Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | The Lame Shall Enter First | Summary

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Summary

Sheppard, a recreational director and part-time guidance counselor at the reformatory, watches his 10-year-old son, Norton, prepare a breakfast of peanut butter, ketchup, and chocolate cake. Recently widowed, Sheppard has little patience for his son, whom he considers selfish and ordinary. Norton's mother, Sheppard's wife, died more than a year ago, and the boy still is grieving. Sheppard views Norton's grief as a manifestation of selfishness and self-indulgence. Sheppard also dislikes the boy's entrepreneurial spirit: he sells seeds and saves his profits of nickels and dimes in quart jars. Sheppard prefers 14-year-old Rufus Johnson over his son. Rufus is a highly intelligent delinquent with a club foot whom Sheppard has been working with for the past year. Recently released from the reformatory, Rufus is living on the streets and eating out of garbage cans.

Sheppard lectures Norton about charity and how fortunate the boy is in comparison to someone like Rufus, with a grandfather who beats him and a mother in the penitentiary. Norton responds tearfully that at least he'd be able to see her if she were in jail and then begins to howl. Sheppard informs his son he has given Johnson a key to the house and intends to take him in to live with them. He thinks Rufus has "a capacity for real response," unlike his own son, and has "been deprived of everything from birth."

The narrator inserts flashbacks of Sheppard's conversations with Johnson at the reformatory, in which the counselor perceived "a kind of fanatic intelligence ... palpable in his face." Johnson has told Sheppard he gets into trouble because Satan has him in his power. Sheppard considers this stance to be rubbish and religious superstition, a belief unworthy of someone as smart as Johnson. He has attempted to free him of wrong thinking through weekly counseling and now hopes to get him off the street. He would like to get him fitted for a new orthopedic shoe and expose him to new ideas. He could buy a second-hand telescope and spark an interest in space travel in the boy. "What was wasted on Norton would cause Johnson to flourish," he thinks.

That afternoon, Johnson uses the key and meets Norton for the first time. "He's been expecting you," Norton says, adding that Sheppard plans "to give you a new shoe because you eat out of garbage cans!" The older boy orders the younger one around, insults the maid, and calls Sheppard stupid. "Yaketty yaketty yak ... and never says a thing," Johnson observes. Norton defends his father, who is good and helps people, but Johnson says, "He ain't right!" When Johnson explores the house, he enters the master bedroom where Sheppard no longer sleeps and rifles through Norton's dead mother's things. Upset, Norton yells at Johnson, "Take your big fat dirty hands off my mother's clothes!" a command Johnson ignores.

When Sheppard gets home, he is delighted to find Johnson, immersed in a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Sheppard questions Rufus about his grandfather, who has gone off on a religious mission, which means Rufus has nowhere to go and can stay with him. He tells Johnson he needs his help in teaching his own son how to share. On his part, Norton tells his father what Johnson has got up to that afternoon, but his father is not impressed, saying he intends to help Rufus, and his insults are beside the point. After the boys are alone, Johnson says to Norton, "God kid ... how can you stand it? ... He thinks he's Jesus Christ!"

In the second part of the story, Sheppard makes up his wife's old bedroom, over the objections of his son. He sends the two boys to the local Y to swim. The two boys don't fight, but they don't quite make friends. Sheppard buys a telescope and sets it up in the attic, and for a while he interests Johnson in looking at the moon and stars. Johnson continues to act bored and belligerent, although Sheppard believes he is making progress. They continue to argue about religion. Johnson says he's going to hell, and Norton becomes alarmed when Rufus describes a place of eternal suffering. He asks his father if his mother is in hell, and Sheppard responds she isn't anywhere. Norton then asks Rufus the same question, and he says only if she was evil or didn't believe in Jesus. Norton responds she was good and did believe in Jesus, and Johnson then allows she is "on high ... in the sky somewhere." He promises to tell Norton more about heaven and hell later.

