- The Unrevealed in Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation"
Flannery O'Connor is no stranger to scribbling lines that leave readers stumped as to their meaning, yet the title of one of her final stories, "Revelation" (1965), promises to "reveal," to enlighten readers. The word "revelation" denotes a "striking disclosure of something previously unknown or not realized" ("Revelation," def. 5a). In the story, as the main character Ruby Turpin receives a revelation about her misperceived righteousness, O'Connor emulates the cryptic nature of the apocalyptical writings of both the Old and New Testament. Mrs. Turpin's vision contains not only images reminiscent of Jacob's ladder (i.e., Gen. 28.10-22) but also John's Apocalypse (i.e., Rev. 7.14-17). Yet, although the ending of the story suggests that Ruby Turpin will become a better person, a closer reading reveals a degree of ambiguity that challenges not only traditional interpretations but also the concepts underlying the title. O'Connor scholars know the degree to which her Christian background influenced her writings; however, her steeped interest in the classical humanities also provides a strong methodology for analyzing the ambiguous resolution of "Revelation." Arguably, O'Connor's multiple allusions to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the Delphic Oracle, Dante's Divine Comedy, and the Old Testament offer a more comprehensive interpretation to Ruby [End Page 72] Turpin's vision, and more importantly its ultimate effect on her, than the Gospel alone. By combining biblical references with classical allusions, we want to argue that the most "striking disclosure" of "Revelation" may well be that Ruby Turpin's reactions are possibly as close-minded as they are eye opening.
Ironically, O'Connor does not admit to drawing from any Greek writers, whether Plato or Aristotle. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester on August 9, 1955, she confides, "I suppose I read Aristotle in college but not to know I was doing it; the same with Plato." Wittily, O'Connor underscores her inability to understand the ancient thinkers. She feigns, "I don't have the kind of mind that can carry such beyond the actual reading, i.e., total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me" (Habit of Being 93). This self-disparaging remark comes from the same letter in which she admits to reading Thomas Aquinas for twenty minutes every night, not a light undertaking for any mind.
Despite her insistence to the contrary, scholars have drawn out Greek allusions in her work. Ted R. Spivey, for example, recalls how Thomas Merton connects O'Connor to the Greek tragic poet Sophocles. Spivey discusses this comparison in a paragraph about "Revelation." According to Spivey, the connection is fitting because the "Greek playwrights continually point in their works to the role of suffering in bringing forth those visions that lead to wisdom grounded in a pity and fear that announce the essential human self to all people" (147). Spivey focuses how O'Connor accomplishes a similar task in her first novel Wise Blood.
Since O'Connor revised Wise Blood while living with Robert Fitzgerald who was translating Oedipus Rex at the time, it is not surprising that critics find Greek influences on Wise Blood. To her college friend Betty Boyd, on October 17, 1949, O'Connor compliments Fitzgerald's translation, adding that he "has a lot of books which I am getting to read" (Habit of Being 16). In Louis Westling's critical commentary on Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor, Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens (1985), she reveals that O'Connor also absorbed the Greeks as a child:
Her childhood imagination had been nourished by the Greek and Roman mythology in her copy of the children's encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge, and Robert Fitzgerald's translations of Homer and the Greek tragedians introduced her to the stark power of some of the primary sources and affected her revisions of Wise Blood.(159) [End Page 73]
O'Connor recalls reading the children's encyclopedia in another letter to Hester on August 28, 1955, calling it one of "the only good things [she] read when [she] was a...