The Quest for Salvation: Religion in Wise Blood and Black Boy
The Christian religion plays a key role in both Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Despite the authors’ ideological differences, both Wright’s childhood self and O’Connor’s protagonist, Hazel Motes, share common objectives: to understand and overcome the traumatic religious experiences imposed upon them during their upbringings, and, ultimately, to achieve self-identity and peace. The ideologies and cultural contexts of the two texts stand in sharp contrast, yet they speak to one another in a number of significant ways. O’Connor was an outspoken Evangelist. Robert Drake explains, “Her vision of man in this world was uncompromisingly Christian: she saw all of life in Christian terms; she thought the gospels were really true; and she accepted the historic teachings of the church” (184). In his unsuccessful attempt to run away from Christ, Haze reveals to the reader the necessity of Christian redemption. In her Author’s Note to the second edition, O’ Connor makes her intentions clear:
That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure that moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.Though frequently misinterpreted, the aim of Wise Blood is to warn the reader of the perils of a Godless world and the necessity of accepting Christ as the only legitimate form of redemption (Johnson). Wright, on the other hand, is perpetually skeptical of Christian beliefs and repelled by organized religion. Wright regards religion as irrational, and associates it with cultural backwardness (Johnson 172). Despite the pressure and alienation of those around him, Wright refuses to participate in his grandmother’s religion. The reader recognizes Wright’s reaction to his family’s radical practice of Christianity as rational — and applauds his ability to find personal salvation through such means as reading and writing, and ultimately, in his involvement with the Communist party, which in many ways served as Wright’s church (Caron 120).Both Wright and Haze become disillusioned by religion at a young age. The two protagonists are grandchildren of religious fanatics, and they learn to associate religion with fear and suffering. These experiences shape the protagonists’ conceptions of self and influence the ways in which they interact with the world around them. When his mother becomes sick after suffering a stroke, Wright must live in the house of his grandmother, a staunch Seventh-day Adventist. At first, he pretends to believe and obeys her strict religious restrictions — recognizing his “delicate” position in the home: “I was a minor, an uninvited dependent, a blood relative who professed no salvation and whose soul stood in mortal peril” (103). However, as time passes, Wright grows increasingly resentful of his grandmother’s religion, and rebels, refusing to go to church services or to be baptized. His lack of faith becomes a frightening burden for his grandmother, who firmly believes that “one sinful person in a household could bring down the wrath of God upon the entire establishment, damning both the innocent and the guilty” (103). As a consequence, his grandmother comes to blame Wright’s faithlessness for his mother’s inability to recover from her illness.Similarly, Haze is haunted by memories of his childhood, during which he was made to listen to the impassioned sermons of his Evangelical preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three countries with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger” (14). Just as Wright rebels throughout his childhood and young adulthood against his grandmother’s religion, Haze spends his life fleeing from the Jesus his grandfather describes as a frightening, “soul-hungry” being that would “chase him over the waters of sin” and always “have him in the end” (16). Consequently, Haze remained disturbed by the image of Jesus “moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown” (18). The only lingering effect of his grandfather’s sermons seems to be an intense sense of fear of Jesus — and a conception of him as an evil, threatening being from which Haze must escape.Disillusioned by the conceptions of religion thrust upon them, Wright and Haze seek alternate forms of salvation and escape elsewhere. Robert Butler argues that Black Boy invokes two closely related stories: “an outward narrative documenting the injustices and brutalities of the deterministic social environment which traps Wright in both south and north, and an inward narrative which dramatizes his transcendence of that environment with his own spiritual energy and free will.” In Black Boy, the reader follows the development of Wright’s consciousness and conception of self from a young boy to a young adult. Simultaneously, Wright provides a cultural framework of the oppressive atmosphere in which he lived. Wright’s childhood south represents the “hell” of American racism. He is perpetually hungry, endures frequent physical abuse by his family members, and is constantly uprooted and relocated from home to home. Yet Wright ultimately experiences prosperity and upward mobility, nearly impossible achievements for a Southern black. It is Wright’s inward escape that allows him to transcend his environment through the harnessing of his own unearthly forces and self-determination.This duality of outward and inward narratives is clear during Wright’s early childhood in his approach to the strict practice of Seventh-day Adventism, which had been imposed upon him. While he explicitly denounces his grandmother’s religion, resents her strict authoritarian control over him, and claims not to believe, Wright is inwardly fascinated by the religion in many ways. At the most basic level, Wright is comforted by the religion’s assurances of spiritual healing, which brought him hope that his mother could recover from her ailment. More importantly, the sermons serve to arouse and heighten in Wright the keen sense of imagination that greatly influences his writing.
