"Everything that Rises Must Converge"
Flannery O'Connor's short story "Everything that Rises Must Converge" was originally published in 1961 in New World Writing. By the time of its publication, O'Connor was already an acclaimed Southern writer known for fiction that often employed violence and the grotesque to convey a message. The violent episodes in her fiction provide opportunities for characters to receive spiritual redemption, though they do not always obtain it. As a practicing Catholic, O'Connor believed it was necessary to use violence and depravity in her stories in order to, as Patricia S. Yaeger notes in the "Flannery O'Connor" entry in Modern American Women Writers, "make modern perversions visible to a nonreligious audience accustomed to seeing perversions as 'natural.'"
O'Connor has become synonymous with the literary use of the grotesque. A grotesque is a character or situation whose features and attributes have been heightened or distorted, as in a caricature drawing. Grotesques allow O'Connor's readers to encounter extreme situations with heightened consequences so that they might discover a new perspective. Though O'Connor hated to be labeled merely as a Catholic writer—she believed her themes and subject matter to go beyond religion—she readily acknowledged her faith's influence on her writing. As Nancy K. Butterworth writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The core Page 215 | Top of Articleconcern of her fiction is the fallen state of modern humanity unaware of its need for redemption."
Most, if not all, of O'Connor's stories, including "Everything that Rises Must Converge," are set in the South. Born in Savannah and raised in Milledgeville, the pre-Civil War capital of Georgia, O'Connor spent the majority of her life near her hometown. Her experiences as a Southerner, a woman, a member of a historically wealthy family, and a Catholic in a Protestant region deeply influenced her writing. Her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, was from a wealthy Georgia family concerned with traditional Southern appearances. She took great pains to maintain her family's reputation for gentility and class and was occasionally scandalized by the subject matter of O'Connor's stories. She was not alone, as many of O'Connor's readers and critics were baffled and even offended by the bizarre violence and inhumanity present in her fiction.
"Everything that Rises Must Converge" is a story about race, class, and identity set in an early 1960s Southern city. Young college graduate Julian accompanies his mother to her classes at the Y because she refuses to ride integrated buses alone. While they are on the bus, their views on class, race, entitlement, obligation, and power are tested against each other and the environment they live in. Julian confronts the world with a modern, integrationist point of view, while his mother dwells on the past and refuses to address the changing times. The routine bus ride becomes a moral showdown between Julian and his mother, and the outcome leaves no clear winner. As O'Connor's friend Robert Fitzgerald writes in his 1965 introduction to the story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge, "'Rising' and 'convergence' in these stories, as the title story at once makes clear, are shown in classes, generations, and colors." As Julian and his mother battle over the issue of race, their argument escalates into an Page 216 | Top of Articleattack on the mother's perceptions of class and stature. However, Julian's moral high ground is shaky at best, and his motives suspect, as he attempts to show his mother his superior culture and breeding. By the end of the story, it is clear that Julian's mother's idea of identity based on class, history, and social obligation are outdated and useless in an evolving world. O'Connor herself saw no value in holding on to the past, but neither was she a vocal integrationist or participant in the civil rights movement. She has simultaneously been lauded for depicting relatively liberal characters in her stories and criticized for seemingly holding to Southern prejudices and discrimination. The reoccurring use of the slur "nigger" in her fiction has troubled even her staunchest supporters.
"Everything that Rises Must Converge" won the 1963 first prize O. Henry Award for short stories. O'Connor had previously won a first prize O. Henry for the short story "Greenleaf" (1957) and would win another posthumously (after death) in 1965 for "Revelation." All three of these award-winning stories are included in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge (1965) and also The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1971), a collection published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor won the National Book Award in 1971.
Julian's mother goes to the Y every Wednesday night for weight loss classes. Her doctor told her she must lose twenty pounds due to high blood pressure. She does not like to ride the buses at night since they have been integrated, so she insists that Julian accompany her. He is easily annoyed by his mother, but she tells him he owes it to her for all the things she has done for him through the years. Begrudgingly, he goes with her. Julian's mother, a widow, supports Julian, who is just out of college and hoping to be a writer. As they walk through their neighborhood to the bus stop, Julian notes that it is no longer the fashionable neighborhood it was forty years ago, though his mother does not seem to notice this. His mother makes a comment about their small home, and Julian tells her that when he finally starts making money, they will have a large place in the country. Neither Julian nor his mother believes that is likely to happen anytime soon.
