The classification essay is a valuable expository form because it provides students with a procedure for sorting and analyzing large quantities of information. It is also valuable because it uses the strategies studied in process analysis and comparison and contrast even as it anticipates some of the skills that will be examined in definition. Division, often the first step in classifying a subject, is similar to analysis in that it breaks something into smaller parts. Once these parts (or categories) have been established, they can be distinguished from one another by using the techniques of comparison and contrast. In the classification essay, such techniques become more complicated, however, because to classify effectively, writers must analyze at least three categories. To establish each category, writers must define its unique properties so that it will not overlap with the others.
The classification essay, like the previous writing strategies, can be viewed as a way of organizing and presenting information. That is, narration is organized by the chronology of events, description by the evocation of the senses, process analysis by the sequence of steps, and comparison by the divided or alternating patterns. In subsequent (and more sophisticated) forms—definition, cause and effect, argument—the writer must create the organizational pattern. But as the introduction to this section points out, the classification essay follows a fairly recognizable form. Some beginning writers see this format as no more than an outline: divide the subject into categories, arrange the categories in sequence, define each category by differentiating it from the other categories, and illustrate it with examples. More experienced writers regard this formula as a poet regards the rhyme scheme for a sonnet—as a structure that encourages endless variations. For a brief example of how this pattern can be integrated into graceful writing, ask your students to examine Gareth Tucker’s “Gentlemen! Start Your Engines.”
The essays in this section illustrate all the essential thinking and organizing strategies writers use when they try to classify—and by extension clarify—a subject. Calvin Trillin makes a joke about humans’ natural tendency to divide everything (even the most insignificant thing) into categories, and yet his system is useful; readers will recognize themselves and others whom they know in his list. James H. Austin, on the other hand, is trying to present a thorough and exhaustive list of categories of chance, including at least one that readers may not have thought about before, to demonstrate that luck is not a totally random phenomenon.
The essays by Trillin and Austin, although very different in tone and purpose, are classical division-and-classification texts. Each writer defines his subject, lists the categories he will describe, and provides examples that illustrate each type. Both authors use a parallel structure in inventing and defining their categories. Trillin, however, proves in his confession that he embodies all four types of eaters and that his system is not mutually exclusive.
Mary Mebane’s discussion of “Shades of Black” provides not only a categorization of skin tones but also one of responses to them. Hers is a very complex essay that branches out to incorporate several classification systems as part of the analysis it provides.
Philip Lopate’s and Steven Weinberg’s division-and-classification essays demonstrate the usefulness of that writing strategy, even when it is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the categories involved. Lopate’s classification of “Modern Friendships” examines his own preference for having many good friends instead of one best friend, and Weinberg’s “Five and a Half Utopias” debunks several utopian schemes in an effort to show that the current American tax structure is nearly perfect.
Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” reveals the degree to which all of us spend our lives classifying everything in the universe—especially other people. Ruby Turpin spends much of the early portion of the story outlining her system and judging other people by its criteria. But once she is hit in the eye with a book on Human Development, she discovers the ironies in her system. Indeed, she discovers to her horror and to the reader’s amusement that “the last shall be first.”
The writing assignments assume that all students are natural classifiers: they classify restaurants, music, dates, teachers, jobs, virtually everything they encounter in their daily lives. For that reason, they could choose any subject—humorous or serious—for a classification essay. The assignments listed in the book emerge from the readings. Assignment 1 encourages students to construct a scheme for analyzing something trivial like trash, junk, or inanimate objects. Assignment 2 presents a variation on Trillin’s essay by suggesting that students classify people according to their eating habits.
Assignment 3 asks students to analyze a system that uses power positively and to answer, in effect, the negative power system outlined by Mebane. Assignment 4 asks students to apply Austin’s findings to their own experience. The final two assignments invite students to further divide one of Lopate’s categories (5) and to apply Weinberg’s point of view about inequality of wealth in society (6).
CALVIN TRILLIN “The Extendable Fork”
This essay draws on a number of Trillin’s favorite motifs. A humorist, a food writer, and an observer of the quirks and foibles of American culture, Trillin brings most of his peculiar expertise to bear on this short division and classification essay. His jubilation over the invention and marketing of “Alan’s X-Tenda Fork,” a telescoping eating utensil that reaches “nearly two feet when fully opened” would seem to suggest that the entire topic is bogus, a farce invented to launch Trillin’s expose about people who eat from others’ plates. However, the partial citation that claims that the unusual utensil was mentioned in “an item in The New York Times” reveals Trillin’s larger purpose: bringing odd behaviors and conventions of society under scrutiny.
