O’connor’s Wise Essay, Research Paper
The Essex and Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise
In her 1952 novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor presents Hazel Motes’s Essex automobile as a symbol for Hazel himself. The car’s dilapidated state corresponds to Motes’s own spiritual decay; however, the initial quality of the car’s workmanship corresponds to Hazel’s Christian upbringing, which he cannot deny in spite of himself. Motes’s identification with and reliance upon his car as a means of escape becomes ironic as the Essex continually fails to deliver him from his demons; Hazel’s dependence on his car (despite his contentions that he is not concerned with material possessions) actually holds him back.
O’Connor writes of Motes’s Christian childhood in chapter one of Wise Blood, in which Hazel associates his cramped berth on the train with memories of entrapment from his youth. Hazel thinks back to “the first coffin he had seen with someone in it,” which belongs to his grand father: “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” (O’Connor 9). The grandfather is a powerful influence on Hazel, imprinting Hazel’s consciousness with the image of a traveling evangelist who preaches from the nose of an automobile. O’Connor writes that Hazel “knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher” (10); Hazel has not only a profession to pursue but also a prototype to model himself on. Hazel’s associations of entrapment with Christianity and automobiles prove meaningful throughout the novel as he embarks upon his own career as a “preacher” and develops a relationship with his own car. Indeed, Hazel seems to want to become the antithesis of his own grandfather by preaching the blasphemous tenets of his own “Church Without Christ” from the nose of his Essex automobile.
Complicating Hazel’s confused conceptions of entrapment, sin, and Christianity is the episode involving the Melsy carnival, at which Hazel and his father pay to see a woman lying in a coffin. Hazel’s father has a lustful reaction to the woman; he says “Had one of themther built into ever’ casket . . . be a heap ready to go sooner” (32). Haze’s “shut-mouthed” mother, who O’Connor describes as having a “cross-shaped face,” senses Haze’s guilt when he returns home (32-33). Telling him that “Jesus died to redeem you,” she whips him with a stick, leaving him with a “nameless unplaced guilt” (33). The actions of his parents leave Motes unable to distinguish what is good and Christian from what is forbidden and evil. He associates his grandfather with Christianity but also
entrapment; he associates entrapment with the carnival episode, in which his father treated the woman as desirable but after which Hazel was made to feel guilty.
Hazel Motes’s Christian upbringing continues to be significant in later chapters of Wise Blood. Several characters notice an inherent goodness in Hazel that shows through despite his determination to deny it. The FROSTY BOTTLE waitress, who says, “I know a clean boy when I see on e,” warnsthe “nice boy” Hazel to stay away from Enoch, lest he be corrupted by the “goddamned son a bitch”(46-47). Hazel responds, “I AM clean,” making it evident that he means something different by the word “clean.” Near the end of the book, Mrs. Flood notes Motes’s Christian-like ways: “You must believe in Jesus or you wouldn’t do these foolish things. You must have been lying to me when you named your fine church. I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t some kind of a agent of the pope or got some connection with something funny” (116). Motes, even in trying to become a living negation of his grandfather’s principles, cannot escape his Christian origins.
In his article “The Cage of Matter: The World as Zoo in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” William Rodney Allen notes how the Essex functions for Hazel when he says that “The emblem of Haze’s absurd motion is of course his battered Essex, his symbolic home, pulpit, and coffin” (264). Haze’s ownership of the car signifies his inability to escape the legacy of his grandfather. Haze, who says he “wanted this car mostly to be a house for me” (O’Connor 37), uses his car much as his traveling preacher grandfather did his, with the Essex serving as a constant throughout his evangelical travels. Also, Haze’s practice of preaching from the hood of his car comes directly from his grandfather. The
car, which Haze says “will get me anywhere I want to go” (65), becomes not a means of escape but a symbol of entrapment, as Allen points out:
. . . as fast as he runs from these terrifying memories, he repeatedly finds himself boxed in symbolic coffins: his berth on the train, the toilet stall at the station, Leora Watts’s tiny room, his car. As a means of escaping his past, Haze’s motion is as futile as a rat’s on a treadmill, or a rat-colored car’s down a highway that seems to be “slipping back under” (p. 207) its wheels. (262-63)
Haze’s embracing of this symbol of entrapment further shows his inner drive to return to the Christian ideology of his youth.
