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Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “Revelation” can be read as an extended fictional sermon on the sin of pride. Throughout the story, various characters – but especially Mrs. Turpin – reveal their pride and self-centeredness in various ways. It is because O’Connor takes us inside the head and thoughts of Mrs. Turpin that she seems the character most plagued by pride. When she is attacked by Mary Grace, she begins to undergo the slow, painful process of being humbled, of being brought low, so that ironically she may one day be worthy in God’s sight.
Near the very end of the story, Mrs. Turpin receives a full-blown spiritual revelation that is one of the most explicit religious moments in all of O’Connor’s fiction. Staring off into the evening sky, Mrs. Turpin sees (or at least imagines that she sees, although O’Connor does not appear to regard the vision as a figment of the imagination) a “vast horde of souls . . . rumbling toward heaven.” At the front of the line are many of the kinds of people whom Mrs. Turpin has spent much of the story condemning, including “white trash” and blacks. O’Connor then continues:
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. . . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
That last phrase – “even their virtues were being burned away” – is perhaps one of the most memorable and profound phrases O’Connor ever created. In O’Connor’s eyes, human beings, infected with pride from birth, actually have little to be proud of when viewed as fallen, sinful creatures. Even our virtues are not entirely worthy of God. They are worthy of him only to the extent that they reflect back to him his own goodness. No one enters heaven (O’Connor believed) because of personal worthiness or personal virtue, but only through God’s grace and through God’s direct intervention (through the crucifixion) in human history.
O’Connor spends most of “Revelation” mocking Mrs. Turpin’s pride and pretensions, but as the story ends, she reveals that even pride in virtue (or perhaps especially pride in virtue) needs to be undercut and transformed into true humility.
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