Trillin’s confession that he embodies “all four” of the types of “people who eat off of other people’s plates” undermines his categorization; they are not really distinct types of people, just different ruses and motives for engaging in this rude behavior. The writer is probably not the only person who “might as well admit” that he or she uses all four methods of food snitching. Trillin’s is not a very useful or mutually exclusive system of categorization, but rather, an entertaining examination of how diners manage to get (even conventional) forks into one another’s plates. His purpose is to amuse readers of his syndicated newspaper column, not to extensively analyze the behaviors he catalogs.
Newspaper columns are highly contemporaneous. Often written only the day before they appear in print, their allusions tend to be very current—even borrowing from other items in the same edition of the paper. Hence, Trillin’s mentioning of the allegedly secretly married couple, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, or his allusion to the girth of political commentator Rush Limbaugh might severely date his essay in the future, but the freshness of these topical items probably delighted the column’s first readers. Obliquely, allusions to these occurrences (the wedding of the androgynous pop star and Elvis Presley’s only child, and the outrageously controversial pronouncements of Limbaugh) create a context, exemplifying the kinds of “news” stories that surrounded the advertisement featuring the extendable fork.
Along with an awareness of contemporary culture, Trillin seems to assume that he shares some common past experiences with his audience. For instance, he refers to the age-old “starving children your mothers told you about,” and his mother’s habit of telling him that he “didn’t ‘do a good job’ on the chicken” also echoes family dinner-table clichés. The humor in this essay is derived from its simple truths. Trillin’s descriptions of “The Finisher,” “The Waif,” “The Researcher,” and “The Simple Thief“ probably describe his readers or someone with whom they are in the habit of dining.
Each of Trillin’s four categories is determined by the motives and methods used by the different types of characters who “eat off other people’s plates.” For instance, “Finishers” can’t bear to see food go to waste. They attack as soon as the plate owner’s “eating begins to slacken off a bit,” polishing off last morsels and cleaning bones and shells until they look “as if [they] had been stacked out on an anthill.” A variation of “The Waif” category are “long-reach eaters,” who order very little themselves, usually “claiming that [they’re] not hungry or . . . trying to lose weight.” These eaters insinuate themselves slyly into the plates of fellow diners.
Trillin uses dialogue to typify the types of eaters he describes. “The Waif” for example, will hint around with subtle remarks such as “That looks delicious.” “Researchers,” conversely, will boldly defend their entrée taking with remarks like “I’m curious how they do these fried onions.” “The Simple Thief” contrives distractions in order to scavenge food from other diners’ dishes.
Trillin’s categories are further exemplified by a comparison and contrast of his wife’s eating habits and his own. He compares himself to “a shark . . . tearing off whatever seems exposed and easy to get at.” In spite of his wife’s apparent disdain for her husband’s habit of eating food from the plates of others, Trillin reveals that “she does not object to his sampling.” As a sort of thesis, he suggests that men test their prospective bride’s attitudes to having their plates pillaged by their husband’s forks, lest they marry a woman who would object to such behavior and engage themselves in the “long haul” of a disagreeable relationship.
Trillin strongly endorses the idea of “Alan’s X-Tenda Fork,” although he says he would have given the device a more “evocative” name. He does not invent alternative product names, but he does suggest other, complementary devices that “Alan” might choose to market, such as a “vacuum tube . . . that can suck up french fries from three feet away.” He also proposes that the next model of the “X-Tenda Fork” incorporate a “tiny tape recorder” so that the device can utter common food-snitching phrases automatically—presumably to save thieves the embarrassment of talking with their mouths full.
JAMES H. AUSTIN “Four Kinds of Chance”
Chance is often thought of “as something fortuitous that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention,” but Austin’s purpose in “Four Kinds of Chance” is to show that individuals can influence some kinds of chance. His division and classification demonstrates that “chance plays several distinct roles when humans react creatively with one another and with their environment.” The four kinds of chance identified by Austin are closely related to each other yet profoundly different in the type of intelligence, receptivity, and participation their recipients must exhibit. Chance I and II, for example, depend upon the inevitable occurrence of blind luck, but Chance III is not passive; it comes only to those who think and act, thereby increasing their ability to utilize fortuitous circumstances.