In her essay “White Trash, Low Class, and No Class at All: Perverse Portraits of Phallic Power in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” Linda Roher Paige gives a Freudian interpretation of the novel, asserting that, despite their low social status, the characters of Wise Blood “function as visionaries, their vehicle of achieving vision, the way of the phallus” (333). For Paige, the Essex “merges the functional and the religious, representing the embodiment of both home and temple” while exhibiting itself as “the ultimate phallic weapon” (331). Paige says that Hazel’s use of the car as a bed and as a
murder weapon symbolize a sexual relationship between Hazel and the Essex (331). Indeed, there is a certain romantic nature to Hazel’s relationship with his car — it is the one entity to which he seems truly devoted. Paige’s identification of the Essex as a phallic symbol sheds light on Hazel’s utter impotence. When Sabbath Lily Hawks, whom Hazel says he intends to seduce, tries to seduce him, he bolts from the car. When Haze, unable to go through with the seduction, returns to the car, he finds it similarly incapacitated. Like Hazel with his unsuccessful proselytizing, the car “only [makes] . . . a noise like water lost somewhere in the pipes” (O’Connor 64). Another example of the Essex’s
symbolization of Hazel’s lack of potency comes soon after he purchases the car, when, infuriated by a slow-moving pickup truck, he hits the horn “three times before he realized it didn’t make any sound” (38). However, Motes continually professes that the Essex is a “good car” and says that he believes that his relationship with it can serve as a reason for living: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified” (58). Once again, his romantic relationship with the Essex calls to mind an episode from Motes’s childhood — the incident at the carnival. While Haze is confused about what exactly it is that he is searching for, it is clear that his love affair with his car represents some sort of pathetic
attempt to get back to his childhood.
In chapter eleven of Wise Blood, O’Connor writes that Hazel “would . . . make a new start with nothing on his mind. The entire possibility of this came from the advantage of having a car – of having something that moved fast, in privacy, to the place you wanted to be” (95). Hazel Motes clearly thinks of his car as a quick ticket to freedom. “This car’ll get me anywhere I want to go. It may stop here and there but it won’t stop permanent,” he says (65) Motes, of course, means not only that the car can physically transport him from place to place but also that such mobility provides him with the only spirituality that he needs. Brian Abel Ragen, in his book A Wreck on the Road to Damascus, addresses O’Connor’s opinion of such notions, writing, “This extreme idea of personal freedom — which is finally not so different from Pride — is used to show what makes a man God’s
enemy and what he must lose before he can become one of His disciples” (108). Thus, the Essex helps O’Connor illustrate her theme of the futility of self-will and the importance of Christianity and submission to God.
Hazel’s faith in the Essex remains unshaken until the car is finally destroyed. After pushing the car off an embankment, the patrolman talks with Hazel:
The patrolman stood staring at him. “Could I give you a lift to where you was going?” he asked.
After a minute he came a little closer and said, “Where was you going?”
He leaned on down with his hands on his knees and said in an anxious voice, “Was you going anywheres?”
“No,” Haze said.
Hazel has now realized the emptiness and pointlessness of his relationship with the Essex; the car has taken him as far as it is ever going to and Hazel remains spiritually void.
In the article “The Essential Essex,” J.O. Tate delves into the possibilities of what O’Connor might have had in mind when she chose the Essex as her “major symbol and first unequivocal success.” (51). The article ventures into the highly conjectural, citing the work of such disparate would-be influences as Maxwell Anderson and movie star Errol Flynn. Tate acknowledges that he has no actual proof of O’Connor’s intentional use of such possible influences (12), but his point is made:
O’Connor, keenly aware of at least some of the resonance of the word “Essex,” succeeded in crafting a highly effective symbol. Indeed, the Essex, with its roles as home, pulpit, coffin, and metaphor for Hazel Motes himself, is the “driving” force of Wise Blood.
Allen, William Rodney. “The Cage of Matter: The World as Zoo in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 58:2 (1986): 256-270.
O’Connor, Flannery. Three by Flannery O’Connor. New York: Signet, 1983.
Paige, Linda Rohrer. “White Trash, Low Class, and No Class at All: Perverse Portraits of Power in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.” Papers on Language and Literature 33:3 (1993). 325-333.
Ragen, Brian Abel. A Wreck on the Road to Damascus: Innocence, Guilt, and Conversion in Flannery O’Connor. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1989.
Tate, J.O. “The Essential Essex.” The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 12 (1983): 47-59.