Eyes as a Symbol in “Revelation”
Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” is a short story centered around racism and pride with several recurring images. The most important image pattern, however, is eyes. Even the title shows a relation to eyes, since a revelation is considered a ‘vision’. Mrs. Turpin’s eyes are the source of her arrogance and prejudice. Many other characters, including Mary Grace are defined by their eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul, and are how the reader comes to understand the characters better. When Mrs. Turpin enters the doctor’s waiting room, she immediately scans the room to look not only for the available seats, but to evaluate the other patients.
She classifies the patients by their appearances, and places them below her in class according to her categories of social status. The first to meet her eyes, is a well-dressed woman. Mrs. Turpin is pleased with her companionship because they seem to have the same opinion of the small child taking up two seats. Mrs. Turpin then scoffs at the “leathery old woman in [the] cotton print dress” (393), because she is poor, and related to the other “white-trashy” (394) patients. Her judgments are based solely on what she can see, and her first impressions of the remaining patients are not kind.
An interesting thought by Mrs. Turpin draws even more attention to her eyes. She states that she has “not a wrinkle in her face except around her eyes from laughing too much” (393). Mrs. Turpin is outwardly good-natured to everyone, including those she disdains, but her eyes show the wear and tear of false pleasantries. She has a vision problem – shortsightedness and prejudice. However, she is quite skilled at getting her emotions across with a single glance, as is shown with the well-dressed woman and Mary Grace. The white-trash mother’s eyes are also described in detail.
One of her eyes has a cast, more commonly known as a squint. The mother has a true vision problem, both literally and metaphorically – she is just as deluded and arrogant as Mrs. Turpin. Due to the squint, she “appear[s] to look [off] a little to the side” (395) and she is unable meet anyone’s eyes completely. Although she seems to want to view Mrs. Turpin as an equal, she is not on the same class level and knows it. Although she and Mrs. Turpin share some of the same views, such as their negative opinion of blacks, the white-trash oman considers herself higher up in status because she is white, while Mrs. Turpin considers her no better than the blacks are because she is ‘trash’. The most important pair of eyes to be described belongs to Mary Grace. Mrs. Turpin notices early on that the girl is not attractive, but she notices that Mary Grace has a very peculiar set of eyes, that seem “alternately to smolder and to blaze” (395). Initially, Mrs. Turpin is bewildered by Mary Grace’s eyes, but soon begins to resent the odd blue gaze.
Mary Grace’s eyes are described as having an “unnatural light like night road signs” (395), signifying her supernatural status. Mary Grace is a foil to Mrs. Turpin, because she is an educated, and presumably less biased, individual. She is also a supernatural figure, and her eyes symbolize her connection with God. They also serve as a warning to Mrs. Turpin and draw emphasis whenever Mrs. Turpin thinks something especially cruel about others. Finally, after several pages of nasty behavior and considering herself superior, Mrs.
Turpin is struck with a change to her world in the form of a book hurled at her eyes. The fact that Mary Grace chose to attack her eyes is either a marvelous coincidence, or evidence that Mary Grace is meant as a guide to influence Mrs. Turpin’s change in views. Suddenly, Mrs. Turpin’s vision “narrow[s] and she [sees] everything as if it [is] happening in a small room far away” (400). She suddenly realizes how very narrow her prejudiced view of the world is. As soon as Mary Grace falls, the spell is broken and Mrs.
Turpin’s vision returns to normal, although now no one will meet her eyes, except for the fallen Mary Grace. Mrs. Turpin locks her gaze on the girl, and finally receives her message. Now Mrs. Turpin has a bruise above her eye and her vision is still clouded. She sits at home and cries, not understanding why she was chosen, denying her own faults, “her eyes [beginning] to burn …with wrath” (401) instead of guilt or sorrow. She blindly mistreats her hogs, passing her anger off to the nearest scapegoats. Gradually, she notices that the light is changing, casting odd colors over the fields and roads.
As soon as she asks the pivotal question, “Who do you think you are? ” (405), she sees the colors begin burning gold, auburn, and scarlet, and her revelation begins. At last, she sees a group of souls on their way to heaven, and sees the ‘classy’ people, like herself, bringing up the rear of the procession. She understands that she is not as pure and virtuous as she believed. God makes everyone equal, regardless of race or class. The last description of her eyes states that they are “small but fixed unblinkingly” () on the future. Mrs. Turpin’s vision is clear at last.
O’Connor uses eyes as a symbol in “Revelation” to reach across barriers of class and race to share common emotion. Everyone has eyes. Although some sight is clouded, some is clear, and like Mrs. Turpin, some may at first be blind. A true pair of clear eyes can reach into the souls of those nearby, regardless of familiarity. Clear vision strips away all prejudice and hatred. In a more religious sense, such O’Connor’s, it could be considered a gift from heaven. WORKS CITED O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation”. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 392-406. Print.