobiography is: how do you manage the question of context in reading a novel or an autobiography–in reading any text? And we had a very complex publishing history to think about with that text. Flannery O’Connor’s work raises questions of a similar kind, but they look very different. And so, my lectures on Flannery O’Connor will highlight the methodologies that we can bring to any reading of a novel, and it will highlight the differences between different methodologies and what they allow us to see in a different text.
Flannery O’Connor, as most of you probably know, is a Southern writer. She is very often assimilated to a whole group of southern writers who were working in the 1930s and ’40s, the “Southern Agrarians.” She was friends with a lot of the major figures of that movement, especially Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. She lived out her life mostly in a small town called Milledgeville, Georgia. She was born in Savannah in 1925. She studied writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She lived in New York for a short time, but she was afflicted with lupus, a very serious illness, and she died at the age of 39 in 1964. So, she lived a pretty short life. Over the course of that life, she wrote mostly short stories, and so she is very much known for her short stories. She has a couple of novels. Of them, this is, I think, the most successful.
O’Connor, you may also know, has been understood as a religious writer. She was a Catholic, and she very much made her Catholicism at the center of all the things that she said about her fictional practice. And so, we’re going to see a couple of those things today. Let’s look–just to begin with, if you brought your books–let’s look at the cover of this book. What does this cover say to you? What does this image remind you of? What does it look like to you? Do you want to answer that?
Student: Is it the Sacred Heart?
Professor Amy Hungerford: It’s the Sacred Heart, yes. It’s the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In Catholic iconography of a certain kind, the figure of Christ is shown usually parting His clothes and His flesh and showing you His Sacred Heart, which is usually crowned with flame and often encircled with thorns. So it’s an image of Christ the suffering godhead: the very human, fleshly person who will part His own flesh in order to connect with, in order to redeem, the believer. So right in the packaging of this novel that we have today–this cover has changed over time–nevertheless, even today, that very Catholic iconography is right on the front of the cover. And when you see Wise Blood, that title, right below the Sacred Heart, you can’t help but think of: well, this blood is somehow the blood of Christ. That’s the kind of blood we’re talking about. It’s already entered a sort of metaphorical register, religious register, in the way this book is packaged. Then, when we open up the front, we see the author’s note to the second edition, and this was something O’Connor added to the novel in 1962. I just want to read that with you today. She says:
So, right up front, we are told that Hazel Motes is a Christian in spite of himself, that this is how we are to understand this character who we will come to know. I also want to give another layer to this understanding of O’Connor as a religious writer by looking at what she said in her correspondence to one of her readers who asked her some questions, and this is on the handout that I passed around.
This is a letter to a man named Ben Griffith from 1954. So she had just finished Wise Blood, and people are starting to read it, ask her questions. She was a prolific correspondent. She was very generous in her letter writing. She would write to almost anyone who wrote to her. She would write back in a substantive way. I think it’s in part that, suffering from lupus, she was very much confined to her house in Georgia, and the letter writing, this kind of correspondence, was certainly a way for her to keep in contact with the world of readers and other writers and friends. So he had written to her. He was teaching writing at a local college. He’s obviously been asking her about the sources of some of the images and characters and themes in Wise Blood. So, I want to point out a couple of things. This is the first full paragraph:
This is very typical in tone for O’Connor. When she talks about education or learning–and if you read more in this letter (I won’t go through the whole thing), you will see that–she’s very self-deprecating. She says she has “what passes for an education in this day and age.” She says that she has read a little bit of Kafka and “doesn’t know what to make of him, but it makes you a bolder writer.” She reads a little Henry James because she thinks that makes her a better writer, somehow, but she doesn’t quite know how. There’s always this veneer of innocence, or lack of learning, or lack of sophistication; so, she is presenting herself as a simple person. I think that’s important, although not directly connected to her presentation of herself as a Catholic person. I think it does factor into her sense that the truth she is accessing, or the truth that she is trying to present to the world in her stories, is one that even a child might be able to understand. And that fits very comfortably within a New Testament understanding of the teaching of Christ. So, Christ is that one to whom the little children can come, and I think she cultivates that childlike sense in her self-presentation. But then there is this very explicit discussion of her Catholicism, a little further down:
…And so on. If you turn over, this is another letter to Ben Griffith written fairly shortly after this first one. She expands a little bit on this sense of her Catholicism. This is in the middle of the page:
There is that characteristic self-deprecation. With letters like this–which were published copiously in a beautiful edition that Sally Fitzgerald edited–with letters like this, or her frequent essays and lectures, which are collected in a book called Mystery and Manners, she was expounding a certain reading of her fiction, even while she was still writing it. And those who were close to her have picked up that understanding of her fiction and promulgated it. And there’s a huge critical industry around Flannery O’Connor, and at the core of it is a body of criticism that finds and articulates and explains the religious meanings of her texts.
