illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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Granville Hicks (review date 29 May 1965)

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SOURCE: "A Cold, Hard Look at Humankind," in Saturday Review, Vol. XL VIII, No. 2, May 29, 1965, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review, Hicks discusses the lack of compassion in the stories in O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge.]

Flannery O'Connor died last summer in her fortieth year, having published two novels and a collection of short stories. She left enough short stories to make another collection, which has just been published: Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Already a kind of Flannery O'Connor legend is taking shape. Much has been written about her since her death, and Esprit, published by the University of Scranton, has devoted most of an issue to praise of her work by distinguished men and women of letters. Certain themes are emphasized: her devotion to Catholicism, the toughness of character that permitted her to survive and to triumph as a writer while living on an isolated Georgia farm, the courage with which she endured a crippling and incurable disease, her constant preoccupation with her craft.

Certain of Flannery O'Connor's virtues—particularly her courage and her craftsmanship—cannot be exaggerated, but she was not, as some of her admirers seem to suggest, a candidate for sainthood. She was a devout and proud Catholic: "I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer," she wrote in her essay in The Living Novel, and, "I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy." Yet she refused to conform to the literary standards set up by many priests and laymen in the name of the Church. (See, for instance, the text of one of her lectures printed in Greyfriar, published by Siena College, Loudonville, New York.) She insisted on expressing her orthodoxy in her own way.

Similarly, although she was an extraordinarily independent young woman, living a kind of life that few contemporary writers would put up with, she was by no means a solitary. Friends and admirers visited her in Milledgeville, and she was cordial with them, even making small talk when that seemed called for, in the best Southern manner. She corresponded with literary people she found congenial, and her letters were lively and often gay. (Shenandoah for the winter of 1965 prints a collection of letters written to Richard H. Stern that reveal sides of Flannery O'Connor few people saw.) Difficult as travel was for her, she spoke at many colleges. She was in the world as much as she wanted to be, as much as was consonant with the state of her health and her integrity as a writer.

She grew steadily in her art, and the best of the stories in Everything That Rises are the best things she ever wrote. They are superb, and they are terrible. She took a cold, hard look at human beings, and she set down with marvelous precision what she saw.

In the title story we have a pretentious, empty-headed woman who is struggling to dominate her son, for whom, as she frequently reminds him, she has sacrificed everything. The reader's sympathies are at first altogether with the son, but slowly, ruthlessly, Miss O'Connor strips him bare. He is weak, selfish, confused, afraid of the freedom he pretends to desire. The unhappy resolution of the situation comes by way of a Negro woman, who is herself arrogant, bitter, and violent.

Miss O'Connor shows us a number of these pompous, self-satisfied, middle-class women. In "Revelation" she holds up for our appalled gaze a peculiarly outrageous specimen, and then contrives a situation in which the woman sees herself as we see her. In "Greenleaf"...

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a hard-working, narrow-minded woman, who thinks of herself as the epitome of virtue, is pitted against a shiftless farmer, and loses the struggle.

The weak intellectual also appears in several stories. ("Intellectual" was not a flattering term in her vocabulary; in one of her letters to Stern in Chicago she speaks of his being "in that cold place among them interlekchuls.") She was particularly distrustful of the rationalistic reformer, the do-gooder. She revealed her sentiments in her portrayal of Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away, but her study of the type in the story called "The Lame Shall Enter First" is even more dismaying. A social worker, a widower, befriends an intelligent but badly behaved boy of the streets, even putting him ahead of his own son. Gradually the reader comes to understand the futility and wickedness of the reformer's conduct, and the twist of the screw comes when he himself is forced to understand—too late.

There is violence in most of the stories, but it rarely seems to be dragged in for its own sake. Violence is an integral part of the world Miss O'Connor is describing, an inevitable consequence of the evil she portrays. In another horrible story, "A View of the Woods," an old man and his grand-daughter, who are exactly alike in their meanness, are brought into physical conflict, which becomes grotesque and terrible.

I find almost no compassion in these stories. In "Judgment Day" Miss O'Connor seems to be sorry for the old man who has been transplanted from his Georgia farm to his daughter's New York City apartment, but she is not sorry for many of her characters. I was devastated by the fate of the reformer in "The Lame Shall Enter First," but Miss O'Connor appears to believe that he got what he deserved. I see him as a man who made mistakes but in the end was to be pitied. Miss O'Connor, I think, saw him as a man who rejected Divine Grace and could expect nothing but hellfire. (The urchin the man tries to befriend knows himself to be a child of Satan, but to the man that is all nonsense.)

I am not saying that Miss O'Connor's Catholicism was responsible for the harshness of her judgments; but the harshness, which probably had many causes, was compatible with her religion as she conceived it. The evil of unredeemed human nature was part of her dogma, and she saw plenty of evidence of it. She was not a pessimist, of course, because she believed there was a way of salvation, but I know of no pessimist who has painted a darker picture of the world we live in.

What are we who are not believers in her sense to make of this? Simply that she set down what she saw. We may have pity where she did not, but we cannot deny the testimony of her eyes. Again and again the reader is brought up short by the precision with which she communicates her insights. She appears to be a rather simple, even casual, sort of writer, but the more one analyzes her stories, the more one is impressed by her artistry. She may not have been a saint, but she was one of the best writers of short stories this era has seen.


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Everything That Rises Must Converge Flannery O'Connor

(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of O'Connor's short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). For further information on O'Connor's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, 21, and 66.

The title of O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge is taken from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man. The stories in the collection revolve around characters who are not prepared to accept God's grace. O'Connor's genre is very specific; she is a southern Catholic writer whose work is infused with southern and religious imagery.

Plot and Major Characters

Many of the characters in Everything That Rises Must Converge are similar types. The protagonist of the title story, Julian, is an educated, seemingly liberal, would-be writer who has had to resort to selling typewriters to make a living. He lives with his mother, another O'Connor archetype, a pretentious southern woman who is living in reduced circumstances. She struggles to keep her dignity and to dominate her son, for whom she has sacrificed everything. "The Enduring Chill" features Asbury, another would-be writer forced to move in with his mother. Like Julian, Asbury feels he has risen above the Southern environment in which he was raised. Also reminiscent of Julian, he is a would-be liberal whose attempts to befriend the African-American workers on his mother's dairy farm is more of a rebellion against his mother than a true affection or concern for the workers. The pompous middle-class woman is another frequent character in these stories. Represented by Julian's mother in the title story, Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation," and Mrs. May in "Greenleaf," each woman discovers that her belief in her own virtue and goodness is not enough for true grace. Simply avoiding evil is not enough for redemption in O'Connor's world. Intellectuals are also portrayed with little sympathy by O'Connor. Sheppard in "The Lame Shall Enter First" believes that intelligence and a good home life is enough to save Rufus, a club-footed juvenile delinquent whom he takes in and tries to redeem. Sheppard's blind devotion to ideas and intelligence causes him to be duped by Rufus and to lose his own son, Norton.

Major Themes

The major theme of Everything That Rises Must Converge is derived from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man. In that work, the author asserts that all matter and spirit will eventually converge at what he refers to as the Omega point. The stories from this collection are about man's resistance to this convergence. O'Connor's characters use different methods to avoid convergence or union with mankind, including isolating themselves in intellectualism like Julian and Sheppard, or clinging to a romanticized version of the past like Julian's mother. It is only through the destruction of pride and false identities that O'Connor's characters have a chance at convergence or redemption, hence the violent climaxes of many of the stories: Julian loses his sense of superiority over and separation from his mother as he watches her die from a stroke; Sheppard realizes the error of his judgement when he finds his son hanging in the attic. Other themes in Everything That Rises Must Converge include Christians struggling to keep their faith and finding redemption in an increasingly secularized and technologically advancing world. A final theme in this collection focuses on capturing the changes of the South of the 1950s and 1960s. O'Connor traces her characters' relationship to the New South, delineating the continuing evolution of the region.

Critical Reception

Most critics discuss the relationship of Everything That Rises Must Converge to the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The title's obvious allusion to Teilhard de Chardin's work is commonly accepted; however, reviewers disagree about O'Connor's intentions. Some argue that she accepts Teilhard de Chardin's ideas, and the stories are her attempt to portray true convergence. Others, including Robert Fitzgerald in the Introduction to the work, assert that O'Connor uses the title ironically. Reviewers often note the irony and humor in the stories. In addition, many critics praise her storywriting skill and her ability to convey colloquialism and rural southern dialogue. Critics often discuss the grotesque and violent images in the stories, but many point out that the images are not gratuitous. Due to the imagery and setting of the stories, reviewers note a resemblance to the work of William Faulkner, but several assert that O'Connor's work is more representative of the New South than Faulkner's.

Walter Sullivan (September 1965)

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SOURCE: "Flannery O'Connor, Sin, and Grace: Everything That Rises Must Converge," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. II, No. 4, September, 1965, pp. 1-8, 10.

[In the following essay, Sullivan asserts that O'Connor is more successful in carrying out her themes in her short fiction than in her novels, because she is unable to sustain the images and relationships in the longer form.]

The stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge are the last fruits of Flannery O'Connor's particular genius; and though one or two of them display an uncertainty that must have been the result of her deteriorating health, they are for the most part successful extensions of her earlier fiction. God-ridden and violent—six of the nine end in something like mayhem—they work their own small counter reformation in a faithless world. Flannery O'Connor's limitations were numerous and her range was narrow: she repeated herself frequently and she ignored an impressively large spectrum of human experience. But what she did well, she did with exquisite competence: her ear for dialogue, her eye for human gestures were as good as anybody's ever were: and her vision was as clear and direct and as annoyingly precious as that of an Old Testament prophet or one of the more irascible Christian saints.

Her concern was solely with the vulgarities of this world and the perfections of the other—perfections that had to be taken on faith, for the postulations and descriptions of them in her work are at best somewhat tawdry. She wrote of man separated from the true source of his being, lost, he thinks and often hopes, to God; and of a God whose habits are strange beyond knowing, but Who gets His way in the end. That she was a Southerner and wrote about the South may have been a fortunate coincidence. The South furnished her the kind of flagrant images her theme and her style demanded, and Southern dialogue augmented and perhaps even sharpened her wit. But the South as locale and source was quite peripheral. She once wrote Robert Fitzgerald, "I would like to go to California for about two minutes to further these researches [into the ways of the vulgar]…. Did you see that picture of Roy Rogers' horse attending a church service in Pasadena?" Had she been born in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, the surface agonies of her work would have been altered: perhaps they would have been weakened: but the essential delineations of her fiction, the mythic impulse itself would, I believe, have been essentially unchanged.

As a novelist, she was not successful. She could never fill a booklength canvas: the colors thinned out, the relationships weakened, the images became, before the denouement, rigid and brittle. The weakness obviously was not in her theme, which was big enough to fill the world, powerful enough to shape some of the greatest of all literary careers in the past, and in our own time those of Eliot and Mauriac and Graham Greene and William Golding. What went wrong was technical. Flannery O'Connor used to be fond of saying that the way she wrote a story was "to follow the scent like an old hound dog." At first glance, one might conclude that her novels were written with too little forethought. Wise Blood is full of loose ends: the theme dribbles away through the holes in the structure. According to Fitzgerald, the idea for having Hazel Motes blind himself came to O'Connor when, stuck at the crucial point in her manuscript, she read Oedipus for the first time. Then the earlier parts of the novel had to be reworked to prepare for the ending.

