Law and Ethics in Wise Blood
Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood addresses the laws and ethics of 20th Century America. Laws and ethics may seem to correlate, but Wise Blood shows that such is not always the case. Laws may claim to have ethical origins and serve ethical purposes, but Wise Blood shows otherwise. The conflict between law and ethics can be seen during Hazel Motes interaction with the police officer and the non-ethical origins of laws can be seen within the bathroom Motes uses after stepping off the train. The police officer represents the disconnect between what the law says and how the law is enforced; the bathroom shows the unethical basis of some laws. As a whole, Wise Blood shows the relationship, or lack-thereof, between law and ethics.
Laws and ethics first conflict early in the novel when Hazel Motes is confronted by a police officer. Motes begins crossing a busy street but the police officer stops him and chastises him for jaywalking. Within this interaction between Motes, a regular citizen, and the police officer, a representative of the law, one can see how a person’s ethics are not always reflective of governing laws. The police officer claims to protect all races and genders equally, yet from his behavior and vocabulary suggest that he is a corrupt officer who treats everyone, especially minorities, poorly. Through his blatant disrespect of the police officer, Motes, an average citizen, shows how people respect both the law and those who enforce the law. This seemingly small and simple interaction on a street corner serves as a microcosm of 20th Century America.
O’Connor uses the police officer as a symbol of law in the mid-20th Century. The officer’s actions represent the government and its laws. Speaking of the traffic lights, the police officer preaches equality to Motes. Speaking to Motes, the officer says, “Maybe you thought the red ones was for white folks and the green ones for niggers… Men and women, white folks and niggers, all go on the same light” (41). The officer claims that all people, regardless of race and/or gender, are equal. This assertion may be true under the law, however the police officer’s personal ethics, which also represent the ethics of the government, imply that not everyone is seen as or treated equally. The officer’s language and word choice show that African Americans, and likely other minorities, are equal under the law, but not in the personal eyes of many authorities. The police officer refers Caucasians as “white folks,” but when speaking of African Americans, he uses the derogatory “nigger” instead of saying “black folks” or any other non-discriminatory term. The police officer’s reference to African Americans in comparison to Caucasians shows that a person’s ethics may be in conflict with the laws they follow or enforce. The police officer also shows how lawful authority can corrupt a person’s ethics.
The power the officer possesses has gone to his head. He speaks down to Motes in a very supercilious tone. Although he has the intent of enforcing the law for Motes’ safety, the officer turns the simple interaction into a spectacle for people to see. Rather than correcting Motes’ illegal actions, the officer uses sarcasm in an attempt to be funny and entertain a gathering crowd. His job is to uphold the law, but the police officer chooses to act more like an entertainer or a comedian. The officer has the ethical responsibility to enforce the law, but his actions show how said responsibility has morally corrupted him. In contrast to the police officer, Hazel Motes represents the average citizen. Motes’ interactions with the law and its enforcer begin to question the laws themselves. Motes blatantly and knowing breaks the law in front of a police officer. Laws are designed to protect citizens yet Motes puts himself at risk instead of waiting for the light to change. Motes’ actions question the ethicality of the law, and the authority of all laws in general. Laws have no purpose if people do not follow them. Ultimately, people choose whether or not to live ethically.
Further, Hazel Motes also ignores the officer’s repeated whistles while crossing the street during a stop light and Motes then lies to the officer when he claims to have never seen the light. Several ethical issues arise. This interaction questions whether or not one must listen to an authority figure who is cynical, rude, and ethically corrupt. Motes’ words and actions show that police officers have no special right to be sarcastic, disrespectful, or condescending. The arrogant police officer is receiving the same treatment he is giving, and as a representative of the law, he must be held to a higher ethical standard. Neither Motes nor the police officer respects the other man; the poor relationship between citizens and laws is highlighted within the interaction between Motes and the police officer. Race is clearly an issue to the police officer. He nonchalantly repeats the word “nigger” several times. He claims to support civil rights but his personality suggests otherwise. This unequal, unethical treatment of African Americans comes from the law.
Unethical laws regarding race are seen at the beginning of Chapter 2. Racism and segregation are clearly presented as issues in the town in which Motes is from. Motes’ enters a bathroom with a sign reading “MEN’S TOILET. WHITE.” (26). Those who demanded the segregation of the bathrooms would argue that white people are superior to other races, but upon further inspection of the bathroom situation, their argument fails to hold up. The law seeks to keep African Americans separate from Caucasians because that is what is considered the ethical thing to do, however, in reality, this is obviously an unethical law. Most of the Caucasian characters presented in the story are clearly no moral role models to be followed. The white-only bathrooms are not the area of purity that they are made out to be. The room was once “a bright cheerful yellow” (26) when it first opened, but human interference corrupted it to become “nearly green and [decorated] with handwriting and with various detailed drawings of the parts of the body of both men and women” (26). The restroom was also polluted by other doodles as well as the names and addresses of local prostitutes (26). The Caucasians of Wise Blood believe they are ethically, and generally, superior to minorities, yet their actions prove otherwise. Many of the Caucasians, despite a significant number of them believing themselves better than other races, behave in unethical ways. This is notably seen in Hazel Motes’ visit to the whites-only bathroom; Caucasians do not possess the ethical high ground they claim to have.
The seemingly-close relationship between ethics and laws is examined within Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Several events occur that question and critique the ethicality of laws as well as the professionalism and morality of those who enforce the laws. Hazel Motes’ interaction with the racist, supercilious police officer shows how the law can claim to be ethical, yet it can be just as unethical as the man or woman attempting to enforce it. Similarly, the supposed ethical basis of laws is called into question when Motes enters the disgusting, vandalized white-only restroom. No African Americans, a racial group believed to be less civilized than Caucasians, are allowed into the bathroom, yet the immaturity and disrespect of Caucasians is seen in the bathroom graffiti. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood presents a critical look at the poor relationship between ethics and laws in 20th Century America.
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.