Julian's mother is wearing a new purple and green hat that she just bought, but she is unsure if she truly likes it. Julian thinks she looks ridiculous, but says nothing. His mother decides at the last minute to take off the hat, return it, and use the money to pay the electric bill. Julian demands that she keep it on. His mother mumbles on about how the world has become a "mess," and that the "bottom rail is on the top." She tells him that she knows who she is, referring mostly to her bloodline, and despite the changing times and neighborhood, she is still the same person. To underscore her claim, she recounts what she considers to be their family's prestigious history: "'You remain what you are,' she said. 'Your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves.'" When Julian reminds her that slavery has long since been abolished, she says that blacks "were better off when they were [slaves]." Julian is used to this conversation, as it is a recurring one. He notes that it always ends the same way: his mother thinks that blacks should "rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence."
To change the subject, Julian's mother talks about her family's old plantation house that has long since fallen into ruin and been sold out of the family. Julian pictures it in its heyday, as in his mother's stories, and believes that he would Page 217 | Top of Articlehave appreciated it more than she ever could. His mother circles back around to talking about race, this time telling him, "I've always had a great respect for my colored friends…. I'd do anything in the world for them." To pay for what he considers his mother's sins in regard to race, Julian makes it a point to sit next to a black person anytime he rides the bus alone. As Julian and his mother wait at the bus stop, his irritation with her grows. He defiantly takes off his tie and shoves it in his pocket, and his mother accuses him of "deliberately embarrass[ing]" her. She manages to shame him into putting the tie back on, but after doing so, he tells her that "True culture is in the mind, the mind." She counters that it is in the heart and is a result of who a person is, again alluding to one's family pedigree.
Once on the bus, Julian's mother tries to start conversation with anyone who is willing. After surveying the half-full bus and noting that there are only white passengers on board, she proclaims that they have the bus to themselves. Julian cringes. Several of the other passengers make similar statements. Julian's mother tells anyone who is listening that Julian wants to be a writer, but is selling typewriters to make ends meet. Julian reads a newspaper to ignore his mother. She tells him that struggling is fun, and he is resentful that she not only considers struggling fun, but that she thinks she has won the struggle because he went to college. He believes that he has been successful despite his mother and that "in spite of all her foolish views, he [is] free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts."
At the next stop, a black man dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase boards the bus and sits near one of the women that Julian's mother had been talking with earlier. She elbows Julian and whispers to him, "Now you see why I won't ride on these buses by myself." The woman changes seats as soon as the black man sits down next to her, and Julian's mother gives her an approving look for doing so. Julian crosses the aisle and sits next to the black man, feeling as if "he [has] openly declared war" on his mother. He wonders if the man noticed the changing of seats and wishes he could strike up a conversation with him. He asks the man for a light, and the man gives Julian a packet of matches, but Julian does not have any cigarettes on him and there is a "No Smoking" sign on the bus. He returns the matches to the man, who is annoyed. Julian's mother stares at Julian, and she appears to be getting ill before his eyes. The man refuses to allow Julian to start a conversation and remains hidden behind his newspaper. Julian toys with the idea of making his mother get off the bus and walk to the Y alone so that she does not think that she can always depend on him.
Julian begins to fantasize about ways to teach his mother a lesson: bringing a black person home for dinner, or making black friends, though "of the better types" like lawyers or doctors. All of his attempts to do so in the past had been failures, as none of the black people he meets seem to have any interest in befriending him. He imagines participating in sit-ins, or bringing a black doctor to treat his mother. For the ultimate lesson, he imagines marrying a black woman. He thinks this last idea might be too much for his mother's blood pressure to handle. At the next stop, a black woman and her child board the bus. The woman is wearing the same green and purple hat that Julian's mother has on. The woman sits next to Julian, and her young son sits next to Julian's mother; "she and the woman had, in a sense, swapped sons." Julian rejoices in the two women wearing the same hat, as he feels it teaches his mother a lesson about her presumptions about class and her feeling of entitlement. He immediately sees, however, that his mother does not see the event as a lesson, but rather "as if the woman were a monkey that had stolen her hat." The woman's son becomes enamored with Julian's mother and begins to play little games to get her attention. The boy's mother grabs him up like "she [is] snatching him from contagion."
