On Reading Fiction 4

On Reading Fiction 4 April 22, 2008

As many of you know, we’re doing a series with Dan de Roulet, an English professor, about reading fiction and we’re using “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor to get to some of the issues in reading fiction. So, here’s Dan response to my last post:

Scot, there’s a lot in your questions and a lot going on in the story, so I want to back us up a little.

First, back to the waiting room. What’s going on here, I think, is a slow stripping away of Mrs. Turpin’s carefully built façade. The façade is so well built, indeed, that she believes it and has lost track of who she really is inside. O’Connor once wrote, in another context, the following. These lines precede those quoted in Bob’s comments on post #2 for this thread:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as unnatural to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural…”

In the waiting room, there’s a clear difference between Mrs. Turpin’s “good church woman” façade and the thoughts (distorted and repugnant) which are running around in her head. I think that Mary Grace sees this disconnection between the inner and outer confessing Christian, and it drives her to attack Mrs. Turpin and proclaim her “a wart hog from Hell.” This shock, the attack and pronouncement that turn Mrs. Turpin’s world upside down, results in two things.

Reflection: she becomes pre-occupied with how she can be “from Hell and saved” at the same time. Also, the façade begins to break down. She is no longer polite, or even in control of her biting remarks. Her “Jesus talk” that is exhibited in the prayer just before the attack dissolves into brutal honesty—in the sense that she has lost her “filter.” What is on the inside (her hatred of Blacks, of “white trash”, of people with no social graces, her disappointment in her husband, her general anger at God and the world He has created) leaks into her speech.

This reaches its height in the pig sty, where Mrs. Turpin ends up, ironically as you point out, to be with her own kind. The language coming out of her mouth here is painful and honest. Who is she talking to, exactly? God. All her questions, and the reality of her condition, come pouring out like the stream of water she aims at the pigs. This transparent conversation has her asking God why, with all the “unacceptable” people in the waiting room to choose from, He selected her for criticism. She makes the statement you quote, which I’ll get to momentarily, which is “Put that bottom rail on the top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!” Then she yells out, quite astonishingly across the fields at God, “Who do you think you are?” The answer she receives will be her epiphany, her “revelation.”

Scot, I’d like to hear how you and your readers read the rest of the story.

Next post: on Dan’s reading of this story.

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  • “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as unnatural to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural…”
    Flannery made it clear what these unnatural, repugnant distortions actually are. When she submitted the final versions of some of her stories for publication, she wrote to her editor, “Enclosed are nine stories about original sin, with my compliments.” And of the so-called “deadly sins,” the story “Revelation” deals mostly with pride, or, rather, the stripping away of pride, and the manner in which it is stripped away. God has to shout to Ruby Turpin, just as Flannery O’Connor does to her hard-of-hearing readers, first in the accusation of Mary Grace (“go back to hell where you came from, you old wart-hog”) and then in the echo of Ruby’s own voice, “Who do you think you are?” It becomes increasingly clear to her just who she is, just as it becomes increasingly clear to readers of Flannery’s stories who they are as well.
    Over at the Comforts of Home website, Steven Sparrow has posted a very good essay on “Revelation” called “And The Smug Shall Come Last.” Followers of this thread might find it enlightening. Being Roman Catholic like Flannery, Steven’s take may be a bit different from that of Protestants who dismiss Purgatory altogether, but it is worth reading. It adds “depth upon depth” to the story, like the stars in the sky over Taulkinham in Wise Blood.

  • RJS

    No one has yet answered Dan’s question – so I’ll give it a stab. I read the rest of the story as Mrs. Turpin realizing that God cleans her and her kind as she cleans the pigs – of course there is some more there as well in the reversal, and the fire, and such.
    I also thought that the pigs were an interesting feature in this story – there is an exchange in the waiting room where the woman Mrs. Turpin classifies as “white trash” will not keep pigs because they are too dirty, while Mrs. Turpin keeps pigs – but on a concrete slab and washed daily (or more); then the story ends with Mrs. Turpin washing the pigs as she has her revelation. I am not sure what to make of it all though.

  • After Ruby Turpin’s angry question to God (Who do you think you are?) came only an echo, then silence which effectively turned the question back to her. And only then came the vision. Ruby Turpin saw people like herself and Claud, not leading the heavenly processing “extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire,” but bringing up the rear, behind all the people to whom she thought herself superior. Suddenly she “knew her place.” And even though they marched with dignity and they alone sang on key, “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This probably suggests different things to different readers. Scot thought, until he read the story a second time, that their part of the procession led downward and that these were the fires of Hell. Catholic readers (and Flannery O’Connor was Catholic) might think the procession was entering Purgatory for the purification of their souls. I thought instead of Heaven, and the verse, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
    After the vision faded, Mrs. Turpin remained immobile for a long time. Her pride, I think, was replaced by genuine humility, and her anger was replaced by genuine gratitude. When she moved again she was truly a changed woman, hearing in the cricket choruses of early evening “the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujahs.”
    Reading Flannery O’Connor is like coming out of great darkness into marvelous light. One never looks at things quite the same ever again. At least, that has been my experience.

  • In the waiting room, there’s a clear difference between Mrs. Turpin’s “good church woman” façade and the thoughts (distorted and repugnant) which are running around in her head. I think that Mary Grace sees this disconnection between the inner and outer confessing Christian, and it drives her to attack Mrs. Turpin and proclaim her “a wart hog from Hell.”
    How can discerning Christians write about what is “distorted and repugnant” in USAmerican evangelicalism without appearing overly critical or unbiblical?