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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Greenleaf | Summary



Mrs. May, a widow who runs a dairy farm, awakens to the sound of a bull eating underneath her bedroom window. The third-person narrator, who stays primarily within Mrs. May's consciousness, describes the bull as "silvered in the moonlight ... his head raised as if he listened—like some patient god come down to woo her." Angry to see this strange animal on her property because he can potentially ruin her dairy stock, Mrs. May nonetheless decides to wait until morning to approach her farmhand about the problem. Mr. Greenleaf, lazy and inept, has been working for Mrs. May for 15 years. She has not fired him because she doubts she can get somebody better, and he has not left because he is "too shiftless" to find other employment.

In the morning, when Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf to pen up the bull, he tells her it has been on the property for three days. The information angers her further because he didn't have sense enough to tell her immediately. She has worked hard for many years to make a success of the farm and support her sons, but they have neither an understanding of her sacrifices nor any gratitude. Nor have they any interest in the farm, even though it is their inheritance. Scofield, an insurance salesman, is 36, and Wesley, a few years younger, teaches at the university. Both sons are single and show little respect for their mother. Scofield exasperates her with his lack of ambition and malicious teasing, but Wesley worries her because he is sickly and hates everything.

Mrs. May dislikes the whole Greenleaf family, including Greenleaf's large and slovenly wife. Mrs. Greenleaf reads and cuts out newspaper articles about victims of disasters or perpetrators of crimes. Then she buries the clippings and prays over them in the dirt. Mrs. May is revolted by this exhibitionist behavior. Indeed Mrs. May is "a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true." She is bitter because the twin sons of the Greenleafs have come up in the world, despite their parents and poor upbringing. A few years younger than her sons, the Greenleaf boys fought and were wounded in the war, and both married French women. On their government benefits they attended school, bought their own farm, and now have three children apiece—who speak French.

Scofield informs his mother, somewhat gleefully, the bull belongs to the Greenleaf twins. This news further angers her. She rails at Scofield, saying she has put up with Greenleaf so her own sons wouldn't have to do dairy work. Wesley then snaps back, "I wouldn't milk a cow to save your soul from hell." The twins are "fine boys," she responds and "ought to have been my sons" and "you two should have belonged to that woman!" (meaning Mrs. Greenleaf).

Mrs. May then sets off to find Mr. Greenleaf, who has still not tried to catch the stray bull. "You needn't think ... I don't know exactly whose bull that is or why you haven't been in any hurry to notify me he is here," she says. Greenleaf pretends to be surprised and then reveals the twins bought the animal only for beef. When he ran away, "they was too tired to run after him." Mrs. May goes down to the twins' homestead to demand they fetch the animal. She finds only a black farmhand and asks him to deliver the message. He responds that they are likely to ignore her request, since they have no use for the animal. Mrs. May's anger continues to escalate because the twins have offloaded their problem onto her, for she will have to kill the bull.

When she returns, Greenleaf offers to drive the bull to his sons' place, but Mrs. May says the animal is sure to escape again and must be shot. She is disappointed in his boys, whom she always treated well when they were children. She tells Greenleaf they are taking advantage of her because she is a woman, and he spitefully responds she has two men on the place. "Some people learn gratitude too late, Mr. Greenleaf, and some never learning it at all," she retorts.

The next morning Greenleaf claims the animal is gone. But Mrs. May has seen the bull in the pasture. She plans to drive Greenleaf to where he can run the animal into empty pasture and shoot him. "Ain't nobody eve ast me to shoot my boys' own bull!" he says, but Mrs. May is adamant. She feels triumphant to have won her point. When he reluctantly gets out to chase the bull, she thinks about how his sons are probably laughing at their father for being upset about having to shoot a useless bull. "If those boys cared a thing about you, Mr. Greenleaf," she says, "they would have come for that bull."

Spotting the bull, Greenleaf throws a sharp rock at him, which makes him run farther. Mrs. May drives her car to where Greenleaf is likely in pursuit of the bull and then gets out, sitting on the front bumper to wait and rest. She closes her eyes and thinks about how, at any judgment seat, she would be able to say, "I've worked hard, I have not wallowed." The narrator notes that while she is thinking about a lifetime of work, "Mr. Greenleaf was loitering in the woods and Mrs. Greenleaf was probably flat on the ground, asleep over her holeful of clippings." Mrs. May once said Greenleaf's wife had been warped by religion, which should be practiced in moderation.

Finally the bull emerges, galloping across the pasture, his head lowered and his body racing toward Mrs. May. To her shock, the bull pierces her heart with his horns. On her face "she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable." Mr. Greenleaf appears and shoots the bull four times in the eye. When he gets to Mrs. May, she has tipped over with the bull and seems to be "whispering some last discovery into the animal's ear."


The bull that gores Mrs. May is loaded with symbolism, from the beginning of the story. The description of the bull—a patient god that had "come down," presumably from the heavenly realms, to woo the protagonist—calls to mind the Cretan bull of Greek mythology. Pasiphaë, daughter of the sun god Helios, fell in love with the Cretan bull after she was cursed by the sea god Poseidon. The product of her union with the bull was the Minotaur, whom King Minos, Pasiphaë's husband, keeps locked in a labyrinth. The bull in Flannery O'Connor's story has a hedge-wreath across his horns, leading some critics to the conclusion that the bull represents Christ wearing a crown of thorns. However, this interpretation seems unlikely, especially because O'Connor points the reader in the direction of Greek mythology. Rather, the bull is Mrs. May's nemesis, an animal version of the Lucifer-Trickster who has come into her life to unmask her. The bull belongs to the Greenleaf boys, so he also represents the Greenleaf family, with whom Mrs. May has been at odds for 15 years. Mrs. May sees herself as superior to the Greenleafs, so it is not surprising for their runaway bull to become the instrument of her undoing.

