Usually when I finish reading a novel I know what I think of it. From the first sentences to the last chapter, I can tell how my opinion is changing throughout the work. I think we get the same feeling with movies. We go into movies and books with an open mind–willing to suspend our disbelief for a few hours.
This is actually something that has been coming up in one of my graduate courses–what is the role of the audience, and how do authors shape that role? Do authors invent their audience, or do readers fictionalize themselves into the roles authors would have us play?
I’m not sure what all of Flannery O’Connor’s views on the audience were, but in her note to the second edition of Wise Blood, she wrote:
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 who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to do so. Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply.
From the beginning of her novel, O’Connor understands that her view of the protagonist will most likely be different from the audience’s view. She acknowledges that she has written a difficult book, a book that many readers will misunderstand. There is something admirable in her dedication to story and faith–she is willing to publish a book that is full of signs and symbols that many people will misinterpret.
Throughout the novel, Hazel runs from faith, religion, and belief in Christ. Even though he runs from these things, they are still a matter of life and death for him. Every character in the novel is confronted with the idea of Jesus. How they respond is telling. Hazel’s attempts to run away from the faith of his fathers leads him into a dark place, but it is in this darkness that he has to confront the inevitability of faith.
So, how did I feel about this novel? To be honest, I don’t know. It is grim and dark and funny all at the same time. There are things about Hazel that don’t sit right with me, and there are things about him that make me recognize my own character flaws. Is Hazel meant to represent Jesus? Does he actually find redemption at the end–and how do we tell where grace is offered to Haze?
I’m not sure. I’ll be reflecting on this for a while. I think my biggest takeaway is that O’Connor’s works are often a lot like Christianity itself–it seems ridiculous and absurd, the characters are too dark and dirty to be likeable. In the end, though, isn’t that the same as God choosing what is foolish in the world to shame the wise? Isn’t that the same as God redeeming broken and sinful men for His glory?