Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Everything That Rises Must Converge is a gathering of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories written between 1956 and 1964 which had not been previously published in book form. It includes the title story and eight others. The story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is one of O’Connor’s best, and it remains one of her most-anthologized stories. The title is a quotation from Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who imagined an “omega point” at which the “rising” or evolving human being would meet God. By analogy, people of the lower classes who “rise” socially must inevitably “meet” with the higher. To Mrs. Chestny in the story, Southern blacks “should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.” Her liberal son Julian tries to “teach her a lesson” about her prejudice, but it becomes clear that his overtures to a black man on the bus are motivated by scorn for his mother, not genuine sympathy.
Mrs. Chestny’s striving to set herself above and apart from perceived inferiors is a common trait in O’Connor’s characters, seen also in the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” Mrs. May. Mrs. May looks down on the family of her farmhand, Mr. Greenleaf, even though the Greenleaf boys have done more to better themselves than have her own two boys. The characteristic O’Connor shock ending comes when Mrs. May, frustrated by Greenleaf’s reluctance to remove a “scrub” bull that has wandered into her herd,...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Though labeled a Southern Catholic female writer, Flannery O’Connor did not consider herself a female writer or a regional writer; the only issues that her fiction dealt with were spiritual issues transcending both gender and geography. Nevertheless, her female characters often reveal the effects of social attitudes toward women that help shape them. Two character types in particular, the domineering mother and the artistic or scholarly daughter, appear frequently.
The unnamed “ugly girl” who becomes the object of Mrs. Turpin’s pity in “Revelation” illustrates a destructive societal norm for young women, both in personal appearance and in intelligence. Mrs. Turpin assumes that the girl deserves her pity because she is overweight, unattractive, and blighted by acne. Worse—or perhaps the two are causally related—she is an intellectual, buried in a book with the ironic title Human Development. Her mother, with Mrs. Turpin’s tacit assent, lectures in vain that the girl could compensate for external “ugliness” by a cheerful disposition.
A similar character in “The Enduring Chill,” Mary George Fox, is scorned by the one character who should most sympathize with her, her brother Asbury. Both aspire to artistic, or at least intellectual, escape from the limits imposed by their society, but Asbury is unable to see his sister as anything but “husband-bait.” “Asbury said she posed as an intellectual,” readers...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Besides the creation of unusual symbols, such as the grotesque hat with one purple flap up and the other down, suggesting the social direction of the wearers, O’Connor is a master of dramatic irony. A paragraph of Julian’s internal monologue characterizes not only Mrs. Chestny but also the jaded young man himself, who despises his mother for her unreal expectations and blames her for a social situation in which she must sacrifice herself for his welfare:She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things. If he had permitted her sacrifices, it was only because her lack of foresight had made them necessary. All 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; but because, said she, it was fun to struggle, why complain? And when you had won, as she had won, what fun to look back on the hard times! He could not forgive her that she had enjoyed the struggle and that she thought she had won.
Julian congratulates himself that he has cut himself emotionally free of his mother, as though filial love were some kind of character flaw. He also prides himself on his ability to face facts. His monumental ignorance and immaturity are swiftly brought to a climax in a few sentences, rapidly...
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Southern Race Relations
The generation gap between Julian and his mother manifests itself through their disagreement over race relations, an issue that was a pressing part of public discourse in the early 1960s.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a series of ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws had been instituted throughout the South; these laws enforced segregation of public places. In fact, for the first half of the twentieth century, blacks and whites used separate facilities: parks, restaurants, clubs, restrooms, and transportation.
In 1954 a landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, deemed school segregation as inherently unequal. In the aftermath of this decision, African Americans won the right to share public transportation with whites in a number of Southern cities. In 1960 ‘‘sit-ins’’ at segregated lunch counters became a popular method of protesting against segregation. Such actions spurred the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, which would lead to important social and legislative changes over the next decade.
In ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’’ Julian’s mother refuses to ride the bus alone; this implies that sharing the same vehicle with African Americans would compromise either her safety or her dignity.
A devout Roman Catholic, O’Connor differed from other writers in her generation in that she wrote from a deeply...
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‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’’ is narrated in the third-person, meaning that the events in the story are described from the position of an outside observer. The narrator has access to Julian’s inner thoughts, private motivations, and fantasies.
While Julian believes himself to be perfectly objective, the events are described in terms of his emotionally charged relationship with his mother. Yet just because the narrator has access to Julian’s innermost thoughts does not mean that readers are meant to empathize with him. As the story continues, the narrator’s perspective becomes more distinct from Julian’s; by the end, readers are in a position to criticize Julian as strongly as he has criticized his mother.
