"The Essex and Hazel
Motes in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood"
by Christopher B. Heller
In her 1952 novel Wise
Blood, Flannery O'Connor presents Hazel Motes's Essex automobile
as a symbol for Hazel himself. The car's dilapidated state corresponds
to Motes's own spiritual decay; however, the initial quality of the
car's workmanship corresponds to Hazel's Christian upbringing, which
he cannot deny in spite of himself. Motes's identification with and
reliance upon his car as a means of escape becomes ironic as the Essex
continually fails to deliver him from his demons; Hazel's dependence
on his car (despite his contentions that he is not concerned with material
possessions) actually holds him back.
O'Connor writes of Motes's
Christian childhood in chapter one of Wise Blood, in which
Hazel associates his cramped berth on the train with memories of entrapment
from his youth. Hazel thinks back to "the first coffin he had seen with
someone in it," which belongs to his grandfather: "His grandfather had
been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three
counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger. When it was time
to bury him, they shut the top of his box down and he didn't make a
move" (O'Connor 9). The grandfather is a powerful influence on Hazel,
imprinting Hazel's consciousness with the image of a traveling evangelist
who preaches from the nose of an automobile. O'Connor writes that Hazel
"knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a
preacher" (10); Hazel has not only a profession to pursue but also a
prototype to model himself on. Hazel's associations of entrapment with
Christianity and automobiles prove meaningful throughout the novel as
he embarks upon his own career as a "preacher" and develops a relationship
with his own car. Indeed, Hazel seems to want to become the antithesis
of his own grandfather by preaching the blasphemous tenets of his own
"Church Without Christ" from the nose of his Essex automobile.
Complicating Hazel's confused
conceptions of entrapment, sin, and Christianity is the episode involving
the Melsy carnival, at which Hazel and his father pay to see a woman
lying in a coffin. Hazel's father has a lustful reaction to the woman;
he says "Had one of themther built into ever' casket . . . be a heap
ready to go sooner" (32). Haze's "shut-mouthed" mother, who O'Connor
describes as having a "cross-shaped face," senses Haze's guilt when
he returns home (32-33). Telling him that "Jesus died to redeem you,"
she whips him with a stick, leaving him with a "nameless unplaced guilt"
(33). The actions of his parents leave Motes unable to distinguish what
is good and Christian from what is forbidden and evil. He associates
his grandfather with Christianity but also entrapment; he associates
entrapment with the carnival episode, in which his father treated the
woman as desirable but after which Hazel was made to feel guilty.
Hazel Motes's Christian upbringing
continues to be significant in later chapters of Wise Blood.
Several characters notice an inherent goodness in Hazel that shows through
despite his determination to deny it. The FROSTY BOTTLE waitress, who
says, "I know a clean boy when I see one," warns the "nice boy" Hazel
to stay away from Enoch, lest he be corrupted by the "goddamned son
a bitch" (46-47). Hazel responds, "I AM clean," making it evident that
he means something different by the word "clean." Near the end of the
book, Mrs. Flood notes Motes's Christian-like ways: "You must believe
in Jesus or you wouldn't do these foolish things. You must have been
lying to me when you named your fine church. I wouldn't be surprised
if you weren't some kind of a agent of the pope or got some connection
with something funny" (116). Motes, even in trying to become a living
negation of his grandfather's principles, cannot escape his Christian
In his article "The Cage
of Matter: The World as Zoo in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood,"
William Rodney Allen notes how the Essex functions for Hazel when he
says that "The emblem of Haze's absurd motion is of course his battered
Essex, his symbolic home, pulpit, and coffin" (264). Haze's ownership
of the car signifies his inability to escape the legacy of his grandfather.
Haze, who says he "wanted this car mostly to be a house for me" (O'Connor
37), uses his car much as his traveling preacher grandfather did his,
with the Essex serving as a constant throughout his evangelical travels.
Also, Haze's practice of preaching from the hood of his car comes directly
from his grandfather. The car, which Haze says "will get me anywhere
I want to go" (65), becomes not a means of escape but a symbol of entrapment,
as Allen points out:
. . . as fast as
he runs from these terrifying memories, he repeatedly finds himself
boxed in symbolic coffins: his berth on the train, the toilet stall
at the station, Leora Watts's tiny room, his car. As a means of escaping
his past, Haze's motion is as futile as a rat's on a treadmill, or a
rat-colored car's down a highway that seems to be "slipping back under"
(p. 207) its wheels. (262-63)
Haze's embracing of this
symbol of entrapment further shows his inner drive to return to the
Christian ideology of his youth.
