Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More on Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation"

More of my comments from Scot McKnight's blog about reading Flannery O'Connor's short story, “Revelation”:

#1: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as unnatural to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.” (Flannery O'Connor's reply when people said her fiction was grotesque)

Flannery made it clear what these unnatural, repugnant distortions actually are. When she submitted the final versions of some of her stories for publication, she wrote to her editor, “Enclosed are nine stories about original sin, with my compliments.” And of the so-called “deadly sins,” the story “Revelation” deals mostly with pride, or, rather, the stripping away of pride, and the manner in which it is stripped away. God has to shout to get Ruby Turpin's attention, just as Flannery O’Connor has to shout to her hard-of-hearing readers. First there is the accusation of Mary Grace in the doctor's office (“Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart-hog”) and then there is the echo of Ruby’s own voice while she is hosing down the hogs in her pig-sty (shades of the parable of The Prodigal Son!) and telling God off with, “Who do you think you are?” In the silence that follows the echo, it becomes increasingly clear to her just who she is, just as it becomes increasingly clear to readers of Flannery’s stories who they are as well.

Over at the Comforts of Home website, Steven Sparrow has posted a very good essay on “Revelation” called “And The Smug Shall Come Last.” Being Roman Catholic like Flannery, Steven’s take is a bit different from that of Protestants, who dismiss Purgatory altogether, but it is worth reading. Like the stars in the sky over Taulkinham in Flannery's novel, Wise Blood, it adds depth on depth to the story.

#3: After Ruby Turpin’s angry question to God (Who do you think you are?) came only an echo, then silence, which effectively turned the question back to her. And only then came the vision. Ruby saw a great heavenly procession "extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire,” with people like herself and Claud not leading the procession but bringing up the rear, behind all the people to whom she thought herself superior. Suddenly she “knew her place.” And even though her kind marched with dignity and they alone sang on key, “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This probably suggests different things to different readers. Scot thought, until he read the story a second time, that the procession led both upward and downward and that these fires were the fires of Hell. Roman Catholic readers (and Flannery O’Connor was Roman Catholic) might assume the procession was entering Purgatory for the purification of their souls. I thought instead of Heaven, and the verse, “Our God is a consuming fire.”

After the vision faded, Mrs. Turpin remained immobile for a long time. Her pride, I think, was replaced by genuine humility, and her anger was replaced by genuine gratitude. When she moved again she was truly a changed woman, hearing in the cricket choruses of early evening “the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujahs.”

Reading Flannery O’Connor is like coming out of great darkness into marvelous light. One never looks at things quite the same ever again. At least, that has been my experience. Some people have entirely different reactions. My wife, for example, says only, “That woman is weird.”

If any of my posts about Flannery O'Connor's writing cause you to read any of her work, my work here is finished.

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