And yet Ruby changes in this passage. Her perceptions become active, personal, dynamic. For a fleeting moment, the pigs aren’t simply a mirror for herself. She’s seeing the pigs, as, well, pigs. They’re beyond metaphor. They aren’t clouded by the expected perceptions of them. They don’t need to be hosed down. And aren’t they a little beautiful, these pigs, leaning into one another, musical, grunting softly? A mother beside her children, safe, tight, in a contained space. And that glow about them, not just any glow, but suffused with red.
It’s ironic that once Ruby sees the pigs as pigs, the pigs seem to move outside space and time. The story is quiet about this second transformation: to do anything more than that would be to break the spell. They’re at the center of the mystery. They’re creatures of another consciousness, beyond language, transcending our capacity to name and understand. They pant not just with life, but with secret life. And that word seems to mean everything here. Secrecy is something to treasure: inexhaustible, vast, and larger than ourselves.
This awful Ruby, whom we’ve been so quick to judge and make fun of, has confounded us again.
It’s so easy to simplify O’Connor, to see the stories as little punishment machines that intend to flatten the characters until they behave as they’re supposed to. Even sophisticated readers are prone to missing out on all the nuances in the work. The aim of these stories is certainly satirical, but that’s only part of the plan. Her characters always have the capacity to morph, not just once but many times, and that’s the lesson I take into myself: into my own writing, and into what I value about the work of other writers who matter to me. That people, no matter how inert they seem to be, contain the capacity to surprise us, to change.
Growth doesn’t happen without destruction—that one too. To miss out on that fact is to miss out on everything. Yes, O’Connor destroys some of her characters—subjects them to humiliation, degradation, violence. But maybe that’s because she understands human stubbornness, how we cling to our limitations until events of great force alter us. Maybe this attitude stems from her Christian vision—of a savior made holy through the horrors of crucifixion—or from the plight of her own tormented body, tortured by illness for much of her too-short life. In any case, O’Connor shatters her characters so they can see.
If Ruby Turpin stayed rooted in her horribleness, the story would be small and mean, a minor curiosity, not really worthy of our extended consideration. Instead we have something riskier and more volatile. O’Connor’s stories seem to start out small, realist, and regional, but it’s a fake-out: She knows that, ultimately, she’ll shake her characters to the core, and in the process challenge us. A narrative, when it’s really alive, will always disturb you when you’re there to seek comfort, and sing in two contrary voices when you just want to hear a single, pure melody. But it is impossible not to be lifted by such a strange and beautiful animal. Lifted and destroyed.