Sunday, April 20, 2014

O'Connor's Moon

The short story “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor is fascinating to me because of its accuracy in depicting appearances and attitudes. The narrative starts with a spot-on description of a small southern doctor’s office. If you grew up on the South you will recognize the sounds, smells, sights and people she presents so accurately there.

Mrs. Turpin has brought her husband to the doctor to see about a place on his leg where a cow kicked him. He is rather quiet, just making a few standard comments to show his stoicism. She, however, is full of pious platitudes and pat phrases contrived to convince the other patients of her wonderful station in life. She privately makes negative observations about those in the waiting room she perceives as less blessed than she is.

Suddenly, a female college student who had been staring at Mrs. Turpin while she went on and on, leaps upon her, grabs her by the throat and pins her to the floor, saying, “You old wart hog, go back to Hell where you came from.” Of course the girl has to be sedated and taken away by ambulance and Mrs. Turpin is quite disturbed about the episode, eventually praying about it and receiving a significant revelation as she cleans the “pig parlor” back at the farm. I won’t spoil the story for you by relating what she learned. Suffice it to say that the conclusion gives a great perspective on pride, false piety and spiritual blindness.

I also renewed my interest in an oft-cited story by O’Connor, “Good Country People.” That is a story with a similar theme, but told with much more power. In it, O’Connor presents a woman Ph. D. in philosophy, in her thirties, living at home with a mother much like Mrs. Turpin. The woman has legally changed her name from the standard Southern her mother gave her to Hulga. She is an amputee because of a bad accident and has an artificial leg. Needless to say, this set up leads to dramatic action demonstrating the shallowness of understanding life through hollow phrases such as, “good country people.”

One reason I went back to O’Connor is that her prayer journal was recently published. My wife bought me a copy and it is fascinating. A deeply committed Christian writer suffering from Lupus, she begins her journal with these words:  “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see, but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” That kind of depth and sincerity comes through in all the stories. O’Connor died in her late thirties, leaving behind a magnificent body of work.

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