"Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog"
There is no doubt. I am a Flannery O’ Connor junkie. I can’t think of anything she’s written I haven’t loved. Even her letters and essays ring true. She is, to some degree, a product of her environment, and her use of certain words can grate on our 21st-century ears, but a toned-down O’Connor would not be O’Connor. Everything That Rises Must Converge may be her best collection of short stories, including, among others, the title story, “Parker’s Back,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and, my personal favorite, “Revelation.”
Typically, O’Connor takes her spiritually-flawed protagonists and blasts them to hell and back. By the time O’Connor is through with them, they’re emptied out, meek, and ready to receive grace. Some of Samuel Beckett’s characters seem post-apocalyptic, as if they had just returned from the Flannery O’Connor Finishing School. The characters most likely to be squashed flat are the smug, self-righteous, short-sighted, hypocritical, complacent, and intellectually or spiritually proud.
To effect redemption, O’Connor often has her fairly grotesque characters confront circumstances and people that are also grotesque. Given O’Connor’s rather mild aspect, she was asked frequently why she used such shockingly violent means and had such a penchant for the grotesque. It’s doubtful O’Connor ever gave a verbal response; she did not suffer fools lightly, and apparently saw critics comfortably occupying that category. In an essay, though, she does provide an answer: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor works to get the religiously distorted back into spiritual alignment or at least into a state of self-awareness, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish her aims. Despite her serious intent, all of her fiction—even the darkest—has moments of humor, and few authors have achieved O’Connor’s level of hilarity.
“Revelation” provides a nice illustration of O’Connor at work; here her target is the memorable Ruby Turpin. I don’t view this summary as a spoiler; while her plots are wildly imaginative, it’s O’Connor’s writing, with its perfect pitch and dead on descriptions, that must be experienced.
Ruby Turpin believes she is a good person. She thinks she believes in God. What’s going on in Ruby’s thoughts and conversation are less than godly, and we’re given a full view of her philosophy as Ruby sits in a doctor’s waiting room, observing the array of people. After scanning the room, Ruby chooses to talk to a woman she knows must be lady, given her tasteful clothing and good shoes. For the most part, though, Ruby is preoccupied with ranking the others in the waiting room.
And Ruby finds most of these people sorely wanting, the dregs of her envisioned hierarchy:
On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them were the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.
Ruby also occupies herself with another favorite pastime: contemplating what she would choose if Jesus said she would have to be either white trash or a “nigger.” Ruby prides herself on her correct, self-sacrificing, moral choice, and tells Jesus to “make her a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one.”
Throughout Ruby’s conversation with the respectable lady, largely dealing with the virtues of a good disposition and strategies for getting the most work out of “colored” people, Ruby notices that the lady’s daughter is showering her with “ugly looks.” The more Ruby talks, the more intensely the daughter stares: “[H:]er eyes were fixed [on her:] like two drills." As Ruby ecstatically thanks Jesus for making her the type of person she is, the young college girl takes her book, aptly entitled Human Development, and beans Ruby just above the eye. Just before the girl is taken away, presumably to an asylum, Ruby, in shock, asks her, “What you got to say to me?” In a voice “that brooked no repudiation,” the girl whispers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Ruby leaves, stunned and outraged. Later that day, she goes out to their state-of-the-art pig parlor to confront the hogs they own, who are “a-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” and demands loudly, “How am I a hog?...Exactly how I am like them?” Still gazing at them as though she “were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge,” Ruby begins to have a vision of a “vast horde of souls…rumbling toward heaven.”
Surprisingly, Ruby sees the “white-trash,” “niggers,” “freaks,” and “lunatics” ahead of her and Claud, who were at the end of the line along with people just like them, those who always believed in “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” Further, Ruby could see by “their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
We are not told Ruby’s outcome. We don’t know if O’Connor’s reality check takes hold, but it is clear—if only for a moment—that Ruby sees her goodness as a shell that would crumble in the face of eternity.