Literature Study GuidesEverything That Rises Must ConvergeEverything That Rises Must Converge Summary

Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Everything That Rises Must Converge | Summary

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Summary

Recently graduated from college, Julian lives with his mother while he gets himself established. He resents her, although she has been his sole and constant support since he was a child. She, however, feels no resentment toward him, only love and pride. In his guilt Julian thinks "he could have stood his lot better if she had been selfish ... an old hag who drank and screamed at him." He has agreed to take her to a weight-reduction class downtown. She has high blood pressure and must lose 20 pounds. She does not like to ride the bus alone at night since public transportation has been integrated. Julian's mother leaves the house wearing a hideous and costly purple and green hat she recently bought. She takes it off outside, saying she will return it to the store, but Julian insists she wear it, saying he likes it but thinking it looks "pathetic." She tells him the sales person told her, "You won't meet yourself coming and going" in that hat.

Julian dislikes his mother's conservative and racist views of life, which have not changed with current events. She still identifies with her patrician Southern roots, even though she now lives in a run-down part of town. "If you know who you are, you can go anywhere," she tells her son. The others in her weight-reduction class are "not our kind of people," but she is gracious to them. Resenting her condescension and pretense, Julian viciously retorts that her classmates "don't give a damn for your graciousness," and that she hasn't "the foggiest idea" where she stands or who she is now. She recalls Julian's great-grandfather had "a plantation and two hundred slaves." Nowadays black people should "rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence," she says. The two continue to bicker, and the narrator notes the mansion of past years his mother repeatedly talks about remains a strong image in Julian's mind, since he unfavorably compares the squalid living quarters of his childhood with the picture of "threadbare elegance" his mother has painted. She, on the other hand, has easily adjusted to her change of station.

On the bus Julian's mother begins a conversation with another white woman who says of the new black riders, "I come on the other day and they were thick as fleas—up front and all through." The comment further infuriates Julian, whose anger is continually simmering at his mother's struggle to be a Southern lady without having the financial means to carry it off. And he is further infuriated when his mother begins to discuss him and his job selling typewriters. Julian hates her for "enjoy[ing] the struggle" and thinking "she had won," meaning Julian has turned out intelligent and good looking, with a future ahead of him, although he doesn't believe in his future. He is proud he has not been "blinded by love for her as she was for him" and believes he sees her with "complete objectivity."

When a large, well-dressed black man boards the bus and sits down next to the woman his mother has been talking with, the woman moves away. Julian then sits next to the black man. As his mother looks at him with reproach, he feels as though "he could with pleasure have slapped her as he would have slapped a particularly obnoxious child in his charge." He tries, not for the first time, to get friendly with a black stranger. In a show of his lack of prejudice, Julian "tried to strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types ... that looked like professors or ministers or lawyers," the narrator says. Julian fantasizes about how he could annoy his mother by bringing home a black woman. But such actions, however justified, would get his mother's blood pressure to "rise to 300."

After the black man gets off the bus, a large black woman and child board. The child sits next to Julian's mother, and the woman sits next to Julian, who notices the woman and his mother are wearing identical hats. He is elated because "fate has thrust upon his mother such a lesson." Julian's mother smiles at the child, but the black woman gets angry when the child begins interacting with this white stranger. At one point she snatches the child and slaps him across the leg, telling him to behave. Julian's mother remains oblivious to the woman's outrage and continues to play "peek-a-boo" with the child. At the next stop both woman and child get off, along with Julian and his mother. As per her usual behavior, Julian's mother reaches into her purse to give the child a coin and comes up with a shiny penny. Julian tries to stop her, but she ignores him and presses the coin on the child. The black woman explodes with rage, hitting Julian's mother, who falls to the ground, and shouting, "He don't take nobody's pennies."

Julian tries to get his mother off the ground, but not before telling her she got what she deserved. He finally gets her to stand up, but she's breathing hard and doesn't seem to know him. She walks away and he follows. "That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies," he scolds. Her "old world is gone," he continues, while thinking "bitterly of the house that had been lost for him." He continues to pursue and harangue his mother as she walks quickly. When he finally catches her arm, she says, "Tell Grandpa to come and get me," and he realizes something terrible has happened. "Mother ... Darling sweetheart, wait!" he says. She crumbles on the pavement while he calls, "Mamma, Mamma!" He runs toward some lights to get help, but they drift into the darkness, as "the tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postpone ... his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow."

Analysis

Julian and his mother, who is never named, are the protagonists of "Everything That Rises Must Converge," a story told by a third-person narrator, who sees events from Julian's perspective. At the end of the story, the narrator steps out of Julian's consciousness to inform readers that Julian is about to enter "a world of guilt and sorrow" because his mother will die from the stroke, or heart attack, and he is at least partially at fault. He continues to taunt her after the woman knocks her down, and at the very least he is existentially responsible for being glad the black woman punished his mother for her sin of bigotry. "Don't think that was just an uppity Negro woman," he says. "That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies." He calls the angry woman his mother's "black double," who can wear the same hat as his mother and look better in it than she does. It's best for his mother to get used to the idea that "the old world is gone." Even as he insists on this corrective, he thinks "bitterly of the house that had been lost to him" and says maliciously, "You aren't who you think you are."

