Thursday, October 28, 2010

After the Pharisee left the temple area, according to Flannery O’Connor

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:9-4
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”  Luke 18:11
The Savior tells us that it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee; but have you ever wondered what happened to the Pharisee once he got home? Did he ever repent? Flannery O’Connor offers a meditation on this parable in her short story Revelation – though the theme of the exaltation of the humble and the humbling of the mighty runs through many of her stories, this particular story is almost a direct re-telling of the Lord’s parable. The one great difference between the Gospel parable and O’Connor’s short story is that she allows us to see the mystery from perspective of the Pharisee, whom she brings to the very point of conversion.

Overview of the short story Revelation
The majority of this short story takes place in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. The main character and protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, is a well-to-do white woman – she is the Pharisee (and the story is told from her perspective). The antagonist is an ugly teenage girl who seems to despise Mrs. Turpin without any apparent reason – she is the Lord, calling the proud to conversion. Also there is a white-trash woman and (for a brief moment) a black man – they are the tax collector. Finally, there is the ugly girl’s mother, who is a pleasant woman, and also Claud, Mrs. Turpin’s husband – both sympathize with Mrs. Turpin.
Mrs. Turpin is a very agreeable woman, who is grateful for the many blessing she has received. She is generous and kind to all, especially to the unfortunate and the poor. She loves her husband and says her prayers. Moreover, she is a great conversationalist and has a genuinely good disposition. With all that, the ugly teenage girl snarls and hisses at her.
Mrs. Turpin is very judgmental – grateful for all she has, she is particularly thankful that the Lord didn’t make her anybody else. It is this particular quality of her gratitude which makes Mrs. Turpin the Pharisee – she does not consider herself to be like the rest of humanity, and she thanks God for it!
An excerpt from the story conveys this point well: “Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, ‘There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,’ what would she have said? ‘Please, Jesus, please,’ she would have said, ‘just let me wait until there’s another place available,’ and he would have said, ‘No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.’ She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, ‘All right, make me a nigger then – but that don’t mean a trashy one.’ And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.”
The opportunity for grace
Unlike the Lord’s parable, O’Connor offers the Pharisee on opportunity for grace – Mrs. Turpin is confronted and called to task for her pride by the ugly girl, who represents Christ.
O’Connor writes, “‘If it’s one thing I am,’ Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, ‘it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!” It could have been different!’ For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. ‘Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!’ she cried aloud.
“The book struck her directly over the left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the [ugly] girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. […] The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. ‘Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,’ she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.”
When the Pharisee got home
O’Connor does not leave us, as the Gospel parable does, at the Temple area. She takes us to Mrs. Turpin’s home – and we are able to witness the beginning of a conversion.
Flannery has the Pharisee speak to God, “‘Why me?’ [Mrs. Turpin] rumbled. ‘It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.’
She appeared to be the right size woman to command the arena before her. ‘How am I a hog?’ she demanded. […] ‘If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,’ she railed. ‘You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash? […] I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy,’ she growled. ‘Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.
‘Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to become a nigger,’ she said with deep sarcasm, ‘but I could act like one. Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.’ […]
“She braced herself for a final assault and this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. ‘Go on,’ she yelled, ‘call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!’”
The final revelation of the story: “[Mrs. Turpin] lifted her head. […] A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of purple light in the sky] 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.”
This story, and many others like it, secures a place for Flannery O’Connor as one of the greatest Catholic authors of all time…


Cordelia at Catholic Phoenix said...

Father, yesterday, I took another dip in the refreshing pool of Flannery O’Connor’s writings—“Mystery and Manners”( Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald). I was inspired by the discussion going on over at Catholic Phoenix about science fiction. One of the things I commented about over there had to do with the value of science fiction as a genre and how what Flannery O’Connor said about the nature and aim of fiction is relevant to the discussion.

If you read the selection in “Mystery and Manners” entitled, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, you will see that Flannery thinks that good fiction is first and foremost about the art of writing and not about content. (She also says more revealing things about good fiction and in other selections—in fact, in several places throughout the whole book.) “Actually, a work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it or why.”(-Flannery O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature” in “Mystery and Manners”) She has said that she writes the way she does because she is Catholic. But, she also has said that she thinks that a good story should not have a preconceived moral with an imaginative story written or contrived around it—in other words, she doesn’t write a story around a specific parable as if to retell it in an imaginative way, but she wrote about what she “saw” in her country at her time and place in history through the eyes of a Catholic—maybe you could say, through the eyes of the wisdom obtained by meditating on a specific parable.

I think that you are correct to see parallels between the parable in Luke 18:9-4 and O’Connor’s short story “Revelation”. She was probably inspired by that parable but maybe she was also writing to express other levels of truth associated with that parable—I don’t know. I have found that her story’s have different levels of meaning: they are mysterious and meaty like “Parker’s Back” for example. I read “Revelation” a long time ago when I was in college but I missed seeing your insight. I am inspired to reread it and gnaw on it for a while.

Thank you so much for writing this post. I thoroughly enjoyed it and don’t you just love Flannery’s wit! (I laughed out loud reading the excerpts you chose to quote.)

owenswain said...

Well before I converted Flannery was one of my favourite authors. I have that volume you mention and have read it many times. Waiting for me on the shelf is The Habit of Being, selected letters and I am currently reading a recent biography published by St.Benedict Press/TAN

Here's my little tribute to the great author here by way of a drawing

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Cordelia, I completely agree with your point about the fact that Flannery's stories are about much more than "doctrinal content"...she herself has said (I believe in Mystery and Manners, as you pointed out) that it bothered her when people would ask, "What is the point of this story?" She wanted to say, "If I could have made my point in any clearer and more concise way, I would have!" I think she means that the whole story is itself the "point" and that we must avoid the tendency to try to boil down her stories to mere doctrinal statements -- JoAnna at CatholicPhoenix wrote something on this in early October, "Catholic Poetry is not Catholic Doctrine".

Again, I completely agree that Flannery is doing much more than simply re-telling the Gospel parable...she is taking us to a new opportunity of grace, one which is not really present in the particular Gospel account itself.

Blessings and peace to you! Please feel free to comment often!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I love the drawing! I had never noticed the similarity between the real Therese and Flannery...your picture reminds me that St. Therese also wrote that she never liked talking with the other children about the saints, because everyone used it as an opportunity to 'show off' all their knowledge and piety...perhaps Flannery has a similar spirit in her writing -- she seems to almost never talk about Catholics or priests or saints, yet she conveys the truth in a most powerful way!

owenswain said...

Thanks. In these sense that we are speaking of she is much like another prolific author, the Episcopalian Madeline L'Engle (who died three years ago after a long career) however Flannery was not ambiguous on moral issues related to a culture of life whereas L'Engle, especially in her later years was very grey.

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