At the next stop, the man reading the newspaper gets off the bus and the woman moves over one seat so that her son is sitting between her and Julian. The child plays peek-a-boo with Julian's mother, for which his mother roundly disciplines him. As they approach the next stop, both Julian and the woman pull the cord to get off. Julian is worried that his mother will give the woman money, a "gesture [that] would be as natural to her as breathing." His mother searches her purse for a nickel, but can only find a penny. Julian begs her not to do it. His mother runs after the woman and her son, offering the penny. Furious, the woman yells that her son does not take anyone's pennies and knocks Julian's mother to the ground. Julian tells her that she got what she deserved. He helps her off the ground and she looks at him as if "trying to Page 218 | Top of Articledetermine his identity." She tells him she is going home, and begins to walk. He tells her that that woman is her "black double," wearing the same hat as her, and that her old ways of thinking and acting are obsolete in these modern times. His mother walks ahead as if unhearing. He tells her she is acting like a child, and then he stops walking and insists they wait for a bus to take them home. When he grabs her arm to stop her, she tells him to get her (deceased) grandfather or her childhood servant, Caroline, to come get her. She is disoriented, believing she is in the past. She collapses to the ground. Julian runs for help as his mother dies in the street.
Class plays an integral role in Julian and his mother's relationship in "Everything that Rises Must Converge." Julian's mother defines herself by the past fortunes of her family, the Chestnys, though that fortune is long gone. She still considers herself a member of the upper-class, genteel society that holds to old Southern customs. Even without money, she clings to her right to be a part of that elite group. Julian's mother takes pride in being one of the only ones in her class at the Y who comes dressed "in hat and gloves and who [has] a son who [has] been to college." Julian notes that "[a]ll of her life had been a struggle to act like a Chestny without the Chestny goods, and to give him everything she thought a Chestny ought to have." She insists throughout the story that her history allows her to know who she truly is, a fact that remains constant in spite of her reduced financial status. Julian argues that class and distinction are purely mental, the result of an education and an open mind. However, it is Julian who cherishes the image of the Chestny mansion, long since fallen into disrepair and sold away. He believes himself alone to be fully able to appreciate the history and significance of the home because of his education. He considers himself of a higher class, at least intellectually, than his mother, and therefore more deserving of fine things.
Julian's mother also uses her class status as a form of protection, a way of separating "us" from "them." Patricia S. Yaeger notes in the "Flannery O'Connor" entry in Modern American Women Writers that Julian's mother, like many of O'Connor's female characters, is "preoccupied with rules separating and sanctioning the divisions between the South's races … and classes." Race and class collide when a black woman boards the bus wearing the same hat as Julian's mother, a hat that Julian considers "a banner of her imaginary dignity." Julian's mother had debated whether or not to even keep the hat in the first place because of its cost. She considered returning it and using the money to pay bills instead. Julian delights at his mother's discomfort in seeing the black woman in the same hat, but his mother is determined to show her breeding and "culture" by behaving in a way that demonstrates—to both Julian and the woman—that she remains socially superior. When she offers the woman's son a penny, she shows that she has money enough to give away to those she considers beneath her. Her concept of class division is leveled, literally and figuratively, when the woman knocks her to the ground.
Fear and Racism
The plot of "Everything that Rises Must Converge" is based on Julian's mother's fear of black people on the bus. As a woman whose grandfather had owned slaves and whose family formerly enjoyed a privileged life, she is unable to conceive of blacks and whites sharing the same place in society. She finds the recently integrated buses and social advances of blacks a "mess," and "simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence." Julian's mother's racism is a product of her class and of the time period. She is an old woman set in her ways and resistant to change. Julian, however, having just come out of college, views the situation differently. He has come of age in the civil rights era and embraces it in a way the older generation cannot or will not. Julian is afraid that he will be associated with the likes of his mother, so he goes out of his way to befriend black people that he encounters, always choosing a seat next to them on the bus or trying to strike up conversation. He wishes to talk with the black man who gets on the bus with him and his mother, but the man refuses to look up from his newspaper, and there is "no way for Julian to convey his sympathy" over the reactions of his mother and the others on the bus.
In some ways, Julian uses race as a weapon in the silent war he has declared on his mother. He imagines her discomfort, fear, and rage at the thought of him making black friends, bringing them home to dinner, or participating in civil Page 219
Top of Article
rights sit-ins. He considers the ultimate shocker: marrying a black woman. Though he thinks the last idea might push his mother's blood pressure too high, he relishes the idea of her having to face her racism and fears. The idea of convergence—coming together and merging, which, as the title of the story indicates, must occur as people rise—between black and whites, rich and poor, is not only distasteful to Julian's mother, but beyond her comprehension.