But more to the point is that Julian himself is not who he thinks he is. First, he is angry at his mother for his own helplessness. He is living with her because he is still unable to establish himself in a job or profession. Instead of being grateful for her support, which she provided without resentment, she has become a constant reminder of his dependence. If Julian had some humility, he could acknowledge his debt without feeling diminished. But he suffers from the sin of pride, or excessive self-regard. Julian is also angry at his mother for her sin of pride: her Southern heritage, which includes having no qualms about her grandfather's ownership of 200 slaves. Flannery O'Connor's story takes place in the early 1960s, shortly after the buses in the South were integrated, and Julian's mother fears riding alone at night in close proximity to black people. She is a racist, but more immediately, a middle-aged Southern woman clinging to a familiar way of life. That she has no name and is identified only in relationship to her son casts her as a "type" in O'Connor's fiction—the genteel Southern woman who wishes to hold on to a culture that is disappearing and who is the loving mother of an ungrateful adult child.

Julian despises her for her nostalgia, but he is a hypocrite in that he himself longs for the "old plantation" he has never seen, with its "threadbare elegance." He resents having grown up in "squalid living quarters," in comparison to this idealized homestead of his mother's childhood. But while she has long ago accepted the change in her economic circumstances, Julian has never done so. She is a widow who has "struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and put him through school," yet he thinks of her as "a little girl" he's taking to town. Unlike his mother, he is depressed and feels sorry for himself.

His mother's old-school white racism infuriates Julian, an "intellectual" in the fictional catalogue of types found in O'Connor's stories. Book learning and acquired values end up being a flimsy defense against the slings and arrows of ordinary life for these so-called intellectual characters. Moreover, in his intellectual snobbery, Julian believes he has risen above race prejudice, but in fact he is like his mother, except he has covered himself in a veneer of liberalism. The narrator uses objectifying language in explaining how Julian tries to become friendly with the "better types" of blacks who seem more educated than the majority of poor and uneducated African Americans. He fantasizes about bringing home a "beautiful suspiciously Negroid woman," but not an actual black woman. And readers may question whether fantasy is Julian's open-mindedness or merely delight in baiting his mother. The language of the narrator, however, shows that blacks would always be "others" for Julian, and he is not equipped to go beyond political correctness (a term not yet used in the 1960s) and actually engage with a black person without the benefit of a social mask. While his mother also uses a mask in dealing with black "others," she never lies to herself about the nature of such social relations. She has enough self-knowledge to know her social masks of race and class keep a desirable distance between herself and the people she is "othering." If she is smug in claiming she knows who she is, she is also accurate.

Julian's stream of consciousness is an example of how O'Connor uses verbal irony to indirectly judge and comment on the sinfulness of her protagonist and situational irony to call attention to the difference between what a character believes versus what is true. In Julian's fantasy, he can't even think of the mysterious woman he will use to irritate his mother as black, which is why he imagines her as "suspiciously Negroid." In his fantasy he tells his mother he has chosen this woman, who is "intelligent, dignified, even good, and she's suffered ... Now persecute us, go ahead and persecute us." O'Connor creates situational irony because, based on Julian's internal monologue in which he refers to "better types" of blacks, the last thing he will do is marry a black woman. His fantasy about being persecuted by his mother is also grotesquely humorous because he persecutes his mother at the end of the story and perhaps contributes to her stroke. O'Connor's verbal irony creates a sarcastic and humorous tone, here and in most of her stories, in which the reader participates with the narrator in judging and making fun of the protagonist, even while implicating the reader as no better than the characters in the story. In fact, "the world of guilt and sorrow" to which Julian is condemned at the end of the story is the same one in which the reader lives.

Even though Julian's mother is not a hypocrite like her son, she is punished for demanding that African Americans continue to wear their old masks of subservience in a new era moving toward racial equality. She allows that black people should "rise," but "on their own side of the fence," exhibiting a typical Southern refusal to acknowledge that segregation was at the root of racial inequality. O'Connor never enters into the consciousness of a black character, and she frankly admits she cannot do so because of her ignorance of black people, claiming she "can only see [them] from the outside. I wouldn't have the courage of Miss Shirley Ann Grau to go inside their heads," she says in a letter published in The Habit of Being. (Like O'Connor, Grau, born in 1929, was a white novelist who wrote about evil and explored race relations in the South.) The anger of black characters against whites is not often depicted in O'Connor's stories, but in this first story of the collection as well as in the last, angry black characters wreak destruction on whites who insist on their maintaining the racial masks of the segregationist South. The black woman who wears the same hat as Julian's mother is indeed her double, and she teaches her a harsh lesson that costs the woman her life.

Nonetheless, readers may find Julian's mother sympathetic because she loves her son and more than discharges her responsibilities toward him. But she is a self-righteous snob whose hard work and devotion don't mask her flawed character. Readers likely will find Julian unsympathetic as an arrogant and mean-spirited hypocrite. He casts himself in the role of defender of racial justice, but the black man he sits next to on the bus knows what he is up to—which is to congratulate himself on his moral righteousness—and thus doesn't give him the time of day. Thus, Julian, too, is self-righteous and self-congratulatory, but in direct contrast to his mother. Julian wants to love the black "other," whom he does not know, yet he rejects the mother he does know and who deserves his kindness. The lesson he learns is even harsher than the one his mother learns, for he must live with the guilt of her death. And despite his posturing and nastiness, he does love his mother, as evidenced by his desperate endearments once he realizes he is about to lose her.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's words create situational irony in the story. Julian's mother remains true to herself, annoying and embarrassing to Julian as she may be, but such truth ends in her death rather than higher consciousness. While integration holds the promise of rising and convergence for previously suppressed African Americans, society is at the same time deteriorating rather than evolving. Julian's mother wonders what the world is coming to, when the "bottom rail is on the top." She equates integration with moral decay, and in O'Connor's view, race problems are a subset of humanity's general sinfulness. Julian is forced to see, during the moments of his mother's death, his own corruption and hypocrisy, but it remains for the reader to decide whether it will be an enduring lesson that will allow him to rise and converge.

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