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Both Mrs. Turpin in Flannery O’Conner’s Revelation and the narrator in Raymond Craver’s Cathedral hold prejudiced worldviews. However, Mrs. Turpin is religious and expresses her self-satisfied thoughts openly, while the narrator dismisses others because he does not believe in anything. Both characters need to be saved by epiphanies, yet their distinct natures shape how each character experiences the epiphany.
Mrs. Turpin judges people by stereotypes of class, race, and disposition in order to raise her self-satisfaction. As soon as she enters the waiting room, she immediately categorizes others based on their appearances: the “well-dressed lady” (150) is the ‘pleasant lady’, the “lank-faced woman” (150) is the ‘white-trashy mother’, and the girl with a face “blue with acne” (150) is the ‘ugly girl’. In fact, Mrs. Turpin is so obsessed with these stereotypical classifications that “sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people…then next to them…were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged”(151). Mrs. Turpin uses these stereotypes to justify her condescending manners to others. She scrutinizes how the ‘white-trashy mother’ has on bedroom slippers that are “exactly what you would have expected her to have on” (151), thus confirming Mrs. Turpin’s prediction that she is ‘trashy’. As Mrs. Turpin engages in a conversation with the ‘pleasant lady’, she gives the ‘white-trashy mother’ the “merest edge of her attention” (152) because she does not deserve her attention. Mrs. Turpin feeds herself with self-satisfaction as she judges herself as better than all the ‘niggers’, ’white-trashes’, and ‘ugly people’.
Furthermore, although Mrs. Turpin claims to be a strong believer of Christ, her belief system is superficial. Mrs. Turpin always goes to church and “never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent” (155). Yet, the fact that she prides herself so much for giving to less fortunate people suggests that she only does so to raise her self-satisfaction that she is superior to those people. Throughout the story, she constantly praises Jesus for giving her a little of everything: “When I think who all I could have been besides myself…I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’”(156) Although Mrs. Turpin may be expressing her appreciation to God, she is also condemning all the others who she could have been if she has not been herself. She claims to have everything, but lacks sincerity in her beliefs.
With her self-satisfaction and superficiality, Mrs. Turpin mistakenly considers herself superior to Mary Grace, the ‘ugly girl’: “Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age…Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin”(150). She clearly disapproves the girl’s coarse manner, as the girl “looked directly at Mrs. Turpin and smirked” (151). Yet, Mrs. Turpin fails to see that the girl’s coarse manner is a mirror of her own prejudiced and judgmental attitudes towards people she does not know: “It was the ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen…She was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life…Why, girl, I don’t even know you, Mrs. Turpin said silently.”(154). Mrs. Turpin remains unaware that her ugly thoughts do not make her any more beautiful than the ‘ugly girl’.
Similarly to Mrs. Turpin, the narrator relies heavily on rigid stereotypes in judging people. Despite never having known a blind man in person, the fact that Robert is “blind bothered him. His idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs” (732). The narrator clearly conveys uneasiness of having Robert in his house just because of the stereotypes of blind men he knows.
However, unlike Mrs. Turpin who believes in divine power, the narrator does not believe in anything beyond his concrete and physical perspective. The narrator devalues the connections and attachments his wife may have with Robert through ongoing tape conversations of trivial everyday life matters. Instead, he gets upset with even one slight physical act when Robert touched his wife’s face, although for his wife the physical action itself may not matter at all, compared to the feeling involved in the memories of it. The narrator laments over how the blind man “touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!”(732), yet disregard the poem his wife writes about “what she had felt at the time about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips” (732). Because he does not care to engage in any other experiences outside his own perspective, the narrator fails to connect to his wife and Robert.
Consequently, the narrator retreats into his own world, smoking dope and watching TV while dismissing others. Rather than expressing self-satisfied thoughts like Mrs. Turpin, the narrator implies his self-centered and limited nature by disregarding others’ views: “But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc.”(732). The casual narrative technique and the use of ‘etc.’ suggest how he does not bother to care about his wife’s relationship with her ex-husband. Similarly, when the narrator’s wife tells him about Beulah “with more details than [he] cared to know” (734), he dismissively comments on Robert’s love towards Beulah as being “pathetic”. Therefore, the narrator reveals that “a blind man in [his] house is not something [he] looked forward to” (732) because he does not expect a blind man to be able to interest him.
By doing so, the narrator prevents himself from the chance of exploring different perspectives that others may hold. Rather than getting to know Robert as the person he is, the narrator is stuck seeing Robert through the lens of his stereotypes. The narrator secretly ridicules Robert for wearing a full beard: “A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say.”(734). Furthermore, the narrator is surprised to know that Robert doesn’t use a cane, and doesn’t wear dark glasses: “I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind”(735). Because Robert does seem to fit the narrator’s stereotype of blind men, the narrator dismisses these qualities by calling them “creepy” rather than appreciating Robert’s self-reliance.
Both characters experience epiphanies that challenge their worldviews. Additionally, they are able to do so through the help those who they initially despise. Nevertheless, each character’s unique nature shapes how they receive help into their epiphanies. Mrs. Turpin is forced to confront her ‘ugly’ thoughts through the ugly girl’s ugly action, while the narrator is gradually able to ‘see’ through the blind man’s guidance.
