White Trash, Low Class, and No Class at All: Perverse Portraits of Phallic Power in Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood.'

Article excerpt

Renowned for her characterizations of guilt-ridden and often violent "sinners," Flannery O'Connor has carefully painted ambiguous portraits of the poor Southern refuge, generally referred to as low class or as poor "white trash." This common class of Southerners, usually rural white folk, appears riddled by ignorance and poverty. Marked not only by their libidinous appetites but also by their penchant for violence, O'Connor's "low life" characters, ironically, possess supreme powers, especially powers involving vision. Paradoxically, the Georgia writer bequeaths to this earthy refuge, who "ain't got no manners or bringin' up," a vitality and insight unsurpassed by her other characters. In Wise Blood, for instance, seemingly "no account" characters, who eschew and subvert societal norms, seem privy to a spiritual vision denied other characters. In "Wart Hogs from Hell: The Demonic and the Holy in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction," Paul W. Nisly maintains that O'Connor embraces diametrically opposed ideas: she "recognizes the logical necessity," he observes, "for the obverse side" of goodness, the demonic (45). One might conclude, therefore, that O'Connor's low class characters represent the obverse side of perfection, the flawed and illiterate, the ignorant poor of the South. Technically, in fact, O'Connor marries polarities of vision and blindness in her "white trash" characters, who appear like "walking paradoxes." According to Lorine M. Getz in Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Her Library and Book Reviews, the South furnishes the Georgia native with an "ideal" setting for her ingenious mind (22), and Robert Fitzgerald further contends that O'Connor views the South as a microcosm of modern man's predicament in a less than comfortable universe:

Now our country family in 1949 and 1950 believed on excellent grounds that beyond the immediate there was practically everything, like the stars over Taulkinham--the past, the future, and the creator thereof. But the horror of recent human predicaments had not been lost on us. Flannery felt that an artist who was a Catholic should face all the truth down to the worst of it. (qtd. in Getz 22)

Though ignorant, even ugly, some of O'Connor's characters in Wise Blood reveal important truths about themselves and others, demonstrating their capacity for vision, despite their tendency to embark on perilous journeys in pursuit of truth's opposite. For Hazel Motes, Wise Blood s protagonist, the phallus becomes the vehicle that drives him on his journey into falsehood, and, paradoxically, toward truth.

Early in his life, O'Connor's protagonist associates the phallus with sin, guilt, and atonement. Hailing from a religious family in Eastrod, Tennessee--his grandfather a traveling circuit preacher--Haze's young sensibilities get shocked when he accompanies his father to a circus, where he slips past a barker for a minimal fee of fifteen cents and views an example of "white trash" for profit, a woman in a box, lined with black cloth:

All he could see were the backs of men. He climbed upon a bench and looked over their heads. They were looking into a lowered place where something white was lying, squirming a little . . . For a second he thought it was a skinned animal and then he saw it was a woman. She was fat and had a face like an ordinary woman except there was a mole on the corner of her lip, that moved when she grinned, and one on her side. (32)

Though the excited, male audience senses erotic pleasure in the squirming woman, Hazel feels appalled, especially when he spies his father among the "gawkers": "Had one of themther built into ever' casket ... be a heap ready to go sooner," remarks Haze's dad (32). Unconsciously, already Haze has begun to equate sexual arousal with the wages of sin and death.

When her son returns from the circus, Haze's mother, dressed in black and with "a cross-shaped face," promptly greets him with a stick, God's phallic rod (32). …