To prove to her son that she will not be bested by his behavior on the bus, Julian's mother, firmly asserting her belief in the superiority of her race and class, offers a penny to the boy in an act of condescension masked in lighthearted goodwill. Julian tries to stop her, but his mother chases after the woman and her son to give the boy a shiny penny. The boy's mother swings at Julian's mother and yells, "He don't take nobody's pennies!" Julian tells his mother that she has gotten what she deserves, and that her "old manners are obsolete." Unable to recognize her son or understand the time in which she is living, Julian's mother collapses in a stroke.
For nearly a century after the Civil War, many whites in the South romanticized the times before war. Many clung to the old ways, manners, and social structures of the antebellum (pre-war) years, and glorified the past. O'Connor was not one of them, though she was familiar with the phenomenon. After her father died, O'Connor and her mother moved into her maternal grandfather's house in Milledgeville. The home was part of the city's garden tour, and O'Connor was, in essence, living in an artifact of preserved history.
Julian's mother's memories of her family's plantation sustain her, even as she condemns the integrated world as a mess: "I don't know how we've let it get in this fix." She continually talks of her family's long-gone wealth, expansive plantation, and gentility, and daydreams back to her childhood days at her grandfather's house. Julian tells her that she cannot continue to identify herself with her family's former wealth and social station because "Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. Page 220 | Top of ArticleYou haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now or who you are." She disagrees and tells him she knows exactly who she is because of her family history. This changes, however, when a black woman knocks Julian's mother to the ground after she offers a penny to her son. Dazed, Julian's mother begins to walk home and Julian reprimands her: "From now on you've got to live in a new world and face a few realities for a change." She stares at him as if she does not recognize him, then instructs him to tell her longdead grandfather to come get her. Julian's mother retreats into the past, into a world that she can understand and recognize. She calls for Caroline, her childhood servant, a black woman whom she knew how to control. Julian's mother cannot live in an integrated, changing world where her past means nothing, and therefore she dies on the street. As Yaeger writes, "O'Connor's characters are most at risk when they try to recapture the past, when they pay homage to faded plantation glories…. [She] finds the persistence of these Southern values fatal."
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The event, though not the first of its kind in the segregated South, sparked a boycott that would eventually lead to the Supreme Court's decision one year later to desegregate the buses.
In response to Parks's arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, the president of the Women's Political Council, and the young Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a boycott of Montgomery public buses on the following Monday, December 5. The black community in Montgomery refused to ride the buses until they were desegregated. Ridership plummeted, and the city lost nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in revenue from its empty buses. For almost a year, blacks carpooled, walked, and rode bicycles instead of taking the bus. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court found the racially segregated seating on all Alabama buses to be illegal and demanded their integration. This decision eventually trickled into neighboring Southern states, until the practice of segregation—in all public areas, not only buses—was struck down throughout the country. The Supreme Court decision was a major victory for the civil rights movement, which would continue to gain momentum throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Racial Tension in the South
Racial tension and oppression have long been aspects of life in the South. The Civil War, fought largely over the issue of slavery, did not alleviate these issues. Rather, the events that followed the war heightened tensions between black and white Americans. After slavery was abolished in 1865, Northern investors (known derisively as carpetbaggers) and federal troops descended on the southern states to rebuild and govern the region, a period known as Reconstruction. During this time, African Americans enjoyed a level of social, economic, and political freedom greater than they had ever known. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution allowed black men the right to vote, and many owned businesses and property. Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the emergence of oppressive, racist governments there. The Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) allowed for a "separate but equal" status for blacks which, in the South, paved the way for legislated segregation in the form of Jim Crow laws.
Jim Crow laws not only restricted African Americans' access to public facilities, including drinking fountains, restrooms, parks, transportation, schools, and hospitals, but also created harsh restrictions on their ability to exercise their legal right to vote. As Yaeger notes, "The white Southerners of [O'Connor's] era struggled to enforce sharp demarcations between genders, between classes, and, most brutally, between races." Though Brown v. Board of Education (1954) nullified the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and called for desegregated schools, many places refused to comply. Federal troops were called upon to enforce school integrations in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. In the early 1960s, civil rights advocates—Southerners and non-Southerners, black and white—worked in the South to support integration and voting rights. Local resistance, led by the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan, was often violent. Several sensational murders and bombings drew the nation's Page 221 | Top of Articleattention to the region's plight, which bolstered support for a fair, legal remedy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law just one month before O'Connor died, outlawed racial discrimination in public life.
