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And the Smug Shall Come Last
Pride, Purgatory and Perfection in Flannery O’Connor’s Short Story “Revelation”

© 20 April 2002, Stephen Sparrow

For her delightful fable The Pilgrim, New Zealand author Joy Cowley invented a character named Error who said, “Most of the evil out there in the world is done by people convinced of their goodness.” Flannery O’Connor’s award winning short story Revelation is precisely about one such person. Revelation is a modern parable highlighting that most original of all sins; pride. The story positively resonates with scriptural allusions taken straight from St Luke’s Gospel, which records Christ talking of those who, with conceit, having occupied a high place at the banquet, must with embarrassment surrender it to a latecomer of greater importance (Luke 14: 7-14). Another chapter tells of Christ attacking pride from a different angle with the story of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the temple: the Pharisee thanking God that he is free from vice and not at all like that immoral publican nearby who keeps striking his breast and pleading with God for forgiveness (Luke 18: 9-14).  Each gospel piece concludes in almost identical fashion with Jesus Christ warning, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled.”

Without even mentioning humility by name, Flannery O’Connor defined it clearly in a letter she wrote to Betty Hester. She had written to dispute a common Calvinist misconception held by Hester; that Christian conversion is a once and for all thing, and O’Connor corrected her by saying, "once the process [of conversion] is begun and continues…you are continually turning inward toward God and away from your own egocentricity…you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it. I measure God by everything I am not. I begin with that."

For O’Connor, the first step toward humility involved recognizing God; recognizing Him as the omnipotent creator of the universe. Recognizing that it was the almost illogical condescension of God that enabled her to exist. Recognizing that without that belief and the concomitant necessity to be charitable in all things, the virtue of humility was unattainable. We shouldn’t need reminding that in the absence of humility, pride will flourish, and yet that was exactly the effect produced by Calvinist Protestantism whose mindset was founded on faith alone (Sola Fide); a highly subjective standpoint. The natural outcome of Sola Fide could only be self-righteousness, which is an extension of pride. It was a faith that fed on itself, believing nothing else mattered and that with such faith the individual could sally forth justified, fortified even, by faith alone; humility being considered a weakness. It was a faith incompatible with authentic Christianity and completely ignored the New Testament’s emphasis on the practice of humility, i.e. the necessity to change and become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18: 1-5). With the virtue of humility sidelined, it was entirely logical that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination should find the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory an abhorrence. After all, for those whom God had predestined from the beginning of time to receive material benefits and ultimately salvation, Purgatory no longer made any sense. There would no longer be any need for it. You believed and were saved by that belief: end of story. However, inside Revelation , Flannery O’Connor tells a story with a completely different perspective.

Haven’t all of us at some stage sat around with a friend over a beer or coffee and solved the problems of the world by pointing to everyone else’s deficiencies, starting usually on those closest to us, but never never daring to place ourselves in that same landscape of problems except as an “innocent” bystander, or victim maybe? Revelation starts off this way, except none of the moaners in this story has previously met. The meeting place is a doctor’s waiting room and the point of common contact is their being bound together by a misfortune, viz. having to put up with this world; a world we can only make better by bettering ourselves spiritually. And the doctor’s waiting room? Doesn’t the symbolism of it strike you? A place where you wait before consulting the "healer".

As in all of O’Connor’s short stories, the central character of Revelation makes her appearance in the first sentence. Ruby Turpin, a large lady, enters the doctor’s tiny, crowded waiting room and after making sure her husband Claude has somewhere to sit and rest his injured leg, she looks around expecting somebody to give up a chair for her. Nobody does, and not until another patient has been called into the consulting room does Ruby have the opportunity to sit down; a situation which plainly irritates her since one small sofa is totally occupied by a grubby, inconsiderate child, whose mother Ruby thinks should have made the child sit up straight and make room for her.