Chapter 2. The Search for Home: Haze’s Essex [00:12:27]
With that in mind, I want to point up to the two quotations that I put on the board to start us off today: “‘I like his eyes. They don’t look like they see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.’” This is Sabbath Lily Hawks. And then, a character you haven’t met yet if you stopped at page 100, Onnie Jay Holy: “‘I wouldn’t have you believe nothing you can’t feel in your own hearts.’” These two quotations seem to me a kind of rubric under which we can start to think about what it means to read this novel, and what it means to read it in the light of the religious context that O’Connor herself, critics, marketers, have built up around her work.
The first quotation from Sabbath Lily of course focuses on the eyes, and it is not hard to read into Haze Motes’s name that the trope of sight is going to be important. “Haze Motes.” There is that famous passage in the New Testament (or is it–oh, gosh–now I’m going to forget if it’s New or Old Testament; someone will correct me): “Do not try to remove the mote from your neighbor’s eye before you have removed it from your own,” or “lest you fail to remove the mote from your own eye.” So there is this sense of occluded sight; “Haze,” that haze. Somehow, something is wrong with Haze Motes’s eyes, something wrong with his sight, or rather there is something important about his sight that we’re going to have to unpack. But what I want to take out of Sabbath Lily’s comment about Haze is this sense of what you look at. What does Haze look at and what does he see? What do we look at when we read this novel, and what do we see? Those are questions that are going to frame the two lectures that I give on this novel.
The second quotation, from Onnie Jay Holy, raises the question of sentiment. This novel–as you will soon see, once you get to the parts where Onnie Jay Holy begins to preach–this novel is very much a critique of sentimentality. If Richard Wright’s ideal response to his fiction was that, for the reader, the words would disappear, and all they would be left with is their emotional response, for O’Connor it’s precisely that kind of response–to any call: be it textual, be it an act of reading, an act of audition, hearing someone preach–that kind of response is precisely not the one you are supposed to have. And so I would ask you to think about a couple of simple questions as you move through this book, and as you think about what I have to say about it. One of them could begin with a reflection like this. Would you ever want to sit down to dinner with any of the people in this novel? I see people shaking their heads. They are quite unlikable, and this is consistent pretty much across O’Connor’s fiction: short, long, medium, whatever. Her characters are not very endearing. So you want to ask yourself why that’s so. This is a conscious decision on her part, and you want to think about that decision.
If there is any character who seems kind of endearing, at least for me, it’s probably Enoch. And we’ll talk a little bit more about him: not today, but in the second lecture and in section. So, with these questions in mind, I want you think about how we can see the novel and how we can think about it in the face of the interpretation that’s already layered on to it. And what I want to do is now, kind of just descend in to the text, and read with you the passage when Haze first takes the Essex out for a spin: his wonderful car, the Essex. So, this is on page 73, is about where it begins, and I’m going to read through the next two or three pages. And I’ll skip around in the book as things come up that I want to show you in other parts of the book. So let’s think about seeing and theology and all the issues that are already on the table for us. I’m going to begin at the bottom of 73: “When the car was ready….”– If you have your book, go ahead and open it up. “When the car was ready, the man and the boy stood by to watch him drive it off.” (Is it the wrong page numbers? Shoot. Oh, dear. Sixty-nine. Okay. So, it’s four off. [Refers to discrepancy in pagination among different editions of the novel] Thank you for telling me. You rely on publishers and then they let you down. Okay. Does everyone have it?)
