The Stories of O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor make extensive use of animal symbolism.  Find the many references to animals and discuss the overall significance of the motif.  

2 Answers | Add Yours

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Of all the animals that are mentioned in Flannery O'Connor's works, the peacock is the most significant.

With man as the grotesque, represented by animals such as "pure game cock" as is the Misfit of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," or the gorilla of "Enoch and the Gorilla," whose growls at the children were "not so much loud as poisonous [as] they appeared to issue from a black heart." In "Revelation," Mrs. Turpin has a subtle, yet dark epiphany that she may very well be as Mary Grace has told her, "A war-hog from hell." 

In contrast to these animals, the peacock holds the eyes of God and moral truths.  for instance, O'Connor uses what critic Patrick Galloway terms an "analogical element," as the peacock of which "the fiery wheels with fierce dark eyes in them" follows Mrs. McIntrye whose soul needs saving. Whenever the priest comes to try to convert Mrs. McIntrye, he watches the exquisite birds and remarks as the cock spreads his magnificent tail,

"Christ will come like that!....His attention was fixed on the cock who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. 'The Transfiguration,'" he murmured.

Frequently, the grotesque elements, especially man, who is often represented by gorillas, dogs, and pigs, is offset by analogical elements such as the mysterious and spiritually redemptive as represented by such as the resplendent peacock, whose glorious tail represents God and the Trinity and the presence of grace.

Sources:
kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Flannery O’Connor was a product of what can charitably best be called “the old South,” specifically, the State of Georgia.  Prominent among the communities where she spent time were the farms that dotted the landscape and that instilled in her the images of farm animals. So influential were those images that animal metaphors and comparisons blanket her writings. In her short story “The Artificial Nigger,” for example, she refers to a train conductor “with the face of an ancient bloated bulldog,” and describes one of her characters as “grinning like a chimpanzee while a nigger woman gives you direction.” Ten-year-old Nelson dashes down the street “like a wild maddened pony,” and an old man’s head “had lowered itself into his collar like a turtle’s.”  In her best-known short story, “Good Country People,” O’Connor describes the fake Bible salesman as gazing at Hulga “now as if the fantastic animal at the zoo had put its paw through the bars and given him a loving poke,” and describes the disabled Hulga as “as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail.”  Clearly, O’Connor thought in terms of animal characteristics, and used those characteristics as templates for some of her characters.

In none of her stories, however, do animals play as major a role as in “Revelation.”  Mrs. Turpin is a classic O’Connor character: well-intentioned, kindly, judgmental and racist to the core.  Engaging the only other person in the doctor’s office waiting room who passed muster with her (in effect, wasn’t black or an example of white trash), Mrs. Turpin becomes increasingly agitated by the woman’s daughter, Mary Grace, an overweight, unattractive intellectual who glares at Mrs. Turpin before finally assaulting her, calling her a “wart hog from hell” in the process.

Mrs. Turpin and her husband, Claud, are farmers who raise hogs.  Early in the story, Mrs. Turpin makes a point of telling the “white trash” mother of the dirty boy about the exquisite care she and her husband provide their hogs, going so far as to regularly hose them down despite their propensity for rolling in mud.  The “white trash” woman had the temerity to express her revulsion of hogs:

"One thang I don't want," the white-trash woman said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Hogs. Nasty stinking things, a- gruntin and a-rootin all over the place."

Mrs. Turpin gave her the merest edge of her attention. "Our hogs are not dirty and they don't stink," she said. "They're cleaner than some children I've seen. Their feet never touch the ground. We have a pig- parlor- that's where you raise them on concrete," she explained to the pleasant lady, "and Claud scoots them down with the hose every afternoon and washes off the floor."

Despite her impassioned defense of hogs and of her and Claud’s meticulous care of their animals, it is clear that there exists a hierarchy on top of which Mrs. Turpin views herself and Mary Grace’s mother, if not Mary Grace.  To now be physically accosted and compared to such a species by as loathsome appearing a character as Mary Grace is more than Mrs. Turpin can handle. O’Connor makes clear that, far more than the wounds from being hit in the face with a book and nearly strangled by the unstable girl, Mrs. Turpin is emotionally wounded by the girl’s words. Returning to their farm, and tending once more to the hogs, Mrs. Turpin cries out in defiance of her accuser:

“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 bottom!’”

Mrs. Turpin may have been raised with certain values, and may comport herself better in public, but O’Connor, just as she exposes the arrogance and hypocrisy among “good country people,” portrays a woman who is morally no better than those whom she deems beneath her. The hogs in “Revelation” serve as a metaphor for the prejudices that permeate the story’s characters, and Mrs. Turpin’s psychotic efforts at cleansing the hogs represent her need to cleanse her soul by washing away her sins. 

Flannery O’Connor’s stories invariably depict mankind in a less-than-flattering light. She makes a point of illuminating the fallacies and hypocrisies that permeate humanity.  Her frequent use of animals as metaphor and symbols are O’Connor’s way of reminding us that we are all God’s creatures, no matter how slovenly we appear and how course is our language.  We are no better than the animals, despite our evolutionary triumphs.

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,911 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question