Southern Literary Renaissance
The Southern literary renaissance began in the 1920s and continued through the 1960s, when Southern writers turned away from romanticizing the past and lamenting the loss of the Civil War, and began to write about modern experiences in the South. This turning point in Southern literature began after World War I, an event that altered artistic expression the world over and ushered in the modernist movement. Modernist writers tried to look at the world from a new perspective, as they found traditional views and values inadequate in the aftermath of the immense war.
Three generations removed from slavery and the Civil War, Southern writers in the 1920s and 1930s began to explore the war and its repercussions with a cool rationalism that was impossible earlier. These Southern writers began to examine the idea of history itself and how past events continued to affect individuals and society as whole. They also examined slavery and racism more critically than their literary forebears had dared to do. In the idiosyncratic, family-centered, and tradition-bound atmosphere of the South, writers also addressed the ways people could celebrate their individuality in a conservative, conformist society.
Other writers of the Southern literary renaissance include William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Eudora Welty (The Optimist's Daughter), Walker Percy (The Moviegoer), Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Katherine Anne Porter (Flowering Judas and Other Stories), and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).
Though Flannery O'Connor is now considered one of the best American writers of the twentieth century, critics and readers in her own time had mixed feelings about her work. As Nancy K. Butterworth writes in "Flannery O'Connor," "Many readers have been disturbed by her bizarre characters and pervasive use of violence; others have been confused by her confounding of traditional regional, religious, and literary categories." After the publication of O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood (1952), Butterworth notes that the book was greeted by "unsympathetic criticism reflecting almost total incomprehension of her intent." Reviews improved with the publication of A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955), as critics, readers, and fellow writers began to appreciate O'Connor's skill. In his introduction to The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, her publisher Robert Giroux quotes O'Connor's fan and fellow writer Thomas Merton, who would not compare her with great modern writers, but with "someone like Sophocles…. I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man's fall and his dishonor." Poet Elizabeth Bishop calls O'Connor's writing "clear, hard, vivid, and full of bits of description, phrases, and an odd insight that contains more real poetry than a dozen books of poems" (quoted in Giroux). Nearly fifty years later, Washington Post reviewer Jonathon Yardley, in a commemorative review of The Habit of Being titled "The Writer Who Was Full of Grace," calls O'Connor "one of the greatest American writers."
"Everything that Rises Must Converge" was initially published in New World Writing in 1961, for which O'Connor won an O. Henry Award First Prize. The honor, which recognizes the best American short story published in a magazine, was the fifth of six O. Henry Awards—the second of three first prize awards—that she received. The story was republished as the title story in a posthumous 1965 collection, which was roundly praised for its unique voice and accomplished writing technique. Giroux deems her last works "as nearly perfect as stories can be." Even critics who found fault with the stories or with O'Connor's writing style admired the work. In the New York Review of Books, Irving Howe's review titled "Flannery O'Connor's Stories" acknowledges that "Everything that Rises Must Converge" is "unquestionably effective." Yet, he continues, it is "lacking in that resonance Miss O'Connor clearly hoped it might have." Nevertheless, Howe calls the writing in the collection "firm, economical, complex: we are engaged with an intelligence, not merely a talent."
"Everything that Rises Must Converge" was reviewed twice by the New York Times in May 1965: once in the book review section, and once in the recurring "Books of the Times" feature. Page 222
Top of Article
In the "Books of the Times" article, "The Wonderful Stories of Flannery O'Connor," Charles Poore hails O'Connor as a "wonderfully gifted" writer whose stories in Everything that Rises Must Converge "[show] us how finely her promise was fulfilled." Richard Poirier's "If You Know Who You Are You Can Go Anywhere" appeared three days after Poore's review. Poirier notes O'Connor's abilities as a comic writer, but also writes that her "major limitation is that the direction of her stories tends to be nearly always the same," a habit that "is more bothersomely apparent in this collection" than in her previous work. However, he says, her "repetitiousness is an indication of how serious a writer she is."
