On Reading Fiction 5

On Reading Fiction 5 April 23, 2008

Dan de Roulet now finishes up with an insightful interpretation of this story, and I have to say … wow, I didn’t see most of this at work; if I did, it was so inchoate I needed to see it like this to notice it. So, thanks Dan. Here’s Dan’s post:

Last time I asked about how readers are seeing the end of the story.

Here’s my take on what is going on. Mrs. Turpin, as she stands in the pig sty yelling at God, sees herself very much as a “Job” at this point in the story. Unlike the prodigal son, she has not yet come to her senses. She cries out, not so much asking for an answer as telling God off (much less eloquently than in Job 31:35), “Who do you think you are?” The cry goes out and echoes back at her, as if in answer, “Who do you think YOU are?” She is answered, so to speak, from the whirlwind. This answer addresses her initial self image that has been dissembled by the events of the story.

The vision she has of the bridge stretching from earth to Heaven, upon which the souls walk, I think answers your question, Scot, on what Mrs. Turpin means by “Put that bottom rail on the top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!” Look carefully at the order of the souls on the bridge—who is in front, and who is at the back of the line. At the back are people who, it seems to me, are still allowed to enter Heaven, but by the skin of their teeth. Mrs. Turpin sees them as people like her—they after all, are the only ones who are even singing on key! But the shock she experiences is not that God has “leveled” the status of heaven’s citizens, but that he agrees with her. There is still a top and a bottom—it’s just that she didn’t expect herself to be part of the bottom rail.

I’ll leave it to you and your readers to work out the theology of this. It’s interesting that O’Connor seems to be playing with the implications of the Lord’s declaration that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The end of the story also seems to be echoing stories that Christ tells about those who have little here (the rich man and Lazarus) and the Beatitudes. The problem addressed, though, is coming to judge your worthiness by your material self (as opposed to your spiritual self) in this world.
So the story is for those outside the church, and those inside it as well who perhaps have bought into a different material façade—one of Christian conduct and language, church membership and status, rather than the health of the spiritual beings we really are—what will be left when, as O’Connor suggests, all the rest has been burned away.

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  • Diane

    Some raw thoughts much less elegantly put than your comments! What interests me in my current reading of the story are the dissonances, the places where we can’t tie a ribbon around the story with a neat interpretation. I’m still mulling the stunning idea that Mrs. Turpin listens to and takes seriously the comments of Mary Grace. Much about Mary Grace should cue Mrs. Turpin to dismiss and condemn her: Mary Grace is overweight, ugly, angry, violent and attends a college up north. Yet Mrs. Turpin hears her. That speaks volumes to me about a level of thoughtfulness and complexity within Mrs. Turpin that O’Connor uses to jab at the reader’s assurance of superiority to the woman. How many of us would hear Mary Grace as clearly as Mrs. T? Plus, through the episode, O’Connor shows how God speaks to us: through other people and the ordinary events of life. O’Connor, through Mrs. Turpin, is challenging us to be as alert and sensitive to God’s speaking to us as is this woman to whom we may feel superior. Do we hear as well as … Mrs. T?
    Second, while it is true that respectable people like Mrs. Turpin are at the end of the line to heaven (I hope we don’t need to do a “careful” reading to pick that up!:)) I don’t necessarily see the line to heaven as interpreting the “rail” comment. It could … but Mrs. Turpin is an unreliable narrator. I think we’re meant to mull her comments. Are the rails really merely rearranged in heaven? Can we completely trust everything Mrs. Turpin sees or understands in her vision? Or does Mrs. Turpin still have learning to do? Are we as readers being tweaked and challenged about our assumptions that transformations are total, all-at-once experiences? What makes O’Connor successful is this kind of open-endedness: She doesn’t preach to us but let’s us enter into her stories and gives us much to think about.

  • RJS

    I hadn’t read anything by O’Connor before this series – so I really appreciate the introduction to her writing. It is interesting stuff. I wonder though – does it lose some impact or “shock value” in 2008 that it would have originally had in the 60’s?

  • Diane

    Well, I was trying to provoke some conversation/debate but apparently with not much success. I guess we all get caught up in woman’s issues.

  • Dan, what will be left when the wood, hay, stubble, and “all the rest” (to use your words) have been burned away will be the gold, the silver, and the precious stones. And just as it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, it will also surely be a fearful thing to be saved, yet so as by fire.
    I know this doesn’t sound at all postmodern, but it’s what “the Scripture saith.”
    RJS, I didn’t read O’Connor in the 60’s, I read her in the 70’s, but it was pretty shocking stuff even then. Reading Wise Blood prompted no less a personage than Evelyn Waugh to say of it, “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product.” What don’t you find shocking about (in “Revelation”), “Mrs. Turpin knew just exactly how much Negro flattery was worth and it added to her rage”? What don’t you find shocking about, “You could never say anything intelligent to a nigger. You could talk at them but not with them”? Read all of her stories; eventually you will be shocked.
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If reading Flannery O’Connor doesn’t shock you, you aren’t paying close enough attention.

  • RJS

    I’ve only read this and Parker’s Back so I much more to look forward to. I found Parker’s back to be much more thought provoking.
    I wonder though how the internal monologue appeared to readers (especially but not only southern readers) in the early 60’s and how it compares to today. This was a different era. So her monologue is “shocking” in its transparency – but it breeds no conflict, self-examination or real reflection in my mind.
    Parker’s Back on the other hand … this one has given me pause for thought.

  • RJS, I can’t wait for you to read “The Lame Shall Enter First”! And are you saying you haven’t read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”? Tsk, Tsk (jk)!!! And Flannery’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away has a very high “shock quotient,” in my opinion. Try all of her work, a little at a time. Eventually, mark my words, you’ll be shocked. (I must have a very low shock threshold: I was shocked from the get-go, after reading “Everything That Rises Must Converge” in 1975.) It’s also very instructive to read “Mystery and Manners,” her non-fiction volume, to find where she’s coming from.
    Flannery O’Connor said, “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it most certainly is Christ-haunted.” Then there’s William Faulkner’s famous statement, “The past is never dead; in many places it’s not even past.” I don’t think the times are all that different, in the South or anywhere else. The landscape may have changed, but people’s hearts haven’t.

  • Diane (#1), I have never thought about “the level of thoughtfulness and complexity within Mrs. Turpin” before or that O’Connor uses it to “jab at” the reader’s assurance of superiority to her.
    Flannery was definitely attempting to wake up readers of her fiction from their complacent sleep, to get a specific message across through her characters. Even the trees and the sun are characters in this sense, that Flannery used them to shock the reader into looking at things another way.
    I think perhaps you are also right in thinking that we readers are being “tweaked” and challenged about our assumptions that transformations are total, all-at-once experiences. Given that Flannery O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic and not a Four Spiritual Laws evangelical, that is certainly a very real possibility. I generally read “out of” her work and not “into” it, though.
    I never tire of uncovering layers and layers of meaning and motive in the works of Flannery O’Connor.

  • Diane

    Thanks for all your enthusiasm Bob!

  • Dan

    Thanks to you all for your comments and insights. RJS, I do think some of the shock has warn off–in part because of the violence in our films and fiction that has become so commonplace. I think though that O’Connor deals in a commodity that has become more rare since the time of her writings, though: she speaks the truth.
    Blessings to you all, and to the truthteller and my friend Scot McKnight.