Last year, while most people took a quarter off and enjoyed summertime in the Pacific Northwest, I took a writing class in Seattle. At some point (the 3rd or 4th week, I think), the class read some of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and shared our thoughts about them on a discussion board.
It was insightful, and a bit scary, to read many of my peers’ reflections on the stories and O’Connor herself. Insightful because I got the chance to see different perspectives that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And scary because of how some can so easily dismiss an author and their work as racist with no regard for the time and place in which they were written.
Everything that rises must converge. This is the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection published in 1965 after her death from lupus complications. It’s also the title of one of the 9 short stories contained within O’Connor’s posthumous collection.
The short story, like many others of O’Connor’s, falls into the Southern Gothic genre and deals with themes such as racism, hypocrisy (virtue signaling?), and the generational and class divide during desegregation.
Summary of Everything That Rises Must Converge
The story is set at a time when buses were just beginning to be integrated in the South. As a reader, we experience the story through the third-person POV of Julian, a typewriter salesman who just recently graduated from college. He lives with his mother, and aspires to become a writer.
One evening, Julian begrudgingly escorts his mother, who wears a recently-purchased purple hat, to the YMCA via bus. The mother had splurged on her new hat and sort of regrets it, saying she could’ve paid the gas bill with the money, but Julian, in his haste to get the deed done, convinces her to just wear it.
Initially, it’s easy to identify with Julian’s views on racism. I must admit, though, that as the story progresses, so does my irritation with his resentment towards his mother, and his constant daydreaming about teaching her a lesson.
Aboard the bus, they encounter other white women who share similar views as the mother. O’Connor captures the atmosphere of sudden change in the dialogue between the women. The idea that “They [black people] should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.” Julian retreats I and out of his own “mental bubble” not only to escape his mother’s ignorance, but also to flee from the depression of their poverty.
He fantasizes about making friends with black people to upset his mother. He comes off as very ungrateful and hypocritical. In back-to-back paragraphs, he acknowledges his mother’s sacrifices to raise him (her teeth had gone unfilled, so that his could be straightened), then goes off on a rant claiming that “in spite” of his mother, he “turned out well.”
This makes him seem disingenuous, and it shows later in the story in his awkward interactions with black bus riders. At one point, he attempts to start a conversation with a black man by asking for matches until quickly realizing that he doesn’t have any cigarettes (he couldn’t afford them) and that there’s a NO SMOKING sign in the bus.
Julian also recalls previous times he’d tried to “strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types” only to be disappointed by a well-dressed undertaker and “a cigar-smoking Negro with a diamond ring.” The black men he encounters are financially better-off than Julian, and the one with a diamond ring even gives him a couple of lottery tickets seemingly out of pity.
His mother, on the other hand, is overtly racist but in a sort of clueless, ignorant way. It’s hard to be upset with her because there are clues about her upbringing. Clues that hint at the way of life she’d known. For example, it’s revealed that, as a child, she had a black nurse named Caroline who she seems to hold affection for. O’Connor presents the mother as a traditionalist in the same way anti-abortion activist are seen today. Of course, I’m in no way equating abortion and racial inequality (though there is a huge racial disparity in abortion rates).
The inciting incident happens when a “large, gaily dressed, sullen-looking colored woman,” wearing the same exact hat as Julian’s mother, boards the bus with a little black boy named Carver. Julian hopes that the black woman sits with his mother, once again, thinking it would be a good lesson for her. O’Connor’s diction in the scene makes clear that Julian is, in fact, very much intimidated by the woman, just as his mother is afraid of black people.
He admits that his “mother lumped all children, black and white, into the common category, ‘cute,’ and … little Negroes were on the whole cuter ….” His mother actually manages to have authentic moments with Carver, unlike Julian who had tried and failed multiple times, and wasn’t even making an effort with Carver’s mother.
When Julian and his mother get to their stop, Carver and his mother get off, too. Instinctively, and to Julian’s dismay, his mother decides to give little Carver a nickel, something she likes to do with children. As it turns out, she only has a shiny new penny to give. Carver’s mother smacks (punches?) her and tells her, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!”
Julian’s fantasies of his mother being taught a lesson become reality, and he gloats, initially. But then his mother begins acting weird and Julian starts to worry. Ultimately, he realizes that his mother is having a stroke.