The next day Sheppard can that tell the two boys have made friends and that Johnson has been feeding his son religious superstition. He determines his child is too mediocre to be damaged, and belief in heaven and hell is for the mediocre anyway. That evening he finds his son alone in the attic with the telescope, although he previously showed no interest. Johnson has disappeared, but he soon turns up in the hands of a police officer who says he broke into a house around the corner and smashed it up. The boy is taken away, and Sheppard thinks a night at the police station might do him good. The next day the police book a black man for the break-in, and Sheppard apologizes to Rufus for misjudging him.

A few days later, the police return about another break-in, and this time Sheppard defends Rufus, saying he was at the movies with Norton. In fact, the boys were at the movies. Sheppard later asks Johnson if he left the movie. Johnson plays on Sheppard's guilt, claiming he has no confidence or trust in him. Sheppard backs off and claims he does believe him. "You don't want to steal and smash up things when you've got everything you want already," the boy says, which Sheppard interprets as gratitude from someone who has seemed impervious until now. The next day, they go to the orthopedic store to pick up the shoe for which Rufus has been fitted. Although it fits him and allows him to walk almost normally, he takes if off and refuses to wear it. Sheppard interprets this behavior as insecurity, fear of gratitude, and difficulty in coming to terms with a new self. That night a police officer returns about another break-in, and Sheppard shouts at him, telling him to stop persecuting Rufus. After the officer leaves, Johnson implies he has lied to the police, and Sheppard insists he is stronger than Johnson, whom he is going to save. Johnson, however, confesses to all three break-ins. When Sheppard remains adamant about saving him, Johnson responds, "Nobody can save me but Jesus."

The next morning Sheppard must admit he has failed in his compassion and wants the boy to leave. While Johnson looks at him as though he were a moral leper, he knows "he had nothing to reproach himself with." He wishes he were in the house alone again, with his own child. In the afternoon he finds the two boys in the living room, reading a bible Johnson has stolen. At dinner Sheppard gets into an argument with Rufus, telling him the Bible is for cowards, to which Rufus replies that Satan has Sheppard in his power. Sheppard taunts him, and the boy rips out a page and chews it to prove his faith.

When Sheppard looks for Norton, he finds him with the telescope. He says he's found his mother, but Sheppard says the telescope reveals only star clusters. Norton insists, however, his mother has waved to him. Sheppard sends his son to bed, and he now sees two police officers coming up the walk with Johnson, who claims he's been deliberately caught "to show up that big tin Jesus." Johnson rails at him, calling him a "dirty atheist," and as the police drag him off, he shouts, "the lame'll carry off the prey!" Sheppard sits down to consider, again determining he has nothing for which to reproach himself. But then he remembers Norton and finally realizes how he has neglected him. He feels a repulsion for himself and "a rush of agonizing love for the child ... The little boy's face appeared to him transformed; the image of his salvation; all light." Planning to be both father and mother to the boy, he rushes upstairs, but Norton is not in bed. He rushes up to the attic, finds the telescope toppled, and sees his child "hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space."

Analysis

This story is the longest in the collection as well as the longest of Flannery O'Connor's stories, and it is shocking in a similar way as "A View of the Woods" because an innocent child dies, a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the protagonist. Norton, the 10-year-old son of Sheppard, commits suicide as a result of his father's neglect and strident disbelief. By the time Norton has killed himself, Sheppard has already repented, but too late for either himself or his son. It is difficult for the reader to accept the deaths of innocent children, but in O'Connor's religious world view, these children are old enough to understand sin and even commit it. Young Norton commits suicide, a mortal sin according to Catholic dogma, which if not repented and atoned earns the sinner an eternal sentence in hell. Does O'Connor expect Catholic readers to assume the child is eternally damned? There's no easy answer to this question. Norton knows little or nothing about religion except what Rufus Johnson has taught him. Moreover, it could be argued that Norton was following Johnson's demonical teachings and cannot be held responsible as a suicide. When Norton first asks Johnson if he'll go to hell, where his mother is, Johnson establishes that Norton's mother, if she was righteous, is in heaven. He continues, "Right now you'd go where she is ... but if you live long enough, you'll go to hell." Thus, Norton has assumed he will join his mother in heaven if he kills himself.

