Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Themes


Sinfulness and Redemption

The sinfulness of humanity is Flannery O'Connor's most prominent theme, appearing in each of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge and throughout her other works. O'Connor was a devout Catholic, who believed sin originally came into the world when humans disobeyed God. Because God endowed men and women with free will, they made a choice to alienate themselves from God, wishing to follow their own desires rather than remain obedient. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament), is taken by some Christians as a literal accounting of humanity's first parents. The fundamentalist Protestants in O'Connor's stories—for example, Rufus Johnson and his grandfather in "The Lame Shall Enter First"—take the story at face value. Other Christians—for example, a Catholic theologian like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—view the story as an allegory. Either way, the sin Adam and Eve incurred had to be expiated by a God-man, for the offense against God could not be made right by a mere mortal. This is why Jesus, the Second Person of God, came into the world and had to suffer and die to balance the scales with the Creator. Nonetheless, human beings are still born with original sin, which they inherit from the first parents.

Although the sacrifice of Christ ultimately redeemed human beings, original sin must be cleansed by the sacrament of baptism. But baptism does not mean people stop sinning. In O'Connor's view, the world is a fallen world, and it gets worse as time passes. O'Connor sees modernity, secularism, and the desire to turn one's back on traditional morals and mores as a sure way for society to deteriorate further. O'Connor proudly styled herself a 13th-century Christian, claiming that only dogmatic religion has the power to make life bearable. For readers who do not hold to Catholic or even Christian theology, O'Connor's stories still depict, vividly and truly, the dark side of human character. In her highly flawed protagonists, readers often see their own hypocrisy, greed, and egotism. From a psychological perspective, O'Connor brilliantly portrays the inherent narcissism found in all human beings.

For a secular humanist, the best way to cope with human failings is to turn to psychological counseling and find a rational way to cope with the tragic consciousness of mortality. But for O'Connor, the only way to cope with sin is to turn to Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit and pray for the grace that can create a conversion experience and start the religious person or seeker down a new path to a more expansive life. Ultimately, Christ is the redeemer who opened the gates of heaven to Christians. But in O'Connor's stories the Holy Ghost can descend as a purifying spiritual fire to burn away egotism, greed, pride, envy, and other sins so Christians can open themselves to receiving divine grace. In all of O'Connor's stories, people are punished for their sins, but they may or may not be equipped to receive the fierce grace sent by O'Connor's formidable and sometimes brutal Holy Spirit. Sometimes it may be obvious that conversion and transformation have occurred, as they do in "Revelation," and sometimes it seems clear the protagonist has missed the boat, as in "A View from the Woods." For the most part, however, the endings of her stories are open to interpretation.

Hubris of Intellectuals

A recurring theme in Flannery O'Connor's stories is the hubris and self-delusion of her so-called intellectuals. They usually are atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists who believe they are smarter than others. Often they reject religion as superstition and may even go so far as to proselytize against it. Intellectuals are also the butt of O'Connor's most biting wit, often seen as situational or dramatic irony. They tend to be coldhearted, live in their heads, have difficulty forming meaningful relationships, and remain dependent on a parent whom they treat with scorn or disdain. Finally, they almost always get their comeuppance and are put in their place. If they are open to grace, they might experience transformation. Some examples of self-deluded intellectuals in these nine stories include:

  • Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Julian has been to college and styles himself as a liberal and an intellectual who has broken the bonds of dependence on his mother as well as erased his own racial prejudice. He is entirely deluded in these matters. The narrator points out his hypocrisy with regard to race by giving the reader access to his internal dialogue. When his mother dies at the end of the story, he takes off his mask of sophistication and cries out in mourning, "Mamma!"
  • Wesley in "Greenleaf." Wesley is a minor character who teaches at a university and hates everything. He is dependent on and nasty to his mother, incorrectly predicting she has many years to live.
  • Asbury and his sister, Mary George, in "The Enduring Chill." The protagonist in this story, Asbury has been to college and goes to New York to get away from his provincial hometown. Nonetheless, a change of venue is not enough to change his status as a failed writer. He is an infantile whiner, who blames his mother for his own shortcomings. Mary George is an elementary school principal, who is cruel to her brother and makes fun of his literary aspirations.
  • Thomas in "The Comforts of Home." A historian who has a close relationship with his mother, Thomas seems incapable of bonding with others, particularly women. He has good reason to be alarmed about the entry of the sociopathic Star into his life, but his hysteria over her sexual advances is excessive and seems to indicate he has a small ambit in which he is able to navigate the world. Because he is inept at handling difficulties, he ends up shooting and killing his mother.
  • Sheppard in "The Lame Shall Enter First." Sheppard, a college graduate, has expertise in counseling and psychology. However, he is completely deluded in his reading of Rufus Johnson, a delinquent he allows to board at his house. Sheppard's hubris knows no bounds in that he believes he can refashion Rufus in his own image. He is so blind and so set on his agenda, however, that he neglects his own son—who desperately needs him—to take care of Rufus—who does not. Sheppard's misguided actions cause his son's death.

Duty to Family

Another important theme that runs through Flannery O'Connor's stories is the primacy of family and the importance of doing one's duty with regard to family members. O'Connor was dismayed by the breakdown of traditional society, the family unit being the backbone of any society. When the family becomes weak and fails to provide its members with the love and support they need, people stumble. This movement has a domino effect that ripples through society. O'Connor also shows that when the younger generation disrespects the older generation, and young people do not know their place, they open the door to anarchy. Finally, if parents are irresponsible, children are bound to grow up with problems and may even die from parental neglect.

Several of the families in these stories are single-parent households, some headed by women. These include the mothers in "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Greenleaf," "The Enduring Chill," and "The Comforts of Home." Although they may be good to their children, they are not always respected in return. Those who are do-gooders or shame their children in one way or another create lasting rancor. Thomas's mother, a blatant do-gooder in "The Comfort of Home" puts the well-being of a sociopathic stranger ahead of the needs of her own son. This failure to adhere to her duty to the family causes the destruction of both herself and her son. A similar pattern surfaces in "The Lame Shall Enter First," in which the single father, Sheppard, puts the needs of his protégé, a malicious juvenile delinquent, ahead of the needs of his grieving son. As a result, his son commits suicide. In "Parker's Back," a wife unjustly rejects her husband because she cannot compromise between her worldview and his about to how to worship and pray. In "A View of the Woods," a narcissistic grandfather ends up killing his favorite granddaughter because she does not live up to his expectations. All the conflicts in these stories are worked out within a family circle of one sort or another, and while the primary theme of O'Connor's work is sin and redemption, the responsibility to family is closely related, as characters work out their destinies among blood relations.

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