Just finished reading Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic novel Wise Blood (also filmed by John Huston in 1979 and starring the wonderful Brad Dourif). Here’s the opening to the novel and some ideas about teaching structure and viewpoint.
Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor (1952)
This is the opening to a novel that is set in America just after the war. Hazel Motes is a returning soldier and this is the opening section ….
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.
He looked at her a second and, without answering, leaned forward and stared down the length of the car again. She turned to see what was back there but all she saw was a child peering around one of the sections and, farther up at the end of the car, the porter opening the closet where the sheets were kept.
“I guess you’re going home,” she said, turning back to him again. He didn’t look, to her, much over twenty, but he had a stiff black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear. His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it.
He didn’t answer her or move his eyes from whatever he was looking at. The sack at his feet was an army duffel bag and she decided that he had been in the army and had been released and that now he was going home. She wanted to get close enough to see what the suit had cost him but she found herself squinting instead at his eyes, trying almost to look into them. They were the color of pecan shells and set in deep sockets. The outline of a skull under his skin was plain and insistent.
She felt irked and wrenched her attention loose and squinted at the price tag. The suit had cost him $11.98. She felt that that placed him and looked at his face again as if she were fortified against it now. He had a nose like a shrike’s bill and a long vertical crease on either side of his mouth; his hair looked as if it had been permanently flattened under the heavy hat, but his eyes were what held her attention longest. Their settings were so deep that they seemed, to her, almost like passages leading somewhere and she leaned halfway across the space that separated the two seats, trying to see into them. He turned toward the window suddenly and then almost as quickly turned back again to where his stare had been fixed.
What he was looking at was the porter. When he had first got on the train, the porter had been standing between the two cars—a thick-figured man with a round yellow bald head. Haze had stopped and the porter’s eyes had turned toward him and away, indicating which car he was to go into. When he didn’t go, the porter said, “To the left,” irritably, “to the left,” and Haze had moved on.
“Well,” Mrs. Hitchcock said, “there’s no place like home.”
He gave her a glance and saw the flat of her face, reddish under a cap of foxcolored hair. She had got on two stops back. He had never seen her before that. “I got to go see the porter,” he said. He got up and went toward the end of the car where the porter had begun making up a berth. He stopped beside him and leaned on a seat arm, but the porter didn’t look at him. He was pulling a wall of the section farther out.
“How long does it take you to make one up?”
“Seven minutes,” the porter said, not looking at him.
Haze sat down on the seat arm. He said, “I’m from Eastrod.”
“That isn’t on this line,” the porter said. “You on the wrong train.”
“Going to the city,” Haze said. “I said I was raised in Eastrod.”
The porter didn’t say anything.
“Eastrod,” Haze said, louder.
The porter jerked the shade down. “You want your berth made up now, or what you standing there for?” he asked.
“Eastrod,” Haze said. “Near Melsy.”
The porter wrenched one side of the seat flat. “I’m from Chicago,” he said. He wrenched the other side down. When he bent over, the back of his neck came out in three bulges.
“Yeah, I bet you are,” Haze said with a leer.
(end of extract)
Questions on the extract
- What do we learn about Hazel Motes in this extract? Make notes on what he does, how he talks to the other characters, the words used by the writer to describe him.
- Do we get to learn Motes’ opinions on any of the other characters? If so how does the writer do this? Is it through dialogue or description? Read carefully…
- Is he a likeable character? Explain your answer.
- What do we learn about Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock? How does the writer describe her? Does the writer allow us to share the woman’s opinions at all?
- What type of narration is this? First person or third person? If third person omniscient or third person restricted? How does this affect our understanding of the characters and the events?
- Names are important. What do the characters’ names tell us about them? How are these inferences supported in what the characters do and say?
- How does this extract engage the reader? What narrative hooks does it use?
- William Blake wrote:“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence”.
This is absolutely true for literature. Where are the contraries in this opening sequence? How might they prepare us for the rest of the novel?
Why is this extract interesting?