O’Connor uses the characters in the story to illustrate how life was in that era. The bus ride serves as a microcosm, giving us a glimpse into how regular people (both black and white) dealt with integration after many years being segregated. By choosing to tell the story from the perspective of Julian, a direct descendant of rich white slaveowners, struggling to reconcile his family history, his current family’s poverty, and the shifting racial climate in the South, O’Connor preserves a fictive, yet accurate portrait of the time period.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
In the short story, it’s painfully obvious that both Julian and his mother are racist in their own way. But what of the person who created these two racist characters? Was Flannery O’Connor “a disgusting racist whose work should be banished from modern literature”, as one of my peers put it?
Perhaps the most relevant information we can glean about O’Connor’s feelings on Southern race relations are from O’Connor herself. In a letter to Maryat Lee, published in an article by The New Yorker, she writes, “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.”
This integrationist-by-principle-segregationist-by-taste attitude mirrors Julian’s inner conflict throughout the story. He believes that the black community is entitled to rise equally with the white community, that they shouldn’t be treated differently. But, at the same time, he daydreams about the Godhigh mansion of the plantation days “that had been lost for him.”
Julian also only seeks out “the better types” and “distinguished-looking” black people. He fantasizes about “participating … in a sit-in demonstration” or bringing home a “suspiciously Negroid woman” who is “intelligent, dignified, even good” just to scorn his mother.
His motivations have little to do with his support for the black community and everything to do with his rebellion against his mother’s more traditional views.
Essentially, he’s only seeking out a token black friend to distance himself from his family’s racist history.
Ann Charters in The Story and Its Writer describes O’Connor as “one of the greatest religious writers of modern times” (709). O’Connor’s religious background, though an important influence, is never explicitly mentioned in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Instead, we see subtle hints of it scattered here and there.
As Julian impatiently waits for his mother to get ready to leave the house, he poses in the doorway “like Saint Sebastian.” On their way to catch the bus, he “walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith.” His grandmother’s family name being “Godhigh” also hints at the religious influence.
In her essay in The New York Review, prolific author, Joyce Carol Oates, writes about O’Connor’s religious upbringing and her rebellious attitude towards her mother. It’s interesting to learn about this rebellious side, particularly towards her “stubborn, self-righteous, and unflagging” religious mother.
Her real life relationship with her mother, in a way, also resembles Julian’s own relationship with his. Oates writes that at the age of fifteen, O’Connor lost her father (also to lupus) and took it “as a sign of God’s grace.” In the short story, there is no mention of Julian’s own father.
O’Connor, in her own words, writes that “Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate” (Charters, 1199), that, for her, “the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ” (Charters, 709).
In addition to her religious beliefs, she leaves behind her thoughts on writing. She asserts that the “meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” And that writing fiction “calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether … a naturalistic story or a fantasy” (Charters, 1194). In other words, as a writer of fiction, we draw from our lived experiences to give our stories and characters life.
O’Connor states as fact that “fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part—the conscious as well as the unconscious mind” (Charters, 1196).
Applying this assertion to the main characters, we see the two faces of racism in the story—the fox and the wolf. Julian symbolizes the self-righteous, racist liberal, and his mother represents the unapologetic, traditional kind.
Furthermore, O’ Connor writes that fiction requires two qualities: “the sense of mystery and … the sense of manners,” that the sense of manners come “from the texture of existence that surrounds you” (Charters, 1197). If her sense of manners come from her environment (the South during the Jim Crow era), then her sense of mystery must come from her religious background.
Considering her strict attention to the real, we can begin to piece together where her personal experiences bleed into her fiction writing. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” O’Conner weaves together her environment and her background to beautifully capture the atmosphere of the South in a short story.
More than fifty years after her death, O’Connor and her words have retained their relevance for a reason. A quarter of the way into “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian and his mother have an argument about culture before they board the bus. Julian had just removed his tie to spite her, and she responds by telling him he looks like a thug.
Rolling his eyes upward, he put his tie back on. “Restored to my class,” he muttered. He thrust his face toward her and hissed, “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.”
“It’s in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.”
“Nobody in the damn bus cares who you are.”
“I care who I am,” she said icily.
I would say true culture is in both our hearts and our minds. The heart as the intuition, and the mind as the intellect. If we’re all intellect with no intuition, we’ll never have the heart to truly empathize with others. If we’re all intuition with no intellect, we’ll act out impulsively with no regard for the consequences our actions have on others.
Simply put, don’t be demeaning because you know stuff. And don’t let your emotions think for you.
O’Connor, through Julian and his mother, warn us about the extremes of our own dual natures. Whether it’s the duality between philosophy and theology, liberalism and conservatism, or masculinity and femininity, there’s a certain balance that’s required in order for both natures to rise and eventually converge. Essentially, two equal halves create a whole.
Read “Everything That Rises Must Converse”
Featured Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay