Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The “revelation” in Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name opens in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, where the smug Mrs. Turpin is chatting amiably with a stranger to pass the time. The stranger’s homely, surly daughter Mary Grace sits nearby reading a book, significantly called “Human Development.”
As her conversation shows, Mrs. Turpin feels a tremendous degree of self-satisfaction regarding her own position in the world. Her caste classifications boil down to race and ownership of land; as she and her husband Claud own a house and a little land to raise pigs on, she considers herself obviously superior to people who own only a house. And since she is white, she considers herself superior to any blacks, regardless of how much property they own. But here her classification system breaks down. She cannot figure out what to do with people who have a lot of money but are common, or who have “good blood” but have lost their money and have to rent. What she is really saying, however, is that she cannot figure out how there could be anybody who is in any way superior to Mrs. Turpin.
Inevitably Mrs. Turpin’s reflections break out into speech; she says feelingly, “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, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!... Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!”
At that moment Mary Grace apparently cannot stand this self-congratulatory blather any longer, and hurls her book at Mrs. Turpin, hitting her in the eye. Mary Grace then lurches across the waiting room, clamps her fingers around Mrs. Turpin’s neck and begins to choke her. Mary Grace is subdued and falls into some kind of fit. Mrs. Turpin leans over her and “the girl’s eyes [stop] rolling.” At this point Mrs. Turpin asks her, “What have you got to say to me?”
This may seem like an extremely peculiar question to ask someone having a seizure, but there are in fact two explanations for it. The first, most obvious one, is that Mrs. Turpin is unable to see that the girl is ill—she is able to see only that the girl has affronted her, and thus Mrs. Turpin is seeking an apology. On a surface level, this explanation is consistent with Mrs. Turpin’s personality, and works in the context of the story.
On a deeper level, however, Mrs. Turpin’s question may have something to do with the nature of the epileptic’s relationship to God. Tradition holds that St. Paul was an epileptic. In many primitive cultures, the ecstatic states of shamanism are occasionally brought on, preceded, or characterized by convulsions. Seen in this light, Mrs. Turpin’s question is a request for a revelation from God through the oracular function of someone who has just seen Him -- and this is the explanation most consistent with the title of the story.
The revelation is, as all O’Connor’s revelations are, shocking. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!” says Mary Grace.
Because Mrs. Turpin sees this as an oracular message, she has to incorporate it into her world-view, and this is difficult. “How,” she asks God later, “am I hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”
In O’Connor’s world-view, however, both of these things are perfectly consistent. O’Connor believes that Mrs. Turpin is indeed a hog, just like the ones she raises, who live in a pig-parlor and whose feet never touch the ground. And simultaneously, Mrs. Turpin is saved because she wants to be, and everyone who believes in Christ is entitled to his saving grace. That Mrs. Turpin is neat and clean, pleasant to the Negro workers, and volunteers time at her church is nice, but it is not what ensures her eternal salvation; to O’Connor, the shed blood of Christ has done that, and he has done it for Negroes and white trash too. Note that the harbinger of this message is named Mary—the mother of Christ, whose death bestowed this gift upon the world—and Grace, the name of the gift itself.
This is the final revelation that Mrs. Turpin receives in the last scene of the book. In the end, even one’s virtues are burned away because they are human, not spiritual virtues; and in her vision of the souls mounting to heaven, “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” were bringing up the rear of the queue. They are saved, yes, but no more saved than anybody else.
In “Revelation,” as in all her stories, O’Connor accomplishes her purpose through the linking of opposites—two levels of meaning, two viewpoints, two irreconcilable conclusions. And out of the collision between these opposites is born a synthesis that illustrates, for O’Connor and her characters, the means of God’s grace.
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