Summary and Analysis
"Everything That Rises Must Converge"
On the surface, "Everything That Rises Must Converge" appears to be a simple story. Finally, it seems, O'Connor has written a story which we can easily read and understand without having to struggle with abstract religious symbolism. Mrs. Chestny is a bigot who feels that blacks should rise, "but on their own side of the fence." Because she condescendingly offers a new penny to a small black child, she is, from the point of view of her son, Julian, punished with the much deserved humiliation of being struck by the child's mountainous black mother. It is Julian who recognizes that the black woman who hits Mrs. Chestny with her purse represents "the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies." It is he who also recognizes that "the old manners are obsolete" and that his mother's "graciousness is not worth a damn." It is he (as well as we) who begins to realize, as we watch his mother die from the blow, that the world is, perhaps, not that simple. It is not a world in which everything is either black or white. Thus, we realize that "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is not entirely a "simple story."
Yet, the basic plot of the story appears to be very simple. One evening, following the racial integration of the public buses in the South, Julian Chestny is accompanying his mother to an exercise class at the "Y." During the ride downtown, they talk to several people on the bus. Then a black woman boards the bus wearing a hat which is identical to the hat worn by Mrs. Chestny. Mrs. Chestny begins a conversation with the small child of that black woman, and when they get off of the bus together, Mrs. Chestny offers the small black boy a shiny penny. The black woman, insulted by Mrs. Chestny's gift to the child, strikes her with a big purse, knocking her to the ground. Julian, who feels his mother has been taught a good lesson, begins to talk to her about the emergence of blacks in the new South. While he is speaking to his mother, she suffers a stroke (or a heart attack) as a result of the blow, and she dies, leaving Julian grief-stricken and running for help.
As we noted, the plot line of the story appears to be simple; the major impact of the story, however, is generated by the interaction of the attitudes held by Julian and his mother. Their conflicting viewpoints are designed to highlight a conflict between generations, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, they provide a situation which O'Connor can use to make a comment on what she considers to be the proper basis for all human relationships — not just black/white relationships.
To enter this story, which was first published in 1961, it is necessary to recall the social upheaval which the nation in general and the South in particular was experiencing during the 1950s. Black Americans, long treated as second-class citizens, began to make themselves heard in America by demanding that they be given equal rights under the law. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation by color in public buses was unconstitutional, and the protest movement gained force. Accounts of bus boycotts and freedom marches were part of the daily news reports, and Southern writers were expected to give their views on "relations between people in the South, especially between Negroes and whites."
O'Connor gave answers to those questions in two interviews granted in 1963, two years after this story appeared and one year before her death. Her views do much to illuminate the anagogical level of the story itself. From O'Connor's point of view, a society divided about fifty-fifty requires "considerable grace for the two races to live together." The existence of what she called "a code of manners" had made it possible for them to live together. She stated that "the South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they might have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together and give us an identity."
While admitting that those old manners were obsolete, she maintained that "the new manners will have to be based on what was best in the old ones — in their real basis of charity and necessity." She also suggested that while the rest of the country believed that granting blacks their rights would settle the racial problem, "the South has to evolve a way of life in which the two races can live together in mutual forbearance." For this, "You don't form a committee . . . or pass a resolution; both races have to work it out the hard way."
In an interview which appeared a month later, when she was asked about Southern manners, O'Connor noted that "manners are the next best thing to Christian charity. I don't know how much pure unadulterated Christian charity can be mustered in the South, but I have confidence that the manners of both races will show through in the long run." Finally, in a letter written to a friend on September 1, 1963, she observed that topical writing is poison, but "I got away with it in 'Everything That Rises' but only because I say a plague on everybody's house as far as the race business goes."
The title of this story and of O'Connor's second collection of stories is taken from the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a priest-paleontologist. O'Connor reviewed and was impressed by several of his works, and, at one stage in her life, she appears to have been interested in Teilhard's attempt to integrate religion and science. Most simply stated, Teilhard speculated that the evolutionary process was producing a higher and higher level of consciousness and that ultimately that consciousness, now become spiritual, would be complete when it merged with the Divine Consciousness at the Omega point. At that time, God would become "all in all." In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard argues that "the goal of ourselves" is not to be found in our individuality but in the surrender of our ego to the Divine: "The true ego grows in inverse proportion to 'egotism.'" We can, he argues, "only find our person by uniting together."
As you work with this story, it is important to notice O'Connor's use of point-of-view. By using a modified omniscient point-of-view, she is able to move unobtrusively from reporting the story as an out-side observer to reporting events as they are reflected through Julian's consciousness. The most obvious scenes in which she uses the latter technique are introduced by the comment that "Julian was withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time" and by the comment that "he retired again into the high-ceilinged room." These scenes close with the comments "The bus stopped . . . and shook him from his meditation," and "He was tilted out of his fantasy again as the bus stopped." Although other sections of the story are not so clearly marked, you should note that you are generally given Julian's reaction to things with the author intruding only when it becomes necessary to show external, physical events, or to make a specific comment.