Mrs. May's fatal flaw, as with most of the protagonists in O'Connor's stories, is the medieval sin of cupiditas, or egotism, says literary critic James Andreas, or what nowadays is called narcissism. "O'Connor's whining, self-assertive protagonists" distort the world through their "own peculiar prism of egocentricity," and they stand in for O'Connor's readers, who are likewise guilty. Although smug and self-righteous, Mrs. May is basically a good woman, measured against ordinary secular standards, and it is not hard for the reader to sympathize with her. She is a widow who has taken over the running of a dairy farm and through hard work has made it prosperous enough to put her ungrateful sons through school, much like Julian's mother has done. Meanwhile, Scofield, the insurance agent, and Wesley, the anemic intellectual, care nothing for the farm: "I work and slave, I struggle and sweat to keep this place for them and soon as I'm dead, they'll marry trash and ruin everything I've done," she thinks. She has even gone as far as entailing the property so the imaginary future wives of her lackadaisical sons will not get their property in the event of her sons' premature demise.

Mrs. May has been putting up with the shiftless, "white trash" Greenleaf for 15 years. She justifies the situation by claiming she wouldn't have been able to get anybody else to work for her, but that seems a poor excuse. Surely, in such a long period she could have found a more efficient farmhand. Perhaps she keeps the Greenleafs around because they make her feel superior. Mr. Greenleaf's wife is a Southern grotesque—a character found routinely in O'Connor's stories. Mrs. Greenleaf has created her own religious ritual, mimicking to some degree the spiritual possessions that took place in Pentecostal Churches of Southern "Holy Rollers." She is large and dirty, rolling around in the dirt, ritually hugging it and symbolically burying herself in it, groveling before God and praying for lost and troubled souls as she shouts, "Jesus! Jesus!" This behavior, described by the narrator at a sardonic distance, is comic, for the reader can readily picture the large, sloppy woman groveling in the dirt as she calls on God. Nonetheless, Mrs. Greenleaf's profusions are less offensive than Mrs. May's atheistic religiosity. In a tone dripping with sarcasm, the narrator notes Mrs. May thinks the word Jesus "should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom." This verbal irony pairing worship with sex indicates that Mrs. May regards religious practice as profane. The narrator names Mrs. May as an atheistic Christian, who respects religion but doesn't actually believe it is real or has anything to do with her life. At one point, Mrs. May tells Mr. Greenleaf his wife has perhaps let religion "warp her," advising "everything in moderation," which is a humorous thing to say, because spiritual practice is not something that can be done in moderation, like drinking a glass of wine a few times per week. In O'Connor's view, a professed Christian who measures out faith "with coffee spoons" (as Prufrock in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" measured out his life) is worse than a professed atheist who at least takes God seriously.

The Greenleafs are also a thorn in Mrs. May's side because their sons have done much better than hers, despite having been raised by "white trash" parents. Although Scofield served in the war, he never got past the rank of private, and Wesley's heart condition kept him out altogether. The Greenleaf boys became sergeants, married French brides, and received government benefits that allowed them to educate themselves. They also run a dairy farm and, unlike Mrs. May, have the latest equipment. Mrs. May, proud of her own social status, laments that the Greenleaf boys are on their way to surpassing her and getting into "society." While Mrs. May is arguing with her sons at the breakfast table, she reminds them how she has put up with Mr. Greenleaf and his clan for their sake, so they wouldn't have to work on the farm. After Wesley's nasty retort, she metaphorically disowns her boys, consigning them to Mrs. Greenleaf. She also foreshadows her own demise: "When I die ... I don't know what's going to become of you."

The Greenleafs' role as Mrs. May's judge surfaces in the spiteful remarks made by Mr. Greenleaf, who subtly compares his boys to hers. When Mrs. May goes to the younger Greenleafs' farm and asks their collective six children about their fathers' whereabouts, the children remain mute, making her feel "as if she were on trial for her life, facing a jury of Greenleafs." Later, when complaining about the Greenleaf sons, Mrs. May says, "Some people learn gratitude too late." However, the situational irony in the remark applies more to Mrs. May than the Greenleaf boys, for she herself is ungrateful for the blessings from the God she barely believes in. At the end of the story, she is feeling sorry for herself again and thinks she has a right to be tired, believing that on "any kind of judgement seat, she would be able to say: 'I've worked, I have not wallowed.'" At the same time, she compares herself with Mrs. Greenleaf again, thinking it likely she was wallowing over her newspaper clippings at that very moment. Soon after, the bull, goaded by Mr. Greenleaf, kills her.

At the moment the bull gores her, Mrs. May appears to be upside down, seeing the sky instead of the tree line and having the look "of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but finds the light unbearable." In O'Connor's iconography, this is Mrs. May's moment of truth, her conversion experience. Suddenly she is seeing the world from a different point of view. Nonetheless, it may be hard for the reader to believe this is a moment of redemption. Mrs. May realizes with terrible clarity she is not in charge of her destiny, as greater forces ultimately determine her fate. But there is not enough evidence in the story to support the idea that Mrs. May has repented of her egotism and developed to the point at which she can receive God's grace.

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