Austin groups his three kinds of chance, characterized by luck, exploration, and sagacity, as variations on serendipity, which he defines as “the facility for encountering unexpected good luck,” but altamirage, the fourth kind of chance established within Austin’s classification system, is the result of tenacious preparations. It is of a “different domain” than the other kinds of chance; it involves the highly individual area of “the personality and its actions.” Chance IV is “one-man-made,” engaging “the invisible forces of chance we know exist yet cannot touch.” Austin’s purpose in differentiating Chance IV from the other kinds of good luck is to encourage readers to follow the example of de Sautuola, pursuing peculiar interests with passion and always inviting the favor of the illusive and magnificent altamirage.
Austin organizes his categories with his audience in mind, starting with the most familiar and ending with the least-known type of chance. This arrangement causes the discussion of types to get progressively longer and the author’s tone to grow more formal as the essay develops. Austin’s presentation of Chance I is contained in a single paragraph, comprised of a one-sentence definition and a hypothetical example involving cards at a bridge table. This first kind of chance does not require much elaboration, and Austin speaks directly to his audience, addressing readers as you, because everyone is subject to blind luck and already has some experience with it.
The other forms of chance require various levels of involvement or preparation, so Austin provides successively more concrete examples to illustrate them. He does not assume that all his readers have experience with the higher forms of chance. Each category is progressively more complex; each requires more human intervention and is more difficult to define or distinguish from other categories. Therefore, each requires a more detailed example. Chance II is illustrated by the epigrammatic philosophy of automobile mogul Charles Kettering. Chance III is exemplified by the scientific experiment and process that lead Alexander Fleming to the discovery of penicillin, but the first three categories are merely background on Austin’s real discovery. Half the essay describes Don Marcelino de Sautuola’s discovery of cave paintings at Altamira and defines Chance IV within this category because of the revelation Austin wants to deliver to his audience: chance is susceptible to “subtle personal prompting.” Readers of this essay can act to improve their chances of receiving good luck.
Austin’s strategy involves arranging his four categories in an emphatic order to build evidence for his thesis that chance is affected by human intervention. His first category involves “blind luck,” which occurs naturally as a matter of mathematical probability without any human interference. Chance II requires only action, a relentless collision with fate that is bound to produce some good luck. What Louis Pasteur called “the prepared mind” is the prerequisite for Chance III, and ability to recognize and use good fortune when it serendipitously arises. Altamirage, or Chance IV, is the result of a life well spent. Peculiar to the individual, it occurs as the culmination of a series of unintentional but passionately executed activities.
Austin cites authorities to verify each of his more complex categories; he quotes Kettering, Pasteur, and Disraeli. He also makes frequent use of comparisons to describe his abstract subjects. Thus, Chance II is likened with stirring up a pot, and IV is described as sharing qualities with a mirage. Because the differences between his categories are subtle, Austin groups them together, explaining that Chance I and II require only minimal human involvement and that two of the first three classes of chance are variations of serendipity. These subdivisions emphasize the singularity of Chance IV, a discovery that may result from altamirage—the culmination of Austin’s own interest and creative pursuit of chance.
MARY MEBANE “Shades of Black”
The relationship between color and power in America is widely acknowledged, but the subtle gradations of shade among African-Americans examined in Mebane’s essay are not often discussed openly in print. Mebane reveals that some of the most overt prejudice against blacks comes from within members of their own race. She argues that vestiges of “the segregated world,” where “power was thought of in negative terms” and “the concept of power as a force for good . . . was not in evidence,” remain in African-American culture where lighter-skinned blacks often assume dominance over their darker-skinned counterparts. Mebane recounts examples of lighter-skinned blacks making damaging assumptions about “black black” women, such as the college English instructor who informs her of her high verbal score on a placement exam. Although the instructor doesn’t say so, Mebane realizes that the light-skinned teacher is wondering, “How could this black-skinned girl score higher on the verbal [examination] than some of the students who’ve had more advantages than she?”
