Revelation by Flannery O’Connor, 1964
The magic trick:
Connecting the social changes in the 1960s with biblical imagery
If this week’s run of Southern short stories on SSMT has you feeling a little confused, don’t worry, Flannery O’Connor puts it all in order for you today. “Revelation” is a fairly magnificent template for social structure via the Bible.
It begins innocently enough as your typical Flannery O’Connor story – or at least as innocently as your typical Flannery O’Connor story can start. A woman, Mrs. Turpin, is critiquing the people around her in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. The scene’s biting commentary is hilarious and insightful. Mrs. Turpin makes herself feel better about the changing society around her and her place within it by generalizing everyone into neat, little social categories. The world doesn’t work like that anymore, though, (if it ever did) and an incident in the waiting room forces Mrs. Turpin to confront this terrible truth.
Now, to this point, the story doesn’t’ stand out among O’Connor’s story catalog. The characters, even the conversation, could be lifted directly from “Good Country People” or “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” It’s in the final scene that “Revelation” reveals itself as something truly special.
Mrs. Turpin, feeling her handle on the world slipping, has a vision – a revelation – of her little social paradigm marching off into the sun – Biblical apocalypse style. It’s the end of the world as she knows it. And it was the end of O’Connor’s life, too. In many ways, this story sums up her career. It has all the hallmarks of her work, all of her themes and gifts: the humor, the fear, the social commentary and, of course, the religion. And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
Next to the child’s mother was a redheaded youngish woman, reading one of the magazines and working a piece of chewing gum, hell for leather, as Claud would say. Mrs. Turpin could not see the woman’s feet. She was not white trash, just common. Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them – not above, just away from – were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were some colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincoln’s and a swimming pool and a farm with registered whiteface cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.