Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
In the Flannery O’Connor short story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, we have the theme of identity, appearance, connection, isolation and racism. Set in the early 1960s the story is narrated in the third person and begins with the main protagonist Julian, waiting for his mother, Mrs Chestny, to get ready for her weight class in the local Y. Immediately O’Connor delves into the theme of appearance with Mrs Chestny unsure if she should wear her new purple and green hat. Though it cost her $7.50 she’s not sure if it suits her. The hat as symbolism is important because later in the story while Julian and his mother are on the bus going to the Y, a black woman sits down beside Julian and she is wearing an identical hat. O’Connor highlighting (as the narrator tells the reader and is apparent to Julian) that there is no difference between Mrs Chestny and the black woman, despite Mrs Chestny considering herself superior to black people. Another important thing to remember from the beginning of the story is the association Julian makes with himself and martyrdom (or sainthood). As his mother is getting ready Julian is standing with his hands behind him ‘waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him.’ Later in the story the reader will find that this association with martyrdom is unfounded and that despite it being obvious to the reader that Mrs Chestny is racist, Julian himself (despite what he thinks) actually looks at black people as some sort of trophy to have rather than as an equal.
O’Connor looks at the theme of appearance again (and identity) while Julian and his mother are walking towards the bus stop. The reader finds that Mrs Chestny is the only person who arrives at the classes in the Y wearing a hat and gloves (importance of appearance to her, it defines her identity) and that she is the only one who has a son who has attended college (again the idea that she is above others). Though it is obvious to the reader how important appearance is to Mrs Chestny, appearance is also important to Julian. While his mother is telling him how wealthy his great grandfather was, Julian begins to resent the fact that he now lives in one of the poorer neighbourhoods, the reader aware that Julian is allowing his circumstances (where he lives) to frame his identity. Also like his mother, Julian is defining himself through a lost heritage. His grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves while Julian is selling typewriters though he does have aspirations to be a writer.
There is one other incident on the way to the bus stop that is important (again the theme of appearance and identity). Julian takes his tie off and Mrs Chestny tells him to put it back on that he ‘looks like a-thug.’ After he puts his tie back on Julian tells his mother that he is ‘restored to my class’ and that ‘true culture is in the mind, the mind.’ She answers him back by telling him ‘It’s all in the heart and how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.’ These statements are important because Julian is using his college education to define himself or elevate himself above others (like his mother believing she is socially above others). He professes to have liberal views yet the reader finds (later in the story) that Julian doesn’t really believe in racial equality, rather he wishes to bring influential black people home to see his mother so that he can upset her. Mrs Chestny’s statement is also important because like Julian she is trying to elevate herself (or define herself) as being better than others through her grandfather’s lineage. Both Julian and his mother live in poverty (which they can’t escape) and think they are better than others (black or white). In reality Julian is as petty and small minded as his mother.
Despite his perceived liberal views Julian has an inability to connect with others. This can be seen while he is on the bus with his mother. Firstly there is the lady with the protruding teeth. Julian doesn’t want to talk to her and hides behind the newspaper that he has picked up off the aisle. Then there is the black man in the suit that sits beside him on the bus. Julian attempts to start a conversation with him but the man isn’t interested in talking to Julian. It is at this point the reader learns that this is not Julian’s first failed attempt to engage with a black person. Previously he has been on the bus and tried to talk to another black man (who Julian was disappointed to find out was just an undertaker). These encounters are important because it is through them that the reader learns that others don’t live up to the expectations that Julian has of them. He is unable to connect with people on their terms. His unrealistic ideas of what a black person is, results in him being as isolated from reality as his mother is.
How isolated from reality Mrs Chestny is or how little she understands a changing world can be seen when she and Julian get off the bus. She attempts to give a young black boy called Carver a penny but Carver’s mother (wearing the same hat as Mrs Chestny) refuses the penny and knocks Mrs Chestny to the ground with her purse. This fall is important because it highlights to the reader that the perceived social dominance that Mrs Chestny believes in, doesn’t exist. Carver’s mother is an independent woman who if anything is the equal of Mrs Chestny (again the symbolism of the hat). O’Connor is also possibly highlighting to the reader the changing face of America. No longer are black people reliant on white people.
If Mrs Chestny has learnt a lesson (as Julian thinks she should over the incident with Carver), Julian himself by the end of the story learns a harsh lesson too. After he picks his mother up off the ground she starts to walk towards home rather than to the Y. As she is walking Julian tries to pull her back but realises when he looks in her face that something is wrong. Mrs Chestny falls to the ground again (suspected stroke) and Julian starts to run up the street to get some help as ‘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. This line is significant as it becomes clear to the reader that Julian is now aware, as his mother is dying, of the sacrifices she has made for him and that he will now be alone.