Critical praise continued when, in 1988, the Library of America issued O'Connor's Collected Works, which includes short stories, letters, essays, and her novels. In Doris Grumbach's review for National Public Radio, she raves that "Her perfectly formed prose burns with the passion she perceived in every human being, especially those with a vision, no matter how askew, of God and transcendence" (quoted on Library of America website). A review of the collection in The New Yorker states that "No other major American writer of our century has constructed a fictional world so energetically and forthrightly charged by religious investigation" (quoted on Library of America website). The Washington Post writes that "her vision was universal" (quoted on Library of America website). In "Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works" for the National Review, Chilton Williamson Jr. calls O'Connor "consistently one of the finest literary artists to appear in this (or any) country in this century."
Some reviews have questioned O'Connor's stand on integration and other race issues. Though some argue that O'Connor's race sensibilities were a product of time and geography, Page 223 | Top of Articleothers insist that her opinions were a personal decision, not merely a society-wide mentality. In "Flannery O'Connor's Racial Morals and Manners," Ralph C. Wood argues that "O'Connor's liberal use of the word 'nigger' discloses an illiberal numbness to the evils that blacks suffered in the segregated South." Patricia S. Yaeger, in "Flannery O'Connor," notes:
Although she was a resolute integrationist who recognized the plight of Southern blacks, O'Connor also accepted the most painful Southern conventions…. Although O'Connor satirizes this world in her fiction, in public she would not take a stand.
O'Connor continues to be appreciated as one of America's greatest writers of the twentieth century, and she is regularly mentioned alongside Nobel Prize-Cwinning author William Faulkner in discussions of great Southern writers. That O'Connor's writing continues to reverberate to readers in the twenty-first century is a testament to her skill and the messages her writing convey.
Charles T. Rubin and Leslie G. Rubin
In the following excerpt, Rubin and Rubin argue that O'Connor's characters in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge are struggling against the changing political and social nature of the South in the 1950s and 1960s
More than a matter of regional interest, the focus on the South in Flannery O'Connor's last work, the collection of short stories Everything Than Rises Must Converge, is her reflection on a change of regime that was reaching a culmination in the period during which the stories were written, roughly from 1956 to her death in 1964. Each story shows interactions among characters formed by or struggling against ideas, expectations, or institutions that, in their egalitarianism or materialism or progressivism, challenge old Southern ways and assumptions. While examining these confrontations, O'Connor raises questions about the Old South and about the new American regime that reach far beyond the Mason-Dixon line.
O'Connor's characters are explicitly, if quietly, presented as living in the wake of World War II, the GI Bill, postwar prosperity for some, the space race, and the Civil Rights movement. We suggest that their personal spiritual struggles are formed at least in part by that context. The social and political settings also present competing moral visions that are arguably unique, at least in their conjunction, to the South of the mid-twentieth century. By placing her stories in the South that she knew, O'Connor was fortunate in being able to deal dramatically with conflicts among various strands of modernity and Christianity and between old and new understandings of democracy.
That the results of challenging the old ways are nearly uniformly violent and "grotesque" should not mislead one into thinking that O'Connor is herself merely a partisan of the old ways. She is an equal-opportunity exposer of falsehood and pretension. Her stories seem to be efforts to sort out what of the old should be abandoned, and what either needs to be saved or is unfortunately destined to be lost in light of what in the new is most problematic. The old, aristocratic, spiritually rich South has lessons that the modern, democratic, secular North ignores at its peril.
To the extent, at least, of offering useful correctives, O'Connor can be read as a friend of postwar, American liberal democracy and its inexorable reformation of the South and itself. It must be immediately acknowledged, however, that her friendship is of a distanced or perhaps more precisely Augustinian character. Although the broad context of her stories reflects a concern for the requirements of "well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule," she jealously guarded her position as a "captive and stranger" in the earthly city, and her ultimate concern with the shape and destiny of human souls transcends any particular place and time.
There is no novelty in suggesting that there can be some tension within this kind of critical friendship, but there is some in finding it in O'Connor's stories. It is not wrong to see those stories as primarily complex, spiritual parables—unless so doing reduces the context and setting for the dramas to mere accident or to the idiosyncrasy of simply writing what one knows. That error is part of what makes it easy for some to dismiss the stories as merely grotesque, as caricatures without any connection to the world beyond Southern landscapes and accents. Even if one's concern is (appropriately) with the spiritual teaching of the stories, that teaching loses some of its power to speak to the reader unless it presents Page 224 | Top of Articlea world that is in some way recognizable. Indeed, the power of the spiritual critique of business as usual depends on an accurate representation of what business usually is.