More disturbing, however, is the tendency Mebane isolates of oppressed peoples to identify with their oppressors, adopting and enforcing the very codes that hold them down. She cites the example of a school teacher who “was just as black as she could be,” but who remained “a strict enforcer” of the culture’s skin tone “standards.” Among Black males, particularly college-educated men, prejudice against dark-skinned women is apparent, according to Mebane. But her most alarming evidence of the painful ramifications of categorizing people by skin tones are the black black women who accept the stereotype and fall prey to “total self-rejection.” These women, Mebane says, think of themselves as “. . . black, . . . ugly, . . . nobody” and adopt the stance that they “will perform on the level” that society has “assigned” to them. Mebane, herself a dark-skinned black woman, pleads with African-American men and women to reject the cultural standard of dismissing black black persons as less intelligent or less attractive.
This essay is of interest to a wide variety of readers, many of whom will want to take the opportunity to confront their own skin tone prejudices. However, Mebane’s primary audience for this piece seems to be black readers, those who can identify with the examples she gives from primarily black school settings, and whose attitudes she directly confronts. Her opening statements about “gross abuses of authority” in the “segregated world” define her audience as black readers. The essay confronts the attitudes of light-skinned black women, dark-skinned black women, teachers in primarily black schools, black black African-American men, college-educated black men, uneducated black men, and, finally, black black women themselves. She is attempting to change the assumptions and behaviors of all of these groups of people.
Mebane examines the problem of skin tone prejudice historically. She wonders whether “African men recently transported to the New World considered . . . African women beautiful in comparison with Native American Indian women or immigrant European women,” and she suggests that discovering the cultural turning point when African men turned their “interest away from black black women” would “prove to be an interesting topic for researchers.” She notes that during the 1960s, when “black had become beautiful,” skin tone became a less overt “handicap” for black black women, and explains that today, when she meets college-educated black men, she tries to “gauge” their ages. According to Mebane, college-educated black males born before 1945 retain prejudice that is not as severe among their younger counterparts.
Several classification systems organize this essay. For instance, Mebane explains that “social class and color were the primary criteria used in determining [students’] status on the campus” at the university she attended. She outlines the campus social structure, which included “first . . . the children of doctors, lawyers, and college teachers,” then the offspring of “public-school teachers, businessmen, and anybody else who had access to . . . money,” and, finally there were the children “of the working class,” who comprised “the bulk of the student population.” Black people are classified by skin tones throughout the essay; shades of black identified by Mebane include “black black,” “caramel-brown,” “light brown,” “reddish yellow,” “light skinned,” and that shade that “was indistinguishable in color from . . . white.”
Mebane also classifies responses to dark-skinned black women. Among African-American men, she notes that college-educated individuals born before 1945 seem to hold black black women in the lowest esteem, followed by uneducated black men of the same generation. Younger college-educated black males respond to her more favorably, but “oddly enough” it is “the lighter-skinned black male” who does not “seem to feel so much prejudice toward the black black woman.”
The most poignant classification system described in the essay is the manifestations of color prejudice among dark-skinned African-American women. Some adopt the attitude that “they are nothing but ‘sex machines,’” and spend their lives practicing and boasting about their “supposedly superior sexual performance.” Others “swing all the way across to intense religiosity,” working in “the more traditional Southern Churches—Baptist and Methodist,” or become “leaders and ministers” in the “evangelical Holiness sects.” A third group devote their lives to “excellence in a career,” and, according to Mebane, most of these black black women become teachers. All of these responses to skin tone prejudice are methods of compensating for society’s scorn. Sexuality, religiosity, or career excellence become, for these women, “their sole reason for being and for esteeming themselves.” Readers will easily infer that Mebane herself belongs to the last of these classifications of black black women.
PHILIP LOPATE “Modern Friendships”
As Lopate notes in his introduction, the topic of friendship is such a perennial favorite among essay writers that each wants to prove himself on the topic. In this essay, though, Lopate asserts that he has a legitimate reason for adding to the body of work on the topic: the nature of friendship has changed in modern times. He concedes that “Aristotle and Cicero, Seneca and Montaigne, Bacon and Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Lamb” have all chipped away at the topic, and he quotes five of these nine authors in the course of his own examination of friendship. He agrees in part with each of the predecessors he cites and offers evidence from their work to strengthen his own positions, but he also quibbles with their suppositions, reinterpreting each with a modern twist.