Critic Shirley Foster writes that O'Connor's short stories are an "assault on the reader." They depict "brutality, physical abuse, murder, and betrayal perpetrated by characters who are often termed 'grotesques'—physical freaks, idiots and maniacs." They are striking not only because of their internal violence but because of the violence they inflict on the reader. The shocking events are narrated from a deliberate distance in a mocking tone, which exploits the reader's preconceptions and then shatters them. That is, the reader does not expect the characters to be punished so severely, and in that sense, O'Connor implicates readers as sinners who expect to get away with their own misdeeds. She also demonstrates in her stories how people live with a false sense of security, never thinking about how disaster may befall them at any moment and completely shatter their lives. Death is the ultimate disaster in life, but even worse is the disaster that may await the unredeemed in the next life, according to O'Connor's theology. Readers are implicated here as well, since the author implies they are as naive as her characters—thinking they will live forever, never having to face the divine music—that is, the consequences. Thus, the author manipulates the audience, who may end up feeling cheated or victimized by her "mocking tyranny," which she holds up to the reader like a mirror.

Most readers demand a "redemptive act" from fiction, and O'Connor forces the reader to pay a high price for redemption when it occurs in her stories—and it does not always occur. O'Connor uses dramatic irony to establish complicity between the reader and narrator, in which readers feel as though they know what the narrator is up to and how the story will turn out. But then the denouement shatters expectations. Thus, O'Connor pulls the rug from under the reader in the same way as her hapless characters get their comeuppance. Nonetheless, the reader cannot accuse the author of exaggerating the evil in the world, for the terrible things that happen in her stories are familiar to all—even if only from newspaper stories. Life is not fair, as anyone is bound to admit. Whether a person believes in a vengeful god, the spirit of fierce grace, karma, or the machinations of a random universe, it seems undeniable that the innocent are often punished along with the guilty.

The "Sheppard" of this story is no shepherd. On the contrary, he is likely to lead his sheep over a cliff. "The lame'll carry off the prey!" shouted by the demonic prophet Rufus Johnson, a grotesque with a club foot, paraphrases a verse from the Hebrew Bible and is related to the New Testament verse, "the meek shall inherit the earth." In both verses the unassuming and humble are most pleasing to God and will be rewarded. Although Rufus is lame, he is hardly meek, and neither is Sheppard. They are doubles, both steeped in sin. The difference is that Rufus knows he is sinful and needs to be saved, whereas Sheppard repudiates Christian dogma as a lie perpetrated on the ignorant. Johnson's grotesque club foot represents his state of fallenness, which is why he does not want Sheppard to fix him. He embraces his sinfulness and tells Sheppard if he gets around to wanting to be saved, it will be Jesus that saves him, not Sheppard's social work. Sheppard's grotesquerie is not physical, but rather psychological and emotional, in the way he rejects and neglects his flesh and blood, the son he is responsible for, in favor of a stranger upon whom he forces his attention. Johnson cannot be called a Lucifer-Trickster, because Sheppard chooses him, not vice-versa. The boy has a demonic aspect, however, even though he also is a prophet, like some of the Old Testament prophets who warned of death and destruction. In his demonic aspect, he delivers terrible punishment, but he is also the occasion for Sheppard to realize his hubris, self-delusion, and selfishness. Thus, the demonic Johnson is also a channel for receiving fierce grace.

