“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:30
Acclaimed fiction writer Flannery O’Connor published her first novel, Wise Blood, in 1952. A fantastic work of jarring irony and explicitly Christian themes, Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes and his tragically misguided search for truth. At once the cynic as well as the visionary, Haze rejects Christ, shields his eyes from the brilliance of God’s grace, and charts his own disturbing course with religious fervor. All the same, the young man remains conscious that he is the object of relentless pursuit and thus spends the entire story struggling—as O’Connor later commented—to get away from “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” Haze is haunted by the embodiment of Truth even as he attempts to forge his own.
Revised to become a chapter in Wise Blood, “The Peeler” appeared as a short story in December 1949. O’Connor introduces the reader to Haze, the conflicted protagonist dogged by secret, consuming guilt. He denies having this guilt yet obsessively seeks to expunge it. In repeated encounters, Haze hears the name of Jesus—sometimes reverently, other times irreverently. The name seems to draw him with mysterious unseen magnetic force. He finds this repulsive. Still, he cannot escape the name.
Haze recalls a childhood memory, and the short story abruptly ends with this recollection. As a boy, he weasels his way into a peep show. Later that day, Haze grows burdened with guilt. Mulling over forbidden images, he can’t help but connect them with death. His mother catches him skulking around and, glimpsing some trace of wrongdoing in her son, asks accusingly, “What you seen?” Haze remains silent. Inexplicably (though perhaps intuitively), his mother says, “Jesus died to redeem you.”
“I never ast him,” Haze mutters tersely in response.
The next day, O’Connor writes, the boy Haze makes an attempt at penance. He fills his shoes with gravel, puts them on, and walks a mile to a creek. “That should satisfy Him,” he thinks. But nothing observable happens. He walks back home, taking off his shoes after a half-mile … apparently realizing that he has no idea how far he would have to walk in those rock-filled shoes to redeem himself … unwilling to believe that Grace has already made the blistering, foot-scourging trek all the way to Golgotha, covering the distance and so much more.