It is not, therefore, difficult to see why someone with O'Connor's otherworldly concerns about the tendencies of an increasingly secular, materialistic, and egalitarian regime should be willing to take those tendencies seriously. It is less clear why this regime should take the corrective suggested by her stories seriously, given the divergence of underlying premises. Leaving aside the vexed question of the place of religion within American founding principles, we show that the stories suggest in particularly dramatic ways the inherent limitations of the new ways and the points at which they founder on the rocks of unpleasant but undeniable realities.
We begin with short summaries of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge to show the pervasiveness of both the spiritual and political themes. Then we look more closely at a few key topics related to the changing Southern regime to investigate how O'Connor combines them with her spiritual concerns.
The first story, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," is steeped in the social transformation brought about by the regime changes of the Civil Rights era. As Julian's mother (she is not given a name) puts it, "The bottom rail is on the top." She goes on to repeat to Julian her regularly expressed opinion, obviously tied to the title: "'They were better off when they were [slaves],' she said…. 'It's ridiculous. It's simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.'" A like-minded stranger provides us with a more specific sign of the change, when she notes that on a bus ride the previous day, "They were thick as fleas—up front and all through." Julian, like a number of other O'Connor characters, has received a collegiate education in the new doctrines of racial equality, while his mother lives with the new, integrated transportation arrangements. His training makes him go out of his way to make overtures (even, perhaps, particularly pointless ones) to black people; her training makes her both nostalgic for her black nanny and apprehensive about riding the bus downtown alone. The crux of the plot, when Julian's mother is struck by a black woman, suffers a seizure, and dies, turns essentially on the new political society of the South—a world in which white women may no longer give pennies to "cute … little Negroes" without arousing wrath.
The discovery that Julian's overweight mother and the "large" black woman wear the same hat both heightens Julian's pleasure in pointing out his mother's political incorrectness and reveals O'Connor's critical distance from her characters. The convergence of the rising classes is embodied in identical, ridiculous hats. Although Julian's mother is generally the object of our sympathy, her hat is ugly, and her imagined social position as a descendent of the former ruling class is untenable. Her widowhood and her devotion to her only son have reduced her to the hardworking class. She has more in common with the black woman across the aisle from her than she will admit. The gravamen of the story's climax rests on Julian, however. He wants his mother to learn a lesson about her true place in the new world and about the new respect due to the "Negroes." The intellectually satisfying yet brutal way in which it is delivered kills her.
It is not easy to characterize O'Connor's attitude toward the egalitarian civil rights initiatives of the 1950s and early 1960s. There is no doubt that she shows characters dealing with the social consequences of a change in political rules. As if from outside, the United States as a whole has imposed a new way of thinking about social and political relationships on the small towns and countryside of the South.
O'Connor shows sympathetically the resentments that arise as a result of self-righteous outside interference, on the one hand, and an equality that rises only to "mind your own business," on the other. Julian's mother is innocent in her inability to understand the "symbolic significance" of the identical hats or the patronizing attitude that prompts her to give the little boy a penny—even Julian glimpses that innocence before "principle rescued him." O'Connor pulls no punches with regard to the black characters' attitude about their new situation: The "large Negro" man, "well dressed and carr[ying] a briefcase," ignores or does not notice Julian's gesture of moving to the seat near him, appears annoyed when Julian uselessly asks for a match, and refuses "to come out from behind his paper." The "large, gaily dressed, sullen-looking colored Page 225 | Top of Articlewoman" who sits next to Julian is described as brimming with resentment:
Her face was set not only to meet opposition but to seek it out. The downward tilt of her large lower lip was like a warning sign: DON'T TAMPER WITH ME….[She] muttered something unintelligible to herself. He was conscious of a kind of bristling next to him, a muted growling like that of an angry cat…. The woman was rumbling like a volcano about to become active.
And when Julian's mother suggests that the woman's son likes her, "the woman stood up and yanked the little boy off the seat as if she were snatching him from contagion." When Julian's mother persists, playing peek-a-boo with the boy, the child's mother "slapped his hand down. 'Quit yo' foolishness,' she said, 'before I knock the living Jesus out of you!'" To say the least, neither Julian nor the reader is surprised when the woman hits Julian's mother for giving her son a penny.
The abstract egalitarianism that the young bring back from their forays North seems inextricably bound up with a distortion of human feeling—a wish to be left alone. Julian is proud that "he was not dominated by his mother." The patent falsity of this conclusion, which is based on his contempt for her willingness to sacrifice herself for his advancement, does not diminish his certainty in it. In contrast, Julian sees himself as a martyr, forced to accompany his mother downtown on the bus because of her prejudices toward blacks.
