The story is told in third-person but from the point of view of the child, who is a homely twelve-year-old girl. Her second cousins, Joanne and Susan, are visiting from their convent school, Mount St. Scholastica, for the weekend. The child's mother asks her daughter for some suggestions about how to entertain the two fourteen-year-old cousins during their visit, and the child petulantly suggests a visit from Mr. Cheatam, the boyfriend of their boarder, Miss Kirby. This is a ridiculous idea, since Cheat would not be pleasing to the girls at all, and the child has purposefully suggested it to make fun of Miss Kirby.
Susan and Joanne joke about how Sister Perpetua has instructed them to defend themselves against would-be wooers by saying, "Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!" But the child's mother doesn't get the joke; she confirms that they are in fact, temples of the holy ghost. The child likes that idea, and considers that she, too, could be one. The child makes the legitimate suggestion that the neighborhood boys Wendell and Cory Wilkins could come visit to entertain Susan and Joanne, and the mother agrees that that is a good plan.
The next day, Wendell and Cory come to visit and the girls immediately begin to giggle. The child watches the action by standing on a barrel hidden in the bushes as Wendell begins to sing to the girls. He sings simple songs about Christ, including The Old Rugged Cross, and when he is finished, the girls make fun of him by responding with their own songs in Latin. Wendell and Cory are not Catholic, they are members of the Church of God, so they don't recognize the Latin words and conclude that it "must be Jew singing." As the girls giggle, the child betrays her hiding place by shouting, "You big dumb ox!" and falling off the barrel.
The child does not eat dinner with Susan, Joanne, Cory, and Wendell, instead hiding in the kitchen to eat with the cook. After dinner, the four older children leave for the fair, but the child is too proud to ask to accompany them. She stays in her bedroom and daydreams about one day becoming a saint. However, she worries that she might be too afraid to withstand martyrdom by some horrible method. Finally she gets into bed and says her prayers, thanking God that she is not in the Church of God like Wendell and Cory.
The child is awoken by the return of Susan and Joanne, and she asks them about what they saw at the fair. They tell her that some things they can't explain to her because she is too young, but she eventually convinces them to reveal that they have seen a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite showed them its genitals, saying, "God made me thisaway... and I ain't disputing His way." The child doesn't understand what a hermaphrodite is, but she falls asleep imagining the hermaphrodite repeating, "I am a temple of the Holy Ghost, Amen."
The next morning, the child and her mother accompany the girls back to the convent as Alonzo Meyers drives them in his taxi. When they arrive, a nun embraces the child's mother, but the child refuses to be embraced. She is in a bad mood, and thinks cynically, "You put your foot in their door and they got you praying." They follow the nun into the chapel and the child kneels down, still thinking "ugly thoughts," until all at once she realizes that she is in God's presence. She begins to pray for God to help her not to be "so mean," and to not sass back to her mother.
As the priest raises the host, which represents the body of Christ, during the ceremony, the child remembers the hermaphrodite saying, "I don't dispute it. This is the way He wanted me to be." As the child and her mother leave the convent, the child allows herself to be kissed by the nun, and doesn't mind that the nun's crucifix is mashed into the side of her face. On the drive home, Alonzo reports that the fair has been shut down because some preachers from town protested it to the police.
The hermaphrodite represents an acceptance of God's will, and has clearly achieved Grace by not questioning its situation. Susan and Joanne witness the show by the hermaphrodite at the fair, and later tell the child about it when they are all in bed. O'Connor herself suffered from lupus, a crippling disease that resulting in the loss of the use of her legs and eventually her death. This story demonstrates a sympathy for "freaks," as this hermaphrodite is called at the fair, and a respect for accepting the lot you are dealt in life. O'Connor wrote of the story in a letter, "As near as I get to saying what purity is in this story is saying that it is an acceptance of what God wills for us and acceptance of our individual circumstances." In fact, the hermaphrodite's body is certainly a temple of the holy ghost in the mind of the child: as she watches the priest raise the host, which in the Catholic faith is believed to literally become the body of Christ, she remembers the hermaphrodite's words.
The child, who is on the surface ornery, suffers from a prideful disposition. She does not ask to go to the fair with the older children, and decides that even if they asked her she would not accompany them because she is too proud. But O'Connor gives the reader insight into the workings of the child's mind, and it is revealed that she strives for Grace, even considering a saintly death to be her calling. There is a tension in the child's mind between her "ugly thoughts" and the knowledge that she is a temple of the holy ghost, and in the end, the sun represents the triumph of Grace in the child's being.
The fact that the child remains nameless is significant, since it implies that the child could represent children everywhere, at least in her ability to observe and absorb influences and details. The child can also be interpreted as a representation of O'Connor herself, since the author often described herself in letters as socially awkward and lacking grace. Like a comic author might, the child makes cynical judgments about the intelligence of those who surround her, concluding that she is much more intelligent and faithful. But it is only at the end of the story, when she lets go of her pride and allows herself to be wrapped up in the experience of the Catholic mass, that she achieves Grace.
The sun is a symbol of Catholic faith in this story, and its intensity mirrors the characters' embodiment of that faith. After Wendell sings to the girls, they use the Latin songs they have practiced at school to make him and Cory feel confused and embarrassed; accordingly, "The sun was going down and the sky was turning a bruised violet color." After the child has achieved Grace in the chapel of the convent school, during the drive home, "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." The Host, which Catholics like O'Connor believe is literally transformed into the body of Christ, is also linked to the hermaphrodite's body when the child thinks of the "freak" during the mass ceremony.
Wendell and Cory, who are not Catholic, are baffled by Susan and Joanne's beautiful Latin singing. The child calls out, "You big dumb ox!" and the animal similes used by O'Connor corroborate this view of the boys. "They sat like monkeys" on the porch banisters while the girls sit together in the swing, and while Wendell sings his simple Church of God songs to the girls, "He looked at Susan with a dog-like loving look." Perhaps this characterization is meant to point out the deficiencies of the Church of God as compared to the Catholic church in the child's mind; in fact, she later fervently thanks God for having her not be a member of the Church of God.