Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Revelation | Summary

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Summary

Mrs. Turpin enters a doctor's crowded waiting room, accompanying her mild-mannered husband, Claud Turpin, who has come for treatment for an ulcerated leg, the result of having been kicked by a cow. Mrs. Turpin is a large, middle-aged, loquacious woman with many opinions about everything. She begins speaking to a friendly "stylish lady" there with her college-age daughter, a heavy-set girl of about 18, with an acne-covered face. The girl is reading a book called Human Development. Mrs. Turpin has taken in the room and made judgments about its size, conditions—how it would be if she were in charge—and the people in it. She notes a "white trashy" family there: Mrs. Turpin has no use for such people.

While observing and making judgments, class-conscious Mrs. Turpin, the narrator reveals, has night thoughts about naming classes of people. For example, at the bottom of the heap are "colored people," then "white-trash," then "home-and-land owners," the class to which she belongs, and then people with a lot of money and much bigger houses. Nonetheless, some of these people are "common," and some refined people had lost their money, while some black people own their own homes and land and are even professionals. When she gets this far, she generally falls asleep.

While Mrs. Turpin and the stylish lady are making small talk, the college girl begins to smirk. The stylish lady steers the conversation away from Mrs. Turpin's racist remarks, asking about the Turpins' farm, but Mrs. Turpin returns to the theme of her black workers, continuing to call them "niggers" and complaining about how she has to butter them up—for example by running out with a bucket of ice water to drink.

The "white-trash woman" continues to interject her own racist comments into this discussion. The college girl snaps her teeth and looks at Mrs. Turpin with loathing, while an inane discussion continues about whether it would be possible to send black people back to Africa.

The stylish lady asks the "white-trashy woman" about her boy. She answers that he has an ulcer and won't eat anything but soda and candy. Mrs. Turpin thinks that's a poor excuse—probably she hasn't tried very hard to feed the boy better. Meanwhile, the college girl continues to glare at Mrs. Turpin, who can't understand the reason for such an attitude. To breach her hostility, Mrs. Turpin asks the girl what she is reading, but the girl ignores her. The stylish lady tells Mrs. Turpin her daughter attends Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

The conversation continues, with Mrs. Turpin indirectly criticizing the "white-trashy" woman, who interjects opinions that contradict Mrs. Turpin's. The stylish lady indirectly criticizes her daughter, saying there are children who get everything from their parents but never say a kind word to anyone and criticize and complain all day long. Mrs. Turpin thinks about how she is grateful for the station in life God has granted her. She remarks, "When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus!'" When she emphatically repeats the last phrase, the Wellesley student hurls her book at her, hitting her above the left eye. She then attacks Mrs. Turpin and tries to choke her, until the nurse and doctor, rushing in upon hearing the commotion, pull her off the woman. Mrs. Turpin asks the girl, "What you got to say to me?" She retorts, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog. The doctor then sedates the girl, and she is taken to a hospital.

The Turpins return home exhausted and lie down to rest. Claud quickly falls asleep, but Mrs. Turpin keeps picturing a warthog and saying tearfully to herself she is not one. Nonetheless, she feels she has clearly been singled out for a message. The couple get up in late afternoon to tend to the farmhands. Mrs. Turpin takes them the usual bucket of ice water with a dipper. When an old black woman sees the lump on her head and asks what happened, Mrs. Turpin tells her the whole story, even saying the girl called a warthog. The farm women tell her she is the sweetest white lady they know and "pretty as you can be." Mrs. Turpin gets even angrier, knowing "exactly how much Negro flattery was worth."

She then goes down the road to the well-kept pig pen, a square of sloped, fenced-in concrete. She grabs the hose from her husband so that he can take the farmhands home. As she washes down the hogs, she continues to rail at God: "It's no trash around here, black or white, that I haven't given to." In a final surge of fury she asks, "Who do you think you are?" Across the road she sees the crimson sky, a cotton field, and her husband's tiny truck on the highway, looking like a child's toy. "Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs," settled around the sow. When Mrs. Turpin lifts her head, she sees a "visionary light ... as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven." Among them were "whole companies of white-trash ... bands of black niggers in white-robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping." Behind these people she sees people like herself and Claud, marching with the others, but "she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues had been burned away." As night descends, Mrs. Turpin hears "voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah."

Analysis

Told in the third-person from Ruby Turpin's viewpoint, this story may be the funniest and probably the most optimistic in the collection. It is the only one in which the reader is privy to the protagonist's conversion experience and subsequent grace-filled vision. Ruby Turpin is a practicing Christian and passably good woman, but she is full of unjustified pride in the gifts God has given her. For this reason, her nemesis arrives to provide her with a larger perspective.

Through the sardonic distance of the narrator, a comedy plays out in the doctor's office, in which Ruby Turpin first judges the relative worth of everyone waiting for the doctor and then chooses to converse with a well-dressed and seemingly educated woman, whom the narrator calls the "stylish lady." Mrs. Turpin's snobbery and judgmental attitude are practically transparent as the conversation unfolds. It is clear to the stylish lady and her daughter, as well as to the "white trash" woman, that Mrs. Turpin is judging them all and weighing her own worth against theirs. This is why the "white trash" woman keeps jumping in to criticize black people, intending to make it clear she has more in common with Mrs. Turpin and the stylish lady than she does with the black people Mrs. Turpin berates. In identifying with their whiteness, this poor woman of a lower class can feel superior to the underclass of African Americans. Yet she defends her own poverty as well by showing her disdain for raising hogs, perhaps to bring Ruby Turpin down a peg. In Flannery's O'Connor's inimitable ear for language, the woman expresses her sentiments about hogs as "one thang I don't want ... nasty stinking things, a-gruntin and a-rootin all over the place." Judgmental Mrs. Turpin observes to herself that her hogs are cleaner than the woman's child.

The specificity of Mrs. Turpin's hierarchy is humorously delineated in her recollection of the thoughts before she falls asleep, when all the classes of people are named but then begin to meld together. The narrator says they were "moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven." This semiconscious vision is both amusing and alarming. Mrs. Turpin has heard of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II in which Jews and other undesirables were exterminated. It is common for people in a dream or semi-dream state to mix things together, especially thoughts that might seem highly inappropriate to the conscious mind. But there is another aspect to this dream-vision: human hierarchies based on the idea that some people are worth more than others eventually leads to a fascist ideology. Such human classifications dehumanize groups of people and make them expendable.

As Mrs. Turpin sits in the doctor's office, she revels in her privileged status. On the one hand, she thanks God she was lucky enough to be born white in a country that discriminates against blacks, and lucky to have had the means to become prosperous. Acknowledging the gratitude she owes God would seem to foster humility and the realization that her good fortune is not something for which she can take credit. Yet she does take credit for it. She brags to herself about what a good Christian she is, and she unconsciously assumes she has been given a relatively easy life by God because she somehow deserves it. The Wellesley student is disgusted by Mrs. Turpin's racial and class bigotry, but what precipitates her losing control and throwing the book are Ruby's litanies of "thank you" to Jesus. In that moment the student sees the grotesqueness of her presumption—that she (Mrs. Turpin) is better than other people, which is why God has been good to her. People like Mrs. Turpin are apt to exaggerate their good deeds and charity, thinking God is blessing them for their good works. But even for the religiously inclined, this is nothing less than magical thinking to assure themselves that misfortune will not arbitrarily rain down on them. Clearly, good things happen to bad people, and it is the worst kind of hubris for a person, particularly a person of faith, to think they have been granted special favors because they are especially good.

In fact, Mrs. Turpin is a woman of faith, and she takes the girl's pronouncement as a message from God. In some part of her mind she remembers she is a sinner who thinks entirely too much of herself. Her conversation with the black field hands, in which they disingenuously reassure her she is the best person ever and undeserving of such treatment at the hands of the young woman, provides the opportunity for more humorous dialogue. The reader and the narrator share in the pleasure of the farmhands' humorous, fake reassurances: "She sho shouldn't said nothin ugly to you ... You so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know." A second woman says, "She pretty too," while the first woman adds she never "knowed no sweeter white lady. That's the truth befo' Jesus ... Amen! You des as sweet and pretty as you can be." These words, especially from people she has been recently berating in the doctor's office, make Mrs. Turpin feel even more that something is amiss.

As the day progresses, Mrs. Turpin begins to fight with God in her mind, asking him why he has visited a pummeling on her, since she is undeserving of such treatment. This monologue addressed to God is quite comic, as she insists she is not a warthog. "I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy," she says. Or she could lounge around on the sidewalks drinking root beer and dipping snuff. "Occasionally she raised her fist and made a small stabbing motion over her chest as if she was defending her innocence to invisible guests who were like the comforters of Job, reasonable-seeming but wrong," the narrator says, alluding to faithful Job of the Bible who is tested by God.

At the end of the story, Ruby Turpin is directly answered by God. First, she sees her husband's tiny truck on the highway, looking like a child's toy, and she realizes how easily "a bigger truck might smash into it." Next, she looks down into the pig parlor and sees the sow selflessly nursing her young. Finally, she looks across the road and sees a vision of humanity singing God's praises and making their way to Paradise. The way O'Connor describes this vision is both poetic and humorous, which is why it does not seem strained or overly pious. Ruby sees that people like her are not at the front of the parade but bringing up the rear, most likely because they have less humility than those without "a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right." Earlier she alluded to God's putting "the bottom rail on top," but now she understands that this view is the only one that can be right. In this vision Ruby Turpin has received God's grace, but no doubt it will take the rest of her life to assimilate what she has been privileged to see. At least she is on her way and traveling in the right direction.

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