Turpitude: vile, shameful, or base character; depravity.
In the Flannery O’Connor short story Revelation, Mrs. Turpin is the embodiment of the stereotypical southern church lady. Her belief in her own perfect, seemingly innocent impression of herself and lack of knowledge of how the “other half” lives is ultimately what causes her spiritual demise by the end of the story. This self-discovery, or “revelation,” as the title so appropriately suggests, manifests itself through the use of harsh dialogue within the small confines of a doctor’s office, and then later in the symbolic scene of Mrs. Turpin hosing down the hogs on her farm. Both scenes create a palpable discomfort for the reader and an obvious call for Mrs. Turpin to finally realize her sin of self-righteousness, arrogance, and pride.
The scene is set. A comical batch of misfits find themselves jammed into the small lobby of a local doctor’s office in the deep south. Within the twenty or so minutes it takes for our timely drama to unfold, all hell breaks loose. Set in motion by Mrs. Turpin, the anti-heroine; Mary Grace, the pock-faced college girl and seer; her mother, the passive, southern image of church going perfection; and the white-trash woman whose comments exacerbate and enlighten, the dynamics of this story have enough edge to slice up some fresh-baked biscuits, certainly piled with heaps of lard for taste.
Mrs. Turpin is demanding: in her physical largeness, as well as in her assertion of voice. She is the queen of this lobby. She makes that very clear with her passive-aggressive way of refusing a seat, when she could humble herself and ask the group for admittance into their meager world. When a seat finally does open up, it takes all her effort just to squeeze in. “Well, as long as you have such a good disposition, I don’t think it makes a bit of difference what size you are” (O’Connor, 406). This is the first justification addressed. Gluttony. Mrs. Turpin has been affected body and soul with it.
As the characters begin to assert themselves into meaningless banter to pass the time, we see O’Connor settling into a social commentary of the day in the grotesque, harsh way in which she is best known. She does not stray away from the colloquialisms and vocabulary usage of the deep south, often including the n-word and “white trash” to harshly juxtapose the more gentile. O’Connor chooses to narrate from an objective third-person voice, but then frequently interrupts herself–rudely–with Mrs. Turpin’s inner dialogue, informing the reader’s opinion and distorting the objective voice.
If Jesus had said, “you can be high society and have all the money you want, and be thin and svelte-like, but you can’t be a good woman with it,” she would have to say, “Well don’t make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!” Her heart rose. He had not made her a n— or white trash or ugly! He had made her herself and had given her a little of everything. (O’Connor, 413)
Mrs. Turpin is the very essence of a “good” person on the outside. She loves Jesus, she puts up with unfortunates, she dotes on her husband, she is outwardly kind, blah blah blah. It is disgusting to watch her interact with the other people in the lobby, clearly saying one thing, and then be forced to hear what goes on inside her head, her genuine opinion. And her justification is the worst of it! She truly deceives herself that what she thinks is right and that God should listen to her and act accordingly. As if she was God’s champion judge of who is to be deemed “worthy” to live on this earth! Her self-righteousness is appalling.
Ironically, the person who sees right through the facade of this lobby conversation is not the negro delivery boy, the nicely dressed woman, or the white-trash, snuff-stained woman; it is the pock-faced college girl who is speechless until her abrupt condemnation of Mrs. Turpin spews out of her in a sudden act of violence. O’Connor uses the awkward, educated “northerner” to deliver Mrs. Turpin’s social death sentence. “‘Go back to Hell where you came from, you old warthog’ 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” (O’Connor, 416).
Using the apropos image of a hog (the Turpin’s own a pig farm), the girl’s judgment strikes a deep chord in Mrs. Turpin. Her pride is at stake. What uglier, meaner, dirtier animal could the girl have used to convey her hatred for everything Mrs. Turpin stood for? It is the ultimate disgrace. And all the lobby attendees witnessed it. Of course Mrs. Turpin recovers with great charisma and shakes the whole incident off, but it penetrates to the very core of her being. It scares her. It makes her question the almighty God, the who she is so quickly disposed to thank for his provision in her life, as seen earlier.
Back at home, the day is wrapping up for the Turpins. They both end up sleeping off the trauma from the doctor’s office for most of the afternoon. When they awake, the sun is low in the sky, the workers done in the field, and another day has consumed their lives. Mr. Turpin takes the negro farm workers home and Mrs. Turpin finishes his work down in the barn, hosing down the pigs and having a row with God. “The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. The tears dried. They instead began to burn with wrath (O’Connor, 418).
Her anger grows with each jab she hurls toward the sky. The internal conflict she is having is full of self-righteousness. Mrs. Turpin feels that God is singling her out when he should be teaching a lesson to the “white-trash” and the “n—.” Irony is wound tight, almost to a breaking point. It is in this final, excruciating wind-up that Mrs. Turpin has her true revelation. The words of the acne-riddled girl are still reverberating in her head, but something changes. The sun sets calmly, methodically, creating a space for one last vision to puncture Mrs. Turpin’s thick soul.
There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n— in white robes…and bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like Claud and herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it…they alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. (O’Connor, 423)
In a magnificent sweep of justice, O’Connor forces Ruby Turpin to come to terms with herself, her God, her view of humanity. And it disturbs her deeply. Not only does Mrs. Turpin see the processional is all its gross indecency (that she would be marching at the rear?!), she fully understands that God has created all people equally; Ruby Turpin may have “God-given wit,” but she is no more valuable in God’s eyes than those she shares this earth with, even the unfortunates. As the sky fades into darkness, Mrs. Turpin’s soul awakens to a new reality. “What she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah” (O’Connor, 424).
“Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourself, nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Thinline Edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2011. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” Three. New York: Signet Classic, 1983. 405-424.
“Turpitude.” dictionary.com n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.