Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Judgement Day | Summary

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Summary

An old man living in New York City against his will, Tanner lives in an apartment with his daughter and her husband. He is looking through a window that faces a brick wall and down into an alleyway. In his pocket is a note that reads if he is found dead, he should be shipped to Coleman Parrum in Corinth, Georgia. Tanner is conserving his energy to sneak out of the house, planning to walk and then "trust the Almighty to get him the rest of the way." He imagines he can hail a taxi to the freight yards and get on a southbound train. His daughter promised to bury him in the South, but he has overheard her tell her husband she plans to bury him in New York City. When he confronts her, she avoids the issue by saying, "You ain't dead yet!" He threatens she'll burn in hell for not following his wishes.

In a flashback the reader learns Tanner's daughter found him living in a broken-down shack in Corinth with an "old Negro" named Coleman, who had been cooking for Tanner, cutting his firewood, and emptying his waste. "That no-good scoundrel has been on my hands for thirty years." he says. Tanner agreed to go back North with her only because he learned during her visit that he and Coleman were squatting on property that now belongs to Dr. Foley, a mixed-race man. He was planning to kick them off the land unless they agreed to run their still for him. Stills in the South, in which corn mash was turned into whiskey, were illegal businesses. Tanner didn't want to work for Foley because he is considered black, and the government "ain't got around yet to forcing the white folks to work for the colored." Tanner thus agrees reluctantly to leave with his daughter.

Tanner first met Coleman many years before, when he was supervising six black men at a sawmill. Coleman showed up one day at the sawmill, encouraging Tanner's men to slack off, in his view, because of Coleman's own idleness. Coleman is twice Tanner's size, but Tanner confronts him with teasing humor, calling him "Preacher" and asking why he is hanging around. This is the beginning of their relationship. In Coleman's view, "You make a monkey out of one of them and he jumps on your back and stays there for life, but let one make a monkey out of you and all you can do is kill him or disappear."

When the narrator returns to the present, Tanner's daughter is attempting to cheer him up, telling him he needs an outlet and suggesting he "watch TV" for inspiration rather than think about "morbid stuff, death and hell and judgement." At the same time, he is thinking that if he had known he'd be looking out of a window all day in "this no-place," he would have been "a nigger's white nigger any day," running the still for the doctor.

The narrator then inserts another flashback of Tanner's arrival in New York. The first thing he learns is that his daughter lives in a "pigeon-hutch of a building, with all stripes of foreigner." After three weeks, a black couple moves into the apartment next door. His daughter tells him to stay away from the neighbors. "Up here everybody minds their own business and everybody gets along," she says, to which he retorts, "I was getting along with niggers before you were born."

Because he believes the black man is from South Alabama, Tanner pursues him and tries to initiate a friendship. He first addresses the man as "Preacher," saying, "I reckon you wish you were back in South Alabama." The man becomes angry, but Tanner continues, asking him if he might know where there is a pond close by. The neighbor finally informs Tanner he is from New York City and is an actor, not a preacher. The next time Tanner tries to engage the neighbor, the enraged man says, "I don't take no crap ... off no wool-hat red-neck son-of-a-bitch peckerwood old bastard like you." He again informs Tanner he is not a preacher or even a Christian and doesn't believe in God. But the old man doesn't believe him. "And you ain't black ... And I ain't white," he answers. The black stranger roughs him up, injuring him before shoving him back into his daughter's apartment. While Tanner is recovering, he begins to imagine being shipped home, where Coleman and another friend, Hooten, meet the train. They have borrowed a mule and wagon to carry his corpse in its pine box. He scratches on the lid, however, and when they open it, Tanner springs out and yells, "Don't you two fools know it's Judgement Day?"

Once again in the present, Tanner's daughter says she's going to the store. She is gentle with her father, while he apologizes insincerely for causing trouble with the neighbor. "It's great to have you here," his daughter says, "I wouldn't have you any other place." After she leaves, he creeps out of the apartment and falls down half a flight of stairs. Stuck on the stairs, he falls into a reverie in which he returns to his daydream with Coleman and Hooten. In the meantime, the couple from next door come upon him and hear his murmuring about judgment day. He addresses the man as "Preacher" and asks him to help him up because he is on his way home.

