The parallel characters of the schoolteacher Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away and the social worker Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First” present the consequences of rejection of revelation. Each seeks to establish the moral narrative of modernist progress as the guiding principle in the life of “backwards” young men with whom they come into contact. Each is resistant to the expression of love for a son they consider “deficient”. In Rayber’s case the son, Bishop, is an “idiot”. In Sheppard’s, the boy, Norton, exhibits his moral “unfitness” through an antisocially “selfish” attachment to his dead mother: “She had been dead for over a year and a child’s grief should not last so long” (CS 447). In either of these instances love appears as an unsettling element, in the context of American materialism, a form of the grotesque. Rayber experiences this directly as a consequence of his son’s “idiocy”:
For the most part Rayber lived with [Bishop] without being painfully aware of his presence but the moments would still come when rushing from some inexplicable part of himself, he would experience a love for the child so outrageous that he would be left shocked and depressed for days and trembling for his sanity. It was only a touch of the curse that lay in his blood. (VBA 112-113)Love is directly opposed to usefulness in either of these stories. The ontology of modernity is made explicitly to oppose a world-view that embraces the other. Indeed, the acceptance of otherness threatens to lead to the Ultimate Other embodied in the Christian God and thus threatens the stability of a materialist understanding. Each character’s refusal to acknowledge love and the “other” as the object of love in favor of personal conceptions of the good leaves them unprepared for the dissolution of reality. Rayber allows his son to be drowned by Tarwater and Norton is, in essence, talked into suicide by the delinquent fundamentalist Rufus Johnson. Rayber is confronted by the nothingness that he has lauded over the madness of love, leading to his physical and spiritual collapse (VBA 201). Sheppard is made aware of the moral bankruptcy of a ethos that has led him to ignore “his own child to feed his vision of himself. […] His image of himself shriveled until everything was black before him” (CS 481). Each of these cases shows the consequences of the elevation of modernity in the face of moral revelation as a complete loss of community, the collapse into isolation.
By contrast, the community of Christianity connects individuals in acknowledgement of mutual moral inadequacy; offering a direct alternative to the narcissism of American modernity through a culture of mutual humility. Hazel Motes’s acceptance of this personal incapacity makes him accessible to others. His landlady, Mrs. Flood, intends initially simply to cheat him out of his pension but is slowly drawn, by the example of his self-imposed suffering, to the brink of her own moral revelation. In practical terms, she begins a state of assumed self-possession, illustrated by her belief in her own “clear-sightedness” (WB 211). She elevates enjoyment of the physical sense of sight to the status of a moral capacity to impose her own interpretation on a receptive reality. Hazel’s presence, however, draws her out of her own perception. She finds that she enjoys his company, “if she didn’t talk and keep her mind going, she would find herself sitting forward in her chair, looking at him with her mouth not closed” (WB 217). Communion is enabled by dissociation from herself and her original understanding of her companion. Likewise, after his death, she tries “to see how she had been cheated […] but she couldn’t see anything” (231). Here she makes a final move beyond the self, losing her assumption of “clear-sight”, sharing Hazel’s vision of the distant light instead.
O’Connor uses the move away from the self as a specific denunciation of the mass American conflation of “niceness” and virtue in the story “Revelation”. Ida Turpin inhabits a position of privilege based both in class and race. Jon Bacon suggests that her situation reflects the conflict between traditional Southern racial hierarchies and the new consumerist classification of “low, middle, and high” as Mrs. Turpin’s original system of classification becomes muddled into a “moiling and roiling” heap (Bacon 129). Yet, the story’s primary concern is not with a conflict between traditional and modern politics but between materialist and religious ontologies. The confusion of classes and races in Ida’s mind is “crammed together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven” (CS 492).
The classification of human beings is a claim on the part of the classifier to know and distinguish the relative worth of other human beings, based in an inadequate moral capacity, Mrs. Turpin’s attempt to judge becomes a variation on the evil that created the Holocaust. When her self-created system is challenged by a condemnation of herself, as she is attacked and accused of being “a hog from hell” we see the affect of the assumption of virtue as Mrs. Turpin elevates herself to equality with divinity, demanding to know how she is “like them”, the “trash” and “niggers” she places below herself, “roaring” into the evening sky “Who do you think you are?” (CS 507). Her eventual acceptance of grace is typified by the appearance in the sky of bridge on which:
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 shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. […] They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. […] Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. (CS 508)Christian communion overturns the conventional understanding of “goodness,” replacing all hierarchies, moral and social, with a procession of the forgiven.