In Flannery O'Connor's short story "Everything That Rises Must Converge," what is the symbolic significance of the hat?

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The short story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor tells of a man named Julian who lives with his mother in the recently desegregated American Deep South. She is attending a weight-reducing class at the Y, and Julian accompanies her because she does not like to...

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The short story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor tells of a man named Julian who lives with his mother in the recently desegregated American Deep South. She is attending a weight-reducing class at the Y, and Julian accompanies her because she does not like to take the bus alone. On the way, Julian's mother exhibits her blatant racism through her conversation and expressions.

At the start of the story, as they are preparing to leave, Julian's mother puts on a garish hat that she has recently bought. O'Connor shares Julian's opinion of it:

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.

Julian's mother at first cannot decide whether to wear the hat or not. She comes to the conclusion that "you only live once." To her, the hat imparts an illusion of grandeur and of aristocracy and reminds her of the way life used to be. She sees it as a symbol of affluence, like the gloves she wears and the fact that her son has been to college. To Julian, however, the hat is a symbol of his mother clinging to an ugly racist past that no longer exists. His mother constantly refers to a time when whites were accorded more respect and black people were forced to comply with racist social norms. The hat represents her barely repressed racist attitude. To her, it is a symbol of honor, but to everyone else who sees it, it is unsightly and anachronistic. His son despises the hat, just as he despises her outdated attitudes.

When the African American woman gets on the bus and sits opposite Julian's mother with an identical hat, this is symbolic of the way that society has irrevocably changed. Julian's mother's hat no longer indicates her status. The hat can be worn by anyone now. In the end, when the black woman rebuffs her efforts to give a penny to the black child and pushes Julian's mother to the ground, the hat is no longer on her head but in her lap. This symbolizes the loss of her illusions. She then suffers a debilitating stroke, which is symbolic of her lack of ability to cope with the world as it has become.

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In addition to the excellent answer already provided, the hat worn by the white Mrs. Chestny and her black counterpart symbolizes racial equality and the "converge[nce]" of the races in terms political, economic, and social. Mrs. Chestny says, more than once, that in this hat, she will not meet herself "coming and going." She believes it to be a mark if her status and privilege, once a Godhigh and still higher than most, she thinks. She is also happy to see that the whites have the bus "to [them]selves" at first, glad to see no black riders. However, when the black woman gets on the bus wearing the exact same hat, it is proof that Julian, however vicious he is, is right: the world is changing and his mother's values are no longer those of society.

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The hat worn by Julian’s mother in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” has a great deal of symbolic significance and acquires even more significance as the story develops. Among the ways in which the hat seems significant are the following:

  • Initially the hat symbolizes the financial prudence and self-denial of Julian’s mother. She bought the hat on impulse, thinks she may have paid too much for it, and is determined to return it. Julian orders her to keep it, partly because he doesn’t like to think about (and in fact actually resents) her self-sacrificing ways.
  • The hat, because of its ugliness, also symbolizes the mother’s lack of the kind of sophistication that the pretentious Julian would want in a mother.
  • Later the hat comes to symbolize the mother’s own social pretensions:

She was one of the few members of the Y reducing class who arrived in hat and gloves . . . .

  • The hat is also important to the over-all irony of the story. One reason the mother likes the hat is that she thinks it makes her look distinctive, when in fact later a black woman will enter the story wearing an identical style of hat.
  • When Julian later notices that the angry black woman is wearing the very same kind of hat as his mother, he sees the hat as a symbol of his mother’s ridiculous pride, and he also sees this unexpected coincidence as a chance to teach his mother a lesson. Both reactions are ironic, since it is Julian, more than anyone else in the story, who is full of pride and who needs to learn some lessons in humility.
  • Unfortunately for Julian, his mother eventually finds the coincidence of the hats funny – a fact that symbolizes the fact that she is far more humble than he is and also that she possesses a sense of humor (unlike his) that allows her to laugh at her own expense. Julian’s humor is satirical and cruel; his mother’s is far less a reflection of pride than his.
  • The meanness of Julian’s sense of humor is especially evident when he tells his stricken mother, as she sits on the sidewalk after having been struck by the black woman,

“She can wear the same hat as you, and to be sure,” he added gratuitously (because he thought it was funny), “it looked better on her than it did on you.”

In moments such as this, Julian seems, in some ways, one of the most vicious characters O’Connor ever created – far more vicious, in certain respects, even than The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Thus the hat in “Everything That Rises,” like any good symbol, has a multitude of rich symbolic resonances. For the most part it is associated with pride and pretension (like the similar hat worn by the Grandmother in “A Good Man”). The hat also symbolizes what people have in common despite superficial racial differences. And the hat also symbolizes, in some respects, the very traits that make Julian’s mother a better, more lovable, and far more forgivable character than her son.

 

 

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