In her essay "White Trash,
Low Class, and No Class at All: Perverse Portraits of Phallic Power
in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood," Linda Roher Paige gives
a Freudian interpretation of the novel, asserting that, despite their
low social status, the characters of Wise Blood "function as
visionaries, their vehicle of achieving vision, the way of the phallus"
(333). For Paige, the Essex "merges the functional and the religious,
representing the embodiment of both home and temple" while exhibiting
itself as "the ultimate phallic weapon" (331). Paige says that Hazel's
use of the car as a bed and as a murder weapon symbolize a sexual relationship
between Hazel and the Essex (331). Indeed, there is a certain romantic
nature to Hazel's relationship with his car -- it is the one entity
to which he seems truly devoted. Paige's identification of the Essex
as a phallic symbol sheds light on Hazel's utter impotence. When Sabbath
Lily Hawks, whom Hazel says he intends to seduce, tries to seduce him,
he bolts from the car. When Haze, unable to go through with the seduction,
returns to the car, he finds it similarly incapacitated. Like Hazel
with his unsuccessful proselytizing, the car "only [makes] . . . a noise
like water lost somewhere in the pipes" (O'Connor 64). Another example
of the Essex's symbolization of Hazel's lack of potency comes soon after
he purchases the car, when, infuriated by a slow-moving pickup truck,
he hits the horn "three times before he realized it didn't make any
sound" (38). However, Motes continually professes that the Essex is
a "good car" and says that he believes that his relationship with it
can serve as a reason for living: "Nobody with a good car needs to be
justified" (58). Once again, his romantic relationship with the Essex
calls to mind an episode from Motes's childhood -- the incident at the
carnival. While Haze is confused about what exactly it is that he is
searching for, it is clear that his love affair with his car represents
some sort of pathetic attempt to get back to his childhood.
In chapter eleven of Wise
Blood, O'Connor writes that Hazel "would . . . make a new start
with nothing on his mind. The entire possibility of this came from the
advantage of having a car -- of having something that moved fast, in
privacy, to the place you wanted to be" (95). Hazel Motes clearly thinks
of his car as a quick ticket to freedom. "This car'll get me anywhere
I want to go. It may stop here and there but it won't stop permanent,"
he says (65) Motes, of course, means not only that the car can physically
transport him from place to place but also that such mobility provides
him with the only spirituality that he needs. Brian Abel Ragen, in his
book A Wreck on the Road to Damascus, addresses O'Connor's
opinion of such notions, writing, "This extreme idea of personal freedom
-- which is finally not so different from Pride -- is used to show what
makes a man God's enemy and what he must lose before he can become one
of His disciples" (108). Thus, the Essex helps O'Connor illustrate her
theme of the futility of self-will and the importance of Christianity
and submission to God.
Hazel's faith in the Essex
remains unshaken until the car is finally destroyed. After pushing the
car off an embankment, the patrolman talks with Hazel:
The patrolman stood
staring at him. "Could I give you a lift to where you was going?" he
After a minute
he came a little closer and said, "Where was you going?"
He leaned on down
with his hands on his knees and said in an anxious voice, "Was you going
"No," Haze said.
Hazel has now realized the
emptiness and pointlessness of his relationship with the Essex; the
car has taken him as far as it is ever going to and Hazel remains spiritually
In the article "The Essential
Essex," J.O. Tate delves into the possibilities of what O'Connor might
have had in mind when she chose the Essex as her "major symbol and first
unequivocal success." (51). The article ventures into the highly conjectural,
citing the work of such disparate would-be influences as Maxwell Anderson
and movie star Errol Flynn. Tate acknowledges that he has no actual
proof of O'Connor's intentional use of such possible influences (12),
but his point is made: O'Connor, keenly aware of at least some of the
resonance of the word "Essex," succeeded in crafting a highly effective
symbol. Indeed, the Essex, with its roles as home, pulpit, coffin, and
metaphor for Hazel Motes himself, is the "driving" force of Wise
Allen, William Rodney. "The
Cage of Matter: The World as Zoo in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood."
American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography
58:2 (1986): 256-270.
O'Connor, Flannery. Three
by Flannery O'Connor. New York: Signet, 1983.
Paige, Linda Rohrer. "White
Trash, Low Class, and No Class at All: Perverse Portraits of Power in
Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood." Papers on Language and Literature
33:3 (1993). 325-333.
Ragen, Brian Abel. A
Wreck on the Road to Damascus: Innocence, Guilt, and Conversion in Flannery
O'Connor. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1989.
Tate, J.O. "The Essential
Essex." The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 12 (1983): 47-59.