The elders of her church expounded a gospel clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fire, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dried bones, of the sun burning to ashes, of the moon turning to blood, of stars falling to the earth, of a wooden staff being transformed into a serpent, of voices speaking out of clouds, of men walking upon water… dramas thronged with all the billions of human beings who had ever lived as God judged the quick and the dead. (Wright 102)Wright finds such powerful language and evocative images compelling enough to draw him “toward emotional belief.” However, his newly enervated faith dissolves when he reenters society: “As soon as I went out of the church and saw the bright sunshine and felt the throbbing life of the people in the streets I knew that none of it was true and that nothing would happen” (102). Haze’s relationship with Christianity is not as clearly discernible as is Wright’s and can be subject to a number of different interpretations. His actions often contradict his words and, at times, he seems to grow unwarrantedly angry. A certain level of speculation and psychoanalysis is required to understand how religion has affected Haze. The advantage for the reader of the first-person, autobiographical form of Wright’s novel is that the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings are transparent and presented in a way that is unmistakable and overt. Wright makes clear to the reader that the physical and emotional suffering he endured in his early life had already operated to establish in him a firm outlook on life that could not be penetrated or affected by faith:
Perhaps if I had caught my first sense of life from the church I would have been moved to complete acceptance, but the hymns and sermons of God came into my heart only long after my personality had been shaped and formed by uncharted conditions of life. I felt that I had in me a sense of living as deep as that which the church was trying to give me, and in the end I remained basically unaffected. (112)For Wright, religious influence comes into his life too late to affect him — rather than offering refuge, the religion imposed upon him is an inconvenience, a chore to appease his caretakers. Religion merely serves to offer more restrictions and obstacles in his already difficult life. Consequently, it is only logical that he seeks escape from his hellish reality elsewhere: in the refuge of reading and writing. Wright portrays his fascination with literature as having taken hold when Ella, a boarder at his grandmother’s house, read stories to him. As Wright continues to pursue reading and writing, he discovers a form of escape. The achievement of literacy in early 20th-century Mississippi was a rare feat for a young man of color — a “subversive activity that develops important human qualities which the social system is designed to destroy” (Butler). Literature provides for Wright a window into the world that had been deliberately sealed to him by the more powerful race. Reading and writing provide for Wright the ability to bring order and analysis to his experiences, and thus “transcend the narrow limits imposed upon him by a racist environment intent on reducing him to a soulless object” (Butler). In parallel, O’Connor’s Wise Blood also follows its protagonist’s quest for identity and salvation. In Black Boy, Wright is ostracized by his family for his inability to accept their religion. All of those around him seek salvation and all have invested in the church as its source. Each of O’Connor’s characters, on the other hand, seeks salvation and escape from sources independent of religion. Sabbath Hawks, who assumes the role of a pious and innocent preacher’s daughter, finds her exodus from the hardships of life through her sexual promiscuity. Her father, Asa Hawks, dramatically attempts to achieve salvation by feigning self-induced blindness and exhibiting a false image of repentance. Despite Enoch Emory’s claim to know “a whole heap about Jesus,” he lacks faith in Christian redemption and seeks salvation in his search for a “new Jesus,” which he identifies in the shrunken shriveled mummy at the museum. When Haze rejects Enoch’s “new Jesus,” Enoch seeks his savior through Ganga, the gorilla. Enoch believes that he has achieved a new identity by assuming the gorilla costume. Enoch has, in his own way, escaped his humanity. Time and time again, Haze futilely attempts to deny Jesus. When he first arrives in Taulkinham, he feels the need to constantly remind those around him that he is not a preacher — yet