The narrative technique O’Connor uses to create this effect is called irony. Irony refers to the difference or imbalance between the surface meaning of the words and the effects that they create. Irony allows O’Connor to expose Julian’s lack of self-knowledge and his distance from a state of grace.
O’Connor employs another form of irony at the story’s conclusion: the difference between intentions and effects. Throughout the story Julian wishes evil on his mother and tries to punish her by pushing his liberal views on her. When the stress of the bus trip leads to a stroke, his wish comes true. Ironically, this leads him to recognize his own weakness rather than...
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O'Connor's ability to move between understated dialogue and an omniscient point of view that further extends one character's thoughts allows readers to see the gap between what people say to one another and what they are really thinking. This dialogue between individuals, interspersed with unspoken interaction, creates a believable environment for exploring tense, oftentimes even opposing moral stances. The omniscient author moves between commenting on a character's personality and motives and uncovering the thought processes of that individual so that one can peel away the truths buried in the character's thoughts and reactions toward others. Consider the beginning of the title story "Everything That Rises Must Converge." The narrative identifies the first character we meet as "Julian's mother," who frets whether to wear a new hat. Indeed, by the third paragraph we encounter Julian's thoughts about the hat that conflict with what he tells her:
Julian raised his eyes to heaven. 'Yes, you should have bought it,' he said. 'Put it on and let's go.' It was a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. He decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic. Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.
The remainder of the story will unravel the growing distance between mother and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
O'Connor's strong moral convictions color her narratives with authorial and narrative guidance, and readers are likely to respond strongly to the repeated images of death.
1. What is the significance of the title? Does it refer to only the lead story or more than one?
2. Do these stories fit together as a body of work or are they better approached individually?
3. Are the issues that O'Connor addresses still relevant today or are they reflective of an historical period of time?
4. What character best exhibits characteristics of the grotesque?
5. How do the structure and themes of the stories follow that of the Bible?
6. Must one know Biblical passages to fully understand these stories? Must one be familiar with Catholic beliefs?
7. In O'Connor's narrative voices, how is one granted salvation?
8. Do the recurring moral themes throughout the stories provide some clear narrative and authorial direction?
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Published posthumously, these stories were the last O'Connor wrote while battling a lingering bout of illness that ultimately proved fatal. As a whole, this set of stories reiterates O'Connor's continued exploration of individual self-delusions that are not recognized until an unexpected moment of truth, oftentimes in the presence of death. Grappling with moral dilemmas, the characters reveal their own foibles and shortcomings that will require the grace of God to overlook them. Ignoring one's shortcomings or toting moral superiority over others becomes just as erroneous as a lack of Christian belief.
Rarely do individuals in these stories capture an accurate glimpse of the world. For example, in "Judgment Day," where Tanner explores his relationship with African Americans, he recalls his first meeting with the black man Coleman, when, instead of wielding a weapon, he spontaneously creates a pair of spectacles. He notes, upon seeing the man's response:
Grinned, or grimaced, Tanner could not tell which, but he had an instant's sensation of seeing before him a negative image of himself, as if clownishness and captivity had been their common lot. The vision failed him before he could decipher it.
Because of his lack of insight, Tanner will encounter other individuals whom he thinks he understands without truly recognizing their commonalties. Unable to heed his daughter's advice to "live and let live"...
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Compare and Contrast
1960s: The Civil Rights movement becomes a viable and powerful movement. After the passage of a series of laws ordering the desegregation of schools, interstate transportation, and various other public accommodations, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregates all public places.
Today: Affirmative action, which led to greater integration in schools and workplaces in the 1970s and 1980s, is challenged in a series of court cases as a form of reverse discrimination.
1960s: In 1966 the Supreme Court strikes down a Virginia law prohibiting interracial marriage; Virginia had been one of sixteen states still outlawing such marriages. In 1967 Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s daughter, who is white, makes headlines by marrying a black man. Rusk offers to resign from his post, but President Lyndon Johnson refuses to accept his resignation.
Today: Interracial marriage no longer makes headlines. There are a number of prominent interracial couples in public life. The number of interracial marriages has tripled since 1967 and there are over a million bi-racial families.
1960s: The oldest of the post-war ‘‘baby boomers’’ reach adolescence and young adulthood. Many of this generation differ from their parents in their desire to express their individuality and challenge prevailing social mores and assumptions. A generation gap emerges, with parents and children often having very different...