Ruby and another patient, a stylish lady, start talking, first by exchanging empty compliments. Then, after a few pauses, during which we are made aware of Ruby’s thoughts, another exchange of pleasantries occurs that leads to a general discussion--joined by others present--on the faults and failings of the large mass of anonymous layabouts in the world who apparently lack either virtue or the motivation to work. There is a definite consensus in the waiting room and it isn’t long before the discussion on layabouts gets specific with special mention being made of Negro farm workers. Quite suddenly all sorts of pet hates begin to surface; Negroes should all be made to return to Africa, ungrateful children should be punished, and hogs are nasty stinking things; at least according to the white trash woman present, who views both pigs and Negroes in the same light. The discussion on pigs occurs since Ruby let it be known she and Claude raised a few along with cows, chickens and some cotton. She quickly springs to the defense of her beloved pigs by saying how well cared for and clean they are, "they're cleaner than some children." The entire waiting room conversation--especially Ruby’s unspoken thoughts--reek of false humility, and there is at least one patient present who sees things for what they really are; Mary Grace, a student who has been trying to read, but can hardly concentrate having to sit there listening to all these gratuitous banalities. It’s obvious she blames Ruby for the turn the discussion has taken and finally, unable to stand it any longer, she flings her book at Ruby, hitting her above the eye, and then leaps at her in an attempted strangulation. The girl is quickly subdued by the other patients but is still able to snarl an insult into Ruby’s face, “Go back to hell where you came from you old warthog,”

For the rest of the day the warthog insult stays with Ruby. She’s well able to appreciate the difference between the comically ugly and smelly warthog, and one of her own almost odorless pigs that gets washed down daily, but she can’t erase from her mind the image of herself as a warthog. At the day's end, the insult still rankles, and her imagination has been working overtime to explain it. Of course, there is that constant reminder in the form of the bruise over her eye demanding an explanation, and she must endure the mock sympathy, flattery and outrage of the Negro workers when they hear how it got there. It’s also easy to imagine the Negro women arriving home and sharing a good laugh at Ruby’s misfortune, but irrespective of that, Ruby still feels mad about the event in the waiting room and how undeserving she had been of the warthog from hell label. 

Ruby, a woman of God by her own estimation, determines to get to the bottom of things, and in the late afternoon she heads for the hog parlour where she irritably takes over the cleaning from Claude, sending him off to take the Negroes home while she has it out with God. Violently squirting the hogs with hose water, she demands some answers. Hadn’t she lived her whole life being charitable? Why had God allowed her to be humiliated like that? There was plenty of trash out there who deserved humiliation ahead of her. "Go on," she challenged. Turn things upside down. "Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!" A final surge of fury shakes her and she roars, "Who do you think you are?" It is then that Ruby receives her answer in a vision showing the procession of all the people on whom she had previously looked down, making their way into heaven ahead of her. A whole host of the ignorant, the down-and-outs, the halfwits; all of them innocent of their shortcomings but still taking precedence over those who, like herself, had always stood for good order, common sense, and respectable behaviour, and whom she "could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away." Ruby and people like her, although virtuous in their own eyes, are still nowhere near pure enough to stand in the presence of the Holy One. Even their perceived virtues are impurities by divine standards.

In colloquial language all over the world a pig is the subject of numerous epithets alluding to what is unclean. "Dirty pig" is a frequent term used to disparage someone we don’t like. In both religions of Judaism and Islam the meat from pigs is forbidden fare: the animal is considered unclean and must never be eaten. However, in Revelation , pigs, both domestic and wild, play important parts. Ruby and Claude raise pigs on their farm, obviously well aware of the importance of hygiene in animal husbandry. The symbolism behind pigs being kept clean before their ultimate end has its parallel in the cleanliness of the human soul. An analogy would be that no reputable slaughterhouse would ever accept diseased livestock, but dirty livestock can be cleaned before being butchered. Each situation involves a selection process--the corollary being that some must be rejected--but only a few of those selected would be admitted without delay. The majority must undergo some form of cleansing before being allowed into the sanitary environment of the meat-processing chamber.

Ruby's vision of Purgatory plainly says that salvation does not necessarily mean automatic admittance to heaven. Purgatory is real, a place or state where those souls who are basically good, but at death still imperfect, must be purged of all imperfection before being admitted into the presence of God, the most Holy, in whom all perfection resides. The Book of Revelation 21:27 talks of Heaven, saying, “nothing unclean shall enter it.” 

The similarities between the slaughterhouse and the vision of Purgatory would not be lost on Ruby. Here she is, hosing down the pigs and their quarters to keep them clean until such time as they are sent to the stock auction to fetch the best price, and its parallel is that human beings should keep themselves continually purged of evil until the arrival of Judgement Day when the Book of Life will be opened. 

Ruby’s vision while cleaning the pig parlor reinforces what O’Connor once wrote in another letter to Betty Hester, "We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord." Up until the incident in the waiting room, Ruby is one of those numerous people who, convinced of their goodness, causes mayhem wherever they go. Mary Grace (note the name)--God’s instrument to wake Ruby up--hurls both the book and the insult that allow the Grace of God to finally penetrate the hard shell of Ruby’s ego.

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