Friday’s Flannery is a series of posts on Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
Revelation is perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s most popular short story republished regularly in college writing course primers. Not surprisingly, it is one of her most accessible stories for new readers coming as it does to a more or less easily recognizable resolution. It is common for Catholics to speculate that some of her stories are efforts at associating particular church doctrines with everyday life. If this is true, if it is even possible or desirable to reduce a work of fiction to a single point, I would consider Revelation to be an enfleshing of the doctrine of Purgatory. This is, of course, a religious reading of her stories not shared by many literary critics. Still, if her stories are anything like gospel parables, their deeper meanings should be apparent to the Christian disciple while remaining hidden from the non-believer.
Mrs. Turpin is a classic O’Connor character, a southern white Christian woman seemingly pleasant and well mannered on the outside but bearing in her soul the unspoken thoughts of her class and race and time—thoughts which to her seem like innocent and objective observations are jarring and offensive to everyone else including the reader. She is a women who is utterly unself-reflective and believes passionately her own P.R. Mrs. Turpin holds-in her darkest thoughts in order not to betray her small venial spirit without realizing that what she thinks acceptable is virtually as dark. Revelation’s opening scene sets up the crucial lines:
“Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from were the white trash…but the complexity would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent …Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed together in a boxcar being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.”
Among the occupants of the doctor’s office waiting room in the opening scene is a young woman with a bad disposition named Mary Grace, perhaps code for being Catholic. If her possible religion did not make her alien enough, she was ugly, constantly scowling, an intellectual given to all manner of book learnin’ and worse, she was studying at Wellesley in Massachusetts—a true foreigner in every sense, wherever she may have been born.
Mary Grace’s foreignness and her estrangement from her mother and the rest of her environment set her up to be an unwitting and ironic prophet for truths which undermine the orthodoxies which form the matrix of Mrs. Turpin’s world.
Mary Grace’s mother held her smoldering daughter in an unrelenting contempt put out for public display. Mrs. Turpin matched the mother’s contempt with a similar attitude thinly disguised in pleasantries expressing in vague code her moral self righteousness.
“Mary Grace’s mother’s mouth grew thin and tight. “ I think the worst thing in the world,” she said, “is an ungrateful person. To have everything and not appreciate it….”
In a fit of self satisfaction for not being anybody else in the room, or black, Mrs Turpin blurts the twisted testimony of her own Pharisee’s prayer:
“If it’s one thing I am … it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus. Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud
The book struck her directly over the left eye…
Mary Grace had thrown the book and instantly pounced on Mrs. Turpin beginning to choke her. Collecting herself for a moment without understanding why, Mrs. Turpin dares to ask Mary Grace, “What you got to say to me?” Perhaps expecting some kind of apology or explanation, instead she received these words, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
The doctor and others struggled to give Mary Grace and injection and send her off to the hospital as a lunatic. But the wounding message of the unlikely prophet was delivered and Mrs. Turpin bore a nasty physical welt on her face, a kind of sacramental of the convicting message which accompanied having the book literally thrown at her, itself a visual pun.
Just as her gratitude to Jesus for not making her any one of “them” had repeatedly echoed and rattled in her soul, the words of Mary Grace stayed with her as if it were a mysterious ancient oracle.
Finally, in the last scene, Mrs. Turpin is washing down her hogs in the fading sunlight and erupts in a new prayer, no longer that of the Pharisee, but that of Job:
How am I a hog? She demanded. “Exactly how am I like them?… There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some. You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash? … Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to be a nigger,” she said with sarcasm, “But I could act like one”…”Go on”, she yelled, “call me a hog. Call me a hog again from hell. Put that bottom rail on the top and there’ll still be a top! … Who do you think you are?”
A tantrum without a glimmer of insight into her own need for contrition, without an inkling that she was in any way in the wrong. How can conversion happen with such a soul? Perhaps just another nudge …
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right … They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that that even their virtues were being burned away…what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward in the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
The Lord’s revelations to Mrs. Turpin are manifold in this one momentary epiphany. One wonders if she will be able to absorb it all. The moiling and roiling jumble of classes she has tried so hard to separate will be in the end together, not in some gas oven, but in the fires of purgatory on the bridge between earth and heaven where virtues and vices will be equally burned away. Shame and pride will be no more. Clean and unclean, sane and lunatic, white and black, rich and poor, gentile and Jew, slave and free, woman and man will enter in a single throng, the last being first, the first being the last. Even Mrs. Turpin, if she is careful will have her place.
Suffering and violence have a clear and vivid place throughout Flannery’s fiction. It is perhaps here in this story that a connection can be made between the sufferings of this life and the sufferings of purgatory, each illuminating the other. Both her wounded face and the fires of purgatory bring her into an encounter with the Lord, one imperfectly, the other perfectly. It is the purification of pride that happens to her in the first wound that prepares her for the second. And it is in the sufferings of purgatory that her earlier sufferings can begin to make sense to her for the first time.