I just want to stop there for a minute. Haze sees the car as a kind of home. Well, how are we meant to understand the meaning of that? It has the feeling of a rare moment of explanation from Haze. He almost never explains himself to other people. Here he is accounting for his need for the car. Now, of course, O’Connor was very good at imbuing her writing with repeated symbols that grow and accrue meaning across the text. So we’ve already seen the trope of the house. And if you look back at 24 (oh, no–try 20; see if we can find it here.), when Haze describes–or, we sort of know through his consciousness–the story of his time in the Army, this is what we learn about how he felt there, after he’s wounded:
O’Connor has already put in place in the novel through that little passage the sense that the longing for home and the longing for redemption–or the resistance to redemption–these things are very close to one another. You can mistake–here we find out about Haze–you can mistake the longing for Jesus for the longing for home, or vice versa: the longing for home, for the longing of Jesus. The Bible that he carries around is important to him because it comes from home. I want to suggest to you that the fact that it’s the religious book for him, for his culture, for his family, is not of course incidental to the fact that it’s what reminds him of home. It’s not just that you can mistake the longing for home for the longing for Jesus. You can in some ways see religion and home as conflated. And this gets to a traditional Christian notion of the believer as not being at home in the world: that the believer somehow belongs to God’s kingdom, and that this is either countercultural–at odds with the general world in which he or she would find herself–or it is totally incompatible with the world in which we live.
The Bible is a physical manifestation of the proximity of the spiritual and the material in this world. So what makes him feel close to home, in a way, has to make him feel close to the religion he’s trying to reject. That conflation is part of what makes it impossible for Haze to escape the question of redemption, even if he wants to answer it in a way that’s at odds with how, for example, his grandfather, the preacher, would answer it. This is why he’s continually mistaken for a preacher, no matter what he does. Remember he goes in to the prostitute’s house, Mrs. Watts’s, and he’s got a hat on, and the hat just makes him look like a preacher. There’s nothing he can do. He says, “I’m not a preacher,” and she says, “That’s okay if you’re not a preacher.” It’s just something that’s in his body; it’s physical.
So the car–going back to the passage that I was talking about before with the Essex–the car (even though religion is not mentioned directly right here), the sense of home that it embodies, carries with it all that sense of unhousedness. And, because it’s a moving house, it carries the sense of the wandering believer with it as well. And you get that reinforced on the very next page (if you just skip over about a page from there): “A black pickup truck turned off a side road in front of him. On the back of it, an iron bed and a chair and table were tied, and on top of them a crate of Barred Rock chickens.” So other cars on the road looked like houses, mobile houses, as well. It’s not just Haze’s Essex that is imagined as home.
Chapter 3. The Depiction of Nothingness: The Landscapes of O’Connor [00:24:53]
So O’Connor is giving us a version of the road, and I want you to keep this in mind because of course we’re going to read On the Road, and we are going to see a major road trip in Lolita, actually two of them. So the iconography of the American road is something that is going to come back to us. Well, here is our first example. This is the road of the unhoused, of the spiritually seeking, of the wandering, of the lost. People wander in search of some kind of coherent meaning. I want to now move down a little bit and observe how landscape is presented to us. This is after that, “since he was going very fast…”:
So what do we notice about this landscape? First of all, it’s very much constructed. It’s buttoned together with posts, as if someone had built it, and–what’s more–these are described as 666 posts. I think this is probably a size of lumber, but you can’t get away from the mythology of that number. In the Book of Revelation it’s the number of the beast; it’s the number of the devil. It’s also a landscape that is full of pigs, wandering pigs, so if the people are wandering through this road, the pigs are equally wanderers throughout these fields. They’re unconfined; they seem to cross the road at will. The sky, the world above, is really bound up with the world below. There is very little separation, even if there is a sense that the sky is impinging on the earth and not the other way around. “The sky leaked over all of it.” It’s really, in a sense, the physical image is of rain; it’s raining, so it’s leaking all over it. But there’s more than that. There is this sense of the concerns of the sky somehow, the concerns of the above; the concerns of the transcendent are seeping their way in to the concerns of the material world below. And then you get that sort of lyrical moment of interpretation: “He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing he had forgotten had happened to him.” Now this is where the omniscient narrator comes in quite forcefully, and gives us something to work on as we analyze Haze and we think about who he is as a character and where he finds himself.
