pigs and the dmv: moments of grace in flannery o'connor's short story "revelation"
Updated: Apr 29
At the end of the film “Shadowlands,” a fictional biography of writer C.S. Lewis, there is a poignant scene where Lewis sits in his university library talking to a fellow professor. He laments his weariness; iis wife has recently died, and as a result, Lewis’s world has become burdensome, joyless. Slumped over a table, with dust-flecked rays of light weakly penetrating the glass windows in the background, Lewis laments, “I’ve always found this a trying time of the year. The leaves not yet out, mud everywhere you go. Frosty mornings gone. Sunny mornings not yet come. Give me blizzards and frozen pipes, but not this nothing time, not this waiting room of the world.”
The image of the world as a waiting room has always piqued my imagination. Even from a young age, before I knew God, I would look over the horizon or up into the night sky. I would ask questions about what came next (if anything) and where we would go when we died (if anywhere). I have often heard I have an old soul, but to me, it just makes sense that there must be more to ourselves, more to life than what we see at any present moment. We always seem to be waiting for something, or conversely, trying to hold onto the present moment to ward off an impending nothing. So when I heard the Lewis quote, it made sense. No matter how good life is at any given moment, we are never where we ultimately want to be. Something always ails us, even if it’s just a sore knee, a chronic cough, or unfiled taxes.
Some waiting rooms are bureaucratic, like the DMV. Some, like the one in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” are medical. But one thing is true of all waiting rooms. They are temporary places, places we do not want to be. They force us to sit idle, side by side with strangers, those who, by way of being there, have similar problems or needs as our own. Ordinarily, these associations are forced. We are thrown together with these associates, not by choice but by needs. They and we have conditions requiring addressing.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” takes place mainly in a waiting room at a rural doctor’s office. It begins with the story’s main character, Ruby Turpin, a large, proud, imposing woman entering the room with her relatively diminutive, mild-mannered husband, Claud. The business that has brought the couple is Claud’s leg that he recently injured on the farm.
As soon as we meet Ruby, we dislike her. Unlike her namesake gem that shines brilliantly and gives off an exciting hue of red, Ruby gives us nothing to admire or appreciate. While she thinks herself “a good woman,” she is blatantly racist, ignorantly opinionated, and possibly worst of all, spiritually superficial.
Ruby’s dull spiritual character shines through to us by way of her speech with the other waiting room waiters and also via her inner dialogue. She keeps a running mental tally of bigoted proud assessments she dares only to say to herself. Once she has seated her lumbering body in a chair, she immediately sizes up the crowd according to their outward appearance, descriptively, colorfully categorizing each into a social class due to shoe type, hairstyle, or clothing quality. There sits Mary Grace, the ugly girl of 18 or 19 with acne so horrible that her face looks blue. She scowls into a college-looking book titled Human Development. The “white-trashy” old, leathery woman in a thin cotton dress emblemed with the same print as Ruby’s hog feed comes in. Next to that woman sits a woman wearing a yellow sweatshirt and wine-colored slacks. She has come to the office with a little “ill-mannered boy” that takes up so much room on the couch that Ruby has no place to sit (never mind that later it comes out that the boy suffers from painful stomach ulcers). That woman is not “white-trashy, just common,” assesses Ruby; her “dirty yellow hair” is pulled back with a piece of red ribbon shows her to occupy the lowest social rung, “worse than niggers any day.”
On it goes, Ruby self-righteously stratifying her waiting room cohort into social class by how they look. Ruby’s thoughts constantly return to a rude, judgmental refrain, but she manages to retain a facade of manners, as any good Southern lady would. The scene continues even when the old "not white-trash, just common” woman says something negative about Ruby’s hogs, that she would never keep such horrid creatures with their “a gruntin and a rootin and a groanin.” Ruby launches into an internal discussion about how God has created society into landowners, white trash, niggers, and so forth. Of course, in Ruby’s mind, she and Claud, white land-owning farmers, come out on top in such a social hierarchy, “Oh, thank you! Thank you, Jesus,” she cries to herself in response to her excellent lot, not unlike the Pharisee does in Luke 18:11.
As with all of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, there comes a moment of grace in “Revelation” that hits suddenly and hard. Since two-thirds of the tale takes place in the waiting room, this moment of grace, which proves both physically and spiritually painful, unsurprisingly takes place there or at least begins to. While Ruby and the adults have engaged in inane, even racist chit-chat, Mary Grace has been casting glaring looks in Ruby’s direction.
Finally, after having her fill with the inane conversation, Mary Grace explodes. She hurls her college text at snobby Ruby, and the book lands squarely above the woman’s eye. Chaos ensues; the girl launches forward, clamps her hands around Ruby’s neck, and attempts to strangle her. Claud jumps up and further injures his leg. The table turns over; magazines fly. The waiting room cohort is stunned.
Chaos settles when orderlies arrive to carry off a subdued Mary Grace--but not before the girl (and God) have their say. “What you got to say to me,” demands Ruby, who is now at attention, as if she is waiting for a word of revelation. “Go back to hell where you came from, you warthog,” screams Mary Grace.
The accusation that Ruby is anything else but a good Christian woman confronts her in the way that only the truth can. She and Claud leave the doctor’s office for home but have no appetite. They both lie down to nap. But Ruby is disturbed. For the first time, she cannot justify her bias; she cannot convince herself that she is righteous. Eventually, she goes outside and interacts with the “nigger” women, but a new clarity has descended on her. Their insincere comments of praise (“You the sweetest lady I know!”) and anger (Lemme at her! I’ll kill her), which before plumped her ego, now land flat. Ruby’s self-righteousness and the socially stratified world have been toppled like the waiting room magazine table.
Ruby’s moment of (Mary) Grace extends to the pig barn where finally she comes face to face with God. She continues to hear the girl’s accusation ring in her ears, to which she responds, “Who do you think you are,” she demands of the sky or God. She hears th sound of her voice echo out across the field and then bounces back “with clarity.” Next, Ruby glances down at the pigs. In a most unlikely epiphany (for pigs are common, the most farmed animal in the south but also a lowly animal considered by some faiths as spiritually unclean ), she sees God or at least what God wants her to see. The pigs, all of a sudden, appear to have “a secret life.”
As the sun begins setting on the farm, with its colorful hues of purple and red, Ruby looks up at the sky and sees a vision, a procession of people prancing by. People, not unlike her and Claud, who have had “had a little of everything,” march through the purple and red sky as if through the Refiner’s Fire, their good deeds burned off, their faces ablaze with shock. Taking in this image, the reader can’t help but think of the passage in Holy Scripture that says:
“For the sake of My name, I delay My wrath,
And for My praise, I restrain it for you,
In order not to cut you off.
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
“For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act;
For how can My name be profaned?
And My glory I will not give to another.
And so the waiting room that is life--or for Catholic O’Connor, possibly the waiting room that is spiritual purification in Purgatory--acts as the catalyst of grace in this story. Just like the Apostle Paul experienced a blinding vision on the road to Damascus that cured his spiritual myopia, so God uses her daytime waiting room confrontation with Ruby later on in the evening at the pig barn. He reveals to Ruby his holy refining in the emblazoned evening ky above as she begins to understand that her self-righteous identity has been utterly false, her good works so much refuse.
What began as a chaotic confrontation ends in brilliance. The burning purple-red sky lances Ruby’s putrid, hateful heart. God, whose Name demands glory, whose patience is long but not endless, who refuses to give His glory to another, has mercifully refined her. All she can do is walk back to the house, declaring, “Hallelujah.”