But a lot of novels get written and rewritten this way. And some novels of real power have ends as loose as that left by Enoch Emery who is last seen disappearing into the night in his ape's suit. Except for Haze, all the characters fade off—Hawkes and Sabbath and Hoover Shoates. The land-lady fills the void in the last chapter. But what Motes means to do, and what O'Connor meant for us to understand concerning what he does, seem clear enough. Driven by the Christ he cannot escape from, the "ragged figure" who "moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind," and motions "him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing," he murders his double, the false prophet of his own false religion and therefore kills that part of himself. Then by blinding himself, he exhibits the strength of belief that Hawkes was unable to muster: he redeems Hawkes' failure and turns his vision totally inward away from this world, toward the Christ who exists in the inner darkness.

A better case can be made for The Violent Bear It Away. The beginning is extraordinarily powerful: the old man dies at the breakfast table, the boy abandons the partially dug grave, gets drunk and burns the house down. The lines of the conflict are clearly drawn between the scientific attitude—which is to say, the new gnosticism—of Rayber and the gift of Christian grace which Tarwater has not been able to escape. That Tarwater is a reluctant vessel enhances the drama of the novel: he does the work of God in spite of himself and a part of the resolution of the story is his understanding of his role and his acceptance of it. Having been abused by a homosexual, he has a vision of a burning bush, and a message comes to him: GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. And in the final scene he is moving toward the darkened city where the "children of God" lie sleeping.

The characters here are fewer than in Wise Blood, which is in itself a kind of virtue: every novelist needs to learn what he can do without. The plot is rounded off neatly. The old man has been buried by some Negroes. The feeble-minded child has been baptized and drowned. The prophet's will has been done: Rayber is defeated. The scent has been true and truly followed and all ought to be well, but the novel remains, for me at least, unsatisfactory. The difficulty does not lie in faulty concept or structure: the scenes balance out nicely and the pace is sure. The trouble, I think, is with the characters: brilliantly drawn and fascinating and symbolically significant as they are, they will not hold up through a long piece of fiction. They are too thin, in the final analysis, and too much alike.

Yet, the characters, the clothes they wear, the gestures they make, the lines they speak, the thoughts they think are what make Flannery O'Connor's work so magnificently vivid and so totally memorable. The dialogue ranges from the outrageous to the absolutely predictable, the latter done so well that it never fails to delight. For example, in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Mr. Shiftlet says, "There's one of these here doctors in Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart—the human heart … out of a man's chest and held it in his hand … and studied it like it was a day old chicken, and lady … he don't know no more about it than you or me."

Or take this passage from "The Displaced Person."

"They came from over the water," Mrs. Shortley said with a wave of her arm. "They're what is called Displaced Persons."

"Displaced Persons," he said. "Well now. I declare. What do that mean?"

"It means they ain't where they were born at and there's nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn't nobody have you."

"It seems like they here, though," the old man said in a reflective voice.

"If they here, they somewhere."

"Sho is," the other agreed. "They here."

The illogic of Negro thinking always irked Mrs. Shortley. "They ain't where they belong to be at," she said.

Again in "The Life You Save," Shiftlet offers the old woman a stick of chewing gum, "but she only raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth." In The Violent Bear It Away, Tarwater makes a face suitable for an idiot to fool the truant officer, the old man lies down in his coffin to try it out—his fat stomach protrudes over the top—and the wire to Rayber's hearing aid characterizes the quality of his intelligence. All this is very fine, supported as it is with O'Connor's keen sense of the world in its various aspects: the buildings and sidewalks and trolley cars of the city, the fields and trees and clouds—many clouds—and barns and houses and pigs and cows and peacocks. Her people function richly as images and frequently they evolve into symbols.

In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the Misfit represents the plight of man from the beginning of Christian history to the modern age, and he sets forth the dilemma with such blunt clarity that it cannot be misread. Jesus was truly God or he was not: between being God and not being God there is no middle ground. If He were, then He must be followed. If He were not, then all men are free to work out their own destinies and the terms of their own happiness for themselves. The Misfit is aware of his own helplessness. Life is a mystery to him: the ways of fate are inscrutable: he denies flatly that he is a good man, and he expects neither human charity nor the mercy of God. He knows only that he does not know, and his awareness is the beginning of all wisdom, the first step toward faith.

It is an awareness that the grandmother and the other characters in the story do not share. "You're a good man!" she says to Red Sammy Butts, owner of the roadside restaurant, and he readily agrees. But he is not: nor is she a good woman: nor are Bailey or his wife or his children good. Their belief in their own virtue is a sign of their moral blindness. In pride they have separated themselves from God, putting their trust in modern technology: in paved roads and automobiles (Red Sammy gave two men credit because they were driving a Chrysler); in advertising messages along the highway and tapdancing lessons for children and in motels and pampered cats. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" makes clear—as does Wise Blood—that the characters in Flannery O'Connor's work may not be distinguished as good or bad, or as guilty or innocent. All are guilty; all are evil. The distinctions are between those who know of God's mercy and those who do not, between those who think they can save themselves, either for this life or for the next, and those who are driven, in spite of their own failings, to do God's purpose. In the general retreat from piety, man and the conditions under which he lives have been perverted.

It was Flannery O'Connor's contention that the strange characters who populate her world are essentially no different from you and me. That they are drawn more extravagantly, she would admit, but she claimed that this was necessary because of our depravity: for the morally blind, the message of redemption must be writ large. This is not to say that she conceived of her art as a didactic enterprise: but rather that like all writers of all persuasions, she wrote out of her own ontological view which remained orthodox and Catholic, while the society in which she lived and for which she wrote became more profane and more heretical every day. She could no sooner have stopped writing about God than Camus could have ceased being an existentialist. She was committed and she had to shout to be heard.

But in writing, as in all other human endeavors, one pays his money and makes his choice. He gives up something to get something, and to get the outrageously drawn, spiritually tormented character, it is necessary to sacrifice the subtlety that long fiction demands. Complex characterization is the sine qua non of the novel: the characters must not only have epiphanies: they must change and develop in terms of what they have done and seen. It was the nature of Flannery O'Connor's fictional vision that discovery on the part of her people was all. When one has witnessed the flaming bush or the tongues of fire or the descending dove, the change is final and absolute and whatever happens thereafter is anticlimax. This is why the characters in O'Connor's novels fade and become static and often bore us with their sameness before we are done with the book. But fulfilling their proper roles—that is of revelation, discovery—in the short stories, they are not boring and they do what they were conceived to do.

In the society which is defined by the grandmother and the Misfit, the central conflict is between those who are driven by God and those who believe in their own self-sufficiency. This idea was put forth in Wise Blood, but the struggle took place too much inside the mind of Motes, and O'Connor's efforts at finding images for her values were not entirely successful. In the heavily ironic "Good Country People," the conflict is between two of the godless. Hulga, the Ph.D. in philosophy, is deprived of her wooden leg by Pointer, the Bible salesman, when she will not submit to his advances. But more than this, she is robbed forever of her belief in the final efficacy of the rational process. This issue is fully joined, as I indicated earlier, in The Violent Bear It Away: Rayber believes in the social sciences, their theories, their statistics. To him, all mysticism is superstition, nothing is finally unexplainable, and man is the product of his environment. That the latter may not be quite true is made clear from the outset by the presence of Rayber's idiot son. But Rayber sees Bishop as the kind of mistake of nature that will ultimately be eradicated in the course of scientific advancement. All things will sooner or later be subject to the control of man. Tarwater, the unwilling instrument of grace, represents the super-rational quality of the Christian impulse. Determined not to do what his uncle, the prophet, had set for him to do, he does so anyway. Every step he takes away from the task of baptising Bishop takes him closer to that very act. All his bad temper, his country cunning and his determination to be and to act to suit himself avail no more than Rayber's educated scheming. God snatches whom He will and sets His will in motion.

One of the most successful stories in Everything That Rises, and in my judgment one of the best pieces Flannery O'Connor ever wrote, is a shorter and somewhat more realistic reworking of The Violent Bear It Away. The characters in "The Lame Shall Enter First" are three: Sheppard, city recreational director and volunteer counselor at the reformatory; Norton, his son who still grieves over the death of his mother; and Rufus Johnson, a fourteen-year-old, Bible reading criminal with a club foot. Like Rayber, Sheppard knows the answers to everything. When he discovers, during his ministrations at the reformatory, that Rufus has an I.Q. of 140, he determines to rehabilitate him, hard nut that he is. "Where there was intelligence, anything was possible." Immediately on seeing the boy, Sheppard discovers the source of Rufus' delinquency. "The case was clear to Sheppard instantly. His mischief was compensation for the foot."

To know everything is to be able to solve everything, and therefore Sheppard sets out to rearrange life for the mutual benefit of Rufus and Norton, who, being an only child, is selfish and needs to learn to share. Reluctantly, Rufus comes to live with Sheppard, but he does nothing to make himself pleasant. Where Sheppard is kind, Rufus is surly. He betrays Sheppard's trust in many ways, the most important of which is by corrupting Norton. He disputes Sheppard's claim that when one is dead he is simply gone, that the entry into the grave is final. Rufus knows himself to be evil, and if he does not repent he will go to hell, but the good go to heaven and everybody—including Norton's mother—goes somewhere.

Sheppard points out that a belief in God or Satan is incompatible with the "space age," and in order to turn the minds of the boys from superstition to healthy reality, he installs a telescope at the attic window. Sheppard tells the boys to look at the moon: they may go there someday: they may become astronauts. But Rufus is more interested in what will happen to the soul after death, and Norton thinks what he sees in the sky is his mother. Norton kills himself in the end, preferring death to life—or rather, preferring the life to come that he has learned about from Rufus to the drab logical existence he has lived with Sheppard. The victory here belongs to Rufus, who is lame and evil and conscious of both. He takes pride in his club foot, not because it explains his character or causes him to be forgiven his trespasses, but because it represents to him something of the burden of being human, the lameness of soul, the weight of sinfulness that we all must endure.

In spite of its typical O'Connor grimness, "The Lame Shall Enter First" comes to a more optimistic conclusion than does The Violent Bear It Away. Sheppard has his epiphany. When Johnson has finally been carried off to the police station, Sheppard reflects that he has nothing to reproach himself with. "I did more for him [Johnson] than I did for my own child."

Slowly his face drained of color. It became almost grey beneath the white halo of his hair. The sentence echoed in his mind, each syllable like a dull blow. His mouth twisted and he closed his eyes against the revelation. Norton's face rose before him, empty, forlorn, his left eye listing almost imperceptibly toward the outer rim as if it could not bear a full view of grief. His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself. He saw the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts, leering at him from the eyes of Johnson. His image of himself shrivelled until everything was black before him. He sat there paralyzed, aghast.

