One more Flannery O’Connor column before my thoughts turn back to “The Golden Bowl” by Henry James. For book club, we carefully navigated the waters of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” Lacking the violence of other stories, the story works better for group reading.
The main character Mrs. Ruby Turpin spends the majority of the short story in a doctor’s waiting room, observing, chatting and then recovering from an altercation with other persons in the waiting room. O’Connor describes early on the way Mrs. Turpin thinks long and deeply about the various classifications of people and their relative worth in the eyes of God. She thanks the Lord she is not in group X, but considers would still be worse to be in group Y.
Thus, she immediately sizes up her waiting room companions. She engages pleasantly with those who agree with her idea of class and shuts out from conversation with those who don’t.
Across from Mrs. Turpin sits a young lady who defies classification. She appears to be educated, though unattractive. The reader learns she is the daughter of the well-dressed woman beside her and attends Wellesley. The girl seems to know her somehow, seems to see something deep into her. Eventually, at an unanticipated boiling point, the girl reacts, attacks, and uses words a nice, clean country woman like Mrs. Turpin would never expect to hear about herself.
The words strike a nerve. Mrs. Turpin has made it her life to consider how above the other classes she is, even though there are others above her. She has justified herself. She checked the boxes on what it means to be a good woman, but somehow this girl sees through her. Turpin shakes her first and questions God, “Who do you think you are!”
Who is this Being to challenge her classification, her perception of the world, her truth? She fits in with the good people. Who is this spiritual being to say that her quality does not somehow measure up? How can she be challenged?
There are two elements at play here worth considering. How easily we are like this lady. It is part of human nature to classify things. Social scripts help us navigate complicated relationships. While many of these scripts have been upended in modern society (for example how couples date or how married couples define their roles) our tendency still exists in full force.
Life is immensely complicated and getting even more so as our surrounding culture changes rapidly. Instead of old familiar categories, we are using left and right, liberal and conservative, for the mask or anti-masking, vaccinated or anti-vax, one of us or one of them. The judgmental divisions have hidden fault lines and while social media and politics present a world of this side of that, clearly divided, we are, in truth, more complex. Some characters agree with the categorizations, but some, as in O’Connor’s waiting room, defy description.
When we group people as Mrs. Turpin did, we rarely come out on the bad end in our estimation. What started as naturally organizing units now becomes a battle: how much are you like me and how are you different? We begin to judge everything against ourselves. In this way, Mrs. Turpin made a god of herself. When the challenge came that there is a reality beyond her own making, that people and even she were more complex than she had defined them, it shakes her mightily.
In the story, we do not see what happens next. But what about us? When we encounter someone who defies our stereotypes, do we ask open-ended questions to learn more, or are we so preoccupied with sharing our beliefs and our opinions that we lose the moment entirely?
These questions do not have to lead to an argument unless you begin with this premise: I know the right way and everything about it. Convince me otherwise.
In that case, questions are used as prompts to allow us to spout off our knowledge. Every interaction validates what I think.
How different that is from trying to understand the other’s point of view, history, and ideas. When we begin to approach others as persons, not just a side of an issue, not just a unit in a box, then maybe, just maybe we can experience our own Revelation.
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.