An atheist and secular humanist, Sheppard believes religion is the opiate of the people, and that scientists, social engineers, psychologists, and progressive thinking can save the world. He works as a recreational director, but his heart is in his part-time counseling job, where he first meets Johnson and takes him on as a project. Another of O'Connor's misguided intellectuals, Sheppard is dazzled by Johnson's IQ and thinks intelligence makes a person more valuable to society and more worthy of resources and attention than ordinary people. In attaching himself to Johnson, Sheppard also elevates himself as the teacher and mentor of this highly intelligent child, and he takes it as his duty to quash his religious superstitions. But Johnson is stronger and cleverer than Sheppard. Consequently, when he enters the house as a second son—but really as a replacement for the one Sheppard views with contempt—he becomes Norton's surrogate father, and he teaches Sheppard the wages of sin.

Although Sheppard does not view Johnson as grotesque, he does view Norton that way. Seeing Norton from Sheppard's perspective, the narrator writes that one of the boy's eyes "listed, almost imperceptibly, toward the outer rim." In the opening scene Sheppard sees his son as a "stocky blond boy" stuffing himself with chocolate cake, to which he has added ketchup and peanut butter. In the same scene, he ends up throwing up this mess. The description is not loving, and in fact borders on Sheppard's contempt, if not revulsion. Yet Norton's culinary inventiveness is partly Sheppard's doing, for Norton does mention the cake is stale and needs some doctoring, the implication being the kitchen needs attention. Nothing in the story indicates Norton is stupid or selfish, yet his father persists in believing these things about him. Sheppard takes his entrepreneurial initiative—evidenced in selling seeds and collecting the money in jars—as a sign of greed, but Norton is not a greedy child. Sheppard's contempt may simply be the mid-century liberal-minded intellectual's antipathy toward business over social service. When Johnson enters the picture, Norton has no difficulty sharing his home with him—apart from his objections to Johnson's desecrating his mother's room. Sheppard also accuses his son of lacking finer feelings, yet he has been suffering terrible grief over the death of his mother, which Sheppard calls "selfishness" and which Sheppard refuses to address. As a counselor interested in helping young people with problems, it may be difficult to understand why he hasn't looked around and seen his son struggling so desperately.

It is unclear why Sheppard would feel such contempt for his own child, but he most likely invests in Rufus Johnson to puff up his own pride. He puts himself in the place of a priest when he thinks about how his sessions with Rufus have an aspect of the confessional. And he dares to take on the role of the creator in attempting to mold Rufus into his own image. In fact, he deludes himself into thinking he is making an impression on Rufus, even though he never does.

Unlike Sheppard, Norton is loyal—to his mother, to his father, and even to Rufus Johnson, as he gradually accepts him. Norton defends his father when Johnson calls him names, saying he is a good man. But Johnson opines, "I don't care if he's good or not. He ain't right! Although Johnson is a lot bigger than Norton, Norton defends the memory of his mother, telling the older boy to take his hands off her stuff. When Sheppard, completely oblivious to Norton's feelings, installs Johnson in the old bedroom, the interloper both literally and symbolically takes the place of Norton's mother. He tells Norton about Jesus and heaven and hell, and Norton begins looking for his mother through the telescope. After some lessons in theology, Norton begs Johnson to repent, because he doesn't want him to go to hell. When Sheppard realizes Johnson is filling Norton's head with fundamentalist Christianity, he is not worried, thinking someone as dull as his son might need the crutch of religious belief.

Convincing Rufus of the futility of belief, however, is something that still interests him. As Norton is continually sidelined by his father and it becomes apparent Rufus Johnson will be moving on, the boy turns to the only person, albeit dead, who has ever loved him. He kills himself with the idea of joining his mother in the afterlife. The "big tin Jesus" has finally been brought to heel by Rufus Johnson, and Sheppard finally confesses to himself that his project has been a complete failure. At first, he insists he has "nothing to reproach himself for," but he finally admits what he has done to Norton. He plans to make everything up to him and ensure that he will "never let him suffer again," but by the time he gets up to the attic, Norton is beyond his ministrations.

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