Jacques Maritain says, in Art and Scholasticism, "A reign of the heart which is not first of all a reign of truth, a revival of Christianity which is not first of all theological, disguises suicide as love." This is to say, in a more complex and sophisticated fashion, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And who in Flannery O'Connor's work is without his good intentions? Only those who are conscious of their own evil. Only those who are driven by the grace of God. Julian in the title story of Everything That Rises is charity itself in his view toward the world at large; but his mother, in whose house he lives, is the object of his scorn and hatred. He despises her for her stupidity which is real and for her narrowness: she is against integration. On the bus, Julian sits beside Negroes and makes conversation with them, not because he loves his fellow man, but to annoy his mother. Later, she patronizingly offers a penny to a little Negro boy, is knocked down by the boy's mother and Julian is delighted. But like Sheppard, he too in the end is forced to see his own guilt.

Once more, in the same volume, the same theme is introduced in "The Enduring Chill." The story opens with Asbury's return from New York where he has been living and trying to write, to his mother's farm in Georgia where he thinks he will die. He has come because illness has forced him to come, and he has in his possession the only piece of writing he was ever able successfully to finish: a long statement of his grievances, an indictment blaming his mother for all his failures, his weaknesses, his unfulfilled desires: he holds her accountable for every miserable thing that has ever happened to him. The source of his present misery, however, is his previous disobedience of one of her rules for conduct in the dairy. Earlier he was home to do research on a play he was writing about "The Negro." To get close to his subject matter, he worked in the dairy with his mother's hired men, and here to prove his solidarity with the other race, he suggested that they all drink milk together. The Negroes would not, but Asbury did, and now he has undulant fever.

The end of "The Enduring Chill" and the end of life as Asbury has heretofore led it are marked by the descent of the Holy Ghost, the sign of God's mercy. But until this point all of Asbury's affection for mankind has been as vague and directionless in his mind as are the outlines of the lecture on Zen Buddhism he attended in New York. Negroes for him are not human beings, but "The Negro," and he shows kindness to those on the farm that he may learn more about them for the advancement of his own projects. He abhors his mother and his sister, the priest and the doctor who try to help him. But God snatches him away. Of such is our hope.

Of the nineteen stories by Flannery O'Connor so far published—I am told that at least one has not yet been printed—nine end in the violent deaths of one or more persons. Three others end in or present near the end physical assaults that result in a greater or less degree of bodily injury. Of the remaining seven, one ends in arson, another in the theft of a wooden leg, another in car theft and wife abandonment. The other four leave their characters considerably shaken but in reasonable case. Each of the novels contains a murder and taken together, they portray a wide range of lesser offences, including sexual immorality, ordinary and otherwise, voyeurism, mummy stealing, self-mutilation, assault with a deadly weapon, moonshining, vandalism and police brutality. All this, performed by characters who are for the most part neither bright nor beautiful, is the stuff of Flannery O'Connor's comic view.

Her apparent preoccupation with death and violence, her laughter at the bloated and sinful ignorance of mankind informed her continuing argument with the majority view. Believing as she did in a hereafter, she did not think, as most of us do, that death is the worst thing that can happen to a human being. I do not mean that she held life cheap, but rather that she saw it in its grandest perspective. Nor did she conceive of earthly happiness and comfort as the ends of man. The old lady in "The Comforts of Home" brings a whore into the house with her own son because she believes that nobody deserves punishment. This is the other kind of sentimental, self-serving charity, the obverse of that practiced by Sheppard and Asbury. Both kinds result from a misunderstanding of ultimate truth. But so much of even the apparent worst of O'Connor is funny, because, as Kierkegaard made clear, under the omniscience of God, the position of all men is ironic: measured against eternity, the world is but a dream.

In her work the strain of hope is strong. "Revelation" stands not necessarily as the best story she ever wrote, but as a kind of final statement, a rounding off of her fiction taken as a whole. O'Connor's version of the ship of mankind is a doctor's office and here sits Mrs. Turpin surrounded by the various types of humanity: the old and the young, the white and, briefly, the black, the educated and the uneducated, trash and aristocrat and good country people. Mrs. Turpin's thoughts are mostly on differences, on how, if Jesus has asked her to choose, she would have come to earth as a Negro of the right sort before she would have come as a trashy white person. The conversation is of human distinctions and of the race question, and from the beginning a silent girl with a bad complexion and a Wellesley degree regards her with loathing from behind a book. Finally, while Mrs. Turpin is in the act of thanking Jesus for making her who she is and putting her where she is, the girl attacks her and calls her an old wart hog from hell.

Mrs. Turpin's satisfaction with herself is broken: for her the scuffle in the doctor's office has shaken the scheme of things: her concept of herself and her relationships with both God and man have been called into question. She has a vision at the end.

She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extended upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right…. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

So no one escapes the need for grace: even the virtues of this world, being worldly, are corrupt. But it is easy to guess what Mrs. Turpin sees. Passing before her is that gallery of rogues and lunatics who are the personae of Flannery O'Connor's work—all of them loved from the beginning, and all of them saved now by God's mercy, terrible and sure.

Principal Works

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Wise Blood (novel) 1952A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (short stories) 1955The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960Everything That Rises Must Converge (short stories) 1965Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose [edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald] (nonfiction) 1969The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (short stories) 1971The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (letters) 1979The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews [compiled by Leo J. Zuber, edited by Carter W. Martin] (essays) 1983Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (fiction, criticism, letters) 1988Flannery O'Connor: The Growing Craft—A Synoptic Variorum Edition of The Geranium, An Exile in the East, Getting Home, Judgement Day (short stories) 1993

Webster Schott (review date 13 September 1965)

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SOURCE: "Flannery O'Connor: Faith's Stepchild," in The Nation, Vol. 201, No. 7, September 13, 1965, pp. 142-44, 146.

[In the following review, Schott discusses O'Connor's Catholicism and asserts that "in Flannery O'Connor's stories evil is man's inevitable fate."]

After reading Flannery O'Connor's final stories I ended the night listening to the mathematical music of the baroque. Order had to be restored, the monsters exorcised from the imagination and pressed back into her fiction.

Losers all, her characters act out the Gothic rituals of defeat and destruction in the nightmare American South. And if Miss O'Connor's god was ever aware of them (a problem to return to eventually), he is now obliviously sawing logs in heaven, as Pär Lagerkvist suggested in The Eternal Smile. Let them kill and be killed or grind their teeth in anticipation.

There are nine stories here, all episodes of fatal error and ironic retribution—modern Old Testament scenes in eschatology as the earth binds winding sheets around her failures. First a fat white woman, beaten to the pavement for offering a Negro boy a penny at the end of a bus ride, dies of a stroke or heart attack. Next a farm spinster is gored to death by the bull she commanded her hired man to shoot. A progress-crazed old farmer in "A View of the Woods" pounds his 9-year-old granddaughter's skull against rocks until her "eyes were fixed in a glare that did not take him in"; then he staggers suicidally into a lake as immense as his guilt. In "The Comforts of Home" a son accidentally shoots his mother; he was aiming at their slut boarder. In "The Lame Shall Enter First" a child hangs himself after seeing his dead mother waving from a distant star. In "Judgment Day," the only story placed in the North, an ancient Southern D.P. headed home to die gets as far as the stairs and expires; the Negro in the next apartment shoves the corpse's head, arms and legs through the spokes of a stair-case as if in a stock. The last three stories settle for purgatory: an invalid intellectual returns to Georgia and waits for the water-stain holy ghost to descend from the ceiling above his bed. A maniacal ex-sailor, with a Byzantine Jesus tattooed on his back, wails against a tree, unrecognized, like Christ crucified. A self-righteous hog raiser, deranged by accusation and assault, sees a vision of herself at the very end of a heavenly procession led by white trash, bands of "black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs."

Flannery O'Connor ventured into the world. She was born and reared in Georgia, and died there a year ago at the age of 38. But she lived as an adult in New York City, Connecticut and Iowa City, where she studied in Paul Engle's Writer's Workshop. She lectured and read in at least five states and visited France and Italy. Yet all her fiction—these stories; her first collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find; her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away—rise out of the Baptist South. Their recurring ethos is that hereditary conflict of wills one imagines warring behind closed doors as he drives lost at twilight on a back road near the battle-field at Vicksburg. Like an expert on one function of the spleen, she chose a small territory of soil and soul and treated it as though nothing else really existed. Human behavior beyond distorted Christianity, outside the lower social orders of the rural South and the domestic arrangements of widowed parents and their children, is perceived as if by accident.

She had only a few ideas, but messianic feelings about them. Children and parents, rarely husbands and wives or brothers and sisters, strike at one another. The family unit—not society as a whole—opens the trap to dysfunction and cataclysm. Only the land, trees and sky possess beauty. Her adults look like mistakes; even her children are ugly. Love enters her stories as the comprehension of loss after death of a child or parent.

Her chief characters belong to the genus Southern Neanderthal. Their minds are pre-Darwinian and post-Christian. The only belief that might make a difference in their lives is Baptist literalism. Like astrology, it's nonfunctional, but provides a defensive reflex system against thought. Miss O'Connor's Negroes are "niggers," endowed with physical strength, great fears and animal survival powers. Her intellectuals—a college professor, schoolteacher, social worker, three failed writers and a Wellesley girl—create special hells. They know about paperback books, psychic compensation, electric blankets, racial equality, but nothing about themselves. Educated atheists, they can claim no more stability than the red-necked semi-literates they loathe. Flannery O'Connor's reality is destiny out of control, choices made after alternatives have been frozen. To begin one of her stories is to anticipate its end. The only questions are how the dreadful punishment for living will be delivered and in what manner her savage sense of humor will delay the agony.

"If nothing happened, there's no story," Flannery O'Connor once said to Robert Fitzgerald. Events take place, words are spoken in her stories for reasons her characters would not understand. Buried in their psychic histories, black flowers of chaos bloom because Miss O'Connor creates them. The tattooed Parker marries a woman he does not love. The social worker, Sheppard, persists at rehabilitating a psychopathic youth even though the boy is destroying his own son. Her characters aspire to the impossible out of mysterious inner needs. We believe in them because Flannery O'Connor's visionary logic descends on us like a clamp. Intelligence says wait. But the emotions follow her to exhaustion. She had the fictionalist's only requisite gift—a genius for deception.

"I think the first thing you need to realize about fiction," she wrote to one of her nun correspondents, "is … the writer [tries] to see an action, or a series of actions, clearly. To make anyone see a thing, you have to say straight out what it is, you have to describe it with the greatest accuracy. The fiction writer is concerned with the way the world looks first of all."

The phenomena of sight obsessed her. Events and revelations come in strings of optical epiphanies. What her characters see and how they see it, the colors of their eyes and the reflections in them, their visions in crisis or at the instant of death, the play of hues and shadows in trees and sky, reinforce what we feel about the core-man inside the shell.

