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Symbolism in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”

Flannery O’Connor belongs to the school of writing called American Southern Gothic. Her fiction revolves around people from the South and the volatile relationships fermenting in their society. The significance of being a writer from the American South has something to do with the immediate context from which the stories are written. The extent of slavery and racial prejudice in the South presents Southern writers with subject matter ranging from racism to moral decay (Wood 1) Apart from being rooted in what is considered a backwater, Bible-fundamentalist society, O’Connor’s staunch faith in Roman Catholicism also plays a part in her fiction.
Many of her works have been read with symbolism of spiritual realities. Martin asserts that the symbolic nature of her work comes from the plausibility of her characters’ action or the circumstances in which they find themselves, and the metaphysical meaning these actions or circumstances take (137). To O’Connor, however, her fiction is not symbolic but sacramental in that the actions, which are often violent, are seen to be intrusions of God’s grace into the physical world (Revel).
The ability of O’Connor to translate abstract matters such as good, evil, grace, and redemption into a concrete, mundane, and very real scenario infuses her fiction with rich symbolism. The effective use of symbol is demonstrated in the short story Revelation. Like most of her stories, Revelation is set in the South, in a little town where ordinary folks live. It is a world familiar to O’Connor, having been brought up in Georgia. The protagonist in the story is Ruby Turpin, a stocky woman who has a penchant for thinking about people in relation to her own sense of righteousness.