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Topics for Further Study
Do you think that O’Connor is too unsympathetic to her characters? Do they seem to you like grotesque distortions of humanity or more like regular people you’ve met? Support your opinion with specific passages from the text.
Many critics view O’Connor’s use of irony as integral to her moral outlook. Discuss her use of irony in relation to one of the moral questions raised in the story.
O’Connor wrote from a Roman Catholic perspective. Do you think that one needs to be Catholic to fully understand ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’’? How do you think your own religious or spiritual beliefs (or the lack thereof) influence your response to the story?
Julian’s mother derives many of her opinions from her heritage as part of the slave-holding aristocracy of the pre-Civil War South. Do some research about the conventions and belief systems regarding interactions between blacks and whites in the Old South. How does this information help you understand the interactions between the story’s various characters?
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O'Connor borrows her title Everything That Rises Must Converge from the work of Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit theologian, whose work O'Connor greatly admired. In addition, O'Connor openly praised the work of another Southern writer, William Faulkner, particularly As I Lay Dying. Similar to Faulkner's Snopes family, many of the characters in O'Connor's stories reach an epiphany of self-realization at the moment of their own death or that of a family member's. Whereas Faulkner's stories are set in one county, O'Connor's work centers on the region of middle Georgia. In addition to borrowing from Faulkner's ideas of the grotesque, O'Connor also draws from Nathaniel West's work, particularly Miss Lonelyhearts. Although tinged with humor, her sense of irony remains more emotional and tragic, largely because her deep religious faith and convictions guide her work.
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Oftentimes anthologized with Everything That Rises Must Converge, the novellas Wise Blood (1949) and The Violent Bear It Away (1955) also introduce young characters who must find their way in the world and determine their own moral convictions as they encounter a wide array of individuals with varying ethics. As he encounters a wide menagerie of characters with their own bizarre idiosyncratic interpretations of morality, Hazel Motes in Wise Blood struggles with his religious vision. The even younger protagonist Francis Marion Tarwater of The Violent Bear It Away must deal with the death of a moral figurehead in his life.
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What Do I Read Next?
A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) is O’Connor’s first collection of short stories. It shares the unique moral outlook of ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge.’’
O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away (1960) concerns a young boy’s resistance to his calling as a prophet.
The Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1995), edited by Erroll McDonald, gathers Faulkner’s short fiction. These stories explore moral dramas against a Southern backdrop. O’Connor is most often compared to Faulkner.
A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941), a collection of stories by Eudora Welty, shares O’Connor’s flare for local idiom, but takes a gentler approach to its eccentric characters.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), the first novel by Carson McCullers, describes the moral isolation of a deaf-mute girl in a small Southern town.
The Second Coming (1999), by Walker Percy, is a tragicomic novel chronicling a man’s search for love and religious meaning.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Denham, Robert D., ‘‘The World of Guilt and Sorrow: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’’’ in Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, Vol. 4, Autumn, 1975, pp. 42–51.
Hicks, Granville, ‘‘A Cold, Hard Look at Humankind,’’ in Saturday Review, May 29, 1965, p. 23–24.
Martin, Carter W., The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck, Flannery O’Connor, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1976.
O’Connor, Flannery, Mysteries and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
Schott, Webster, ‘‘Flannery O’Connor: Faith’s Stepchild,’’ in Nation, Vol. 201, No. 7, September 13, 1965, pp. 142–44.
Sullivan, Walter, ‘‘Flannery O’Connor, Sin, and Grace,’’ in Hollins Critic, Vol. 2, No. 4, September, 1965, pp. 1–8, 10.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Flannery O’Connor: A Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, New York: Chelsea House, 1999.
This extensive collection of resources on O’Connor is an excellent starting point for in-depth projects on the writer.
Magee, Rosemary M., ed., Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, Jackson, MS: University of...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. By dropping the prejudicial term “grotesque” in favor of “extremity,” this full-length study of O’Connor’s work is able to study a distinctive quality of O’Connor’s literary imagination without distortion.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H. The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. A fine general study of O’Connor’s work, this book is sometimes limited by its reliance on Russian critic Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s theory of “dialogism.”
Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. One of the first major studies to suggest a disparity between O’Connor’s theology and her fiction, Hendin’s book asserts that O’Connor’s fiction has it source in rage, not Catholic orthodoxy.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Visionary Art of Flannery O’Connor.” Southern Humanities Review 7 (1973): 235-246. Though brief, this article focuses exclusively on Everything That Rises Must Converge, which Oates calls O’Connor’s greatest book. As a fellow fiction writer, Oates offers insights that other critics who are only critics might miss.
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