Before the reducing class at the Y, the fat woman's sky-blue eyes in the title story are "as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten." Crumpled like a blimp after the handbag blitzkreig, she seeps into death. "One eye, large and staring, moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained fixed on him [her son], raked his face again, found nothing and closed." Lights drift farther away the faster the youth runs for help. Darkness and his sins sweep him back to her.

Windows to the soul, eyes signal preludes and clues to action and meaning. Visions and vistas serve as codas. The "same pale slate color as the ocean," O.E. Parker's eyes "reflected the innocent spaces around him as if they were a microcosm of the mysterious sea." The Jesus tattooed on his back as a desperate gesture to make contact with his wife has "eyes to be obeyed." His wife cannot recognize the Jesus. "He don't look…. No man shall see his face." She watches Parker, crying like a baby against the pecan tree, welts forming on the face of his tattooed Christ, and "her eyes hardened still more." As the horns pierce her body, Mrs. May in "Greenleaf" had "the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable." Smell, sound, kinesthesis orient Miss O'Connor's characters. Vision directs them; emotional stimuli enter through their eyes. Their frustrating pasts, obliquely bared, turn their responses into acts of hostility, hatred, violence. Curiously, all are denied the sensuality of sex. To introduce the erotic would have taken Miss O'Connor outside the psychophysical graveyard. She was, apparently, never in love.

Flannery O'Connor is everywhere in her stories. She entered fiction by way of painting and cartooning, which partly accounts for the visual intensity. Many of her characters struggle to walk or move in their states of shock; she herself used crutches when these stories were written. Like most of her characters, the continuous personal presence in her life was one parent—her widowed mother. One sees the spinster author sitting in bed, paring her fingernails and watching the peacocks on her farm, tolerating the ministrations, wandering through visions of violence in the distances surrounding her. Along with physical pain, sight was the most intense sensual experience available to her. Enlarged by a medieval religious attraction to the manifestations of evil, sight gave her art its phantasmagorial reality.

The most imaginatively endowed Roman Catholic writer the United States has developed, Flannery O'Connor once said of the eucharistic symbol, "If it were only a symbol, I'd say to hell with it." She received the last sacraments before her death in Milledgeville. She went to mass every day when she lived with Robert Fitzgerald and his wife in Connecticut in 1949 and 1950. When lupus (the disease that eventually killed her) got worse in 1957, she went to Lourdes and then to Rome for an audience with Pius XII. At Notre Dame that year she had said: "The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that maintains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth." She chose the title of this book from Teilhard de Chardin, the evolutionist Jesuit theologian who theorized that matter and spirit would eventually converge at "point omega." Judging from Fitzgerald's introduction and the evidence of the stories, she did it for ironic effect. Flannery O'Connor must have viewed Chardin as another "interleckchul" and Vatican II an "Eyetalian" conspiracy against the blood of Christ and the one true faith.

Her Catholicism belongs, it seems to me, somewhere near the time of the Inquisition. The village priest in "The Enduring Chill" is a hard-of-hearing country bumpkin. "You will never learn to be good unless you pray regularly," he says when Asbury Fox asks him what he thinks of James Joyce. Ignatius Vogle, S.J., appears briefly in the same story to suggest the "real probability of the New Man, assisted, of course, by the Third Person of the Trinity." Very cool, he has the same trouble as Asbury and looks beyond the cross. He's too damned smart.

On three occasions in the Gospel according to John, Jesus calls the devil "the ruler of this world," and in Flannery O'Connor's stories evil is man's inevitable fate. Helplessly enveloped by satanic emanations, her characters sense the poisons, breathe deeper and sink. "Pride is the queen and mother of all vices," Thomas Aquinas said with rhetorical affection. The loss of Paradise was the price Adam and Eve paid for their pride. In every story, Flannery O'Connor's characters aspire beyond their capabilities. Asbury tries to write and can't. He attempts to liberate Negroes and instead gets undulant fever and his mother's banalities. Sheppard, in "The Lame Shall Enter First," cannot possibly rehabilitate a monster who has the intelligence of a near-genius and the will to destroy his child. Thomas, another would-be writer living on his vanity and his mother, in "The Comforts of Home," stumbles into matricide when he exceeds his psychological potentialities. O.E. Parker tries to have himself tattooed out of anxiety—his solitary fate—and into love. He goes down the emotional drain with Jesus on his back.

Vanity corrupts Christian belief, selfless intention, personal sacrifice. "To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy in life," Mrs. Turpin tells herself in "Revelation." In the doctor's waiting room as she says, "Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is," she gets socked in the eye and thrown to the floor. Grandpa Fortune tries for wealth and progress and succeeds at murder. The boy Norton acquires a belief in God and hangs himself over it; the delinquent Johnson believes so strongly in the Bible that he tears out a page, eats it and goes on in his life of crime.

According to Christian orthodoxy, everything is inverted in Flannery O'Connor's stories. No one can find happiness or salvation. No one acquires the grace she speaks of. Her South is Salem metamorphosed; it would take a Second Coming to give her people hope.

In one of her letters to the novelist, Richard G. Stern, Flannery O'Connor said to look up John Hawkes in Providence because he was a good writer. Despite her attacks on existentialists, she saw the world in the same distorted and sinister form as did Hawkes. She dramatized Sartre's hell of other people. She confirmed James Purdy's conviction that love is impossible in the present. Pagan Christian symbols and practices frame her work. Ignorant fundamentalism, not Catholic pageantry and transubstantiation, haunts the preachers and believers in her stories and novels. Why, one wonders, could she not write at length about Catholics? Why did she choose as her larger models the misshapen Oral Robertses of the South? She selected those properties of Christianity that served to justify her black reality. The emerging Catholic theology that implies the visitation of Christ may have regenerated matter and dignified all of life was anti-art and personally intolerable. It denied her particular vision of hell on earth. She talked about free will, the sacramental view, redemption by Christ. But her characters have no real choice—only faint glimmers of possibilities lost.

Flannery O'Connor's work is filled with irony—small hope turned to great despair, rewards transformed into punishments, seriousness mocked by comedy, vanity in modesty, hate in place of love, grotesquery disguised as simplicity. But the delicious irony probably escaped her.

Based on the most depressing features of Christianity, the consignment of man to the evil forces within him and the denial of an evolving intelligence to help himself, her stories created a small universe. As patterns of thought her work suggests the absolute theological dead end enlightened Catholicism is struggling to escape. Artistically her fiction is the most extraordinary thing to happen to the American short story since Ernest Hemingway.

Reality is fantastic. Violence does bear life away. Sometimes. Myopic in her vision, Flannery O'Connor was among those few writers who raise the questions worth thinking about after the lights are out and the children are safely in bed: What is reality? What are the possibilities for hope? How much can man endure?

Irving Howe (review date 30 September 1965)

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SOURCE: "Flannery O'Connor's Stories," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 4, September 30, 1965, pp. 16-7.

[In the following review, Howe praises O'Connor's storywriting ability and her collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, but complains that, except for two stories, O'Connor's work is missing the unexpected revelation that he finds endearing in other great stories.]

On and off these last months I have been fussing in my mind with Miss O'Connor's stories, unable to reach that certainty of judgment which, we all know, is the established trade mark of the modern critic. The skill and ambition of these stories are not lost upon me, yet I hesitate fully to join in the kind of praise they have won from respected critics.

At first I feared my distance from Miss O'Connor's religious beliefs might be corrupting my judgment, but while one cannot, in the nature of things, offer guarantees, the trouble does not seem to reside in the famous "problem of belief." Miss O'Connor was a serious Catholic, and what she called "the Catholic sacramental view of life" is certainly a controlling force in her stories. But it is not the only nor always the dominant one, since she could bring into play resources of worldliness such as one might find in the work of a good many sophisticated modern writers. Miss O'Connor's religious convictions certainly operate throughout most of her stories, but at so deep a level, as so much more than mere subject matter of fixed point of view, that the skeptical reader is spared the problem of an explicit confrontation with "the Catholic sacramental view of life." Except for an occasional phrase, which serves partly as a rhetorical signal that more than ordinary verisimilitude is at stake, there are no unavoidable pressures to consider these stories in a strictly religious context. They stand securely on their own, as renderings and criticisms of human experience.

And as such, they merit a considerable respect. The writing is firm, economical, complex: we are engaged with an intelligence, not merely a talent. Miss O'Connor has a precise ear for rural colloquialism and lower-class mangling of speech; she can be slyly amusing in regard to the genteel segments of the Southern middle class, partly because she knows them with an assurance beyond sentiment or hatred. She has brought under control that addiction to Gothic hijinks which, to my taste, marred her early work (though it won her the applause of critics for whom any mode of representation they take to be anti-realistic is a token of daring and virtue). Touches of Gothic survive in these late stories, but no longer in a programmatic or obsessional way, and no longer on the assumption that to proclaim the wonders of the strange is to escape the determined limits of familiar life. What these touches of Gothic now do is to provide a shock in the otherwise even flow of narrative, thereby raising its pitch and tensing its movement.

What then is wrong? For most of Miss O'Connor's readers, nothing at all. For this reviewer, a tricky problem in method and tone, about which there is no need to pretend certainty.

Miss O'Connor's title story has been much admired, and with reason. An aging Confederate lady, fat, rather stupid and crazed with fantasies of status, keeps battling with her emancipated son Julian, an idle would-be writer. Julian expends ingenuities of nastiness in assaulting his mother, but most of his attacks fall harmlessly upon the walls of her genteel incomprehension. Unavoidably their personal conflict becomes entangled with "the Negro problem": polite racism against a blocked and untested fury for Justice.

Mother and son encounter a "cute" Negro child, upon whom the woman decides to bestow a coin. But there is another mother, an infuriated black giantess who hates such gestures of condescension. The Negro woman strikes the white one, and Julian, as his mother lies sprawling on the sidewalk, gloats: "You got exactly what you deserved." But then, while mother and son start for home, she bewildered and he delighted, the mother collapses, this time from a stroke, and Julian must shed the convenient mask of "emancipation" to recognize his fright, his dependence, and his loss. "The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and horror."

The story is unquestionably effective. We grasp the ways in which the son's intellectual superiority rests upon his emotional dependence, and the mother's social stupidity coexists with a maternal selflessness. Their quarrels are symptoms of a soured family romance, but the romance cuts far deeper than the quarrels. As true motives are revealed and protective beliefs dissolved, ironies and complexities fall into place: which is precisely what, in a good sophisticated modern story, they are supposed to do.

Yet that is all this story is: good sophisticated modern, but lacking in that resonance Miss O'Connor clearly hoped it might have. Why? One clue is a recurrent insecurity of tone, jarring sentences in which Miss O'Connor slips from the poise of irony to the smallness of sarcasm, thereby betraying an unresolved hostility to whatever it is she takes Julian to represent…. Repeated several times in these stories, this pattern of feeling seems quite in excess of what the theme might require or the characters plausibly evoke. One can only suppose that it is a hostility rooted in Miss O'Connor's own experience and the kind of literary education she received (intellectuality admired but intellectuals distrusted). Repeatedly she associates the values she respects with an especially obnoxious kind of youthful callowness, while reserving some final wisdom of experience for the foolish and obtuse, the unbearable parents.

