I’m doing a series with Dan deRoulet, author of Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World, on how to read fiction, a lesson I needed long ago. We are using Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” (Collected Works) as our example, and this is part two. This post is by Dan.
Scot sells himself short on “not knowing how to read fiction.” After all, he and his colleagues such as Klyne Snodgrass teach their students about the parables of Jesus–some of the most difficult stories to read well. I’m in the midst of peddling a second book project called, Fear Not: Why the Church (and Everyone Else) Needs Dangerous Christian Fiction. Flannery O’Connor’s works are at the top of the list.
Scot correctly summarizes O’Connor’s “Revelation”– I’ll emphasize a couple of other plot points in a moment. A good way of reading short fiction is to look at and for a few key elements of a story’s structure:
its exposition (the opening scene where the setting, characters, and conflict are keys);
the crisis (where the story’s protagonist has his or her view of the world usually turned on its head);
and a following period of frustration and reflection leading up to the “epiphany“–the moment for the protagonist where the answer to the problem is made clear.
Jesus’ story of the prodigal son follows this pattern: exposition (conflict between the father, younger son and older brother); crisis (where the son, thinking all will be well if he could just exercise his will, leaves his father’s house in anger and wastes his life in riotous living); and epiphany (where the prodigal recognizes, as he communes with the pigs and lusts after their food, what he had and has given up by leaving his father). This parable, by the way, is not insignificant for O’Connor’s story.
Let’s start with O’Connor and her exposition in “Revelation.” O’Connor loves irony, and loves to portray her protagonists (often Christians) as people who have grown to believe that the facade they display for others is an accurate reflection of their inner life. But it’s not. The protagonist, Mrs. Turpin (one of my students once called her “Mrs. Turpentine”), is stuck in the exposition’s setting–a doctor’s waiting room in the pre-civil rights deep South. Obviously, a doctor’s office is a place where the sick wait to see a physician. O’Connor wants to make the distinction between those who need a doctor to fix their visible illnesses and those who are in need of a physician to diagnose what might well kill them on the inside. She and another woman, who are well-mannered and are neither “white trash” nor African American nor ill-mannered, think they’re just fine; everyone else in their eyes is, well, unclean. Mrs. Turpin becomes so thankful, as she looks around the room at who she is not, that she shouts out a prayer of thanks to Jesus. The East coast educated young girl Scot describes then hurls a book (Human Development) at her and hits her “directly above her left eye.” The girl (named Mary Grace), walks over to Mrs. Turpin and whispers to her, “Go back to Hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Mrs. Turpin, now lying on the floor, is literally now experiencing changes in her vision, and eventually will struggle with how she has come to see the world.
So, Scot, two questions I would ask at this point are: which of Jesus’s stories is echoed by the exposition and crisis, and where does Mrs. Turpin end up after she leaves the doctor’s office for her period of reflection and eventual epiphany?
I’ll answer these questions tomorrow.