I’ve got three readings of Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor under my belt. It took that many (along with secondary sources) to get to the point where I understand the point of the book—at least I think I do. While I don’t want a book to hit me over the head with its meaning, Flannery’s fiction takes more work to crack than most, and that leaves me wondering if it’s me or the author.
Flannery’s letter to “A” dated 10 November 55 and reproduced in The Habit of Being leads me to believe that the problem may lie in the story itself. Flannery writes:
About [George] Clay—I don’t agree with you that he has no talent. I just think that is all he has. He can create a believable character and set him about his business with some grace; but there it ends. “We’re All Guests” wasn’t related to anything larger than itself. He has written me that he believes that the highest thing the writer can do is to explain the reasonable man to himself. He then explained that the reasonable man was a legal concept (he studied law a year)—juries try to decide if the reasonable man would act thus and so, etc. He went on to admit that H. Motes might ultimately be found to be more reasonable than the legal reasonable man, but nevertheless … his reasonable man is the legal man.
Mine is certainly something else—God’s reasonable man, the prototype of whom must be Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son and thereby show that he is in the image of God Who sacrifices His Son. All H. Motes had to sacrifice was his sight but then (you are right) he was a mystic and he did it. The failure of the novel seems to be that he is not believable enough as a human being to make his blinding himself believable for the reasons that he did it. For the things that I want them to do, my characters apparently will have to seem twice as human as humans. Well, it’s a problem not solved by the will; if I am able to do anything about it, it will simply be something given. I never understand how writers can succumb to vanity—what you work the hardest on is usually the worst.