It must surely be marveled at how one and the same word—nay, one and the same concept—elicits such different reactions. One such idea is that of the common, the ordinary. Peacemakers speak of the things people hold in common as motives for unity, while critics view the word “common” as synonymous with cheap, vulgar, or tasteless. Nothing, however, is more common than the rhythm of the days and seasons. Chesterton compares this rhythm to the pleasure a child takes in a game. A child will say “do it again” to something that has delighted him, just as the sun rises and the seasons change, in a way, because God has said, “do it again.” This same process, however, betrays a need for difference, as well as for sameness. Each of the seasons stays with us for three or four months (in places with four seasons), but then they change, as if nature herself sees the necessity in permanence and rhythm.
A story about common things may not always be the most exciting or longed for, but there are certain seasons of life where it is exactly what one needs. Flannery O’Connor’s stories, though dramatic in one way, are frightfully common in another. But it is precisely in this ordinary narrative that one is enabled to appreciate the common, especially the distastefully common. In her stories, you may find yourself in a doctor’s office, surrounded by people of lower to middle class, mutually giving and receiving the customary silent scrutiny of the waiting room. And yet, after just a few minutes together in the room, an ugly girl calls a smiling plump lady an “old warthog from Hell” and begins to choke her, the girl is carried out on a stretcher, and the plump lady’s view of the nature of charity and salvation is irrevocably reversed. Thus begins O’Connor’s short story Revelation.
Her stories are often grotesque and get up close to the darker realities of life. They are never dull. For readers of her fiction, the only two options are either hating or loving it. The darkness turns many away from what they perceive as a sick mind and a cynical perspective, whereas others are grateful for a portrait of life that is not sugar-coated. Upon first reading her fiction, no one who was not already familiar with her would suspect that she was a remarkably cheerful little Southern woman with a wry sense of humor, who was a daily mass attendee, and who slept with the Bible and St. Thomas’s Summa next to her bed. Stranger still is the fact that some readers now take up her personal correspondence as appropriate Lenten reflections. It may be hard to see at first, but stories like Revelation spur reflections on how the seemingly meaningless freak accidents that accompany such routine things as a doctor visit might actually be our saving graces.
A woman one might encounter any day of the week, the plump Mrs. Turpin is easy to judge at first sight. The reader is made aware of her disposition through her frequent reflections on the classes of people in the world:
Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, “There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash,” what would she have said? “Please, Jesus, please,” she would have said, “just let me wait until there’s another place available,” and he would have said, “No, you have got to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.”
Mrs. Turpin does not hate these kinds of people. In fact, she is often pleasant to them, and pays them for work on the farm, so that they have an income. She also brings them ice water and talks to them after the day’s work. On the outside, she appears in many respects a good Christian woman. And that is how she is perceived by those that work for her, as well. When she relates to them her recent shocking incident at the doctor’s office, they kindly attempt to comfort her. Yet even though she acts civilly, her thoughts are quite a contrast. Summoning all her effort to smile at those she inwardly considers idiots, she endures their well-meant compliments all the while internally judging them: “‘That’s the truth befo’ Jesus,’ the old woman said. ‘Amen! You des as sweet and pretty as you can be.’ Mrs. Turpin knew exactly how much Negro flattery was worth and it added to her rage.” Her little acts of kindness have convinced both her and the workers that she is a good Christian, but she is blind to the disparity between her deeds and her views—that is, until the insult is a bit too hard to shrug off. With righteous indignation at her hypocrisy, the reader is ready to see justice meted to this woman.
And then O’Connor pulls a fast one. A modern-day Pharisee worthy of judgment Mrs. Turpin may be, but just as the reader finishes his condemnation, he begins to feel an uncomfortable resemblance to her. Mrs. Turpin seems to make good points sometimes. After entering the waiting room, she reflects on her frustration at the condition she finds it in: “She could not understand why a doctor—with as much money as they made—charging five dollars a day just to stick their head in the hospital door and look at you—couldn’t afford a decent sized waiting room.” Again, these are her thoughts, not her words. Outwardly, she’s smiling and speaking audibly in Christian platitudes about how grateful to Jesus she is to have “a little bit of everything.” Inwardly, she’s complaining about how doctors don’t use their money the way they should. Resigned to patiently stand because none would give up their seats to her, she starts sizing the people up. Looking at one lady and her family, Mrs. Turpin reflects: “She could tell by the way they sat—kind of vacant and white-trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if nobody called and told them to get up. . . . Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin thought.” The ugly girl who eventually has had enough and tries to choke Mrs. Turpin sees through her, and O’Connor sees through us. We have all been Mrs. Turpin in one way or another.
Whether we grumble about doctors or criticize others, it is all too easy to blind ourselves to our inner pride with superficial good deeds. Yes, we pray, we attend Mass, we give charitably, but how often do we think uncharitably (maybe even speak uncharitably) of our neighbors in the course of everyday affairs? How often do we speak with civility towards another, while inside we are sneering at them? Indeed, it is so easy to see our “little bit of everything”, whether that be our charity or devotion, as proof of our righteousness, rather than unmerited gifts of God. How easy it is to attribute the blessings in our life as the spoils of our own virtue, rather than “talents” that we must tremble in using well. It has been said that our deeds should match our sentiments, but sometimes we learn this lesson so well that we forget the reverse should also be true; our thoughts towards others should also match the outward respect that we, often by convention, show them. Like the sermons of St. John Henry Newman, O’Connor’s short stories render readers unanimous in their condemnation of a common type—until they see their own image in the condemned.
Though she talks about people as common as dirt, she raises questions about them more compelling than those found in many a great drama. And this is as it should be. Chesterton reminds us that the most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children. There is much to marvel at in our everyday experience, but we can only marvel at it if we reflect, or if something compels us to reflect. For Mrs. Turpin that dramatic prompt is an ugly girl’s affront in a routine doctor’s office visit; for us it may be something equally ordinary and equally jarring. This need for reflection is why O’Connor’s stories always seem to end too soon or too darkly. Not wanting to do all the work for you, she never puts the puzzle pieces together, or neatly ties up the loose ends. Nor are the questions and the mysteries that inevitably crop up in her stories neatly answered for us, for it is only through regular reflection upon daily realities, even the ugly or painfully ordinary ones, that we will ever come to see the hidden supernatural workings behind all things, good and bad, ordinary and extraordinary.