Unavoidable Destiny: Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Adaptation of Oedipus Rex
Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is a powerfully unsettling novel concerning a lost man in the grotesque, dark world of the American South. Published in 1949, Wise Blood’s protagonist Hazel Motes serves as a reflection of the power of mythology that continues to assert itself in O’Connor’s text. Throughout the course of the novel, Hazel Motes’s character aids Wise Blood in becoming a southern adaptation of one of classical literature’s most memorable stories– that of Oedipus the King. Although some aspects of the novel are strictly evident of the impact of twentieth century southern culture on one’s religious identity, Wise Blood effectively mirrors the plight of destiny that is equally present Sophocles’s Theban Cycle, written and performed more than two thousand years prior. Understanding Oedipus’s oblivion and subsequent tragic fulfillment of prophecy is immensely helpful in the analysis of Hazel Motes as a man struggling with faith in the darkness and distortion of religion in the American South.
From the onset of the account the reader receives concerning Hazel Motes’ birth and the circumstances of his childhood, one can quickly draw parallels between the start of his own life and that of tragic Oedipus. The circumstances surrounding Oedipus’s birth are quite unfortunate, and although Hazel’s aren’t nearly as dramatic, there is apparent still a degree of prophecy that both characters will be encouraged to avoid. Hazel’s prophecy seems to stem from the position of his grandfather in society as a preacher delivering God’s message from his car, the tangible symbol of commercial mobility. Hazel’s formative years concern his knowing that he was destined to become a preacher like his grandfather when he comes of age, yet the start of the novel concerns his outright declarations against being a preacher, no matter how much closely he may resemble one. Hazel Motes is not a man of many words, but the words he does speak often begin with the words “I am” or “I am not”. These statements of his definition of identity are attempts to reject his association with Christianity, but no matter how hard he tries to escape it, it is impossible to shake. Hazel Motes takes to his Essex and the Church Without Christ like Oedipus takes to the crown of Thebes; these tangible symbols of power or newfound identity may seem like the ultimate usurpation of destiny, but they are sadly not as infallible as the characters would like to believe. Much like the grotesque, working class southerners of O’Connor’s fiction that struggle with the conflation of the engagement of sin, the desire to cling to something for a sense of truth in the world, and false confession, the protagonists are ultimately clinging to a “truth” that will fail them. Like Oedipus, Hazel Motes sets out into a world in the hopes that his transience and outspokenness against destiny will alter it in his favor. However, each man will ultimately recognize that destiny cannot be avoided and that prophecy will be fulfilled, regardless of their attempts at rebuttal.
The transience of Oedipus via his desire to escape his destiny revealed by prophecy is reflected in Hazel’s mobility away from his Protestant upbringing and towards his quest for nihilism. Both characters’ efforts to escape and elude destiny simply bring them closer and closer towards its fulfillment, whether they realize it in the moment or not. Oedipus abandons Corinth in fear of the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother, only to unknowingly murder his father during this period of transition. What is so interesting about the connection of both stories is that both men result to killing a single man of significance during their travels of escape. The quest that both characters undertake result in the murder of a man who resembles them in some way, whether they realize the extent of the resemblance or not. Hazel violently runs over his “twin prophet” as an exercise of his power as a man who is trying to devalue the concept of sin, and Oedipus kills his own father over an essentially meaningless issue concerning chariot traffic. The men commit these murders without contemplating the consequences, failing to realize that the deaths will set into motion the later mutilation of self and the continuation of the fulfillment of prophecy. If Hazel so strongly believes that there is no such thing as sin, he fails at his ability to cope with his actions. Oedipus, likewise, must also come to terms with the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or unbelievable it may seem. Sin cannot simply be washed away and forgotten, as O’Connor’s grotesque southerners are portrayed to believe. Both men will be forced to come to terms with the true gravity of their situations, and, as a result, they will become physically blinded by everything they tried so hard to avoid coming to terms with. They can’t simply confess their sin and continue to live their lives in the same sinful manner, believing that they are redeemed as O’Connor’s southerners believe.
The most obvious correlation between the tragedy of Oedipus and that of Hazel Motes is their willingness to engage in physical torture as a result of the fulfillment of their prophecies. The mutilation of self, while it screams psychological distress, is an effort towards redemption, something that both characters never knew they would need or want to possess. The trope of sight is embedded so heavily into both stories, and the blind advisor figures of both Tiresias and Asa Hawkes foreshadow that the tragic heroes will ultimately result in becoming blind in order to finally “see” the truth. Hazel’s clouded vision throughout the course of the novel is peculiar in the way that it prevents him from consciously observing the details of the world that surrounds him. His inability to pay attention to what is going on around him is too much like Oedipus’ ignoring of the all of the obvious hints he receives about the prophecy being fulfilled. The character of Hazel Motes can be read as an essentially modern refiguring of Oedipus, the king of Thebes that consciously tries, but unfortunately fails, to avoid the fulfillment of his destiny. O’Connor’s reimagining of this character in Wise Blood, however, emphasizes the effects of the conflation of secular and religious culture in the south, where racism, commercialism, and various mediums of sinful entertainment are beginning to run rampant. One’s sense of identity is often tied towards their material possessions, as made evident in Hazel’s statement that “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified” (O’Connor, 72). The “sinsational” advertisements that plague the towns, seducing pedestrians into attending secular spectacles continue to distract southerners from traditionally stressed Christian values. The question becomes: how can one struggling with faith function in a world where they are constantly tempted by the sin of secularism? Hazel Motes fails to see the reality of the evil that surrounds him. Protestant sin and confession seems ridiculous and redundant, especially in the ways that the working class Protestants portrayed in the novel are quick to commit sin because they feel that a simple confession will rid them of their wrong doing. Of course Hazel Motes is confused by Christianity. He is too blind to see the value of legitimate redemption and the personal security of living a truly devout religious lifestyle. The society that he was born into and forced to navigate upon his return home from the war continues to ruin his ability to believe in the true grace of God because of the prevalence of fraudulent Christians. Blinding himself from the seduction of the ever increasing secular world is the only way for Hazel to come to terms with the concepts of faith, sin, and redemption. He would simply continue to be unable to understand the true meaning of redemption if he continued to physically observe the fraudulence that surrounds him on a daily basis.
Reading Wise Blood in the image of Oedipus Rex is difficult not to do if the reader has been exposed to the work of Sophocles. This association creates an interesting access point through which the reader can magnify the plight of Hazel Motes, increasing both his tragic nature and the reader’s understanding of reasoning behind his torture of self. While the temptations of the American South may be unique to its geography and time period, the southern adaptation of this classical tale still emphasizes that one’s mental constrictions can bring about their downfall. For Oedipus, his tragic flaw is his undeniable hubris and inability to listen to those around him, but for Hazel, his is much less obvious. Hazel’s flaw lies in his oblivion, his preoccupations with nihilism and the rejection of his identity, and his inability to see the evil in the environment that surrounds him.