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Wise Blood–Flannery O’Connor

It’s tough to talk or write about Flannery O’Connor’s first novel without reference to Christianity. Christian themes and images so suffuse the book that rendering a reading that ignores them seems as willful and short sighted as the actions of Hazel Motes in its pages.

Rather than rehashing the many readings that have explored these various elements over the past sixty years, I’d like to explore a single element, the character of Enoch Emery, separating it somewhat from the rest of the book.

Enoch’s name, obviously evokes the biblical character of the same name. In Genesis 5:24, we learn what little available information exists for Enoch: “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.”

At the end of chapter twelve of Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, having donned a stolen gorilla costume, frightens a couple who see him and then disappears from the remainder of the story. No other significant character in this book simply disappears with no explanation. Asa Hawks moves away. Hoover Shoats has gone home, only to have his hired prophet murdered by Haze Motes. These disappearances make sense, but why does Enoch simply drop off the page.

Unlike the other heretics that populate this novel, Enoch can be seen as becoming a new creature. After stealing the gorilla costume, he takes his old clothes and buries them, suggesting death and burial of his old person. Enoch becomes, literally, a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), indeed a new species from all appearances. Enoch looks at first to Haze for his redemption, culminating in his stealing a “new jesus” for Haze’s new church. This “new jesus,” a stolen mummy that has fascinated Enoch throughout the story, seems a great idea to the young man as he brings it to Haze, yet it proves to be dead. It is only after that realization that Enoch shifts his attention to the faux gorilla.

I do not suggest that O’Connor is attempting to present in the gorilla-suit episode a parallel to Christian leaving the City of Destruction and heading to the Wicket Gate. Obviously stalking (and apparently attacking) a man in order to abscond with his ape suit is not to be seen as an untroubled analogue to Christian conversion. Nor is that crime to be seen as evidence of walking “faithfully with God.”

What fascinates me about O’Connor’s novel is the complexity. Should we try to approach this story as an allegory, the edges and contradictions make the fit just a bit too troubled.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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