Because we see the events in the story primarily from Julian's point-of-view, it is easy for us to misjudge the character of his mother. As a native of the Old South, she carries with her attitudes which we now recognize as wrong-headed or prejudicial. Her comments, "They [the blacks] should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence," and "The ones I feel sorry for . . . are the ones that are half white," mark her indelibly as a member of that generation which failed to concern itself with the problem of social justice. Her uneasiness at riding on an integrated bus is illustrated by her comment, "I see we have the bus to ourselves," and by her observation, "The world is in a mess everywhere. . . . I don't know how we've let it get in this fix." These comments reveal her to be an individual who will be slow to change her attitudes (if they can be changed at all) and as an individual who has a nostalgic sense of longing for past traditions.
To assume that such attitudes always conceal a hatred for blacks is an error into which many unthinking liberals fall. Anyone who has ever read Faulkner's funeral oration on the death of Caroline Barr, the black servant of the Faulkner family (she became the model for Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury) should realize that to recognize a social distinction is not to feel hatred or disrespect for a person who is not in the same social class as ourselves. Certainly, the Apostle Paul makes no such assumptions when he writes of the relationship between slaves and masters in the sixth chapter of Ephesians. He begins by commanding, "Slaves, obey your human masters. . . . Do your work as slaves cheerfully, then, as though you served the Lord, and not merely men," and he concludes by cautioning the masters to treat their slaves well because "you and your slaves belong to the same Master in heaven, who treats everyone alike."
Because Julian interprets his mother's comment concerning her feelings for Caroline, her black nurse, as little more than a bigot's shibboleth, he is unable to understand her act of giving a penny to Carver, the small black boy in the story. In a simpler time — before sick individuals put pieces of razor blades or pins in the trick-or-treat candies and apples of the Halloween season — it was not at all uncommon for older people to carry treats for the kids they might meet. A stick of gum, a piece of candy, a new penny — these were things that would give a child pleasure, and things that would give the older person a sense of continuity with the new generation. These were gifts of affection, not condescension. In a society where man is fragmented from his fellow man, however, such gifts have come to be suspect — temptations to perversion, acts of condescension, or, at the very least, attempts by old busybodies trying to stick their noses where they are not wanted.
To see Mrs. Chestny as a simple bigot is to ignore the clues to her character which O'Connor gives us. As we examine these clues, we will find that Mrs. Chestny resembles another of O'Connor's characters, the grandmother from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." In a series of comments prefacing a reading of that story, O'Connor noted that one of the teachers who had attempted to depict the grandmother of the story as evil was surprised to find that his students resisted that evaluation of her. O'Connor notes, "I had to tell him that they resisted it because they all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home, and they knew from personal experience that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart."
Numerous clues appear to reinforce this view of Mrs. Chestny. She is described as having "sky-blue" eyes (blue, you may remember, often symbolizes heaven and heavenly love in Christian symbology); Mrs. Chestny's eyes, O'Connor says, were "as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten." She is repeatedly described as being childlike: "She might have been a little girl that he had to take to town"; her feet "dangled like a child's and did not quite reach the floor"; and Julian sees her as "a particularly obnoxious child in his charge."
Mrs. Chestny is also depicted as one who "finds her person by uniting together," according to one of Teilhard's concepts. She was a widow but she had "struggled fiercely" to put Julian through school, and at the time of the story, she is still supporting him. "Her teeth had gone unfilled so that his could be straightened," and she even offers to take off her hideous hat when she thinks that it might be the cause of his irritated, "grief-stricken" face.
In addition, she reaches out to those around her on the bus by engaging them in conversation, even if that conversation is inane and naive. It is also this quality of her personality that allows her to forget that the black woman has an identical hat and to turn her attention to Carver, the black woman's child. Her fascination with the small boy and her ability to play with him indicate that they, at least, have risen above strict self-interest and have "converged" in a momentary Christian love for one another. It is this act, more than anything else, that gives the lie to Julian's contention that true culture "is in the mind," and places it, as Mrs. Chestny argues, "in the heart."
Julian lacks all respect for his mother and does not hide his lack of respect. This lack of respect is shown by his thinking of himself as a martyr because he takes her to her reducing class, by his making fun of her new hat, by his desire to slap her, and by his "evil urge to break her spirit." He sees everything in terms of his own "individuality." It is he who takes what Teilhard describes as "the dangerous course of seeking fulfillment in isolation." We are told that he likes to spend most of his time by withdrawing into a kind of mental bubble, especially when things around him are a bother, and in that bubble, "he was safe from any kind of penetration from without." Within that bubble, he creates an image of himself and the world around him. These are images, however, which have absolutely no validity.