he is unable to separate himself from his association with Christ. The cab driver tells him, “You look like a preacher. That looks like a preacher’s hat” (27). Later, Asa Hawks, in referring to Haze, says he can “hear the urge for Jesus in his voice.” These are the first indications to the reader of Haze’s struggle to separate himself from Jesus. Haze is unable even to shed the mere appearance of a Christian preacher.Haze maintains from the beginning that Jesus does not exist, and therefore, there is no sin and no need for redemption. In his first public address outside the theatre, he says, “Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe… every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong” (51). Haze reaffirms his contention that all of humanity is clean and not in need of redemption, and that nor does humankind require the assistance of Christ for salvation, when he repeatedly tells the waitress at the zoo “I AM clean” (87). He repeats the mantra to the owl at the zoo to reinforce to himself that Christ does not exist. But his doubts about both his cleanliness and his lack of need for Christ to assist him plague him, as evidenced by his reaction to the roadside signs on one of his trips out of the city. Haze sees a gray boulder beside the road: “White letters on the boulder read, WOE TO THE BLASPHEMER AND WHOREMONGER! WILL HELL SWALLOW YOU UP?” (71). The message on the boulder is particularly relevant to Haze because of his preaching for the Church Without Christ and his sexual involvement with Leora Watts. Haze’s car comes to a stop and he is forced to regard two words at the bottom of the sign that say, in smaller letters, “Jesus saves.” Haze angrily pronounces, “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything” (72). While he directs these words to the truck driver who questions him, it is clear that in fact, Haze’s words are directed at himself — and indicate that he is conscious that he is, in fact, running from something: from his acceptance of Jesus. As Wright transcends his surroundings, Haze likewise eventually achieves salvation when at last he gives in to Jesus, but not before seeking salvation in the wrong places. Haze’s connection with his car could be interpreted as deeply religious. Haze has unconditional faith in the enduring functionality of the car, despite its obvious mechanical failures. For Haze, the car is a source of refuge and escape. The car, however, does not prove to be an enduring source of salvation inasmuch as, as a material object, its ultimate destruction was inevitable. It is only when, at last, Haze establishes his own faith in Jesus that he is at peace. This dramatic transformation was brought about by three key events (Caren 46). First, Haze violently destroys the mummy that Enoch has delivered after he sees Sabbath cradle the doll like her own child. According to Caren, this outburst stems from a deep-seated apprehension that drove his harsh and violent response to the mummy’s presence: “Haze recognizes that he has indeed been presented with a new Jesus — a Jesus shrunken to the size to which Haze’s unbelief would tailor him; a Jesus that is a continuing sign of our mortality, that lives on in a mummified eternity only to proclaim the impossibility of resurrection” (45). The next significant event is Haze’s murder of Solace Layfield, the prophet who imitates him for financial gain. Haze ceremoniously strips off the fraud’s clothing and then runs him over with his car. The killing was earlier foreshadowed when one member of the crowd asks if he and Layfield, the impostor preacher, were twins. He responds, “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it, it’ll hunt you down and kill you” (168). Finally, something clearly breaks in Haze when the patrolman pushes his car off of the cliff, destroying it before Haze can escape Taulkinham. Suddenly, the entity in which Haze had invested all of his faith and dependence had simply vanished. Haze returns to town and immediately blinds himself — perhaps as repentance, or to demonstrate his newfound faith in Jesus. The blindness brings him closer to Jesus in that it erases any distractions that would have hindered his faith. Additionally, he gains a stronger spiritual vision, allowing him to understand that he should be running toward, not away from (O’Connor’s conception of) the only true savior (Caron 50). Mrs. Flood, the landlady, notices a meaningful change in Haze’s demeanor: “To her, the blind man had the look of seeing something. His face had a peculiar pushing look, as if it were going forward after something