When his daughter returns, she finds him on the stairs, "his hat ... over his face and his head and arms thrust between the spokes of the banister" and his feet dangling "over the stairwell like those of a man in the stocks." When the police come to release him, they say he has been dead for about an hour. Although the daughter buries him in New York City, her conscience haunts her until she has him disinterred and shipped to Corinth to be buried at home.

Analysis

In the last story of the collection, told mostly from Tanner's perspective, Flannery O'Connor revisits the first story she ever wrote, "The Geranium," another tale about a white man longing to return to the South and the old relations between black and white, which have been forever sundered in the Civil Rights era. Like the first story in this collection, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," the racist character suffers at the hands of an angry black person who no longer wishes to assume the racial mask required by white people who would keep them in their two-dimensional place.

Tanner ends up coming North with his daughter because of what he considers his "white privilege."

Although he is broken down, poor, and living with a black man in a shack, his whiteness gives him an honor that puts him above Dr. Foley, a mixed-race black man. For this reason, although it would be mutually convenient for him to stay on the property and share some of his whiskey profits, Tanner upends his life to move into a "rabbit hutch" in an unfamiliar city. Living in New York for Tanner is like living on the moon. In an instance of situational irony, his daughter objects to her father's living with a black man in the South, yet the tenants in her apartment building are multiracial. But the ways of the North are different, and Tanner's daughter finds nothing amiss in living in close proximity with people who are not white. Another contradiction in Tanner is that he never considered anything wrong with living with his black friend Coleman for 30 years, whereas working for Dr. Foley would have been an affront to his sense of racial privilege. Furthermore, in their 30-year relationship the black-white divide has not been breached, for Coleman serves Tanner, at least in Tanner's eyes.

In a flashback the reader learns Tanner and Coleman became friends by practicing forbearance in their initial encounter. That is, Tanner remembers he thought about killing Coleman, which he could have done with impunity in the South, but he was always squeamish for religious reasons about killing people. Coleman, on the other hand, knew he could easily kill the sickly white man. Both men restrained themselves. Tanner humorously fashions from tree bark a pair of lens-less eye glasses that Coleman puts on, and the two of them engage in a kind of masquerade in which both men stand down. "Coleman used the glasses to see another man fundamentally akin to himself," critic Ralph C. Wood says, while "Tanner insisted that Coleman must see him as a white man who could still command his servitude." In their moment of connection, the two men recognize each other as equally human, but then Tanner insists they resume their previous master-slave relationship, meaning Coleman is the subservient partner. Still, in the odd manner of the South, this relationship endures, and Tanner finds he is missing his old friend. If he had an opportunity for a redo, he realizes, he would have stayed in the South and worked for a black man. Now he is miserable, old, helpless, and immobile in a city he despises.

When a desperately homesick Tanner encounters the black neighbors next door, he immediately assumes the man is from South Alabama. However, the neighbor says he is not and wants nothing to do with Tanner. Tanner addresses him as "Preacher," a term of respect in lieu of "Mr.," given to certain black men by white Southerners. It is unclear whether the neighbor is aware of this protocol. Nonetheless, the black man makes it clear he is an actor, not a preacher, and is offended by Tanner. Tanner, however, sees himself simply as being natural with this man, with whom he would like to make friends. He would like to turn him into a substitute for Coleman, even suggesting they find a watering hole in which to go fishing. Tanner's innocent attempts to befriend the man according to the Southern mores and manners he has been practicing throughout his life are bound to end in disaster. The angry actor beats him, perhaps causing a stroke, but Tanner still doesn't take a hint. After he decides to get back to Georgia, Tanner speaks to the man again, and this time the man finishes him off. The old ways are no more, O'Connor implies.

While Coleman could have served as a vehicle of transcendence for Tanner—in that he could have moved beyond the stereotypical relations between the races by allowing Coleman to go without his mask—he lets that moment pass. Nonetheless, the relationship he has with Coleman has been his closest intimacy for 30 years. "Judgement Day" comes for Tanner when the black actor chooses his own mask to wear, vis-à-vis Tanner—a murderous persona who no longer will allow Tanner to claim white privilege. The actor sends Tanner to his permanent home, and it is up to readers to decide what to make of that.

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