In thus shaping her materials Miss O'Connor clearly intends us to savor a cluster of ironies; her sensibility as a writer of fiction was formed in a milieu where irony took on an almost totemic value. But there can be, as in much contemporary writing there is, a deep failure of ironic perception in a writer's unequivocal commitment to irony. Mustered with the regularity of battalions on parade, complex ironies have a way of crystallizing into simple and even smug conclusions. Everything becomes subject to ironic discount except the principle of irony itself.

Let me try to be more concrete. Reading the title story, one quickly begins to see the end toward which it moves and indeed must move. The climax is then realized effectively enough—except for the serious flaw that it is a climax which has already been anticipated a number of pages earlier, where it seems already present, visible and complete, in the preparatory action. One doesn't, to be sure, know that the Negro woman will strike the white woman; but more important, one does know that some kind of ironic reversal will occur in the relationship between mother and son. There is pleasure to be had in watching Miss O'Connor work it all out, but no surprise, for there has been no significant turning upon the premises from which the action has emerged. The story is entirely harmonious with the writer's intent, characterized by what might be called the clarity of limitation. Miss O'Connor is in control of the narrative line from beginning to end, and by the standards of many critics, that is the consummation of her art.

But is it? When I think of stories by contemporary writers which live in my mind—Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," Norman Mailer's "The Man Who Studied Yoga," Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel"—I find myself moved by something more than control. In such stories there comes a moment when the unexpected happens, a perception, an insight, a confrontation which may not be in accord with the writer's original intention and may not be strictly required by the logic of the action, but which nevertheless caps the entire story. This moment of revelation gains part of its power from a sharp and sudden brush against the writer's evident plan of meaning; it calls into question all "structural analysis"; the writer seems to be shaken by the demands of his own imagination, so that the material of the story "acts back" upon him.

This final release beyond craft and control, and sometimes, to be honest, beyond clarity, is what I find missing in most of Miss O'Connor's stories. And the reason, I would surmise, is that only toward the end of her career had she fully discovered the possibilities of craft, possibilities she exercised with a scrupulous enjoyment but limited effect. She reached that mastery of means which allows a writer to seek a more elusive and perilous kind of mastery, and in two of these stories, "Revelation" and "Parker's Back," she began to break past the fences of her skill and her ideas.

Like "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Revelation" starts as a clash between generations, old against new South. The setting is a doctor's office, where gradations of social rank are brilliantly located through inflections of speech. Mr. and Mrs. Turpin, an elderly and hopelessly respectable farm couple, encounter a Southern lady, also waiting for the doctor; the lady has with her an acne-pocked and ill-tempered daughter who goes to "Wellesley College," the one "in Massachusetts." Mrs. Turpin trades fatuous pleasantries with the lady about the recent cussedness of the Negroes (though the lady adds, "I couldn't do without my good colored friends"). Meanwhile a poor-white slattern tries to break into the conversation and transform genteel racism into open hatred, but she is coolly pushed aside. Mrs. Turpin, straining her imagination, decides to place the slattern even lower than Negroes on her private scale of virtue. The talk continues, the comedy heightens, but to the "emancipated" daughter from Wellesley College it becomes intolerable. Enraged by every word she hears, the girl bites Mrs. Turpin and then curses her with the magnificent words, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog." The girl is dragged off to a hospital; Mrs. Turpin staggers home.

Now, thus far the story has followed a pattern close to that of "Everything That Rises Must Converge," but in "Revelation" Miss O'Connor is not content with easy triumphs: she follows Mrs. Turpin home to the farm, to the bed on which she uneasily rests and the pigpen she angrily hoses down. For Mrs. Turpin has been shaken by the girl's curse, as if indeed it were a kind of "revelation." In an astonishing passage, Mrs. Turpin cries out to God: "What do you send me a message like that for?… How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?" Her rank is broken, her righteousness undone, and a terrible prospect unfolds itself of a heavenly injustice beyond propriety or comprehension:

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself …, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right…. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

This is not the kind of last-minute acquisition of understanding with which literature has so often tried to get around life. It is a vision of irremediable disorder, or God's ingratitude; the white trash, the niggers, the leaping lunatics will all march to heaven ahead of Mrs. Turpin. Something remarkable has happened here, beyond the cautions of planning and schemes of irony: "How am I a hog and me both?"

It is intolerable that a woman who could write such a story should have died at the age of thirty-nine.

Patricia Kane (review date Fall 1965)

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SOURCE: "Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge," in Critique, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 85-91.

[In the following review, Kane discusses the distinctive qualities of three stories from O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge—"The Lame Shall Enter First," "A View of the Woods," and "Everything That Rises Must Converge."]

Reviewing the last book of the talented Flannery O'Connor is an awesome task. It seems fitting to praise the quality of her life, the extraordinary spirit that animated Miss O'Connor through her long and painful illness. Such is Robert Fitzgerald's splendid introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge. Fitzgerald movingly evokes the woman who wrote the stories and suggests a continuity in the totality of her work. I shall attempt neither. It requires a personal acquaintance like Fitzgerald's to convey all Miss O'Connor's gifts for living as well as for writing. But the stories here collected can be confronted, admired, and recommended.

The nine stories, all but one of which have previously appeared in various journals, have some common concerns. There are similarities in theme, method, and characterization among them, as there are resemblances to earlier works. But the similarities strike me less than the distinctive qualities of each story as an entity. A conflict may resemble that between generations in other stories, a character's style of language or of life may remind one of other O'Connor characters, but each story has its internal logic and special interest apart from the patterns in the total work. Thus I shall focus primarily on three especially fine stories.

"The Lame Shall Enter First" dissects a smug social worker who neglects his son in order to try to restore a delinquent boy whose intelligence he admires. He fails with the delinquent boy just as he fails with his son because his self-image as a noble selfless agent of truth and goodness conceals from him his failure to love until a blinding recognition comes too late to help either boy.

As the story opens, Sheppard watches his ten-year old son Norton and contemplates with distaste a face that he believes reveals the mediocrity of a person who will never learn to be good or unselfish. Sheppard tells Norton about a boy he has counseled at the reformatory, a volunteer job that Sheppard performs for "the satisfaction of knowing that he was helping boys that no one else cared about." Sheppard's failure to recognize that no one cares about his son is one of several ironies implicit in the scene. He sympathizes with the boy, named Rufus, because his mother is in prison, but when Norton cries in grief for his dead mother, Sheppard feels disgust for a grief that he sees as selfish. Sheppard speaks feelingly about Rufus's deformed foot, but remains oblivious to his son's needs, as one word tellingly suggests. To one of his father's sermons about Rufus's needs, Norton replies "lamely." Sheppard, who prides himself on his understanding of the debilitating effects of physical lameness, cannot recognize how his rejection has maimed his son.

Rufus comes to live with Sheppard and Norton, but he opposes Sheppard's efforts to help him. Their conflict focuses on Rufus's insistence that he is bad because Satan has him in his power. Sheppard grows angry at the persistence of a belief that he considers unintelligent. He tries to encourage Rufus's intellectual gifts by buying a telescope that he mounts in the attic. Rufus shows less interest in it than Norton does, but Sheppard ignores his son's attempts to please him. When Norton eagerly listens to Rufus's religious beliefs, Sheppard feels that it is Rufus's "way of trying to annoy him," but decides not to feel annoyed since "Norton was not bright enough to be damaged much" and "Heaven and hell were for the mediocre, and he was that if he was anything." Sheppard's concern about what he considers a stupid belief centers on Rufus's tenacious clinging to it; he abandons his son to error. In this, as in other episodes, Sheppard's expressed liking for goodness is revealed as less a factor than his attraction to intelligence that he can direct. To the person of neither boy does Sheppard respond.

Rufus opposes Sheppard by continuing his vandalism. After he apparently erred in thinking Rufus guilty in one incident, Sheppard resolutely insists on Rufus's innocence. So intent is he on winning Rufus's trust that he continues to neglect his son. In one such instance, after the boys have gone to bed, Sheppard talks with Rufus and leaves him, saying "good night, son." Across the hall, Norton lies in his bed and beckons his father to come in. Sheppard ignores his son because he fears that Rufus will feel that he does not trust him and is consulting Norton about his story. He walks away, thinking happily about the next day when he will take Rufus to get a new corrective shoe. Meanwhile, Norton "sat for some time looking at the spot where his father had stood." The next day, Sheppard continues to neglect Norton so that his attention to Rufus and his shoe will not be divided. But Rufus refuses the shoe and tells Sheppard that he has committed the crimes that the police suspect him of. Confronted with this betrayal, Sheppard is chilled by hatred.

The next evening, Rufus defies Sheppard by reading the Bible at the table, by jubilantly shouting at Sheppard, "the devil has you in his power," and by leaving his house deliberately to be caught at a crime. Norton goes to the attic to look through the telescope. When he tells his father that he sees his mother among the stars, Sheppard orders him to stop being foolish and leaves him. Confronted with Rufus, whom the police bring and who says that he prefers prison to Sheppard's home because Sheppard is not a Christian, Sheppard tells the police: "I did more for him than I did for my own child." He makes a last attempt to reason with Rufus, telling him that he is not evil, that he need not compensate for his foot with crime. Rufus snarls that his foot has nothing to do with his crime and that only Jesus can save him, not a "lying stinking atheist."

Sheppard's phrase "I did more for him than I did for my own child" repeats itself in his mind, at first as consolation, then as "the voice of his accuser." When he realizes that "he had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself," his self-image "shrivelled until everything was black before him." He thinks of the light of his son's face as his salvation and races to tell him that he loves him and will not fail him again. But he finds Norton in the attic "hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space."

Sheppard's failure is thus explicit at the end. The consequence is shocking in its horror, but it has been prepared for by the texture of the story. For example, descriptions of the dullness or brightness of Norton's eyes suggest his condition and, in retrospect, prepare for his end. In the opening scene, his eyes look forward but are not engaged by what his father says. His eyes are a pale blue, "as if they might have faded" like a shirt, and one of them "listed, almost imperceptibly, toward the outer rim." After his father tells him about Rufus, Norton's eyes brighten slightly when he hopes that Rufus will not come. In his tearful grief for his mother, his eyes become slits. After his grief leads to vomiting and his father speaks kindly about it, he looks blindly at him. When he first listens to Rufus's account of heaven and hell, Norton's eyes "appeared to grow hollow" as he thinks of his mother. His response to Sheppard's explanation that his mother exists only as her spirit lives in others is to harden his pale eyes in disbelief. But to Rufus's comment that his mother is in the sky somewhere, Norton soon responds by looking intently through the telescope. Norton's sense that he has lost his father is poignantly evoked in the episode in which he looks at the space where Sheppard has stood and ignored him, until "his gaze became aimless." The void is filled with Rufus's religion. As Rufus tells Sheppard that he has stolen a Bible, Norton's eyes have an excited sheen, he looks alert, and his eyes are brighter. Norton's eyes glitter with pleasure as he announces that he plans to be a space man. He looks intently through the telescope and with "an unnatural brightness about his eyes," tells his father that he sees his mother. That brightness is the last description of Norton's eyes, but in his moment of revelation, Sheppard realizes that Norton's eye lists "as if it could not bear a full view of grief." Sheppard then sees "the clear-eyed devil, the sounder of hearts, leering at him" with Rufus's eyes. He understands his son's eyes too late.

