Wise Blood, written by Flannery O’Connor, is one of the most interesting stories in American fiction of the 20th century. It is a story which takes place in the middle of the 20th century, and which portrays the life and the society as such of the so called American South of that time. It is a powerful story which on the basis of a simple plot attempts to present a very important idea, the idea of human segregation on one hand, but, on the other hand, Flannery O’Connor very masterly dared to hide the main theme of the novel. It is a theme that tells us about spiritual and physical dimensions of human beings. The aim of this paper is to analyze typical elements of “Southerness,” the characters, either positive or negative, and to find what effect they have on the overall message of the novel.The author, Flannery O’Connor, was generally known as a very vivid supporter of the movement which fought for the rights of the Negro people. She was interested in the ideas presented by Martin Luther King Jr., which is mirrored in most of her works. This influence and a deep-rooted belief in human equality resulted in a typical way of depiction of the society as well as of the characters of her novel. The fact that she herself was a Catholic and a southern writer, too, reflected in the novel very vividly.
She was fully aware of what she was writing about. Her deep-rooted belief in the Church and typical features of Southern identity resulted in a typical way of the vision of the world. In his work The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South, Collum polemizes about the image of the Southern society. He attempts to find an answer to a question what was the source of O’Connor’s style of writing. He mentions O’Connor’s own words which say that “the two circumstances that have given character to my own writing have been those of being Southern and being Catholic” (O’Connor In: Collum ¶ 2). Therefore, to a certain limit we can agree that being a Catholic writer in a protestant environment, which is one of the main features of Southern mentality, was really difficult. But, on the other hand, a typical Southern identity, according to O’Connor, “results from beliefs and qualities absorbed from the scriptures and from her own history of defeat and violation: a distrust of the abstract, a sense of human dependence on the grace of God, and on a knowledge that evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” (O’Connor In: Collum ¶ 3) The fact that “the South is still markedly more religious than the rest of the country” (Collum ¶ 4) is one of the most important features of Southern culture and society.
But another very important fact about the Southern religion itself is that: “religion is the saving grace of the South, but Southern religion has a tragedy of its own” (Collum ¶ 7). If we want to be more precise in defining the Southerners, we have to look at the concept of the Southern identity from different points of view, too. It cannot be seen only from a point of view of religion. The American South is typical of many aspects of the life itself. The Southern identity can be seen as extremely varied. The nature of American people living in the Southern regions enabled them to bring inventions and contributions to social life, which are, without any doubts, beyond price. The passion and ferociousness that can be seen in the Southerners is unique and cannot be found anywhere else. Collum writes about the Southerners that “the South is home to a joyous biracial culture given to fried foods, funny stories, and elaborate festivities of all sorts. The South invented Coca-Cola and the music to which the whole world now dances. This culture is nestled, for the most part, in a natural setting of unmatchable beauty, comfort, and fertility.” (Collum ¶ 8)The time ‘Connor portrayed was specific for a negative attitude towards black people. Throughout the whole novel, we may see several examples which indirectly render a vivid image of the overall situation.
And the situation was that black people, or the Negroes, as they are referred to in the novel were constantly deprived of their rights and a general atmosphere was negative for them. The reason for such behaviour may be found in the history of America. America, especially American South, was typical of slavery. The growth of industrialization and the development of the country established a rapid increase in the need of working powers. The American South as primarily oriented at agriculture and plantations needed more and more people to work for rich settlers. There exist two fundamental aspects of the American slavery system. Firstly, a vast majority of slaves were the blacks taken from their homelands, mostly from Africa and other colonies. Secondly, slavery was a typical mark of the American South rather than the North. Beauford supports this fact by claiming that: “by the time we arrive at the Revolutionary Era, 40 percent of blacks in the North were freemen, in contrast to 4 percent in the South” (Beauford 28). One of such indirect examples can be seen in a passage when Hazel Motes, a protagonist, arrives to Taulkinkam, a southern city near Atlanta, and tries to find toilets. At the end of a station he spots a big sign saying: “MEN’S TOILET.
WHITE” (O’Connor 20). On this example, we can see one of the typical features of American South of that time. Although it was not legally accepted, white people still found it difficult to accept their black companions. This idea of segregation is evident throughout the whole novel, which reveals a true image of race and gender relations in the post-war American South. This kind of attitude can be seen to root from the fact that throughout the century black people have become an integral part of Southern American society. Beauford connects this issue to the fact that the Negroes spread over the whole America and “were slowly transformed by the mid-20th century from centuries of rural life, to America’s most urban population” (Beauford 29). But, on the other hand, they are still viewed as something less and unequal.Another proof of this idea can be found in a part devoted to Hazel’s buying car.
Here, we can witness an indirect reference to the fact that black people were usually forced to do hard and very often badly paid work and still their work was considered as not equal one: “Well, what you want to pay for it?” the man asked. “I wouldn’t trade me a Chrysler for a Essex like that. That car yonder ain’t been built by a bunch of niggers.”“All the niggers are living in Detroit now, putting cars together,” he said, making conversation. “I was up there a while myself and I seen. I come home” (O’Connor 42).This fact can be supported by another proof. This time it represents negative feelings towards black people. We can find it in a scene where Hazel has an incident with a policeman. Hazel crossed the street even though he was not allowed to do so. The policeman’s reaction: “Maybe you thought the red ones was for white folks and the green ones for niggers,” (O’Connor 28) serves us as evidence of negative relationships towards black people and attempts to separate them from the others.So far, everything that was said was connected only to one common feature of the southern society.
But anther one, not less important, is the feature of general hostility and unfriendly atmosphere of the city which can be seen in the novel. The southern city is described as an unfriendly place where it is extremely hard to find some friends. It is a place where nobody knows anyone:“You ain’t gonna know none either. This is one more hard place to make friends in. I been here two months and I don’t know nobody. Look like all they want to do is knock you down.” (O’Connor 30).But for Hazel Motes it is not so strange. He himself is a kind of a stranger who is not willing to make new friends with anyone. Hazel’s characteristic stems from his purpose of arrival to this city. His aim was not to make friends but to establish a new type of church, which was the consequence of the fact that the city he found was almost depopulated: “Get away from me, Haze said.”“People ain’t friendly here. You ain’t from here but you ain’t friendly neither.” (O’Connor 36).
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American South and the Protagonists in Flannery O’Connor’s Novel Wise Blood
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