Mrs. Turpin and her husband, Claud, enter the waiting room at a doctor's office, where they have come to treat the ulcer on Claud's leg. There is nowhere for Mrs. Turpin to sit because a dirty child is taking up too much space on the sofa. Mrs. Turpin immediately starts a mindless conversation with the only other woman in the room whom she deems worthy, judging by appearance. This woman, who is dressed stylishly and whom Mrs. Turpin considers to be pleasant, is the mother of an extremely unattractive, fat, teenage girl who is reading a book called Human Development and scowling. This girl is Mary Grace.
Mrs. Turpin sizes up the other occupants of the waiting room, including a white-trash woman, who is the mother of the dirty boy. Mrs. Turpin thanks Jesus, as she often does at night before falling asleep, that she is not white-trashy or black. She considers the classes of people in the world to be distinguished by race and by whether or not they own a home and land. She begins to feel sorry for Mary Grace because she is so homely, though Mary Grace has been looking up from her book only to smirk at Mrs. Turpin. All of sudden, the girl seems to lose patience and slams her book shut to stare directly at Mrs. Turpin "as if she had some special reason for disliking her."
The conversation between Mrs. Turnpin and Mary Grace's mother turns to farming, and Mrs. Turpin says that she and Claud own a home and land and have hogs which they keep in a pen so their feet don't get dirty; they keep them clean by hosing them down. The white-trash woman expresses her distaste at the idea of owning hogs. A black delivery boy enters with a delivery for the doctor's office, and Mrs. Turpin deliberately shows him kindness. Mary Grace continues to show signs of losing patience with the conversation as her mother, Mrs. Turpin, and the white-trash woman discuss the possibility of sending all black Americans back to Africa. Again, Mrs. Turpin feels thankful that Jesus has made her white and privileged, and all of a sudden Mary Grace's stare becomes more intense and violent, as if she can read Mrs. Turpin's mind.
Mrs. Turpin reacts by trying to engage Mary Grace in conversation about college and the book she is reading, but Mary Grace refuses to participate. Instead, her mother talks about how ungrateful she is and what a shame it is that she has such a bad disposition. Mrs. Turpin responds that she is always grateful for making her life the way it is, and exclaims aloud, "Thank you, Jesus!" At that point, Mary Grace hurls her book at Mrs. Turpin's face and physically attacks her, strangling her neck. Almost immediately, she is pulled off and falls on the floor, where she lies with her eyes rolling in her head. Mrs. Turpin asks, "What you got to say to me?" and Mary Grace responds, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog." Soon, Mary Grace and her mother leave in an ambulance and Mrs. Turpin and Claud go home.
They spend the afternoon lying in bed resting, and while Claud sleeps, Mrs. Turpin fixates on what the girl said to her. She cries at first, but then gets angry that she should be the target of this message, since there were so many other, lesser people in the room to whom it could have been directed. Before Claud takes the black farmhands home in the pick-up truck, Mrs. Turpin brings them ice cold water to drink. Mrs. Turpin confides in them what happened, but when they react with sympathy and compliments she only becomes annoyed since she knows they are insincere.
Before they have finished drinking, she goes back into the kitchen and decides to go to the pig parlor. She tries to justify their existence in her mind, thinking about how smart they are and all that they can do. She sends Claud on his way to take the farm hands home in the pick-up truck, and grabs the hose to spray down the hogs. She asks God why he sent her such a message, and is unable to understand how she can be "saved and from hell too." She addresses God and Mary Grace at the same time, revealing her disdain for white-trash and black people. Then she challenges God, saying, "Go on, call me a hog again... Who do you think you are?" Immediately, she has a vision.
A She sees a streak of light extending upward into the sky, surrounded by fire, like a bridge. A horde of people advances from the earth toward Heaven, but in the front are all those whom Mrs. Turpin considers below herself: white-trash, now clean, black people, and "freaks and lunatics" like Mary Grace seems to be. At the end of the procession are people like her and Claud, who have been stripped of their earthly virtues (like kindness to those they consider to be inferiors). The vision reveals to her that all people are equal in God's eyes, and she is successfully moved.
Mary Grace's name marks her clearly as the symbol of grace in the story. Though Mrs. Turpin is already "saved" because of her Christian faith, she needs a revelation from Mary Grace to realize that her world view is inconsistent with her Christianity. Mrs. Turpin asks Mary Grace, during her seizure, "What you got to say to me?" and waits, "as for a revelation." This question reflects Mrs. Turpin's self-absorbed nature, since rather than feeling concern for the girl's health she is focused on how the girl's actions and attitude relate to her. But it also implies that Mrs. Turpin recognizes Mary Grace's closeness to God in that moment, and her desire for a revelation (which she receives, though it is bizarre and not what she expected). These words inspire Mrs. Turpin's revelation at the end of the story, when she sees herself, Claud, and those of equal socioeconomic status bringing up the rear of the procession to Heaven. Though they are saved, they must follow those whom Mrs. Turpin has considered beneath her.
Mary Grace's eyes are particularly important as symbols of her judgment of Mrs. Turpin and of her ability to communicate a message from God. She has violent eyes that seem "alternately to smolder and to blaze." When she begins to lose patience with her mother and with Mrs. Turpin, she slams her book shut and stares violently at Mrs. Turpin. Her eyes "seemed lit all of a sudden with a peculiar light, an unnatural light like night road signs give." This comparison to road signs in the night hints at the girl's ability to send an important, guiding revelation to Mrs. Turpin. As Mrs. Turpin thinks about the uselessness of helping people like the white-trash woman, Mary Grace's "eyes fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them." Immediately preceding the revelation, however, "The girl's eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air." This openness is what allows the revelation to happen.
The sun and sky are important symbols for O'Connor, and here they indicate the stages of Mrs. Turpin's acceptance and understanding of the revelation. Before she tells the black farm hands what Mary Grace said to her, as she thinks about it, "the sun was getting whiter and whiter, blanching the sky overhead so that the leaves of the hickory tree were black in the face of it." As she walks toward the hog pen to wash down the animals, "The sun was a deep yellow now like a harvest moon and was riding westward very fast over the far tree line as if it meant to reach the hogs before she did." It is as if the sun is God, hoping to reveal to Mrs. Turpin the error of her ways before it is too late. The sun is personified again as Mrs. Turpin sprays down the hogs angrily, before her revelation:" The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs." With this comparison, it is clear that the sun is meant to represent God, and that Mrs. Turpin, as well as other humans, are like hogs in many ways.
In many of her stories, O'Connor compares people to animals. Here, Mary Grace calls Mrs. Turpin a wart hog, and the comparison weighs heavily on Mrs Turpin's mind. She marches to the pig parlor in a determined way, as if to confront God's revelation in front of the animals to whom she has been compared. The white-trash woman's disdainful words haunt her: "A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin." Mrs. Turpin sprays down the hogs violently, as if trying to wash away her own sins by cleaning her animals. She is like the hogs, below humans, because she is unable to see that all people are equal before God.
Racism, a common theme in O'Connor's stories, is very evident in Mrs. Turpin's view of the world. Though she prides herself for being kind to her black farmhands, she considers them to be idiots. In considering the classes of people, she puts black people "on the bottom of the heap," at the same level as white-trash people, but separate. But the white-trash woman in the waiting room is also racist, and considers herself to be above black people. When Mrs. Turpin complains that black people don't want to pick cotton anymore because "they got to be right up there with the white folks," the white-trash woman interjects, "They gonna try anyways," and after the black errand boy leaves, the white-trash woman comments that all black people should be sent back to Africa where they came from.