From “Revelation,” a story in Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. Mrs. Turpin has just had a pretty bad day: not only did she have to share a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of trashy people, one of them actually called her a wart hog from hell. Now she’s back home and she’s demanding an explanation from God, insisting that he tell her why, after a lifetime of piety and good behavior, she deserved to be called such a thing:
Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared, returning. She waited until it had had time to turn into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting halleujah.
One of the things I like best about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is the way she treats religion as a disruptive, scarifying force in people’s lives rather than a comforting flannel blanket for their minds. Religion, as often as not, is like a live wire lying on the ground, pulsing with immense power but terribly dangerous if handled improperly.
Consider the fate of young Harry Ashfield in “The River,” a neglected boy whose visit to a riverside baptism and the words of a charismatic evangelist (“You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.”) leads to tragedy. Or The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who finds the Gospels have thrown everything off balance: “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” Or Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, who spends his life trying to outrun Jesus by preaching The Church Without Christ — “Where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way.”
Mrs. Turpin gets off relatively easy: after enduring a stretch in The Waiting Room From Hell, she gets a vision of heaven in which she really understands what happens when the first are last and the last are first. I’ve read this story for years and I’m still not sure if the epiphany does her any good. Something in the vocabulary and the way her unthinking racism and snobbery remain intact lead me to suspect this is the moment she loses her religion, as they say in the South. But I could be wrong — I could be missing some nuance underneath the grotesque surface. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened with Flannery O’Connor.