In Everything That Rises Must Converge Flannery O’Connor penned a short story with eloquence, a moral lesson and her Southern Catholic upbringing in full evidence. The story revolves around Julian and his mother, who is overweight, prejudiced and an embarrassment to the young man who finished college yet must rely on his mother’s support for lack of a job. While his mother unfairly judges others by the color of their skin, Julian also does his share of judging shown by the denigrating attitude he adopts when dealing with her.
A thinly veiled reference to theology in the title refers to the ability of a person to overcome mortal and immaterial concerns which will allow him to rise above these petty matters and converge in an ideal place – heaven. Tying this message in with the moral of the story occurs through the use of irony and action as O’Connor shows the reader the various faces of judgment and how those who are most judgmental often turn out to be those who most vehemently oppose the idea of intolerance in others.
The theme of the story revolves around racism, superiority, judgment and intolerance. Told in third voice omniscient voice, the exposition and background of the main characters starts immediately in the beginning paragraphs and then moves on to the action with the scenes on the bus. Through indirect characterization shown with the use of action sequences and dialogue and interspersed with a good deal of irony, the reader becomes intimate with Julian and his mother and their respective points of view.
Julian is found to be a quite cynical son who sees himself as suffering through the eccentricities of his mother: On the way to the bus stop, “He walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith”. He does not want to hear his mother talk of her grandiose family history nor the great mansion that was once worked by slaves – yet, he dreams of what it would be like to live there. Perhaps due to his education, he fancies himself above the racism so apparent in Mrs. Chestny and uses every opportunity to attempt to show his mother the error of her ways.
When a Black man boards the bus, Julian fervently wishes that he will sit next to his mother so that she will agonize over the fact. Instead, he takes the seat next to the Black passenger and asks for a light to strike up conversation, even though he does not smoke and cannot do so on the bus. Ironically, Julian’s attempt to teach his mother a lesson of tolerance instead leaves him looking the fool. Even so, “He imagined his mother lying desperately ill and his being able to secure only a Negro doctor for her”.
Julian’s mother is obviously a woman of the old South with the same set of values and view of the world considering the White race superior that permeated the deep southern recesses of the country in the 1960’s. As Julian accompanies his mother to the bus so she can attend a weight loss class at the Y, she states, “Most of them in it are not our kind of people…but I can be gracious to anybody. I know who I am. ” A sense of her place in the world is important to Mrs. Chestny, who assumes an attitude of authority based on her family history as slave owners and a grandfather who was a governor of the state.
In another ironic twist, she holds great affection for her Black nurse, Caroline, and it is she whom Mrs. Chestny cries out to for help as she lays dying in the street. Further irony is shown in the atrocious hat that she continually talks about – the exorbitant price, the style, its uniqueness, the repeated decisions to take it back to the store where she bought it. When a large, angry Black woman boards the bus with a young boy, it does not escape either her or Julian that the woman is wearing the very same hat! Through a series of dialogues and actions, the author repeats the theme of racism as the plot progresses.
Mrs. Chestny coerces her son into accompanying on the bus ride to the Y because it desegregated and she deems it unsafe. While she speaks of the days when her family owned a plantation and slaves, Julian cringes yet as he remembers the house, “Negroes were living in it”. During the bus ride, his mother will only talk to White patrons, although she considers Black children to be worthy of at least a tiny bit of regard. When she attempts to give a penny to the little boy whose Black mother wears a hat identical to hers, it is her final downfall. The Black woman wants nothing to do with Mrs.
Chestny, ironically treating her much the same way the White woman would react to someone of color attempting to communicate with her child. The woman refuses to let her son have the penny and then “she seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much”. This violent reaction causes Mrs. Chestny to fall to the sidewalk. As she lies there, Julian smugly tells her, “You got exactly what you deserved”. It is only after his mother cries out for help from Caroline, her Black nurse, that Julian realizes she is dying.
Julian’s derision quickly turns to panic as her life fades away and he realizes that his greatest supporter – that racist, judgmental, intolerant old woman wearing the embarrassingly ugly hat – is gone. He is left alone to regard his treatment of her and to assess his own judgmental and intolerant ways: “The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow”. Flannery O’Connor ends the short story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, with a shocking climax and bitter tone designed to give the reader a different view on the vagaries of racism.
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