Along with her husband, Mrs.Turpin is found at the beginning of the story in a clinic waiting room in which she joined several people. Immediately, she surveyed the room and sized them up according to her own sets of labels: a white trash woman, a fat, ugly teenager, a pleasant woman, and ordinary-looking folks. Not long after, she strikes a conversation with the pleasant woman who turns out to be the mother of the ugly girl. They talk about how important it is to observe propriety and maintain a positive outlook even when they have to deal with “niggers. ” They then share sentiment about being thankful for whatever God has given them.
All this time, the ugly girl named Mary Grace is smirking, obviously irritated and furious at the conversation of the two women. The white trash woman, on the other hand, tries to join the conversation by sharing comments which only showed her ignorance. At that point, Mrs. Turpin exclaims, out of a sudden burst of joy, how thankful she is to Jesus that He made things just the way they are, and that she was not somebody else. Then, without warning, Mary Grace throws a book to Mrs. Turpin’s face and lunges at her with her hands strangling the stout woman’s neck.
Appalled by the violent act, Mrs. Turpin demands the ugly girl to explain herself, and with contempt, Mary Grace commands her to return to hell. Mrs. Turpin takes the incident to be a revelation from God. In her exasperation for not understanding why God would condemn a virtuous woman like her, she demands God for an explanation. All at once, a strange light reveals to her a vision in which all sorts of abominable people are leading a march to heaven with people like her trailing behind. One of the recurring references in the story is the eye. The title itself, Revelation, gives clue as to how eyesight will play out in the entire story.
Revelation involves exposing something into view, and in the story, Mrs. Turpin realized the prejudice she hides beneath the courteous demeanor. Through O’Connor’s sleight of hand, Mrs. Turpin’s epiphany gains resonance throughout the story precisely because of the symbols which O’Connor employed. In Writing Short Stories, O’Connor says that a particular object or action becomes symbolic when it accumulates meaning from the beginning of the story until it reaches the denouement (O’Connor 1546).
At the onset of the story, O’Connor directs the reader’s attention to the physical appearance of Mrs. Turpin, most significantly to her eye. Her little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation” (O’Connor 818). It was through the appearances of people she sees in the waiting room that Mrs. Turpin judges whether they are agreeable or not. It was also through her eyes that she communicates. Upon meeting the eye of the pleasant woman, she seems to have an understanding with her regarding the sorry state of other people inside the waiting room: “The look that Mrs. Turpin and the pleasant lady exchanged indicated they both understood that you had to have certain things before you could know certain things” (O’Connor 822).
O’Connor uses eyesight as a symbol of the inner being of Mrs. Turpin and the rest of the characters in the story—true to the aphorism that the eye is the window to the soul. This is further demonstrated in O’Connor’s description of the white-trash woman’s eye as having a “cast,” which could literally be a physical eye ailment but could also mean a failure to see things as they rightly are. As a contrast to Mrs. Turpin, the ugly girl who is significantly named Mary Grace responds to the pathetic conversation with a scowl.
Mary Grace was the kind of person that Mrs. Turpin could not make sense of or judge as easily as she could others. This suggests that Mary Grace and Turpin do not share the same sentiments regarding other people. Mary Grace, described to have a “peculiar eye,” sees through Mrs. Turpin’s hypocrisy and uses her eye to condemn it. As Mrs. Turpin’s prejudice gets more blaring, Mary Grace fixes her piercing look at Mrs. Turpin who was starting to get confused at Mary Grace’s hateful look. Mrs. Turpin ignores the ugly girl and blurts out a prayer not unlike that performed by a Pharisee in the Bible.
Upon hearing this, the ugly girl throws a book and hits Mrs. Turpin’s left eye. In Oedipus Rex, eyesight and the lack thereof is used ironically to demonstrate how the king’s blindness turned to sight (Bush). Similarly, Mrs. Turpin saw her prejudice through an impaired eye. She sees a vision, while in her backyard, revealing how her prejudice would get her behind the ranks of people marching to heaven. Eyesight, throughout the rest of the story, is used as a symbol of Mrs. Turpin’s prejudice as well as her redemption. Another recurring object in the story which accretes symbolic meaning is the pig.
Commonly associated with uncleanness, the pig symbolizes the moral state of Mrs. Turpin. It is no coincidence that she and her husband Claud raise pigs in their backyard. O’Connor reinforces this symbol when Mary Grace calls Mrs. Turpin a warthog. Sparrow sees another meaning to the use of pigs in Revelation. According to him, the act of cleaning the pigs before they are sent to the slaughterhouse symbolizes the act of purging in Purgatory. In the story, Mrs. Turpin violently hoses her pigs as she asks God with insolence why she experienced the humiliating incident in the waiting room.
This is a parallel to the act of cleansing that humans must undergo before they can reach heaven. Symbolizing Purgatory is evident in the final revelation Mrs. Turpin receives at the end of the story. The bridge connecting earth to heaven is a place where “virtues and vices will be equally purged. Shame and pride will be no more. Clean and unclean, sane and lunatic, white and black, gentile and Jew, slave and free, woman and man will enter in a single throng, the last being first, the first being the last. ” (The Black Cordelias). The waiting room where Mrs. Turpin experiences her first revelation is another symbol in the story.
Filled with people that come from different walks of life, the waiting room is used as a microcosm of the society wherein “niggers” and “whites,” rich and poor brush shoulders with each other. O’Connor employs a similar technique in Everything that Rises Must Converge where she set the story in a bus, a scaled-down image of the world. In Revelation, people inside the waiting room inevitably take symbolic meaning. Five types of people can be seen inside the waiting room, relating to different kinds of people in society. The white trash woman, with her ignorant comments and hasty judgment, symbolizes people who are uninformed and uneducated.
They view the world with a sharp dichotomy: white and black. This is especially true in the South which was steeped with racism. The Negro represents those who are oppressed and marginalized in society. In most of O’Connor’s story, black people prove to be nobler than whites who think they are superior. Consistent with her strong Catholic beliefs, O’Connor puts preference to the oppressed. Mrs. Turpin of course represents the prejudiced and hypocritical. She is typical of some Christians who wear a mask of righteousness to hide their real feelings towards people they do not agree with.
In Revelation, O’Connor puts hope in God’s sovereignty to transform people like Mrs. Turpin, and for O’Connor, God’s intervention in the physical world is possible because of the sacraments, the visible signs of God’s intangible grace. Finally, the presence of Mary Grace symbolizes people who fix the unbalance in the world brought about by prejudice and cruelty. Her name alludes to two Catholic beliefs: Mary, the intermediary between man and Jesus, and Grace, the unmerited favor which God bestows man. O’Connor uses Mary Grace to redeem Mrs. Turbin from her blindness and restore the balance in her life.
The use of symbols in Flannery O’Connor serves her purpose of translating into everyday circumstances the abstract truths and teachings of her faith. Her Christian worldview is reflected in her characters and the transformation they experience. Despite being a staunch believer and defender of her faith, her fiction, as demonstrated in Revelation, does not come as a didactic propaganda. Her deft writing and understanding of fiction enables her to create realistic and believable characters which, in turn, enable readers to see the world as it is.

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