Mrs. Turpin’s Concept of God (O’Connor 18-36)
Why do Mrs. Turpin’s ideas about God (O’Connor 18-36) make us laugh and make us sad, sometimes at the same time? Why do her thoughts and comments evoke both our anger and understanding? Indeed, was Mrs. Turpin elated or devastated by her final “revelation” (35)? Peter Hawkins, in the introduction to O’Connor’s story, told us that it was an example of “a major epiphany, where the tone of the narrative heightens into the sublime and a character is able to see the spiritual heart of things” (16).
To the contrary, I believe it was Flannery O’Connor’s genius to portray Mrs. Turpin, without interpretation, leaving the reader free to consider the role of the concept of God in Mrs. Turpin’s life.
What did Mrs. Turpin believe was the role of God in her life? She couldn’t have made herself any clearer. In repeatedly asking herself hypothetical questions God might have asked her, she consistently expressed the belief that before deciding another person should be born, He determined what that person would be like.
She consistently considered how she would respond if God gave her a choice between what she considered poor alternatives, e.g., being born “a nigger or white trash” (20), clearly grateful He had made her who she was, “a good woman,” who had “never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent” (25). When her hypothetical choice was to be “a good woman” or “high society,” wealthy, and slim (25), she wouldn’t have hesitated in choosing to be “a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or ugly or how poor” (25). For having made her who she was, she couldn’t have been more grateful: “Jesus, thank you!” (25).
Yes, her expressions do sound funny and simple-minded. Where would she get such ideas? Consider that she was from a rural Southern community, probably attended a Baptist church, and not out of the question that her minister, like “Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin…[believed] it was inconceivable that an all-powerful, foreknowing God should not determine in advance who is ultimately saved and who is not” (Ford 106). Few religious scholars accept the “determinism” of their colleagues of centuries passed, yet they apparently consider their ideas important enough to warrant preserving their names in history.
In fact, in both the Old and New testaments (Holy Bible, New International Version), God had and sometimes used the power to determine the course of people’s lives, for example, rescuing the Jews from Egypt (of course, killing innocent first-born Egyptian children in the process, apparently to demonstrate his power before the Jews since He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” who otherwise would have complied with God’s demands) (Exodus 10:20, 11:10) and Jesus performed such “miracles” as restoring sight to the blind (Matthew 20:34), curing leprosy, paralysis, and even raising the dead (Mark 1:41 2:12 5:42). Indeed, throughout history, the quintessential question about God’s relationship with humans has been why he hasn’t used His power to prevent members of one group from inflicting suffering and torture on members of another. The best defense anyone has been able to come up with is some version of God working in “mysterious ways.” A more reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, was formed by Elie Wiesel, who had spent his 15th year at Buchenwald, later expressing his belief “that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion” (248).
We thus might consider that it wasn’t Mrs. Turpin’s ideas that were unusual but her naive manner of expressing them. Similarly, at least until her “revelation,” she was not questioning God, which clearly was not welcome either in the Old or New Testaments (e.g., Job 38:02; Mark 11:35), but acknowledging His absolute power, again consistent with the bible, as well as religious scholars (Ford 106). What, however, would Jesus have thought about Mrs. Turpin’s judgments, both so favorable of herself and so negative of others? Understand, in reading O’Connor’s story, she did not tell others she was judging them negatively, but the difference is not of theological importance and Jesus was clear: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 07:01). Interestingly, there is robust psychological evidence that those who are well-adjusted do regard themselves and others like themselves favorably, relative to members of other groups (Taylor & Brown 193-210), suggesting that Mrs. Turpin was psychologically well-adjusted and theologically sinful!
The poor woman never even considered the idea she might have been displeasing to Jesus, until in a doctor’s waiting room, it became apparent to her that a fat, ugly girl (O’Connor 19) disliked her (22). The girl’s name, Mary Grace, must have been ironic, since the girl demonstrated not an ounce of grace and with another touch of irony, the book she threw at Mrs. Turpin (27) was on human adjustment (19). It was the girl’s words, “Go back to the hell where you came from, you old wart hog” (28) that led Mrs. Turpin to question God’s view of her. She came to believe she had received a message from God (33) and she raged at His unfairness (34).
In her own “revelation,” she saw that those first in line to enter heaven were all those Mrs. Turpin did not believe were “decent,” and all those last in line were “those…like herself” (35). Consider that Mrs. Turpin formed groups on the basis of her genuine opinion of the characteristics she believed group members had. When forced to choose by God whether she would be born “’a nigger or white trash’” (20), note that her choice was “’make me a nigger then – but that don’t mean a trashy one.’ And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black” (20). In her “revelation,” however, she saw that it was God who divided the world into classes where the only worthy ones were those who were members of groups others believed were low in status, simply the mirror image of what many consider unfair human divisions. Peter Hawkin’s suggested that because Mrs. Turpin’s last word was “hallelujah” (17), her “revelation” might have led to a new and higher understanding of “the spiritual heart of things” (16). However, she was merely expressing what she believed those at the front of the line were shouting (35). It is at least as plausible that, like Wiesel (248), she lost her belief in a “just” God or even in any God. The story ends as she was walking home, but perhaps when she got there, she found her bible and tossed it into the sky!
Ford, David. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hawkins, Peter S. “Flannery O’Connor.” Listening for God:
Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith. Eds.
Paula J. Carlson & Peter S. Hawkins. Minneapolis, MN:
Augsburg Fortress (1994): 15-17.
Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI:
O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” Listening for God:
Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith. Eds.
Paul J. Carlson & Peter S. Hawkins. Minneapolis, MN:
Augsburg Fortress (1994): 20-35.
Taylor, Shelley E. & Brown, Jonathan D. “Illusion and Well-being:
A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health.”
Psychological Bulletin, 103 (1998): 193-210.
Wiesel, Elie. Messengers of God. Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York:
Pocket Books, 1977.
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