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