In Flannery O'Connor's short story titled "Revelation," how is Mrs. Turpin presented? What seems to be O'Connor's attitude toward this character?
Mrs. Turpin, the protagonist in Flannery O’Connor’s short story "Revelation," could be said to represent humanity. Neither entirely good—she is racist and judgmental—nor evil (she wants more than anything to be judged a good Christian woman), Mrs. Turpin is the conundrum that permeates much of O’Connor’s work.
Entering the doctor’s office with her clearly put-upon husband, Claud, Mrs. Turpin immediately sizes up the other individuals present. She instantaneously judges the other people in the waiting room, commenting to herself about the flaws she views, such as the acne-ridden skin of a young woman and the “white trash” characteristics of others. In assessing these people, she invariably compares herself and concludes that she is a superior human being, as, when judging the good with bad skin, O’Connor writes, “Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin, and, though she was forty-seven years old, there was not a wrinkle in her face except around her eyes from laughing too much.”
O’Connor emphasizes the extent to which her protagonist judges others, including their shoes (“the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them—exactly what you would have expected her to have on”). The theme of judgement runs throughout “Revelation.” As noted, however, Mrs. Turpin is not without commendable qualities, although whether her self-assessment with respect to her life’s philosophy of helping those in need “whether they were white or black, trash or decent” needs to be viewed through a certain prism of perpetual self-righteousness. These glimmers of decency inevitably lead back to the judgmental nature that defines her. In a particularly telling comment, Mrs. Turpin thinks to herself upon hearing the poor white trash woman complaining that her family will only consume Coke and candy:
“That's all you try to get down em, Mrs. Turpin said to herself. Too lazy to light the fire. There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn't know already. And it was not just that they didn't have anything.”
When Mary Grace physically assaults her, it constitutes the revelatory moment that forces Mrs. Turpin to reassess her station in life. Throughout the story, Mrs. Turpin reflects on Jesus and how she will measure up when her time comes. Mary Grace’s assault and words force the judgmental middle-aged woman to contemplate the nature of faith and her expectations of the gates of Heaven.
How did O’Connor feel about Mrs. Turpin? As suggested above, one could conclude that Mrs. Turpin represented much of humanity, with her tendencies towards a feeling of superiority and her rush to judge others. O’Connor’s stories are known for their cynical attitude towards self-righteous Christians. The author’s own fealty to the Catholic Church colored her perspective of those who pretended to an unwarranted sense of superiority. She did not like those who judged others while preaching the Gospel.
Despite Mrs. Turpin’s flaws, however, it is difficult to believe that her creator, O’Connor, sought to summarily dismiss her. The point of “Revelation” is the sudden awareness of one’s shortcomings or misjudgments with respect to Judgment Day. O’Connor gifts her protagonist the opportunity to reflect and improve before her day comes. This suggests a certain sympathy for her flawed character.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story titled “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin, the central character, suffers from a malady common to many of O’Connor’s characters – the malady of pride, or excessive self-regard. Part of the irony of her visit to a doctor’s office is that she is physically well but spiritually ill, partly because she is afflicted with the common human sickness (and sin) of pride. O’Connor’s depiction of Mrs. Turpin, then, is largely satirical and ironic.
O’Connor’s goes out of her way to emphasize Mrs. Turpin’s huge physical size, which symbolizes her even more massive ego. Merely by entering the doctor’s small office, Mrs. Turpin makes it “look even smaller by her presence.”
She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous.
Mrs. Turpin tends to regard most other things – and most other people – as “inadequate and ridiculous,” but part of the function of O’Connor’s tale is to make Mrs. Turpin herself seem to exemplify these very traits. Until Mrs. Turpin learns some true humility (which does not happen until almost the very end of the tale), she functions as a “living demonstration” of the dangers of pride, self-regard, and self-satisfaction. Her tendency, throughout much of the story, is to find fault with everyone and with everything besides herself, as in her secret condescension toward blacks and the poor.
Although Mrs. Turpin prides herself on being a Christian, her prejudices about race and class are both disturbing and ridiculous. They become especially laughable – but also somewhat shocking – when she imagines Jesus being as full of prejudice as she is and speaking as crudely as she herself thinks.
O’Connor’s mockery of Mrs. Turpin is especially clear when O’Connor has another character (significantly named Mary Grace) literally “throw the book” at Mrs. Turpin, hitting her squarely in the forehead. The book is titled Human Development – something Mrs. Turpin sorely needs. Like so many prideful characters in so many works by O’Connor, Mrs. Turpin needs to be humbled and brought low before she can ever hope to rise.