The South that O'Connor portrays is a world of ironies and distorted meanings. "Northern" demands for equality produce a desire to be left alone rather than a sense of common humanity. The ties that remain to bind people together in the new South are those of lazy dependency (sons living off their mothers) or the decaying remnants of outright subjugation. Scientific knowledge and technology, usually seen as liberating extensions of human capacity, are shown to narrow and limit our ability to understand the world around us. Efforts to control the unruly and unpleasant aspects of the world regularly lead to disaster rather than to commodious self-preservation.
These reversals account for a good deal of what is commonly labeled "grotesque" in O'Connor's fiction. The justice behind this label is that the events on which she focuses surely do not occur everyday. Can these situations then be dismissed as figments of a Southern writer's imagination? Such things do happen in real life, and the death and betrayal that she describes are a stock element in various genres of contemporary fiction. For the most part we approach such events, whether real or imagined, thoughtlessly, and when we do think about them it is likely to be with conveniently available categories. O'Connor's stories work if she can shake us out of that thoughtlessness or complacency and suggest the need for, and the parameters of, some new vision to go along with the terrible events.
We have suggested that O'Connor's is a vision that entails substantial doubts, doubts neither original nor unique to her, about the transformation and modernization of the South as well as about its traditional ways. Following up on the implications of that vision would produce a withdrawal from much of the common enthusiasms of the new regime and a general lowering of expectations about the prospects for human justice. And yet in another sense, such an outlook might actually strengthen one's attachment to the regime; at least it might be seen as strengthening it within reason. For on these terms, could one not be more forgiving of a nation that strives for equality but fails to reach abstract goals of perfect equality? Could one not be attached more to the here and now, rather than looking always toward a worldly future of more, better, and faster? It would not have to be a dismissal of the regime to point out the isolating effects of a certain understanding of equality; it could be a due regard for genuine civic concord. It is not only out of techno-phobia that one can suggest the limits of the belief that "you have to have certain things before you could know certain things" particularly when the "things" in question are pig parlors and black farm workers. Whether Flannery O'Connor can be seen as a friend of the new American regime depends finally on whether it is possible to hate the sin but love the sinner.
Source: Charles T. Rubin and Leslie G. Rubin, "Flannery O'Connor's Religious Vision of Regime Change," in Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall 2002, pp. 213-C14, 219, 221.
Butterworth, Nancy K., "Flannery O'Connor," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by James Giles and Wanda Giles, The Gale Group, 1995, pp. 158-181.
Fitzgerald, Robert, Introduction, in Everything that Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O'Connor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, p. xxx; originally published in 1965.
Giroux, Robert, Introduction, in The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, by Flannery O'Connor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, pp. xv, xvi.
Grumbach, Doris, Review of Flannery O'Connor's Collected Works, The Library of America, www.loa.org (November 30, 2005), originally aired on National Public Radio, November 11, 1988.
Howe, Irving, "Flannery O'Connor's Stories," in New York Review of Books, September 30, 1965, pp. 16-17.
O'Connor, Flannery, "Everything that Rises Must Converge," in Everything that Rises Must Converge, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996; originally published in 1965.
Poirier, Richard, "If You Know Who You Are You Can Go Anywhere," in New York Times, May 30, 1965, p. BR6.
Poore, Charles, "The Wonderful Stories of Flannery O'Connor," in New York Times, May 27, 1965, p. 35.
Review of Flannery O'Connor's Collected Works, The Library of America, www.loa.org (November 30, 2005), originally published in The New Yorker, November 7, 1988.
Review of Flannery O'Connor's Collected Works, The Library of America, www.loa.org (November 30, 2005), originally published in the Washington Post, September 4, 1988.
Williamson, Chilton, Jr., "Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works," in the National Review, Vol. 40, No. 2, October 28, 1988, pp. 44-46.
Wood, Ralph C., "Flannery O'Connor's Racial Morals and Manners," in The Christian Century, Vol. 111, No. 33, November 16, 1994, pp. 1076-81.
Yaeger, Patricia S., "Flannery O'Connor," in Modern American Women Writers, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991, pp. 375-88.
Yardley, Jonathon, "The Writer Who Was Full of Grace," in the Washington Post, July 6, 2005, p. C01.