It is due to the ugly girl’s coarse action that Mrs. Turpin is able to realize her faults. Because Mrs. Turpin persistently expresses her self-satisfied manner, ‘ugly girl’ finally reaches her limit and hurls the book symbolically titled “Human Development” right at Mrs. Turpin’s eye. With such a direct and forceful action, Mrs. Turpin, finally shows a potential of gaining the epiphany she longs for. Despite getting upset, Mrs. Turpin accepts the possibility that the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition” (157) and is sending a message from God. However, a message to such a self-satisfied and pretentious character like Mrs. Turpin cannot be gentle and beautiful. Holding her breath, “waiting, as for a revelation” (157), Mrs. Turpin is told “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog” (157). This is particularly shocking to Mrs. Turpin considering how she has always regarded herself (far from ever being compared to a hog) as being superior to anyone else. The trigger is sudden and unpleasant, but because of Mrs. Turpin’s overt self-satisfied nature, an overt incident is also necessary for her to recognize her flaws.
Mrs. Turpin’s religious believes, although superficial, eventually saves her. Despite not wanting to believe that she is called an ‘old wart hog’, Mrs. Turpin’s “denial had no force” (158). She cannot neglect this God-given message and is very much troubled by it. Hence, she finally confronts God: “What do you send me a message like that for?…How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”(161). It is when Mrs. Turpin admits her image as a hog and challenges God to tell her why it is so that Mrs. Turpin experiences a divine vision:
“A vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics…And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people…like herself and Claud…even their virtues were being burned away.” (162)
Mrs. Turpin is hit by a terrifying divine vision that challenges her self-righteousness. The imagery of ‘bands of black niggers’ and ‘battalions of freaks and lunatics’ conveys the turmoil Mrs. Turpin experiences in her vision. She is paralyzed between her old prejudiced views and this horrifying celebration. She tries to utter her vision of everyone being equally blessed but lacks the vocabulary to express it, as she ends up classifying groups of white-trashes’, ‘niggers’, or ‘lunatics’. Nevertheless, Mrs. Turpin is forced to surrender to this terrifying yet beautiful vision and feels secure at the same time. There is the most beautiful life waiting for her up there, but this beautiful life is also waiting for everyone—black or white, decent or trashy—all the same.
Unlike Mrs. Turpin who is forcefully hit and must forcefully hit back in order to attain her epiphany, the narrator is smoothly built up into his epiphany. Robert constantly surprises the narrator with his self-reliance and openness. Consequently, the narrator eventually comes to stop ridiculing these characteristics that are inconsistent to his stereotypes and starts to appreciate them. As the narrator “watched with admiration as [Robert] used his knife and fork on the meat” (736), he slowly and progressively dissolves his initial stereotypes. Furthermore, the narrator is awed by how Robert is not only able to smoke dope for the first time “like he’d been doing it since he was nine years old” (738), but also is open to try new things. Through Robert’s persistent attempts in showing the narrator how “there’s a first time for everything” (737) and staying up late “until [the narrator is] ready to turn in” (738), the narrator begins to feel appreciative of Robert’s presence that he initially dismisses. “I’m glad for the company” (738), the narrator admits.
Consequently, the narrator begins open up to Robert. As they watch the cathedral on TV, the narrator feels the urge to share his experience with Robert: “They’re showing the outside of this cathedral now…There’s painting on the walls of this one church” (739). However, this reveals how the narrator is still confined in his superficial perspectives as he tries to explain his tangible and visible experiences while failing to understand that Robert is gaining an equally notable experience through other intangible senses. Thus, the narrator is surprised that Robert is gaining much more knowledge than he is from this TV show. “Are those fresco paintings, bub?”(739), Robert asks a question to which the narrator does not know the answer. Through this, the blind man who sees everything that comes into life as an opportunity to broaden his perspectives teaches the narrator that “learning never ends”(738) as long as the narrator opens up to take in new perspectives.
The narrator eventually learns from Robert and tries to take Robert’s perspective as Robert has taken his. He begins to step outside of his limited perspective and questions what is out there in other point of views. For the first time, the narrator wonders how Robert conceptualizes a cathedral: “Do you have any idea what a cathedral is…If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about?”(739). He initially struggles to describe a cathedral to Robert because “cathedrals don’t mean anything special to [him]” (740), but he continues to try and gradually develops his understanding of other’s perspectives. “They remind me of viaducts…But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either?”(740), the narrator corrects himself upon stepping in Robert’s shoe. Finally, the narrator fully explores a new perspective as he engages in drawing the cathedral with Robert. Together they construct a cathedral in the world outside of the paper they are drawing on and beyond physical boundaries: “I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop.”(740). “It was like nothing else in my life up to now”, the narrator reveals. It is only when the narrator closes his eyes that he is able to see.
Having experienced epiphany, Mrs. Turpin remains ‘immobile’, physically positioned in equal standing with the ‘hogs’ and mentally absorbing the voices of everyone equally “climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah”(162). Likewise, the narrator remains on the blind man’s side, with his eyes closed, and still closed, as he finally sees: “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.”(741) Mrs. Turpin and the narrator are empowered by an idea too powerful to be articulated, as they grasp the ‘life-giving knowledge’ that will change their lives forever.
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