Lopate hopes to disabuse his readers of the notion that having a “best friend” is essential, or even wise. He argues that modern relationships require pluralistic friendships. Because it is impossible to see completely “eye to eye” with another person, Lopate suggests that a best friendship puts too much burden on participants to reach consensus. He also notes that we have a tendency to want to “improve” our friends, making them more punctual, personable, or perspicuous, and so we should simply choose a variety of friends, each with qualities we would hope to find in an ideal best friend. Believing that “friends can’t be your family,” Lopate answers the “question that has vexed many commentators,” including Aristotle and Cicero, when he says that a coterie of friends is best. Interestingly, Lopate reveals in the essay that he is a “bachelor” who must “fight to overcome the feeling that [he is] being ‘replaced’ by the spouse” whenever one of his friends marries. Readers might wonder if his “serial friendship” theory would hold if he met someone he wanted to marry.
Although Lopate expects that his readers will recognize the prominence of the nine essayists he names who have written notably on the topic of friendship before him, he does not expect that his readers will know exactly what each has said. He tactfully brings his audience up to speed on the subject by summarizing Aristotle’s three types of friendship, quoting from Cicero’s treatise on the topic, judging Montaigne’s thoughts on friendship “a bit high hat,” and enlarging upon Emerson’s notion of friendship as conversation. Each time he introduces a new subject, he quotes from some of the writers he has acknowledged as his predecessors.
Noting that “the personal essay is itself an attempt to establish a friendship on the page between writer and reader,” Lopate reveals that he likes to have his friends function as confidantes who remain focused on their conversations. Naturally, then, he confides in his readers, telling us that a memorable experience from his childhood involved being cuddled by his younger sister and that he once “found [himself] in a state of emotional despair,” and having “exhausted [his] hopes of finding love or success,” he actually “felt suicidal.” Lopate defines the “Friendship Scene” as “a flow of shared confidences, recognitions, humor, advice, speculation, even wisdom,” all of which occur in the pages of his essay.
A variety of classification systems form the structure of this essay. At first, Lopate classifies the types of friendships that occur as human beings grow into adults: “basic” or “family” friendships like the one he enjoyed but outgrew with his sister, possessive grade-school friendships like the one that ended when he slept “with [his] best friend’s girl,” and the pluralistic friendships that result when one abandons the “Best Friend expectation.” He also classifies the problems to which modern pluralistic friendships fall prey: the “need for consensus” that he experienced with an unnamed female friend, clashes of character, the infrequency of face-to-face meetings with friends due to “tight schedules,” and conflicts with controlling or married friends. Finally, he lists the qualities “that characterize the best friendships”: “rapport, affection, need, habit, and forgiveness,” saying that the greatest of these is forgiveness.
Lopate ends his examination of modern friendship with three specific examples from his own experience. He tells about Richard, a “dear old friend,” who, nonetheless, is embarrassed by his friend’s “confessional talk” and Charlie, who “is often very distracted” during the first half-hour of any meeting but eventually settles down to listen to “virtually anything” and responds with “candor.” It is Michael, however, whom Lopate describes as “a close writer friend,” who seems to embody all that he is looking for in a friend: he is frank and intent, telling Lopate about a friend who is dying of AIDS and listening to Lopate’s concerns about his father’s poor health. It is with Michael that Lopate can “[dwell] long enough in the shared privacies of [their] psyches.” To the reader, it may seem like Michael would be a candidate for “best friend” if Lopate believed in that sort of thing.
STEVEN WEINBERG “Five and a Half Utopias”
Utopias promise to be ideal civilizations where no citizen is left wanting, no one is overworked, and human beings are allowed to reach their maximum potential as artists, thinkers, or scientists. However, a utopia is a theoretical construct; it has not succeeded in the real world, although it has been attempted on various scales ranging from Brook Farm to Stalin’s socialist republic. Steven Weinberg’s assessment of several proposed utopian societies demonstrates that each vision is fraught with problems. For instance, the “Free Market Utopia” promises equality among human beings, which Weinberg believes has never been achieved and is not really preferable because life is inherently unequal, inequality regulates production and resources in the market, and civilization (particularly the arts and sciences) requires government subsidies to survive. Similarly the “Best and Brightest Utopia” would not work because autocratic governments have not been as successful as democratic ones. The “Religious Utopia” would fail because people would not stand for having their private lives dictated by a ruling power. The “Green Utopia” could not sustain our present population size, and the “Technological Utopia” is limited by physical reality.
