Thursday, October 25, 2007

THREE by Flannery O'Connor

The Book: THREE by Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Violent Bear It Away. Signet paperback reprint, 1964. Good condition; age-related browning, spine is heavily creased, front and back covers have small chips missing. Previous owner's signature, "Ginny," on front flyleaf, along with the current owner's ("Ellen Lamb" and a handwritten quotation: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1."
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982 (approximately)

Years ago, when I was a very young woman on my own in Washington, DC, a much older man leaned across a restaurant table and asked me: "You think you been redeemed?"

It was an uncomfortable moment, but would have been even more so if I hadn't recognized the question as a quotation from Wise Blood. The Bible verse above is the central theme of Wise Blood -- of all of Flannery O'Connor's work, really, but of Wise Blood in particular.

Hazel Motes, an angry and undereducated Army veteran, makes his way to the city determined to convince everyone that belief in Jesus Christ is a lie. He thinks that if one denies the existence of a soul, one can't sin. He meets up with a sad young man named Enoch Emery, and with a fraudulent preacher, Asa Hawks, and the preacher's daughter, Sabbath Lily. Asa Hawks pretends to be blind; Hazel Motes sets himself against Hawks by trying to found his own Church without Christ, but his idea is soon taken out of his hands. What Hazel is willing to do to defend his own belief -- or anti-belief -- is the basis for the complicated series of events that follows.

Flannery O'Connor was a Christian existentialist before anyone invented the term. What she says -- in Wise Blood, in the stories of A Good Man is Hard to Find, and in The Violent Bear it Away, another novel about a reluctant prophet -- is that in this world, where God is silent and we are mortal, the only choice we get to make is what we believe, and what that belief requires of us.

We make that choice whether we want to or not, in large actions or small, every day. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" ends with The Misfit commenting, after a deadly encounter, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

O'Connor's point is that we don't know that there isn't, and her answer to that question -- the one that man asked me -- is that no, I don't. But I live in hope.

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