O'Connor arranges the events in such a way that no one who reads the story should have any doubts about the character of Julian. Even though his mother remembers the old days and her grandfather's mansion which she used to visit, she can be content to live in a rather rundown neighborhood. Julian sees the neighborhood as ugly and undesirable, and, in regard to his great-grandfather's mansion, he feels that it is he, not his mother, "who could have appreciated it." He condemns her for being a widow and is ungrateful for the sacrifices she has made for him. Most damaging of all is his feeling that he "had cut himself emotionally free of her."
Julian prides himself on his freedom from prejudice, but we discover that he is just fooling himself. He attempts to sit beside blacks and start conversations with them if they appear to be upper-class individuals. He dreams that he might teach his mother a lesson by making friends with "some distinguished Negro professor or lawyer." If she were ill, he might be able to find only a Negro doctor to treat her, or — "the ultimate horror" — he might bring home a "beautiful suspiciously Negroid woman."
Ironically, his greatest successes are with a "distinguished-looking dark brown man" who turns out to be an undertaker and with a "Negro with a diamond ring on his finger" who turns out to be a seller of lottery tickets. When the black woman with the small boy, Carver, chooses to sit beside him rather than beside his mother, Julian is annoyed by her action.
Just as Julian tends to misunderstand his own motivations, he also misunderstands those of his mother. Observing the shocked look on her face as she sees the black woman sit beside him, Julian is convinced that it is caused by her recognition that "she and the woman had, in a sense, swapped sons." He is convinced that she will not realize the "symbolic significance of this," but that she would "feel it." The irony of this scene comes from the reader's realization that the two women have, indeed, changed sons. Mrs. Chestny and Carver are innocent and outgoing; they, therefore, are able to "converge" — to come together. Julian and Carver's mother, on the other hand, are both filled with hostility and anger; for them, there is not, nor can there ever be, any true convergence. The final irony in the scene comes when Julian realizes that the stunned look on his mother's face was caused by the presence of identical hats on the two women — not by the seating arrangements.
When Julian realizes that the hat is the cause of his mother's discomfort, he takes pleasure in watching her pained reaction, having only momentarily "an uncomfortable sense of her innocence." When he recognizes that his mother will be able to recover from this shock, he is dismayed because she has been taught no lesson.
Mrs. Chestny and Carver are drawn together because she finds all children "cute," and, we are told, "she thought little Negroes were on the whole cuter than little white children." Carver responds to Mrs. Chestny's affection by scrambling "onto the seat beside his love," much to the chagrin of both his mother and Julian. Carver's mother attempts to separate the two but is not totally successful as they play peek-a-boo games cross the aisle. Carver's mother is described as "bristling" and filled with "rage" because her son is attracted to Mrs. Chestny. She even threatens to "knock the living Jesus out of Carver" because he will not ignore the woman who has smiled at him, using a smile which, according to Julian's point of view, she used "when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior."
As the four people leave the bus, Julian has an "intuition" that his mother will try to give the child a nickel: "The gesture would be as natural to her as breathing." He even attempts to prevent the gesture but is unsuccessful. His mother, unable to locate a nickel, attempts to give Carver a new penny. Carver's mother reacts violently to what she assumes to be a gesture of condescension. She stares, "her face frozen with frustrated rage," at Julian's mother, and then she "seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much." She strikes Julian's mother to the ground with her mammoth red pocketbook, shouting, "He don't take nobody's pennies!"
That this action represents another act of convergence in the story is obvious. Carver's mother can afford the same hat as Julian's mother, and she can ride in the same section of the bus. The violence of this convergence, however, illustrates what can happen when the old "code of manners" governing relationships between whites and blacks has broken down. Julian's mother is living according to an obsolete code of manners, and, consequently, she offends Carver's mother by her actions. Because Carver's mother is determined to exercise her legal rights, according to the letter of the law, she fails to exercise the "mutual forbearance" which O'Connor deems necessary to a successful resolution of racial tensions in the new South.
The final convergence in the story begins when Julian discovers that his mother is more seriously hurt than he had suspected. At first, he felt that she had been taught a good lesson by the black woman, and he attempted to impress upon her the changes which were taking place in the South. "Don't think that was just an uppity Negro woman. . . . That was the whole colored race who will no longer take your condescending pennies." It is only after Julian realizes that his mother may be seriously hurt that his own movement toward convergence takes place.
As Mrs. Chestny staggers away from Julian, calling for her grandfather and for Caroline, individuals with whom she had had a loving relationship, Julian feels her being swept away from him, and he calls for her, "Mother! . . . Darling, sweetheart, wait!" His attempt at convergence with his mother comes too late as she dies before him, one unseeing eye raking his face and finding nothing.
With the death of his mother, Julian is brought to the point where he will be unable to postpone for long the epiphany which will reveal to him the nature of evil within him. Although "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," he will soon come to know, as did Mr. Head, "that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own." Having thus been made aware of his depravity, Julian will have been placed in a position which may produce repentance and ultimately redemption.