Ultimately, Weinberg is arguing against proposed tax cuts and reforms that he believes will destroy America’s aid to the poor and support of the arts and sciences. The one, or one-half, utopia that he doesn’t debunk is the “Civilized Egalitarian Capitalist Utopia,” which essentially describes the United States under current tax laws. He argues, like Tuzenbach from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, that in a thousand years “life will be the same.” Because it is not feasible to “really [change] the way we live,” Weinberg suggests that we accept the utopia we have made already.
Weinberg starts his essay by recalling the science fiction he read as a boy. Clearly, he knows a great many utopian stories and essays from different centuries and cultures, and he does not expect that all of his readers will be familiar with the texts he draws upon. He deftly summarizes works by George Orwell, Thomas More, Aldous Huxley, Karl Marx, Plato, Edward Bellamy, Lee Kuan Yew, Alexis de Tocqueville, H. G. Wells, W. S. Gilbert, Ursula Le Guin, William Morris, Vaclav Havel, and Arthur C. Clarke. For example, he tells readers, “Morris excluded modern technology from his utopia not only because he was in love with the Middle Ages but also because he wanted to preserve work for people to do.” Weinberg seems to expect that his readers will be familiar with recent political history as he alludes to Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, and Steve Forbes’s or Herbert Stein’s conservative agendas for American civilization.
As one who knew from childhood that he “was going to be a scientist,” Weinberg makes a seemingly detached, clinical analysis of each type of utopia he introduces. Notice, however, that he is careful to defend funding for scientific research, and denounces Utopian schemes that would threaten it. He complains that a free market utopia would not value “the search for the fundamental laws of nature or for the origins of the universe or of life—research that cannot be justified by foreseeable economic benefits.” The nontechnological utopias threaten Weinberg’s profession because “hostility to technology also promotes hostility to science.” Even the Chekhov quotation that he reproduces near the end of the essay predicts a future in which science has made it possible for people to “fly in balloons” or discover and develop “a sixth sense.”
The five and one-half utopias examined in this essay are not an exhaustive categorization of utopian schemes by any means. In truth, they are the sorts of utopias that are embraced by politicians and government leaders. Weinberg’s list includes those utopian visions that threaten to alter America’s support of nonprofit institutions, including “museums, symphony orchestras, hospitals, universities, research laboratories and charities of all sorts.” The first five utopian civilizations that Weinberg analyzes threaten to “[abandon] one or more of the grand causes.” Ironically, even the “Technological Utopia,” in which “everyone [might] become an artist,” would destroy the arts and sciences because “the great majority of writers, composers, painters, and sculptors would spend their lives without having anyone else notice their work.” In Weinberg’s final utopian scheme, “those who receive a high income . . . [would] give much of it to museums, universities, and other institutions of their choice.” Described that way, our own system of taxation does sound utopian.
Weinberg starts his discussion of each utopia with a short description (in italics) of its promises or projected characteristics. Then, he refutes that rose-colored view of civilization with pragmatic concerns. For example, under the “Green Utopia,” the description says that “small communities grow their own food,” but Weinberg points out that a “nontechnological utopia” most likely could not “support the same population as [our society can] at present.” Weinberg’s refutations of the claims of utopian thinkers reinforces his translation of the Greek word “utopia” as “ou + topos, meaning ‘no place.’”
Even those who live in the present-day American “modest utopia,” the “Civilized Egalitarian Capitalist Utopia,” still dream of finding their utopia. Perhaps the chief quality of any utopia is that it does not exist.
FLANNERY O’CONNOR “Revelation”
The action in O’Connor’s story “Revelation” teaches Ruby Turpin the most basic tenet of human worth: that all people, white or black, poor or rich, sullen or jovial, religious or insane, are fundamentally equal—in the eyes of God. Even Ruby’s imagined consultation with Jesus, in which he takes her aside and explains, “There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,” acknowledges that the soul is independent of earthly identity. The soul, in this case, is Ruby’s own, and her game of “what if” recognizes that her superior status in life results from the grace of Jesus, whom she, ironically, imagines speaking in the discriminatory terms of “nigger” and “white-trash.” She praises Jesus for making her “a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman” (albeit a fat one) and for giving her a good disposition.
In spite of her obsession with categorizing people and trying to establish a hierarchy among classes of humans, Ruby considers herself unbigoted in her magnanimousness. She muses that “to help anybody out that needed it [is] her philosophy of life. She never [spares] herself when she [finds] somebody in need, whether they [are] white or black, trash or decent.” Ruby’s thoughts reveal her fundamental prejudices; the purpose of O’Connor’s story is to expose the deep-rooted bigotry that motivates some of society’s most pious citizens.
