Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814

This tragicomic tale of social bigotry and fake liberal sentiment is the title story of Flannery O’Connor’s last collection of short stories, written before her untimely death at the age of thirty-nine. It displays the author’s unique talent for ironic social commentary and grim humor.

With her consummate skill at...

(The entire section contains 1765 words.)

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This tragicomic tale of social bigotry and fake liberal sentiment is the title story of Flannery O’Connor’s last collection of short stories, written before her untimely death at the age of thirty-nine. It displays the author’s unique talent for ironic social commentary and grim humor.

With her consummate skill at revealing ordinary people with small minds, she reduces some of the traditional ingredients of southern fiction to the miniature, without sacrificing an iota of their reality. Generational conflict, racial confrontation, sudden death—they are all there, but stripped bare of any aura of honor and glory, displaying themselves either as tawdry and mean-spirited or as absurdly comic.

In spite of Mrs. Chestny’s mental and moral limitations, she is a more sympathetic character than her son, and not simply because she, in one sense, dies for her sin of racial bigotry. Unlike her son, she entertains her mindless notions of social superiority without a trace of actual hypocrisy. She truly believes that she is a member of the upper classes, even as she endures and indeed enjoys her thoroughly middle-class struggle to make her own living and put her callow young prince through college. She has absorbed the middle-class work ethic as unconsciously as she internalized her forebears’ pride of family, quite unaware of any contradiction of values. Moreover, before she dies, her stroke wipes out her adult memory and she resumes the innocence of childhood, perhaps an indication, if one considers O’Connor’s predilection for themes of redemption, of a wiping out of sin along with memory.

Julian, on the other hand, pretends to the most enlightened democratic attitudes toward blacks, but has no real sympathy or understanding for them. He tries to show his intellectual sophistication by striking up conversations with prosperous looking blacks on the bus, a familiarity usually resented by the recipients of his unwanted attention. He does not realize that his behavior is probably perceived as being as condescending as his mother’s giving pennies to black children. He daydreams of offering the ultimate insult to his mother by bringing home a beautiful black girl to marry. Indeed, most of his shallow liberality seems to stem from his resentment of his mother and the fact that they are poor.

Although his mother may chatter on complacently about the aristocratic old home of her childhood, it is Julian who looks back with longing to that time when birth, instead of personal effort, luck, character, or ability, established social status. Suspecting, correctly, that he has none of these qualities, he doubts that he can ever compete in a world where idle luxury is not his birthright.

O’Connor’s stories are sometimes like Elizabethan secondary plots that provide comic relief for tragedy. The lowlife reenacts in miniature the sins of the tragic hero, such as Wagner dabbling irresponsibly in magic as his master, Dr. Faustus, consigns his soul to the devil.

The title comes from the Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom O’Connor admired. Teilhard de Chardin based his thought on the conception of evolution as the emergence and perfecting of consciousness. As consciousness becomes more clear in individuals, it projects itself toward some hypothetical maximum development that Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega point. Everything that rises in consciousness must converge in spiritual terms as it approaches nearer the Omega point, which is presumably the end of time. Teilhard de Chardin was trying to avoid a simple pantheistic mysticism in which individual egos simply dissolved again into the impersonal stuff of the universe. The superconsciousness developing at the Omega point is greater than its parts without extinguishing the consciousness of individual selves.

The implications of O’Connor’s story are ambiguous with regard to Teilhard de Chardin’s conception. One might argue that this ridiculous encounter between a person rising to the middle class and one sinking from aristocracy to that class has only comic overtones, suggesting the not especially lofty homogeneity of the new social order in the South. In this sense, the story may be a parody of Teilhard de Chardin’s principle of spiritual convergence in the universe.

Considering O’Connor’s propensities for religious themes, however, one suspects that she is suggesting some blundering advancement of consciousness even in such unlikely candidates for wisdom as these. Ironically, in the aging white woman, such purification of soul requires the wholesale wiping out of a lifetime of misinformation about social status and the basis of personal worth. What is left after her stroke is certainly a very immature soul, but one relieved of accumulated error. Meanwhile, her son is forced into the world of guilt and sorrow where he might outgrow his selfishness and accept responsibility for his destiny. This possibility for growth is all that O’Connor usually allows to her sadly human protagonists. She does not concern herself with saints.

