On Reading Fiction 2

On Reading Fiction 2 April 16, 2008

I’m doing a series with Dan deRoulet, author of Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World, on how to read fiction, a lesson I needed long ago. We are using Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” (Collected Works) as our example, and this is part two. This post is by Dan.

Scot sells himself short on “not knowing how to read fiction.” After all, he and his colleagues such as Klyne Snodgrass teach their students about the parables of Jesus–some of the most difficult stories to read well. I’m in the midst of peddling a second book project called, Fear Not: Why the Church (and Everyone Else) Needs Dangerous Christian Fiction. Flannery O’Connor’s works are at the top of the list.

Scot correctly summarizes O’Connor’s “Revelation”– I’ll emphasize a couple of other plot points in a moment. A good way of reading short fiction is to look at and for a few key elements of a story’s structure:

its exposition (the opening scene where the setting, characters, and conflict are keys);

the crisis (where the story’s protagonist has his or her view of the world usually turned on its head);

and a following period of frustration and reflection leading up to the “epiphany“–the moment for the protagonist where the answer to the problem is made clear.

Jesus’ story of the prodigal son follows this pattern: exposition (conflict between the father, younger son and older brother); crisis (where the son, thinking all will be well if he could just exercise his will, leaves his father’s house in anger and wastes his life in riotous living); and epiphany (where the prodigal recognizes, as he communes with the pigs and lusts after their food, what he had and has given up by leaving his father). This parable, by the way, is not insignificant for O’Connor’s story.

Let’s start with O’Connor and her exposition in “Revelation.” O’Connor loves irony, and loves to portray her protagonists (often Christians) as people who have grown to believe that the facade they display for others is an accurate reflection of their inner life. But it’s not. The protagonist, Mrs. Turpin (one of my students once called her “Mrs. Turpentine”), is stuck in the exposition’s setting–a doctor’s waiting room in the pre-civil rights deep South. Obviously, a doctor’s office is a place where the sick wait to see a physician. O’Connor wants to make the distinction between those who need a doctor to fix their visible illnesses and those who are in need of a physician to diagnose what might well kill them on the inside. She and another woman, who are well-mannered and are neither “white trash” nor African American nor ill-mannered, think they’re just fine; everyone else in their eyes is, well, unclean. Mrs. Turpin becomes so thankful, as she looks around the room at who she is not, that she shouts out a prayer of thanks to Jesus. The East coast educated young girl Scot describes then hurls a book (Human Development) at her and hits her “directly above her left eye.” The girl (named Mary Grace), walks over to Mrs. Turpin and whispers to her, “Go back to Hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Mrs. Turpin, now lying on the floor, is literally now experiencing changes in her vision, and eventually will struggle with how she has come to see the world.

So, Scot, two questions I would ask at this point are: which of Jesus’s stories is echoed by the exposition and crisis, and where does Mrs. Turpin end up after she leaves the doctor’s office for her period of reflection and eventual epiphany?

I’ll answer these questions tomorrow.

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  • RJS

    Mary Grace doesn’t “walk over and whisper” does she? It is a far more violent confrontation – and thus far more shattering.
    You know though – on not knowing how to read fiction… Don’t we often look at the parables as riddles Jesus told to the “unseeing” Jewish elite from which we should extract propositional truths rather than as stories for us to chew on and ponder? One can teach the parables without ever considering how to read story or fiction.

  • RJS,
    Good point. Parables clearly teach, but they teach by participation in that story rather than simply “exegeting” them to divine their intent.

  • pepy3

    Scot, is the _Collected_Works_ link supposed to link to something? It’s currently 404.

  • Thank you Scot and Dan. I am enjoying this.

  • Karl

    Is it possible to both participate in – enter subjectively and viscerally into – a story and also exegete it to divine its intent? Or does the one exclude the other?

  • Is the exposition and crisis grounded in the story of the Pharisee and Tax-collector at prayers at the Temple? “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like those people, in particular, that tax-collector,” the Pharisee prays.

  • RJS

    and where does Mrs. Turpin end up after she leaves the doctor’s office for her period of reflection and eventual epiphany?
    The image that stuck with me after reading this story is that Mrs. Turpin winds up with the revelation that (1 Cor. 3) she and those like her are those who will be tested by fire – that their work will burn up, they will suffer loss, and be saved, yet so as through fire.
    My next burning question (as with any short story) is ok … what comes next?

  • Boy, oh, boy…this is gonna be one good series! But only if we don’t get all bogged down in how to read fiction. After you read Flannery O’Connor, I guess it is instructive to figure out what exactly it is that you have read and why what you read was put together in that particular way, but might it not be even better just to rest and grow in what the words of the story have done/are doing to you on the inside and possibly, as a result, on the outside? Maybe it all depends on how you define “reading”–do you read in order to gain knowledge and figure things out and analyze things to death or do you read so that you can change and grow? I’m not saying this very well.
    Just remember, the heading on these threads is not “On How To Read Fiction” or “On How Fiction Comes To Be,” it’s “On Reading Fiction.” They’re not the same thing. The only important thing you need to know about how to read fiction is to move your eyes across and down the page and keep your brain engaged.
    This has been one man’s opinion….