The story is humorous. As fiction, its purpose is to entertain. Perhaps the most enjoyable scene in the story occurs when Ruby is repaid in kind for her false flattery. Ruby, who has complained that she is sure “tired of buttering up niggers,” confesses humiliation, which she could not show her husband Claud, to the cotton pickers. The hyperbole of their response is pure comedy, as one black woman assures Ruby, “You the sweetest white lady I know,” and another tops that with “Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her!”
O’Connor’s audience sees through Ruby’s hypocritical selflessness almost immediately when she makes a show of insisting that Claud take the only empty chair in the waiting room. Readers are struck, too, by Ruby’s unnatural preoccupation with classifying her fellow human beings. O’Connor assumes that her audience perceives religion and social equality much differently than Ruby does; the story’s humor and plot depend on that. For instance, Ruby’s superior, self-congratulatory attitude, at least in part, provokes Mary Grace’s attack. As Ruby claims more and more moral high ground for herself, the girl’s indignant responses escalate from simply looking up from her Human Development text to heaving the book and lunging at the throat of the source of her anger. Ruby, Claud, the doctor, others in the waiting room, and even the cotton pickers all ascribe Mary Grace’s behavior to insanity, but O’Connor’s readers are aware that the girl’s disturbed response, although inappropriate, is intentionally directed at Ruby.
Readers of the story can adopt different points of view, unlike Ruby, who is too well satisfied with her own perceptions to consider the focus or validity of others’. Ironically, most all of the characters in the story perceive themselves to be better than some other group represented, and many assume that they are better than Ruby herself. The empty flattery of the cotton pickers and of Mary Grace’s mother, who assures Ruby, “Oh, you aren’t fat,” implies a condoning superiority. The white trash woman’s remarks indicate her grandiose self-perception, and even the casual demeanor of the pharmacy delivery boy is indicative of his self-centered world view. Only the common, aptly named Claud is self-deprecating in his comments and behavior.
Division and classification order Ruby’s world. She starts categorizing the people at the doctor’s office immediately. They are variously old, stylish, white trash, common, and ugly. Ruby also assesses people’s clothes and shoes as an indication of their social worth. “Without appearing to,” O’Connor explains, “Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet.” As this demonstrates, Ruby’s categories are not mutually exclusive. She tries to place her system of social classes into a hierarchic order, beginning with “most colored people” at the “bottom of the heap” and “next to them—not above, just away from” are “white-trash,” followed by “home-owners, then home-and-land owners,” followed by “people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.” But her system always fails her because she realizes that some rich people are entirely too “common,” and some “good” people have lost their money, and some black people (such as the dentist who owns two red Lincolns, a swimming pool, and a farm) “own their homes and land as well.”
It galls Ruby that the white-trash woman in the doctor’s office does not recognize her place in this ill-conceived hierarchy; she believes that she is better than blacks and wants to “send all them niggers back to Africa.” She thanks “Gawd” that she “ain’t a lunatic.” But she really angers Ruby when she presumes to place herself above the Turpins by announcing, “Two thangs I ain’t going to do: love no niggers or scoot down no hog with no hose.”
Three visionlike experiences comprise Ruby’s lesson in human worth. The first is her old dream that usually follows her bedtime contemplations of social order. Its persecution imagery includes all the classes of people crowded in the same boxcar bound for a gas oven. This succeeds only in confusing Ruby, whose private caste system does not really begin to break down until Human Development hits her squarely in the head. Alone in the “pig parlor,” she implores God to explain the significance of Mary Grace’s epithet. She sees Claud’s truck, ferrying the cotton pickers home in the “transparent intensity” of the evening light and imagines the truck smashed by a bigger truck, leaving “Claud’s and the niggers’ brains all over the road.” This gruesome equality is possible in death. As the evening sky darkens, Ruby perceives a vision of what is to come. A streak of light appears to connect the field and heavens, conveying souls to afterlife. The souls are arranged according to earthly social groups, but they are without earthly attributes; “even their virtues [are] being burned away.” Ruby’s acceptance of this higher order is apparent as she walks back to her house, the voices of crickets, like the hallelujahs of the souls, in her ears. Perhaps her faith wasn’t hypocritical after all.