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Who do you think you are? (Revelation)

Flannery O’Connor wrote Revelation as she lay in a hospital bed dying from complications of lupus. Most of the story takes place in a doctor’s crowded waiting room where the central character (Mrs. Turpin) is there with her husband for his doctor’s appointment. As she chats with another lady who is there with her college-aged daughter, the discussion goes back and forth about the qualities that are important for decent people (such as themselves) to have. We’re given insight into Mrs. Turpin’s thoughts so we can see that she is a master of saying what is pleasant and proper while thinking what is harsh and judgmental—the girl in college is “ugly” because she has acne, another person is “common” and a child is a “poor nasty little thing.” All the while she is doing these things she is mentally singing along with the gospel music playing on the radio.

Meanwhile the girl in college keeps looking up from the book she is reading (called Human Development) and giving Mrs. Turpin all kinds of mean looks. This finally reaches a crescendo when the girl throws the book at her, hitting her above the eye. She then grabs Mrs. Turpin by the throat. A doctor comes out and sedates her but before she loses consciousness she calls her an “old wart hog.” This "revelation" (as Mrs. Turpin calls it) disturbs her far more than the attack.

In a manner reminiscent of the prodigal son (though in reality she is much more the older brother), she goes back to their farm where they raise pigs. They don’t raise their pigs outside—part of their superiority to others is that they raise them inside a building on a concrete floor. This arrangement is referred to as a “pig parlor.” As she hoses down the hogs in the parlor, she angrily confronts God and questions how He could send her such a message as He did through the college girl. She argues for her goodness, detailing the different things that she does and concludes by asking God, “Who do You think You are?”

In reply she is given a vision of people on a bridge stretching to heaven. Jubilantly traveling on this bridge are all of the people she has been thinking ugly things about.  Finally, bringing up the rear of the procession, she sees the people who are like her. As the vision fades, the truth of it remains with her and she takes it to heart, leaving her pig parlor to head back to her house.

O’ Connor reminds us in a powerful way that there are just two groups of people: sinners who think they are righteous and the righteous who think they are sinners (Paschal).  She cuts through the veneer of Christian civility Mrs. Turpin displays to expose the darkness of a heart blind to its own ways. Rather than being merciful and bearing with the weakness of others (as they do with her), she employs an intricate system of workarounds in order to avoid the righteous behavior that makes demands on her character. The end result is that she obstinately isolates herself from all who are not like her. There is no salt or light coming from her, just a cold self-righteousness that rots the soul.

Oh well, it was a good read but O’ Connor was a writer of fiction so there’s nothing here I need to worry about—is there?

 

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