Sheppard's final awareness comes through a do-gooder cliche: I did more for Rufus than I did for my own son. That this should introduce an understanding too late is ironically appropriate for a person whose language frequently sounds like a bad text book in social work. He hides his neglect of his child behind a platitudinous wish that the child would cease to be selfish. He is opposed by the cliches of revival religion. Through the two sets of language he comes to understand, with simple, concrete immediacy, that he "had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton." But when this insight comes he can only stand in the shadows of his attic "like a man on the edge of a pit."

Less complex understandings come to characters in other stories in this collection, but the consequences frequently are as devastating and as irreversible. "A View of the Woods" brings an old man and his granddaughter who have been apparent allies against her parents to an opposition that ends in death for both. The grandfather's final vision reveals that the progress he has believed in cannot save him.

Mr. Fortune and his double, his nine-year old granddaughter Mary Fortune Pitts, spend most of their time together, usually watching building taking place on land that once was part of Fortune's farm. Fortune sells parts of his land for two reasons: he believes in progress, and he enjoys annoying his son-in-law, who is farming the land. Fortune dislikes his son-in-law generally and particularly because he sees him as the kind of "fool that would let a cow pasture interfere with progress," whereas Fortune is "a man of advanced vision." A rift comes between Fortune and the child when he decides to sell that part of the farm used as a lawn and pasture. Mary Fortune wants to keep it so that they can continue to have a view of the woods. After Fortune sells it, she defies him. He decides that he will have to beat her. When he does, she fights back, saying that she will kill anyone who beats her. Angered, he kills her by pounding her head on a rock. Then he dies of a heart attack.

The conflict between Fortune and the child is not a simple conflict of age and youth: it reflects a difference in values. The two share a liking for watching bulldozers and other machinery, but they differ utterly on the matter of the beauty of woods. In a reversal of a stereotyped assignment of roles, the child stands for the agrarian past, for the beauty of nature, the grandfather for the urban present, for the utility of stores and gasoline stations. The man who buys the land intends to put a gasoline station on the road that probably will soon be paved. Fortune considers how handy it will be to have such services near-by. He sees nothing ugly in the buyer's present site of business, which is replete with junked cars, roadside billboards, and a dance hall. When Mary Fortune surprises him with regard for the view of the woods, Fortune is honestly bewildered. All he sees is a profusion of weeds and "the sullen line of black pine woods,… the gray-blue line of more distant woods and beyond that nothing but the sky, entirely blank except for one of two threadbare clouds." The child, on the other hand, looks at this scene "as if it were a person that she preferred to him." Fortune is shaken enough by her response to look at the view several times that afternoon. But he can see only woods, not beauty. He hopes to win over the child who, as the double he has taught his tricks and to whom he has willed the farm, is his future—a future that has no room for sentimental attachment to anything so common as pine woods. But she is his double in stubborn opposition as well as looks. Each kills the other in defense of his integrity, his values.

Two visions of the old man link his granddaughter to the woods. He has thought of her as "thoroughly of his clay" and her face as "a little red mirror." Thus when he sees red in the woods, he is seeing her death although he fails to realize it. In that first vision, "the gaunt trunks appeared to be raised in a pool of red light that gushed from the almost hidden sun setting behind them." Fortune feels briefly that he is "out of the rattle of everything that led to the future … and held there in the midst of an uncomfortable mystery." It seems "as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood." Fortune closes his eyes against the vision, but he still sees "hellish red trunks … in a black wood." The trees are figuratively bathed with blood when he kills Mary Fortune in "an ugly red bald spot" surrounded by pine trees. As he lies dying, Fortune feels as if he is running toward the lake to escape the ugly pines. But at the lake, he realizes that he cannot swim and escape the gaunt trees that "had thickened into mysterious files." When he looks for help, all he sees is a machine, a "huge yellow monster that sat to the side, as stationary as he was, gorging itself on clay." Fortune cannot escape the pines, as he could not escape Mary Fortune's fury. His refuge, a place that he has welcomed as part of the progressive future, offers only another image of himself as a machine gorging itself on clay—just as Fortune has destroyed "his clay," i.e., his double, and thus himself and his future.

A new awareness comes also to the central character in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." The conflict in this story, between an adult son and his mother, resembles the conflict in other stories in this collection ("Greenleaf," "The Comforts of Home," and "The Enduring Chill"); there are also resemblances in its wry comment about a futile reaching out toward Negroes ("The Enduring Chill" and "Judgment Day"), and in its depiction of a character who wants another to face what he thinks of as reality ("Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," and "Revelation"). The story abounds in the humor that often characterizes Miss O'Connor's work. The several strands are apparent as the story opens. Julian resentfully contemplates accompanying his mother on the bus, which she will not ride alone since they have been desegregated. She is going to a reducing class "designed for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds," but Julian's mother says that "ladies did not tell their age or weight." As she prepares to go, she talks about her new hat, wondering if she should have bought such an expensive one. She concludes with trite expressions characteristic of her, "you only live once and paying a little more for it, I at least won't meet myself coming and going."

She meets herself, or rather a Negro woman wearing a hat exactly like hers, on the bus trip to her class. The hats the two women wear are hideous: "A purple velvet flap 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." Julian's mother has been wearing her hat "like a banner of her imaginary dignity;" the Negro woman has her own dignity. Julian hopes that the episode will teach his mother something about reality, but to his dismay, his mother only finds it funny. The lesson will have more finality for both of them. After they leave the bus, Julian's mother offers the Negro woman's child a penny, as is her custom. The Negro expresses her outrage at what she considers condescension by hitting the white woman with such force that she falls. The preposterous hat falls off; Julian's mother struggles to her feet and dies within the hour. Too late Julian realizes his love for his mother and enters "the world of guilt and sorrow."

Before he suspects that his mother is dying, Julian taunts her by calling her attacker her black double and insisting that she must face a reality in which her manners and graciousness are valueless. But Julian himself is his mother's double and begins to learn that his own defenses may be inadequate. Julian has felt smugly satisfied with his values and resentful of his mother's sense of identity. He believes that only he understands their family heritage and would suit the decayed mansion that had belonged to the family during his mother's girlhood. He congratulates himself because "in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one." As proof of his superiority, he tries to start a conversation with a Negro man who boards the bus. When the Negro ignores him, he daydreams about confronting his mother with a cultivated Negro. To his discomfort, his mother establishes contact with the Negro child, whom she finds attractive. As his mother dies, killed by a Negro far different from the polished ones of Julian's daydreams, he can only run futilely for help, but his feet are numb and seem to carry him nowhere. He feels a tide of darkness sweeping him back to his mother. Although the Negro woman who unknowingly killed Julian's mother may be suggested by the title, converge also has the sense of uniting in a common interest: it is Julian who must converge. Perhaps he will in the world of sorrow and guilt that is his heritage at the end of the story.

The stories of Everything That Rises Must Converge will bear comparison with the high standard set in Miss O'Connor's earlier work. Much might be said of the ways in which these stories, like the earlier ones, show Miss O'Connor to be the Catholic and Southern writer that she called herself. While not denying the importance of such matters, I feel that they can obscure other qualities and that the stories can and should be seen in the particular before useful generalizations emerge. Everything That Rises Must Converge deserves scrutiny as a document in Flannery O'Connor's life and work, but it also merits praise for the sheer pleasure of good reading that it offers us.

Robert Fitzgerald (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9183

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O'Connor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1956, pp. vii-xxxiv.

[In the following introduction, Fitzgerald provides an overview of O'Connor's career and the themes present in the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge.]

She was a girl who started with a gift for cartooning and satire, and found in herself a far greater gift, unique in her time and place, a marvel. She kept going deeper (this is a phrase she used) until making up stories becam, for her, a way of testing and defining and conveying that superior knowledge that must be called religious. It must be called religious but with no false note in our voices, because her writing will make any false note that is applied to it very clear indeed. Bearing hard upon motives and manners, her stories as moralities cut in every direction and sometimes go to the bone of regional and social truth. But we are not likely to state what they show as well as they show it. We can stay on the safe side by affirming, what is true and usefully borne in mind, that making up stories was her craft, her pleasure and her vocation, that her work from first to last is imaginative writing, often comic writing, superbly achieved and always to be enjoyed as that. We had better let our awareness of the knowledge in her stories grow quietly without forcing it, for nothing could be worse than to treat them straight off as problems for exegesis or texts to preach on.

The new severely cut slab of marble bearing her name and the dates March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964, lies in the family plot on a bare elevated place in the Milledgeville cemetery, beside another slab of identical shape marking the grave of her father, but his has also a soldier's headstone for Edward F. O'Connor, Jr., Lt. 325th Infantry, 82nd Division, who died February 1st, 1941. I have been out there with her mother to note it all and to say my heart's prayer as I should, though generally I feel as I gather Flannery felt about cemeteries, that they and all they contain are just as well left in God's keeping and that one had better commune with persons, living or dead, than with gravestones and the silent earth. Milledgeville on a mild winter day without leafiness or bloom suggests no less remarkably than in the dogwood season (when I came before) the strict amenity of the older South, or at least this is what I make of there being so many pillared white houses. It was, after all, the capital of Georgia until after the War Between the States.

At the Cline house in town I have been out on the front porch, hatless and coatless in the sun, between the solid handcarved columns, fluted and two stories high, that were hoisted in place when the house was built in 1820 and the slaves, they say, were making by hand the bricks for the house and the openwork walls around the garden. Peter Cline acquired this place in 1886. He was a prominent man, in our American phrase, for many years mayor of the town, and he married successively two sisters, Kate L. and Margaret Ida Treanor. By the former he had seven children and by the latter nine, of whom Regina, Flannery's mother, was the seventh. All of these people were old Georgia Catholics. The first Mass in Milledgeville had been celebrated in the apartment of Hugh Treanor, father of Kate and Ida, in the Newell Hotel in 1847. Mrs. Hugh Treanor gave the plot of ground for the little church that was built in 1874.

From the house in town to the farm called Andalusia is about five miles on the Eatonton-Atlanta highway. A quarter of a mile off the road on rising ground, the white farmhouse looks narrow and steeply roofed with a screen porch across the front of it and a white watertank on very tall stilts behind. The driveway cuts through a red clay bank and curves gently uphill until it swerves around back of the house where there is a roof running out from over the kitchen door to make a broad shelter, and beyond this there are three cedar trees, one with a strong straight bough about eight feet off the grass. The grass is sleeted white by droppings from the peacocks that roost at night on the bough. In the background off to the left is the low darkly weathered clapboard house with a low open porch where the Negroes live and beyond it the barn with farm machinery in the yard. From the carport you see geese going by in single file and there are swans preening in the middle distance; you also see the peacocks proceeding sedate and dainty through the shrubbery to denude it of berries and through the flowerbeds to denude them of buds. There are maybe a dozen or twenty peacocks in sight, fabulous in throat and crest, to say nothing of the billowy tensile train behind. Between the fowls of this farmyard and the writings of Flannery O'Connor, who bought and cared for them and loved to look at them, I do not at all mind drawing a certain parallel, to wit, that if you miss the beauty of plain geese the peacocks will knock your eye out.