This is a good example of the way a writer shifts perspective in a text to create anticipation in the reader. The narrator is third person but not, at first glance, omniscient: there is an observational tone to the extract with the writer recounting Motes’ movements without getting inside his head. The ‘as if he might jump out of the window’ could just as easily be another passenger’s observation, and this observational style is reinforced by the reported speech in the first paragraph. The final derogatory statements at the end of the first paragraph about Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock are interesting because we’re not entirely sure whether they belong to this observational narrator or from Hazel Motes. If they do come from the narrator, what does this tell us about them? If they are Motes’ opinions, why has the writer framed them in this way? She could, for example, have said, “Motes thought that she was a fat woman with pink collars…”.
In fact, the narrator takes us inside the woman’s head first; O’Connor writes:
“He didn’t look, to her, much over twenty…” (italics added).
The ‘to her’ here is important; there is no way a separate observer could know that ‘to her’ Motes looked over twenty – it has to be the writer’s way of putting the reader inside Mrs Hitchcock’s head; this therefore becomes an example of omniscient, unrestricted narration – the writer allows us into the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
The description of the duffel bag and further analysis of Motes’ face seem to come from the woman: ‘she decided’, ‘she felt irked’, ‘she felt that placed him’: all of these are loaded with opinions and therefore must be the woman’s; we could only know these if the narrator was omniscient. This is important: Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock is not a major character in the novel; in fact, we don’t read about her again after the sequence in the train is over. Why do you think the narrator has adopted this technique? It is almost as if O’Connor is deliberately screening the main characters thoughts, lending a mysterious air to this personality (a technique that will continue throughout the novel).
Read the rest of the extract: can you spot any examples of where the writer invites us into the thoughts of Motes? The closest we get is the phrase ‘He had never seen her before that”. The word ‘never’ might be Motes’ voice; it could also be our omniscient narrator who knows everything about the characters but is not careful about letting us inside their thoughts.
Structurally, the passage is also interesting. It begins inside the train then takes us almost immediately outside with the description of the rural landscape, as if to delay the reader’s gratification (who is Hazel Motes, what is he doing there?). The shift from Motes to the woman not only reveals the mobility of perspective but also points up a contrast with the two characters: she is immobile, slightly comedic (her feet don’t reach the floor) whilst he appears restless, leading the movement between them (he looks, she follows). Later on in the passage, there is a time shift – a flashback to when Motes gets on the train and encounters the porter which allows the writer to dwell on Motes; however this viewpoint is never fully omniscient: all that we learn about the encounter with the porter and Motes could have been learned from a third person restricted viewpoint.
Things to do with this extract:
- Imagine you are the writer. You’re not sure whether the narrative point of view that you’ve chosen will work. Try one of the following alternatives:
a) Try and get into Motes’ head. Write a paragraph from his point of view that describes his feelings.
“All he wanted was some peace and quiet and this annoying runt of a woman just kept whining….”
b) Try and adopt a different point of view – for example someone else on the train (another passenger, the porter). How would this change the story? Here is an example:
The man and women sat opposite each other on the crowded train. She appeared curious, looking the young man up and down as if he were an exhibit at a museum. He looked restless…
- This is quite a visual piece of writing. Draw and label the two characters. What inferences can we make about the two characters from the descriptions?
- Before this, it might be good to show a short youtube video on the impact of film editing (the Kuleshov effect) – for example:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNVf1N34-io (Hitchcock talking about how putting one shot next to another has a certain effect)
Create a shooting script which reflects the different shifts of focus in the extract. What would we see if this were a film? There is no need to draw, just list the different things that the camera will focus on (a little like a shooting script):
Shot 1 – medium shot of Motes; only him in the shot – we will introduce the woman later. He is sitting forward. He looks out of the window.
Shot 2 – the scene outside. Close up on the pigs.
Shot 3 – cut back to Motes – close up – he is looking at something
Shot 4 – medium shot of the woman from Motes’ viewpoint; we see her fat face and legs that don’t quite reach the floor.
Even looking at this short reimagined sequence (which follows the structure of the opening paragraph closely) what connections is the writer asking us to make? If we think about the Hitchcock video we watched, what associations can we make about the juxtaposition of shots 2, 3, and 4?