This connects I think with a whole host of other passages that have to do with nothingness. And one of them is right above on that page, and I read it a little earlier: “thinking nothing and sweating.” It’s as if “thinking nothing” is not a passive activity, but an active one. So that, to think nothing is something you have to work at; it’s something that you can be preoccupied with. And similarly, if you look back at 37–this is again a description of landscape–you can see this connection between (or, well, somewhat of a disconnection between) the above and the below, another description of sky. This is Hazel walking in Taulkinham: “The black sky was underpinned with long, silver streaks” (this is the very beginning of Chapter 3 if you’re trying to find it):
Here that omniscient narrator, as when that narrator looks in to Haze’s mind, offers you a reading of the sky and its separation from the minds of the characters that suggests, or makes you look for, kinds of structure. Here, it’s the construction work; she actually uses that word. But you get scaffolding; you get depth or perspective: counting thousands of stars, “moving…as if they were about some vast work that involved the whole order of the universe.” It vaults the very concrete materiality, the physicality, of these characters and their circumstances. It vaults that discussion into a much larger, metaphysical, transcendent context, the whole order of the universe.
It’s moments like these when that omniscient narrator lives up to its name, that sense of omniscience that we might associate with God. Another example is at the very opening of the book:
“Pretty” is not exactly the word that comes to mind–at least not to my mind–when I read this. It’s more like “heavy” or “saturated,” and there’s again pigs running around. Again there is a biblical iconography behind this. There are two instances that come to my mind. When demons are cast out by the apostles and sent into a herd of pigs, and the pigs go running off a cliff and die; that’s one image. Another is the admonition not to throw your pearls before swine, not to preach to those who can’t hear, or won’t be perceptive.
So these moments of landscape description offer up that consistently Christian-inflected theory of the universe, that sense of transcendence as structure, as something that’s moving inexorably, that will take all time to complete. It has a project; it has a teleology. So, that’s present in all of these moments, but–equally present–I want to get back to this sense of blankness. There is a vagueness to this language that I think is quite calculated, and it relates, in Haze’s case, to his determination to not be converted to evil, but to nothing. When he’s in the army, he says–he decides–he can get rid of Jesus by converting not to evil, but to nothing, to believe in nothing. So what O’Connor does, is she presents a sense of the world imbued with structure and meaning, but a structure and meaning that looks essentially blank. And I think the task of the novel is to fill that structure in.
Chapter 4. The Symbolism of Senses: Hazel Motes’s Eyes and Ears [00:33:42]
The last thing I want to point out, in this passage from here to the end of the chapter, is the way that Haze’s senses are described. We already talked a little bit about his name and the occlusion of sight. The trope of sight is obviously extremely important here. We have the blind preacher. There are more things, which I won’t reveal, that happen at the end of the novel to do with this. If you haven’t read, I won’t give it away. But here, there are simpler examples: when the truck pulls up in front of Haze and starts moving very slowly, “Haze started pounding his horn, and he had hit it three times before he realized it didn’t make any sound.” He keeps doing this. When he comes to the roadside sign, “Woe to the blasphemer and whore monger. Will hell swallow you up?” it says “The pickup truck slowed even more, as if it were reading the sign, and Haze pounded his empty horn. He beat on it and beat on it but it didn’t make any sound.” He doesn’t at first hear the horn fail to blow, and then later, when a truck pulls up behind him, he fails to hear a horn that does blow:
These two characters are as if there is a wall between them, a wall of foam. They can’t hear each other. They’re insulated from understanding what the other is preoccupied with. In Haze’s case, he does this over and over and over again. And the most pitiful example of it is on 57. Poor Enoch! I feel so bad for him in this passage. Enoch is trying to hang out with Haze. This is on the bottom of 56, probably your 52. Haze is trying to get rid of Enoch:
Okay, and so on and so on. Poor Enoch! Does Haze care? Now; not at all. “Haze looked straight ahead, with his face set.” Poor Enoch. Nothing can penetrate Haze’s imperviousness to other human beings. If Haze is busy looking at something, what he’s looking at is manifestly not the person in front of him. He can’t hear major elements of the soundscape: the truck horn behind him. He can’t hear his own horn, whether it blows or not. He can’t hear the voices of other people. What he sees is a mystery. As Sabbath Lily says, “his eyes, they don’t look like they see what he’s looking at.” What is he looking at, then? I think we’re meant to understand that he is so focused on the question of redemption that he fails to see anything else; he fails to see anyone else in his preoccupation with that problem.