I have been in the dining-room looking at old photographs with Regina. There is a big one of Flannery at about two, in profile, sitting crosslegged on a bed and frowning at a large book with an elegantly curled page lit within by reflected light. There is another of her father, a robust amused young man, looking very much the Legion Commander that he was, sitting like the hub of a wheel with his five gay younger brothers beside and behind him. They were a Savannah family, the O'Connors, and Ed, as Flannery always called him, had been in the real estate business there, and Flannery was born and lived her childhood there in a tall narrow brownstone house, going to St. Vincent's parochial school and later to the Sacred Heart. There is a studio photograph of the child at five or six, standing on a bench beside her mother, who is an absolute beauty with a heart-shaped face and large grey eyes and dark hair smoothly drawn down from the part. That would be about 1930 or '31 in Savannah. They moved to the Cline house in Milledgeville toward the end of the decade when Mr. O'Connor was ill with a fatal disease called lupus for which no effective treatment was then known. Flannery in her turn would suffer it and die of it or its consequences.

I have also been in the front room on the other side of the house, Flannery's bedroom, where she worked. Her aluminum crutches, acquired in 1955, are standing against the mantel. The bed is narrow and covered by a plain spread. It has a tall severe wooden headboard. At the foot is one of those moveable tray stands used in hospitals. On the low table to the right of the bed there is a small pile of books covered in black leather, three books in all, on top a Sunday missal, below that a breviary, below that a Holy Bible. To the left of the bed is her work desk, facing away from the front windows, facing the back of a wardrobe that is shoved up against it, no doubt to give her as nearly as possible nothing to look at while she worked. Behind it on a table under the window is a new electric typewriter still unused, still in the corklight plastic box it came in. There are a lot of books in plain bookcases of various sizes around the interior walls. Her painting of a rooster's angry head, on a circular wooden plaque, glares from the top of the tallest bookcase.

In the hall, in the dining-room, and in the comfortable small living-room of the "addition" they built in 1959, the paintings on the walls are all Flannery's, all done during the last thirteen years when she lived, in more or less infirmity, at the farm. They are simple but beautiful paintings of flowers in bowls, of cows under trees, of the Negro house under the bare trees of winter. I use this word "beautiful" with all possible premeditation. Once when I was working at a university I was asked with a couple of my friends who taught there to take part in a symposium on Flannery's work, a symposium which I expected would be favorable if critical, but it turned out that one of my friends didn't like her work at all because he thought it lacked a sense of natural beauty and human beauty. Troubled by this, I looked in the stories again and took a sentence from "The Artificial Nigger" to say what I felt she perceived not only in natural things but in her characters: "The trees were full of silver-white sunlight, and even the meanest of them sparkled." Surely even the meanest of them do. I observed that in the violent tale called "A Good Man is Hard to Find" the least heroic of the characters was able, on his way to be shot, to shout a reassurance to his mother (though supporting himself against a tree) and that his wife, asked if she would like to follow him, murmured "Yes, thank you," as she got up with her baby and her broken shoulder. These were beautiful actions, I argued, though as brief as beautiful actions usually are.

To come back to the paintings, they are not only skilled in the application of paint but soundly composed and bold and sensitive in color and revelatory of their subjects, casual as the whole business was for her. She went deeper in this art as well. I know because I have looked through a sheaf of drawings she made before she was twenty when she was going to the Georgia Woman's College in Milledgeville and doing linoleum cut cartoons for the college paper, Colonnade. In one of the sketches one fish is saying to another, "You can go jump out of the lake," an idea in which I can hear, already, the authentic O'Connor humor. In the linoleum cuts the line was always strong and decisive with an energy and angularity that recall the pen drawings of George Price, drawings that in fact she admired. For the yearbook, Spectrum, for 1945, when she graduated, she tried a rounder kind of comic drawing, not so good. She was editor of the literary magazine, The Corinthian, that year and so clearly on her way to being a writer that one of her teachers took the initiative in getting her a fellowship to the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. She began to publish before she got her M.A. there in 1947. After one more year at Iowa, she worked on her writing at Yaddo and in New York.

My wife and I met her early in 1949 when she was not yet twenty-four. A friend of ours brought her to our apartment in New York to bear him out in something he had to tell, and she did this with some difficulty, frowning and struggling softly in her drawl to put whatever it was exactly the way it was. She sat facing the windows and the March light over the East River. We saw a shy Georgia girl, her face heart-shaped and pale and glum, with fine eyes that could stop frowning and open brilliantly upon everything. We had not then read her first stories, but we knew that Mr. Ransom had said of them that they were written. Before she left that day we had a glimpse of her penetration and her scornful humor, and during the spring we saw her again and saw the furnished room where she lived and worked in a drab apartment hotel on the upper West Side. Among the writing people who were our friends Flannery, as a devout Catholic, was something of a curiosity (they were curiosities to her, too). She could make things fiercely plain, as in her comment, now legendary, on an interesting discussion of the Eucharistic Symbol: "If it were only a symbol, I'd say to hell with it."

The manner in which Flannery came to live with us that year was this. Having two small children and the promise of more, we were looking for a home in the country, and in July we found and bought one, a stone and timber house that lay back in a wilderness of laurel and second-growth oak on a hilltop in Connecticut. Over the garage part of the house was a separate bedroom and bathroom with a stairway of its own, suitable for a boarder. We badly needed a boarder, and Flannery volunteered. Our new house had character but no good joinery or other luxury, and the O'Connor study-bedroom was austere. The only piece of furniture I can distinctly remember was a Sears Roebuck dresser that my wife and I had painted a bright sky blue. The walls were of beaverboard on which we had rolled a coat or two of paint, vainly hoping to make them smooth. Between beaverboard and timbering the fieldmice pattered as the nights turned frosty, and our boarder's device against them was to push in pins on which they might hurt their feet, as she said. She reassured us a few years later that she had not had to put layers of New York Times between her blankets that winter. I know for a fact that she had to stuff newspaper in the window cracks; we did, too. We all stayed healthy, nevertheless.

The working day as we set it up that fall began with early Mass in Georgetown, four miles away. My wife and I took turns making this drive with our boarder while one of us remained to amuse the infants and get breakfast. After her egg the boarder would disappear up the back stairs. She would reappear about noon in her sweater, blue jeans and loafers, looking slender and almost tall, and would take her daily walk, a half mile or so down the hill to the mailbox and back. No one lingered over lunch, but in the evening when the children had been fed and quieted for the night we would put a small pitcher of martinis to soak and call the boarder. Our talks then and at the dinner table were long and lighthearted, and they were our movies, our concerts, and our theatre.

Flannery was out to be a writer on her own and had no plans to go back to live in Georgia. Her reminiscences, however, were almost all of her home town and countryside, and they were told with gusto. We heard a great deal even then about the farm outside Milledgeville which her mother had inherited from a brother, Flannery's Uncle Bernard, and was already managing with hired help, though she lived in town. The Negroes included, and still do, Jack and Louise and their boarder, Shot. Flannery would shake with laughter over some of their remarks and those of other country characters. We heard comparatively little about Iowa City, though one of the friends she had made there, Robie Macauley, won our pleased attention that year by bringing out a new edition of the Tietjens novels of Ford. Our boarder corresponded with a number of other young writers, wandering souls, from whose letters she would sometimes read us a passage of bravado.

I owe to Flannery my first reading of Miss Lonelyhearts that winter, as I owe her also my reading of As I Lay Dying. These are the only two works of fiction that I can remember her urging on me, and it is pretty clear from her work that they were close to her heart as a writer. So was Lardner. Literary criticism in general was not, but one essay that we all read and liked was Andrew Lytle's classic piece on Caroline Gordon, whom we knew and who later gave Flannery a lot of close and valuable counsel. We read and passed on to one another Newman and Acton and Father Hughes' history of the Church. At the college where I was working, an hour's drive away, I took up the Divine Comedy with some students, and I am almost sure I lent Flannery the Binyon version. Though she deprecated her French, now and again she would read some, and once carried off one of those appetizing volumes of Faguet from which I had learned about all I knew of old French literature. The interior life interested her, but less at that time than later as material for fiction. She maintained, for example, that Harry in The Family Reunion actually had pushed his wife overboard, against a theory that he had done so only in his mind. "If nothing happened, there's no story."

Meanwhile the typescript of yellow second sheets piled up in the room over the garage. Her first hero, Hazel Motes, had been imagined for a story that she published in the Sewanee, and this story, thinned out and toned down, was the opening of the novel she worked on now. The central episodes with Enoch Emery and Hoover Shoates (a name we all celebrated) were written in the winter and spring. In the summer of 1950, when she had reached an impasse with Haze and didn't know how to finish him off, she read for the first time the Oedipus plays. She went on then to end her story with the self-blinding of Motes, and she had to rework the body of the novel to prepare for it.

So that year passed in our wilderness. The leaves turned, the rains came, the woods were bared, the snows fell and glittered, fenders were belted by broken chains, the winter stars shone out. In the early mornings we had the liturgies of All Hallows, All Souls, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. The diaper truck and the milk truck slogged in and slogged out. We worked on at our jobs through thaws and buds, through the May flies, and into summer, when we could take our evening ease in deckchairs on the grass. In May we had a third child to be baptised, this one held by Flannery O'Connor as Godmother. Standing with her was Robert Giroux, who had become her editor (he too had met her in 1949) and later was to become her publisher. She was now one of the family, and no doubt the coolest and funniest one. She often entertained a child in her room or took one for a walk, and she introduced me to the idea and the Southern expression of cutting a switch to meet infant provocation—a useful recourse then and later. She was sure that we grown-ups were known to the children in private as "he," "she" and "the other one."

In the second autumn I had reason to be especially glad of our boarder's company at home, because I had to be away on a job half the week. But in December, just after the long labor of typing out her first draft, Flannery told us with amusement of a heaviness in her typing arms. When this got worse, we took her to the doctor at Wilton Corners. Rheumatoid arthritis, he was afraid it was, but he advised her to have a hospital check-up in Georgia when she went home for Christmas. On the train going south she became desperately ill. She did not have arthritis but a related disease, lupus, the disease that had killed her father.

For the rest of that winter and spring she was mostly in Emory Hospital in Atlanta, and very sick indeed. Disseminated lupus, as it is technically called, is an auto-immune disease in the same general group as arthritis and rheumatic fever. The trouble is that the body forms antibodies to its own tissues. It is primarily a blood vessel disease and can affect any organ; it can affect the bones. I have these details from Dr. Arthur J. Merrill in Atlanta, who pulled Flannery through that first onset with blood transfusions and was able then to arrest the disease with injections of a cortisone derivative, ACTH, in those days still in the experimental stage. Her hair all fell out after the high fevers, her face became terribly swollen, and he had to dehydrate her and put her on a salt-free diet. It is a fair indication of how sick she was that, until summer, we had no letter from her at all but corresponded through her mother. When at last Dr. Merrill let her go home she was too weak to climb stairs, and Regina O'Connor, deciding to take her to the farm, made a home there which was to be hers and Flannery's for thirteen years.

