Social Respectability as Religion in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”

In her short stories Flannery O’Connor presents many religious people who attend church and consider themselves moral and principled, but their religion does not inspire their daily life and govern their human relationships. While they strive to make favorable impressions and distinguish themselves by their manners and morals, their congeniality and propriety do not amount to charity or love of neighbor. In “Revelation” Mrs. Turpin confuses being “nice” or pleasant with being Christian or loving. She identifies Christianity as an image of social respectability and assumes attendance at church bestows economic prosperity. She reassures herself that she practices love of neighbor: “To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent.” But this help is perfunctory and superficial, not the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.

During the time she waits in the doctor’s office where the story occurs, Mrs. classifies all the people she notices according to their clothes, shoes, and cleanliness. Children that do not vacate their seats to adults lack manners and breeding. Men sitting idly who not offer a seat to a woman are not gentlemen who know how to show respect to ladies. Women who wear dresses with the same print as sacks of chicken feed have no sense of style or fashion. Women who come to a doctor’s office with sweat shirts and slacks that do not match belong to the social class she calls “trash.” Because Mrs. Turpin is groomed, properly dressed for public appearance, and sociable, she considers herself morally superior to the common man—the antithesis of the slovenly dressed, boorish, and dull patients sitting and staring with blank looks. Her love of neighbor does not amount to charity but to the mere appearance of civility, to the display of the “good disposition” she boasts as the evidence of her moral stature.

Mrs. Turpin dresses with good taste and dignity in public, displays the amenities that distinguish her social class from white trash and black trash, compliments herself for her kind, friendly disposition, and imagines herself a good Christian. In her conversation with the stylish lady in the doctor’s office, Mrs. Turpin boasts of her gratefulness to God: “He had not made her a nigger or white trash or ugly! He made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you!” Mrs. Turpin naturally presumes that her social success and financial prosperity originate from her moral rectitude and Christian heart, her kind treatment of the black hired help who work on her hog farm. She regards her condescension as kindness and views her offer of cold water to the laborers as Christian charity: “And when they come in the morning, I run out and I say, ‘Hi yawl this morning?” When the hired help leave for the day, she pretends her warmest friendship: “I just wave to beat the band and they just wave back.” Mrs. Turpin identifies godliness with social hierarchy, classifying the social pyramid into four categories: black trash at the bottom, white trash above them, homeowners next, and the home and land owners at the top. Of course she and her husband occupy a high position that signifies God‘s approval and blessing.

When the sullen college student from Wellesley College (Mary Grace) sitting in the doctor’s office hurls a book at Mrs. Turpin, seizes her neck, and yells, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” Mrs. Turpin’s consternation finds the girl’s behavior irrational and insane. Of all the people in the doctor’s office to insult with the label of old wart hog, the girl had discharged her wrath upon the only person in the room displaying a sense of decorum, high standards, and friendliness: “The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, “a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman”—not to the unkempt, unwashed “trash” sitting elsewhere in the office. How could any person hurt her feelings with such an aspersion when the flattering black women on the farm were always complimenting her: “You so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know.” Throughout her conversation in the office Mrs. Turpin, glancing at a child in dirty clothes, had insinuated that the hogs on her farm were tendered more care than some human beings: “Our hogs are not dirty and they don’t stink.” Because they were hosed each night in a concrete pig-parlor, they magically rose above being pigs. “They’re cleaner than some children I’ve seen” she coyly remarks.

As the white-trash woman overhears the remark, she comments that hogs smell, grunt, and root; she would not waste her time hosing animals that are dirty by nature and instinct. Water does not change the nature of an animal. Likewise, cosmetic touches in the form of clothes, blandishments, and exaggerated displays of courtesy do not change a person’s moral character. Obviously Mrs. Turpin misses the point. She has been equating godliness with cleanliness, appearance, clothing, image, style, and externals like economic class and possessions—not with purity of heart. She judged all the patients in the doctor’s office by the shoes they wear—tennis shoes, Girl Scout shoes, bedroom slippers, suede shoes, and black leather pumps. Washing hogs presumably makes pigs a higher species of animal. As long as a woman dresses like a lady and goes to church and professes superficial friendliness, she deserves God’s blessings and rises above white trash and black trash.

As she hoses the hogs on the farm, Mrs. Turpin wonders who she is: how can she be the sweet lady, the church-going woman, the paradigm of decorum, and also a wart-hog? “How am I a wart-hog too and me too?” As she ponders the question, she sees a visionary light in which a bridge leads from earth to heaven as white trash, black trash, and the most common people of the masses are first in the procession followed by the homeowners and the home-and-land owners who are last in line. She notices the socially respectable with their shocked expressions, looking incredulously as “their virtues were being burned away” while those ahead of them are rejoicing singing hallelujah. Being nice is not the real virtue of kindness and needs to be burned away. Social status is not the real measure of God’s blessing and also requires excision. Vanity and boastfulness that profess gratitude for not belonging to the lowest levels of social “trash” also must undergo purgation. Proper ladies in fashionable clothing and good attendance at church need to clear their minds of snobbery and remember that the last shall be first and the first shall be last in the heavenly world where new clothes, shined shoes, and matching outfits must be discarded for the wedding garments of charity, humility, and purity.

Mrs. Turpin’s confusion of religion with respectability assumes many forms in contemporary society: The educated elite who presume that graduate and professional degrees bestow them with higher wisdom to deny self-evident truths, the political class whose progressive views scorn religious convictions and moral integrity, the judges who identify legality with morality and human law with eternal law, and the enlightened courts who know better than the accumulated wisdom of the entire human race the nature of marriage. These are all attempts to wash dirty hogs (to justify evil) to make them white animals.

(Photo credit: Joseph De Casseres)

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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