it could just distinguish in the distance” (218). Ironically, it is only after Haze blinds himself that he can truly see the path to salvation.Although Wright and Haze find solace in vastly different sources, their paths to finding themselves are similar. Both initially turn to a sort of organized religion — Haze attempts to organize his “Church Without Christ,” and to gain public support and following. Wright also seeks comfort as a member of an organized group by becoming an active participant and leader within the Communist party. Impressed with their apparently progressive ideals when it comes to race, Wright says of the party’s willingness to accept a black member, “How had these people, denying profit and home and God, made that hurdle that even the churches of America had not been able to make?” (321). Wright initially devotes all of his energy to the party’s pursuits until he discovers that the party is not as morally upstanding and open-minded as it had initially seemed. Wright is cast out of the party and finds that he is more successful operating independently and developing his own writing and ideology separate from the organized group. In much the same way, Haze is unable to discover his ideals within an organized group. He is unable to sustain support for his religious movement because of the fraudulent competition of Hoover Shoats. In the end, like Wright, Haze discovers that there is no organized church that can show him the way to salvation — it is something he must discover on his own, independently from any organized group. Perhaps the most significant difference in the religious ideologies of O’Connor and Wright is in their opposing perceptions of religion’s role within society. In Black Boy, Wright criticizes the excessive proliferation of Christianity among Southern blacks, postulating that religion provides them with “fantasies that distract them from addressing political and social problems in the real world” (Butler). Additionally, Christianity promises salvation in the afterlife for the faithful — leading some to passively endure suffering in this life on the assumption that they will be rewarded in the future, rather than taking positive action to remedy their situations (Caron). O’Connor, on the other hand, subtly advocates in Wise Blood a reacceptance of traditional Christian values in a decidedly “post-Christian world” (Drake 184). Her protagonist, and those with whom he interacts, fail to find true salvation in such modern sources as sex or material goods — Haze is only at peace when he at last devotes himself to Jesus. While racial inequality is the central issue in Wright’s narrative and the theme of religion is merely tangential, O’Connor’s Wise Blood centers completely on religion, and racial inequality is never even mentioned. Timothy Caren criticizes this omission, which he identifies as reminiscent of the “the white south’s response to racial inequality: Why concern ourselves with racial inequality in the here-and-now when everything will be remedied in the hereafter? … O’Connor might have been forced to live in the world, but she zealously refuses to be of the world, especially the South’s racial struggles, which Wise Blood so studiously avoids” (51). Both Wright and O’Connor describe independent-thinking protagonists who exist in dismal worlds from which they find the need to escape. Wright’s refusal to conform to his family’s set of beliefs presents his opportunity to escape — through the development of his intellect. Haze, on the other hand, at last finds salvation when he is able to give in to the dominant set of beliefs around him — when he surrenders to and understands Christ. In the end, each manages to achieve his own form of escape. Works CitedButler, Robert. “Seeking Salvation in a Naturalistic Universe: Richard Wright’s Use of His Southern Religious Background in Black Boy.” Vol. 46.2 (2009): 46-60.Caron, Timothy P. Struggles over the Word: Race and Religion in O’Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright. Macon, GA: Mercer Univ., 2000. Print. Drake, Robert. “‘The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus’ in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor.” Comparative Literature Studies 3.2 (1966): 183-96. Johnson, Sylvester. “Tribalism and Religious Identity in the Work of Richard Wright.” Literature & Theology 20.2 (2006). O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962. Print.Wright, Richard. Black Boy: (American Hunger): a Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.
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