|Everything That Rises Must Converge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
My next few posts are partially intended for information gathering for an upcoming series on the topic of why we have certain preferences. Questions will be asked with which I hope you will assist me by providing your answers. I will also be making some statements that to me are true to some extent, but some of you may find so outlandish and provocative that my opinions may annoy or even anger you. On the other hand some of you might agree with my claims. Please keep this caveat in mind and be willing to offer your own opinions.
"All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal."—Flannery O'Connor
Recently I accompanied my wife to the doctor and for once I brought along a book to read since I had a feeling we'd be there for a while. Flannery O'Connor's short story Revelation had been on my mind in recent days prior to going with my wife so I figured that would be the ideal opportunity to go back and reread this story by one of my favorite authors.
If you've been reading Tossing It Out for any length of time you might recall my mentioning Flannery O'Connor since she is one of my favorite writers. In fact you can find two complete posts here and here.
Revelation is available at a number of places on the internet if you'd like to read it. One particularly easy to read version can be found here.
After rereading the story Revelation, I am convinced that this is the best short story ever written based on the short stories I have read. A general consensus of readers and critics might suggest that O'Connor's story A Good Man Is Hard to Find is her greatest story. That story is certainly among the greatest ever written, but I maintain the Revelation edges out Good Man ever so slightly.
The short story Revelation comes from Flannery O'Connor's collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. O'Connor was a Catholic author from Georgia who wrote in the often dark tradition of Southern Literature. Her stories typically have to do with characters who are facing a spiritual crisis but are often not aware of the nature of that crisis. Flannery O'Connor died at age 39 leaving behind a relatively small, but substantially powerful and influential body of work.
There are basically two scenes to Revelation. The first takes place in a doctor's office waiting room and the second is after the main character goes home to reflect on the events that transpired in the waiting room and the revelation that comes to her as she thinks on those events. The main character of this story is introduced in the story's opening line:
The Doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.To me this is one of the best opening lines ever written for a short story. The scene is immediately set as we meet this woman who is who is not merely physically imposing, but who has a "presence" that will become more apparent as the story goes on.
In the first few pages we become intimate with a cast of characters who are vastly different from each other yet mundane examples of the typical types of people one might meet in the town where the doctor's office is located. A combination of simple but keen observations of the characters' appearances and mannerisms along with realistic clever dialogue puts the reader right there in the waiting room.
An example is the following exchange which comes after Mrs.Turpin and another lady discuss their admiration of a clock in the waiting room:
The woman with the snuff-stained lips turned around in her chair and looked up at the clock. Then she turned back and appeared to look a little to the side of Mrs. Turpin. There was a cast in one of her eyes.
"You want to know where you can get you one of them there clocks?" she asked in a loud voice.
"No , I already have a nice clock," Mrs. Turpin said. Once somebody like her got a leg in the conversation, she would be all over it.
"You can get you one with green stamps," the woman said. "That's most likely where he got his'n. Save you up enough, you can get you most anythang. I got me some joo’ry.”
Ought to have got you a wash rag and some soap, Mrs. Turpin thought.
This passage had me laughing out loud in the doctor's waiting room I was in while I read the story. It was one of many passages that had me laughing. It's a funny story in places, but it's also sad and even disturbing. The characters show racism, bigotry, and self-centeredness and yet they are just regular people who mostly mean well and believe that they are right in thinking the way they do. The story illustrates the conflicts and misunderstandings between classes and cultures. Mrs. Turpin's "revelation" at the end of the story might be life-changing for her or only a momentary enlightenment. For me her vision and realization was moving and memorable.
I think that a short story need not have much in the way of action--in fact too much action in a short story is cluttered and confusing. The short story should focus on one very special idea and, through the characters and the plotline, convey this idea to the reader. A good short story should have a "moral" (though not necessarily stated as in a fable), teach a lesson, or clarify some specific idea. By necessity due to its length, the story should be limited in scope from the standpoint of time depicted, geographical range, and number of characters who are specifically introduced.
The best short stories deal with common events illuminated by an uncommon light then processed back into the reader's mind leaving a lasting impression due to emotion or a thought that lingers long after the story has been read. A short story of value must engage and entertain for the duration of the reading while at the same time giving the reader something to take away to ponder in interim after reading and have the indelible stamp of the story lodged firmly in the memory.
Revelation effectively fills all of these criteria. The writing is basic, simple, and accessible to even readers of relatively low reading skills, and yet the images and ideas are presented with an elementary elegance that spurs imagination. There is no stumbling over complicated wording or pedantic phrasing. This is modern writing for readers who have little patience for reading with a dictionary by their sides or stalling to grasp what the author is saying. O'Connor says what she is going to say with forthrightness. She delivers complexity with simplicity. This is truly breathtaking writing.
I cannot think of any other stories other than others by O'Connor that approach the greatness of Revelation. Certainly I have a very limited reading experience when put up against all of the stories ever written, but I'll go out on a limb to say that Revelation is the greatest short story ever written. It's certainly one of my favorites.
My Questions For You
1) If you have read this story, do you think it is the best short story ever written?
2) What do think is the best short story ever written? Why?
3) What is your favorite short story? Why?
4) For you what is it that makes a short story good? What makes for a great story?
If you happen to read Revelation for the first time as a result of my essay, please let me know your reactions to it.