Faulkner & Flannery Notes – Week 5
Spring 2014 Books & Film Class
Topic – Faulkner & Flannery: Exploring the Southern Gothic
Held Wednesdays through February 26 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
This is the final set of class notes on this topic.
In the final class, we watched John Huston’s 1979 film version of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Reading the book wasn’t required and the movie can stand alone, but Wise Blood is a wacky story and a must-read for any O’Connor fan.
Her first novel, Wise Blood was published in 1952 and received little attention at the time. The first chapter is an expansion of her master’s thesis, “The Train,’ from the University of Iowa, and other chapters are reworked versions of short stories she wrote. You’d never know that from reading it though. Wise Blood is a cohesive story that’s very clearly written. While strange and extreme, it’s also very O’Connor and incorporates all of her favorite themes to perfection.
If you consider the time period, O’Connor was working on her prayer journal, released earlier this year, at the same time as Wise Blood. She was envisioning herself as a writer like she never had before and also struggling with her faith, asking God to “make me a mystic immediately.”
At the center of Wise Blood is Hazel Motes, a religious zealot trying very hard not to believe in God yet at the same time punishing himself for his original sin. O’Connor was known to say she had to draw “large and startling figures for the blind,” and Hazel Motes is one of these. Enoch Emery isn’t far behind. A lonely, 18-year-old boy who’s just as confused as Hazel, Enoch famously buries his clothes and dons a gorilla suit to try and reinvent himself.
Nothing outside you can give you any place. You needn’t to look at the sky because it’s not going to open up and show no place behind it. You needn’t to search for any hole in the ground to look through into somewhere else. You can’t go neither forwards nor backwards into your daddy’s time nor your children’s if you have them. In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got. – Wise Blood, chapter 10
Gonga the Gorilla has made this novel notorious, but there’s a lot more to the story than this wacky moment. Both Hazel and Enoch are tragic figures, motherless, essentially homeless and looking for someone or something to latch onto. Hazel’s landlady is also searching for something — his money at first — but love and companionship in the end.
And then there’s the humor. O’Connor mixes it right in with the tragedy in this novel, from Hazel finding the name of his first mistress scribbled on the wall of a bathroom stall to his line “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” The film will have you laughing out loud and, with an excellent cast that includes Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton, it follows the story almost exactly.
It’s important to note that O’Connor’s longtime friend Sally Fitzgerald’s two sons, Benedict and Michael, were writers and producers on the film, which may explain why Huston managed to capture O’Connor’s intention, her humor and Hazel’s descent into madness on screen so well.
To end on a note that links O’Connor back to Faulkner — the subject of this class — Hazel’s dead body in the landlady’s bed at the end is reminiscent of Miss Emily lying down next to her dead suitor night after night. Southern Gothic indeed.