Themes

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O'Connor's depiction of family relationships between generations indicates great tension wherein no one is fully vindicated. While the parents in O'Connor's stories strive to teach their children the way of the world before, they fear that the world is changing around them. As Mrs. Mays' says in "Greanleaf," warning her two adult sons, "You'll find out one of these days, you'll find out what Reality is when it's too late!" The stories also explore the strong urge children have to work against the beliefs of their parents. For example, in the title story, Julian recognizes he will never maintain a privileged status as his ancestors did, but his mother blindly believes that he merely needs a little more time to prove himself. Also, Wesley Mays in "Greenleaf" capitalizes on the hopes of blacks by selling insurance policies to them. His career choice greatly annoys and embarrasses his mother, who refuses to recognize that blacks are moving up in the world. Her other son, Scofield, simply abdicates all responsibility with his escape into the useless intellectualism of the college where he teaches.

Criticism of the moral fiber of other people, particularly because of color or class, and arrogance and blindness about one's own shortcomings show that each character is at fault. Pride in one's moral superiority predicts a fall that will require God's grace for forgiveness. The title story reminds us that this need to feel superior over others, to rise above, will ultimately force one to converge with the same people we deride, joining them in the anonymity of the afterlife.

Themes

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Social Class
Julian’s mother reminds him that they come from a ‘‘good’’ family—one that was once respected for its wealth and social standing. Her family name is central to her identity, reinforcing her belief in her value as a human being and her superiority to those around her.

Yet Julian and his mother now live in a rundown neighborhood that ‘‘had been fashionable forty years ago.’’ She has sacrificed everything for her son and continues to support him even though he has graduated from college. As a consequence, she has to worry about spending $7.50 on a hat and must ride the bus along with African Americans, which she considers degrading.

Julian finds his mother’s preoccupation about the family name ridiculous, but he secretly believes that he has the aristocratic qualities that she claims to value. He thinks of the family’s lost mansion with longing, asserting that ‘‘it was he, not she, who would’ve appreciated it.’’

Morals and Morality
Morality is a recurring theme in O’Connor’s work, and ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’’ is no exception. The story concerns questions of right and wrong, with the contrasting moral sensibilities of Julian and his mother forming the basis of the plot’s conflict.

Julian’s mother relies on custom and tradition for her moral sensibility, claiming that ‘‘how you do things is because of who you are’’ and ‘‘if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.’’ She believes in polite social conduct, and considers herself to be superior to most other people—especially African Americans.

She is fiercely loyal to those whom she identifies as part of her proud tradition, especially her son. In her eyes, upholding her duty to her family and her family name is the key to goodness.

Julian has great disdain for his mother’s moral outlook. He dismisses her notions of proper conduct as part of an old social order that is not only immoral, but also irrelevant. Julian believes that by sitting next to the African-American man on the bus, he is teaching his mother a valuable moral lesson.

He considers his views on integration liberal and progressive, but they turn out to be merely an attempt to punish his mother. The events of the story reveal him to be blinded by self-centeredness, arrogance, and resentment. In the end, he is morally responsible for his mother’s death; but his cries for help at the story’s close suggest ‘‘his desperate awareness of the dark state of his own soul,’’ as Robert D. Denham contends in the The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin.

Knowledge and Ignorance
Julian considers himself intellectually superior to those around him. He believes that he sees reality with detachment and objectivity, an ‘‘inner compartment of his mind’’ that is ‘‘the only place where he felt free of the general idiocy of his fellows.’’

However, the ironic narration reveals Julian to be the most self-deceiving character in the story. His seething resentment of his mother and ‘‘evil urge to break her spirit’’ are evidence of his lack of objectivity and his deep, emotional involvement with his mother.

His liberal views on race relations have more to do with a desire to lash out at her than they do with being open-minded or tolerant. In fact, he looks down on his mother for living ‘‘according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which she never steps foot,’’ but it is he who spends much of the bus trip deep in fantasy about punishing his mother by bringing home a black friend or a mixed-race girlfriend.

In the final scene, Julian is ignorant as to the reality of his mother’s medical condition. When he realizes that she is dying he experiences the first moment of true understanding described in the story. At this point, he feels a sense of intimacy with his mother, calling her ‘‘darling,’’ ‘‘sweetheart,’’ and ‘‘Mamma.’’ The closing line suggests that his mother’s death—and the confrontation with his own cruelty and selfishness—will open up the possibility for self-knowledge for Julian, one based on ‘‘convergence’’ rather than detachment.

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