Chapter 5. Fragmented Bodies: What We Miss When We Limit Our Interpretative Lens [00:38:43]
Now I want to switch gears, just for the last couple minutes, and ask you: what do you see when you read this novel? And I’m going to suggest to you something to think about. I see body parts. When I read this novel, I see a lot of dismembered body parts. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take a look. On page 32(try 28; see if you can find it), this is Haze coming to the house of Leora Watts: “He went up to the front porch and put his eye to a convenient crack in the shade and found himself looking directly at a large, white knee.” And what’s she doing? She’s cutting her toenails. “Mrs. Watts was sitting alone in a white iron bed cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors. She was a big woman with very yellow hair and white skin that glistened with a greasy preparation. She had on a pink nightgown that would have better fit a smaller figure.”
That large, white knee: the way this narration allows us to see through Haze’s eyes begins to take the whole body apart, so what he sees is not Mrs. Watts; he sees a large, white knee. We saw a version of this also in the passage I was reading just before, where “a hand” comes in the window and rests–“lands”–on Haze’s shoulder. “A square, red face.” And then these things, these body parts, are then referred to with the pronoun “it”; “it,” the hand, did this or that. Take a look at page 18. This is Mrs. Hitchcock in the train; it’s Haze bumping into Mrs. Hitchcock:
It’s that she’s rotting; there is mushrooms growing on her, figurative mushrooms growing on her head. Her face is purple except for the white marks. The white marks are little scars, acne scars perhaps. She is a sort of mass of flesh. As Mrs. Watts, that pink wrapper–actually two pink wrappers, too tight on their bodies–suggest the excess of their corporeality, they’re big hunks of flesh.
On 62, we get an account of Haze’s childhood sin. He goes into the freak show at the fair, and he joins the crowd where his father also is. “They were looking down into a lowered place, where something white was lying, squirming a little, in a box lined with black cloth. For a second he thought it was a skinned animal, and then he saw it was a woman.” On 15 (I’m going to skip back to the train; I’m just going to rack these up for you, and then we’ll think about them), this is Haze waiting to be seated in the dining car of the train:
What do we make of these odd moments of description? Why all these body parts hanging around? Why this sense of disgusting, excessive body matter? It’s often women who appear in this guise, but it’s not always women. What I want to suggest to you is that, when we actually look at the sentences on the page, when we look at the words that O’Connor chose in the moments of the narration, we see something that becomes more complicated than the “Flannery O’Connor is a Catholic writer”; “Haze Motes is a Christian malgré lui.” That’s a kind of focus. If we think about this, analogize it to how Haze looks, it’s a way of looking at O’Connor’s fiction that sees nothing but the theology behind it, that sees nothing but the Christian iconography. And I want to ask: what is it that we don’t see, when that’s all we see? What do we miss?
I’ve begun to point out a few things that I think we miss: the fragmentation of bodies. Why are bodies consistently fragmented–not just here–everywhere in O’Connor’s fiction? People are always losing a wooden leg and having parts of their limbs fall off. It’s very hard to keep a body together in O’Connor, hard to keep body and soul…well, I won’t get in to that. So why is that? What kind of methodology for reading would allow us to have something to say about that? Is it something we need to have something to say about? Is it in the same register of importance in our reading as some of these more theological, structural considerations that have been offered to us in her letters, in her preface, and in the very overt symbology of the landscape scenes, of these other scenes that I was reading to you today, in that image of the unhoused believer trying to find a home in an alien world?
So, in my next lecture, what I’m going to do is pretty much contradict most of what I said today. I’m going to set aside theology as the lens through which I read. And, if you felt you were convinced by my reading of that iconography in these passages, then you want to think about why that’s convincing. You want to think about how much attention and primacy we should give to an author’s statements about what her work mean–as readers. Maybe you want to say, “You can’t argue with that; we have to accept that. That’s really what the writer intends to say, and that’s what we should see, and that’s what we should strive to understand.” Well, I’m going to offer you two different ways–actually more like three different ways–to look at the novel in the second lecture. So, finish the novel for next Wednesday, and we will go from there.
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