Flannery O’Connor was a remarkable 20th-century American writer of startling, strange, and sometimes violent short stories and novels set in the rural South. In the last year of her too-short life, she worked between medical treatments and hospitalization, writing and correcting the last draft of “Revelation,” one of her final short stories. It remains a well-crafted masterpiece, the culmination of all she intended to say about the fallen human condition and the power of grace to pierce through the veil and open your eyes to yourself and those around you.
In “Revelation,” as in other stories, O’Connor relies on the archetype of a bigoted, narrow-minded busybody old woman who prattles on endlessly, setting everyone else on edge. Such a woman decides immediately who is worthy and who is found wanting. Such a character epitomized the writing of O’Connor, who thrived on poking fun at the narcissist, the puffed-up intellectual, the spiritually dead, and the arrogant gossip. Mrs. Turpin was perfect fodder, a mixture of smug, delusional, and self-assured. She thought she saw the world clearly, but could not fathom her proper place in it. She was hypocrisy and propriety personified, with not an ounce of love or mercy.
Mrs. Turpin may have acted genteel, but her thoughts of ill will toward her fellow human travelers seethed below the surface. She disparaged others who she thought were beneath her, and fancied herself perfect: “When I think who all I could have been beside myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting … ” She was so sure she was ahead of her neighbors in all manners, understanding, and virtue that she could barely keep herself from speaking. So consumed with denouncing the failings of others, Mrs. Turpin pondered and enumerated all the classes of folks who were inferior to her in economic rank and social stature. Her faith was tepid, and her treatment of others was vulgar.
She was, however, given a moment of clarity, a vision of her malignant spiritual deformity. This epiphany came from an unlikely prophet: a pimply-faced, disrespectful, Wellesley-educated, awkward girl named Mary Grace. After listening to Mrs. Turpin talk endlessly in the doctor’s office waiting room, mocking and agitating against others, the girl saw “beyond time and place and condition,” hurled a book at her, and dove across the room to choke her. Mary Grace urged Mrs. Turpin to “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” The people in the doctor’s office believed Mary Grace had become unhinged, but Mrs. Turpin was not so convinced. The outburst had hit its mark.
Deep inside her small heart and even smaller mind, Mrs. Turpin perceived that she might have deserved the knock on the head and the name-calling. Mary Grace’s words were a rebuke to her false “Christian attitude” and superficial manners. Moreover, she was so unnerved by what had transpired that she sought confirmation from her husband and the hired farm workers that she was no “warthog.” They falsely attested to her goodness. She even scolded God Almighty, asking, “What do you send me a message like that for?” Mrs. Turpin was confounded.
Near the end of “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin is shown a profound and painfully clear vision, across the night sky, of a line of souls marching onward to heaven – and in the front of the line singing praises to God are “whole companies” of trashy folks she had written off, derided, and belittled. Transfigured, they are now beautiful souls. To her horror, she sees in the back of the line a group of her friends – chastened, the pretenders with their fake pieties “being burned away.” It is both a sign and an admonition by O’Connor to all the Mrs. Turpins and those resembling her: self-blindness is lethal, grace causes people to change in unforeseen ways, and the mind and heart of God are often a mystery.
“Revelation” deftly reveals to the reader that the demands of faith are not for the false or weak-kneed, but are shouldered by the authentic, the unexpected, and the humble.