  • I am enjoying this discussion.

  • Here’s to Flannery O’Connor, a pioneer in the modern-day use of “shock and awe.” This is my all-time favorite quote from Flannery O’Connor (not from her work, but about it):
    “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs that you do,” she wrote toward the end of her life, “you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.”

  • Daniel de Roulet

    RJS and Bob,
    Bob: exactly–the power of fiction is in reading and discussing it, but like a good car or a good French meal (sorry–my cultural heritage creeps in)the enjoyment of the drive or the meal is enhanced from knowing some basics on how it was put together. So, I’m just giving some structural basics on short stories, which O’Connor mastered. Scot and I will get into the meaning and the implications for the Christian reader. Your quote of O’Connor’s comments in your last post is a great example of her deliberate method.
    RJS: Yes, indeed, you’re right. Mary Grace actually spends most of her time in the waiting room building up to a boil. Her appearance, as a vehicle of grace, must seem almost demonic to Mrs. Turpin. Mary Grace actually pins her to the floor, looks straight into her soul, and makes her “wart hog from hell” declaration.

  • Daniel de Roulet

    John,
    That’s how I read it. I think that Scot will add some other references as well. Mrs. Turpin’s general disgust with the “unwashed rabble” seems to align her with the Pharisee camp, and so I think you’re right to make the connection. I must say, I love the throwing of the Human Development book in response.

  • Sam Burr

    I don’t remember the story saying Mrs. Turpin saw herself, and those like her, descending into hell. (See Scot’s summary of the story from yesterday, which I just read this morning to catch up). I thought it said that she, and those like her, were following upward behind those she saw herself superior to. This story reminds me of the book Ragamuffin Gosple hitting me in the face some where above the left eye when I realized that the hard words of Jesus at the pharisees meant nothing if not to the spirit of the pharisee in me. I do see Mrs. Turpin in me. I am trying to learn how to hop life a frog on my journey home.

  • Sam Burr

    And to partially answer the question, Mrs. Turpin ends up with the pigs before she has her epiphany, just like the prodigal sun. So we end up with grace and mercy?

  • Diane

    I too remember Mary Grace attacking Mrs. Turpin rather violently. I give Mrs. Turpin credit for seriously considering what Mary Grace has to say. Most of us, if attacked by a young woman, whom, if I remember correctly, was fat and had face “blue with acne,” would dismiss the angry comments the attacker made to us without another thought. But somehow Mrs. Turpin is open to relationship and is able to hear what Mary Grace has to say. This is the genius of O’Connor: she’s able to surprise us with a character like Mrs. Turpin. And as Mrs. Turpin takes seriously Mary Grace’s words, so we take Mrs. Turpin more seriously.
    Mrs. Turpin does remind me of Peter, in thinking she is holy and then having a moment of realization that she’s not.

  • Diane

    Dan,
    I’m curious as to where else you find dangerous Christian fiction. I think it can be hard to find in today’s world. I find much contemporary Christian fiction hard to read.

  • Daniel de Roulet

    Diane,
    You’re right in part, and some of the “dangerous” fiction is becomingless contemporary. O’Connor falls into that category, as does Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, and Lewis’s treatise-fiction (perhaps the best in Until We Have Faces). But, some Christian-themed fiction that contains both hope and critique can be found. I like John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Lief Enger’s Peace Like a River, Ron Hansen’s Atticus and Mariette in Ecstacy, and older novel by Walter Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz (quite applicable to issues today), and some of Lee Smith’s shorter fiction, in addition to her novel, Saving Grace.
    SOme of the dangerous writing has moved to memoir–Donald Miller, Ann Lamott, etc.
    Hope that helps a little.

  • Del

    I see an allusion to Matt. 7:1-6 on judging others, hypocrisy, and taking the log out of your own “eye” when the book hits her above the left eye. I also see Matt 23 (going with the Pharisee theme), “Blind guides, blind fools…” who are sons of hell.

  • Diane

    I would agree that there’s been a move to memoirs for dangerous writing. I have read Owen Meany and Peace Like a River and thought they were OK, but not terribly dangerous. A Canticle for Leibowitz might be. I read a novel called This Heavy Silence which was good and billed as Christian fiction, but I didn’t find it terribly Christian. Maybe I’m too harsh!

  • There’s a lot of dangerous contemporary “Christian” fiction. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead won a Pulitzer, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica won an NBA, Not Safe, But Good Vol. 2 edited by Bret Lott contains some breathtaking short stories, and Image Journal as well as Relief Journal are two incredible Christian Lit Reviews. I’d even go far enough and say that some of the best fiction with religious themes aren’t even written by Christians. Marrianne Wiggins comes to mind, Richard Powers, Ian McEwan, Joan Didion, Denis Johnson, we could go on.