Summary and Analysis
In a 1959 interview with a writer for the Atlanta Journal, O'Connor told a reporter that she could wait for a larger audience for her fiction because "A few readers go a long way if they're the right kind." She went on to say, "You want, of course, to get what you want to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is of no concern of the writer." The rigor of this statement may be accounted for by the fact that her health was better than it had been for some time and because she had just received a $10,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
By 1964, however, O'Connor's health was beginning to fail, and by April of that year, as a result of an abdominal operation, the lupus was reactivated. By August she was dead. This loss of health may be one way to account for the marked change which occurs in her final three stories. In her earlier stories, the religious content, while unquestionably present, generally tends to be covert. Even in those stories where the religious element is most obvious, the reader is given an option which allows him to explain the events of the story on a purely secular basis. Harry, in "The River," can be seen as a young boy whose premature death is brought on by a group of religious freaks and fanatics. In a story called "The Enduring Chill," Asbury Fox's vision of the Holy Ghost descending upon him may be explained as a delusion brought on by the fever from which he is suffering. Only in "The Artificial Nigger," which O'Connor claimed to be her favorite story, can one find an unambiguously stated religious conclusion.
Consequently, the extremely overt use of religious themes in her final three stories — "Revelation," "Parker's Back," and "Judgement Day" — comes as a shock to readers accustomed to the less obvious use of religious themes in her earlier stories. It is as though O'Connor, fearing that her position might be misunderstood or fearing, perhaps, that she could wait no longer, wishes to leave no doubt about her concerns and beliefs.
The first of the final three stories, "Revelation," concludes with a heavenly vision visited upon Mrs. Turpin, the protagonist of the story. Her major flaw, which is repeatedly revealed throughout the course of the story, is the great sense of satisfaction she takes in her own sense of propriety. Armed with this grand illusion, she self-righteously marches through life smiting the Philistines hip and thigh.
The first two-thirds of the story is set in the waiting room of a doctor's office where Mrs. Turpin has taken her husband, Claud, for treatment. It is here that she occupies her thoughts by placing the occupants of the waiting room into what she considers to be their "proper categories," using clichés which clearly reveal her view of the world in which she finds herself. She is aided in these activities because the waiting room is filled with people from several different social categories. Present are the "lady" and her daughter, Mary Grace, an acne-faced teenager who is reading a book entitled Human Development. Also present are an elderly gentleman, a mother and a child whom Mrs. Turpin considers "white trashy," an old woman, and a younger woman, "not white-trash, just common."
O'Connor exposes Mrs. Turpin's naive hypocrisy by recounting the conversation which takes place in the office and by revealing Mrs. Turpin's innermost thoughts. Mrs. Turpin lives by what O'Connor has called the "Southern code of manners." This code allows her to appear genteel on the surface and to keep to herself the less attractive thoughts which seethe behind her facade of gentility. We learn that she considers herself very fortunate because she sees herself and Claud as members of the class of "home-and-land owners." Above are people with more land, bigger houses, and money; below are the homeowners only, and at the bottom of the heap are the blacks and the white trash. With deft strokes, O'Connor outlines a complete milieu, laying bare both good and bad aspects of that society.
During the course of the conversation, Mrs. Turpin notes that Mary Grace, the Wellesley student, keeps looking at her as though she "knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition." Finally the girl, exasperated by the mannered politeness which has surrounded her, throws the Human Development book at Mrs. Turpin, striking her in the head. She then rushes across the room and begins to choke Mrs. Turpin. Finally, subdued and sedated, she replies to Mrs. Turpin's question, "What have you got to say to me?" She says, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog." This response strikes Mrs. Turpin with the force of another physical blow.
It is interesting to note that O'Connor, in a letter to a friend, identified herself with Mary Grace. One might speculate, on the basis of that identification, that O'Connor came to recognize the problems of a social attitude which, although not evil in and of itself, is capable of undercutting true Christian charity.
Mrs. Turpin returns home only to be plagued by Mary Grace's statement. Even her practice of bringing ice water to the black help and gaining their sympathy fails to restore her earlier sense of wellbeing. This is so because we know that her actions are based more on proper manners than on true charity; earlier, we heard her say, "I sure am tired of buttering up niggers, but you got to love em if you want em to work for you." The blacks, in their turn, retreat behind their own wall of manners, and they flatter Mrs. Turpin by threatening to "kill" Mary Grace for attacking her, by noting, "You the sweetest white lady I know," and by declaring, "Jesus satisfied with her." Mrs. Turpin is aware that the blacks are only using these statements to preserve their relationship with her and that they are not sincere. O'Connor noted, "The uneducated Southern Negro is not the clown he is made out to be. He's a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy." She goes on to say, "All this may not be ideal, but the Southerner has enough sense not to ask for the ideal but only for the possible, the workable." Mrs. Turpin's ability to recognize the insincerity of the blacks does not, however, help her to recognize that she is equally insincere in her dealings with them.
Still frustrated, Mrs. Turpin marches off to the pig parlor with the "look of a woman going single-handed, weaponless, into battle," where, in outright rebellion, she enters into a direct conflict with the Deity. In a letter to a friend, O'Connor notes, "I like Mrs. Turpin as well as Mary Grace. You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hogpen. She's a country female Jacob." (The story of Jacob is recorded in the last twenty-five chapters of Genesis. The operative reference here is to Genesis 32:22-32, where Jacob wrestles with the angel and is told, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with God and men, and have triumphed." Israel, then, becomes one of the important ancestors of the House of David, the line from which Christ descends.)
In her confrontation with God, Mrs. Turpin begins with the question, "Why me?" She then notes that even if He were to decide to "put that bottom rail on top. There'll still be a top and bottom!" Finally, she demands, "Who do you think you are?"
Mrs. Turpin's answer is presented through an epiphany which causes her to reevaluate her assumptions concerning her specific value in the divine scheme of things. You should note that her epiphanal moment is introduced by a change in nature and is supported by typical O'Connor color imagery. Also note that she gazes into the pig parlor "as if [she were looking] through the very heart of mystery" and that it is "as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge." Her tenacity is rewarded by a vision in which she sees "a vast horde of souls" marching into heaven. (O'Connor noted in the letter mentioned above that Mrs. Turpin's "vision is Purgatorial.") In that marching horde are "whole companies of white trash . . . bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics." It is only at the end of the procession that she sees people "who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right." She sees them "marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior." You should remember that Mrs. Turpin has spent her life ranking individuals in what she takes to be "the proper order." While doing this, she has forgotten the clear teachings of Christ who said, "But many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first" (Matthew 19:30). Consequently, she discovers "by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away."
The story ends with Mrs. Turpin walking back to the house: "In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah." Although Mrs. Turpin's vision is not presented with the degree of high seriousness which usually accompanies the traditional presentation of a religious experience, there appears to be no question that O'Connor intends the reader to see Mrs. Turpin as one of the elect — saved, however mysteriously, by the grace of a forgiving God.