It must have been in late spring or early summer that Giroux accepted the first complete draft of the manuscript of Wise Blood for publication at Harcourt, Brace, for I find an undated letter from Regina referring to this, and to attempts at revision that Flannery had been making before a recurrence of high fever sent her back to Emory. When this particular bout was over she slowly improved for the rest of the year and began to write to us regularly. In September she reported being down to two moderate shots a day from four large ones. "The large doses of ACTH send you off in a rocket and are scarcely less disagreeable than the disease, so I am happy to be shut of them. I am working on the end of the book while a lady around here types the first part of it…. I have twenty-one brown ducks with blue wing bars."

She sent the retyped manuscript to us and we forwarded it, at her request, to Caroline Gordon, who had read Flannery's few stories with intense interest. "She sent it back to me," Flannery wrote later, "with some nine pages of comments and she certainly increased my education thereby. So I am doing some more things to it and then I mean to send it off for the LAST time…. I have got me five geese." A little later: "Enclosed is Opus Nauseous No. 1. I had to read it over after it came from the typist's and that was like spending the day eating a horse blanket…. Do you think Mrs. Tate would [read it again]? All the changes are efforts after what she suggested in that letter and I am much obliged to her."

One of Caroline's main points was that the style of the narrator should be more consistently distinct from the style of the characters, and I believe that Flannery saw the rightness of this and learned quickly when and when not to use a kind of indirect discourse in the country idiom she loved. Before the first of the year the publishers had the manuscript in its final form, and it was published in May, 1952. The reviewers, by and large, didn't know what to make of it. I don't think anyone even spotted the bond with Nathanael West. Isaac Rosenfeld in The New Republic objected that since the hero was plain crazy it was difficult to take his religious predicament seriously. But Rosenfeld and everyone else knew that a strong new writer was at large.

Flannery had announced in December that she aimed to visit us sometime in 1952. "I am only a little stiff in the heels so far this winter and am taking a new kind of ACTH, put up in glue…." This worked so well that in the course of the spring she decided to come in June. Reactions to her grisly book around Milledgeville were of course all that could have been expected. One of the kin delighted her with a telling and memorable remark: "I wish you could have found some other way to portray your talents." In May she wrote: "My current literary assignment (from Regina) is to write an introduction for Cousin Katie 'so she won't be shocked,' to be pasted on the inside of her book. This piece has to be in the tone of the Sacred Heart Messenger and carry the burden of contemporary critical thought. I keep putting it off."

She came, looking ravaged but pretty, with short soft new curls. She was still on the salt-free diet, so my wife gave her cress and herbs. It proved to be a difficult summer. We now had four small children and were taking a small Negro slum child for a two week country holiday. I had to go off on a six week job in the Middle West. Our D.P., an old shepherdess from Gorizia, after being helpful for a year, had learned from Croatian acquaintances of the comparative delights of life in Jersey City, and had begun to turn nasty. Before I got back, my wife was ill and Flannery, herself on the verge of a relapse, had to return to Milledgeville. She took the Negro child, Loretta, with her as far as New York. I'm afraid she had no high opinion of our quixotic hospitality to Loretta, who, she wrote to me, "might have been controllable if there had been a U.S. marshal in the house." My wife says this was pure Georgia rhetoric on Flannery's part, Loretta having been too shy during her visit to do anything but stand around caressing the blond heads of our young. Flannery had picked up a virus infection, which aroused her lupus, and Dr. Merrill had to put her dose of ACTH up temporarily from .25 cc. to 1 cc. a day. As to this, she wrote, "I have gotten a kind of Guggenheim. The ACTH has been reduced from $19.50 per bottle to $7.50." Soon she was better, up, and working, "and have just ordered myself a pair of peafowl and four peachicks from Florida…."

That year, in spite of illness, she did a lot of writing, some of it as good in its way as she would ever do. The story entitled "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," an inimitably funny one that is also a triumph over Erskine Caldwell and a thing of great beauty, I remember reading in manuscript on the road to Indiana. She showed us, too, the opening of a second novel, so powerful that we felt, one and all, that since it would be very hard to sustain it might have to be toned down. It was later, a little, and became part of The Violent Bear It Away. She wrote "The River." In the fall John Crowe Ransom invited her to apply for a Kenyon Review Fellowship, and she applied, she said, "before the envelope was opened good." By Christmas she knew that she had it. "I reckon most of this money will go to blood and ACTH and books, with a few sideline researches into the ways of the vulgar. I would like to go to California for about two minutes to further these researches, though at times I feel that a feeling for the vulgar is my natural talent and don't need any particular encouragement. Did you see the picture of Roy Rogers' horse attending a church service in Pasadena?"

News and other items in the press of our favored land were always a solace to her. She turned eagerly for years to the testimonial ads for a patent medicine called HADACOL, and these she would often pass on, especially after we moved to Europe late in '53 and were cut off from the savor of American life. Early that year, when she began to receive her fellowship money, she reported a mild change in the interest shown her work by the countryside. "My kinfolks think I am a commercial writer now and really they are very proud of me. My uncle Louis is always bringing a message from somebody at the King Hdw. Co. who has read Wise Blood. The last was: ask her why she don't write about some nice people. Louis says, I told them you wrote what paid…. I am doing fairly well these days, though I am practically baldheaded on top and have a watermelon face…."

In another letter of about the same time I find: "The Maple Oats really send me. I mean they are a heap of improvement over saltless oatmeal, horse biscuit, stewed kleenex, and the other delicacies that I have been eating…. The novel seems to be doing very well. I have a nice gangster in it named Rufus Florida Johnson…." Disappearing from the novel, he turned up a long time later in one of the stories in this volume. Dr. Merrill, whom she liked and called "the scientist," told her in the summer that she was "doing better than anybody else has that has what I got," and she flew up to see us in August. It was our last meeting as a family for five years.

The correspondence for 1954 begins: "I got word the other day that I had been reappointed a Kenyon Fellow, so that means the Rockerfellers [the Foundation supplied funds for the fellowships] will see to my blood and ACTH for another year and I will have to keep on praying for the repose of John D.'s soul…. Today I got a letter from one Jimmie Crum of Los Angeles, California, who has just read Wise Blood and wants to know what happened to the guy in the ape suit…. I am also corresponding with the secretary of the Chef's National Magazine, the Culinary Review…." She was acquiring what she called a "gret" reading public. She would soon have enough short stories for a collection. And her disease had apparently been checked. Late in the year, however, we heard of a new ailment in a letter to my wife: "I am walking with a cane these days which gives me a great air of distinction…. I now feel that it makes very little difference what you call it. As the niggers say, I have the misery." In the same letter: "I have finally got off the ms. for my collection and it is scheduled to appear in May. Without your kind permission I have taken the liberty of dedicating (grand verb) it to you and Robert. This is because you all are my adopted kin…. Nine stories about original sin, with my compliments…."

The misery referred to in this letter turned out to be disheartening enough. Either her disease or the drug that controlled it, or both, caused a softening or deterioration of the bones, her jaw bones and also her leg bones at the hip. Finally, a year later, the doctor put her on crutches. At more or less the same time, though, she was able—thank God—to switch from ACTH to a new wonder drug, taken in tablets, in tiny doses, and "for the first time in four years don't have to give myself shots or conserve on salt." Meanwhile her book of stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, went into a third printing. Early in '56 she learned that Gallimard was publishing Wise Blood in Paris in an expert translation by Maurice Coindreau. She found herself now and hence-for-ward a woman-of-letters. And in fact she and her devoted and keenwitted mother, who learned thoroughly to understand what Flannery was up to, became an effective team. Regina ran the farm and guarded Flannery's limited strength and saw to it that she had her mornings free for writing. At noon they would drive in to town for the mail and most often have lunch at the Sanford House, where behind the white pillars there is excellent cooking, and over the mantel there is a photograph of General Lee. In the afternoon Flannery could take the air on her crutches and feed her various fowl. She wrote that she had sixteen peachickens and her sense of well-being was at its height.

The new drug and the crutches increased Flannery's mobility so much that she began to accept invitations to give talks and readings at relatively distant points. After the isolated life in Connecticut and the confinement of her illness, these trips—and in the next six or seven years she made a score of them—brought her into the world again and gave her a whole new range of acquaintances. In her talks she had wonderful things to say. I didn't quite realize this—I just wanted to see her—when I got her to come to Notre Dame in the spring of '57 (I was working there on temporary leave, self-accorded, from the job I had in hand in Italy). I met her in Chicago and flew down with her to South Bend. She seemed frail but steady, no longer disfigured by any swelling, and her hair had grown long again. She managed her light crutches with distaste but some dexterity. Her audience that evening was already instructed in a number of topics of concern to her, but it was better instructed when she finished. I have this paper before me now, and can remember my pleasure as she read it out, intent upon it, hanging on her crutches at the lectern, courteous and earnest and dissolvent of nonsense.

"I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque, you have to have some notion of what is not grotesque and why…."

"Southern culture has fostered a type of imagination that has been influenced by Christianity of a not too unorthodox kind and by a strong devotion to the Bible, which has kept our minds attached to the concrete and the living symbol…."

"The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that maintains and supports at every turn the vision that the story teller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth…."

"The Church, far from restricting the Catholic writer, generally provides him with more advantages than he is able or willing to turn to account; and usually, his sorry productions are a result, not of restrictions that the Church has imposed, but of restrictions that he has failed to impose on himself. Freedom is of no use without taste and without the ordinary competence to follow the particular laws of what we have been given to do…."

Toward the end of the year she wrote to us (we were living in Liguria) that Cousin Katie in Savannah wished to give her and her mother a trip to Lourdes with a company of pilgrims from Savannah. Dr. Merrill permitted this on condition that she depart from the "tour" to rest with us for a week. So in April I brought her and Mrs. O'Connor down to our place from Milan, and after the visit my wife went along to Lourdes to help with the languages and details of travel. Flannery dreaded the possibility of a miracle at Lourdes, and she forced herself to the piety of the bath for her mother's sake and Cousin Katie's; she also accompanied the pilgrims to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius XII, who received her with interest and gave her a special blessing. On May 11, home again, she wrote: "I enjoyed most seeing you all and the Pope…." There was no miracle but what seemed a small favor: her bone trouble got no worse.

For the rest of that year she worked on the new novel. Early in '59 she had finished a draft at about the time the Ford Foundation gave her (as also to me, a bolt from the blue) one of eleven grants for creative writing. Her hip and her general condition now allowed her to drive around Milledgeville "all over the place in the automobile just like a bloody adult." We had some correspondence about the novel, in particular about reworking the character of Rayber who had been, she said, "the trouble all along." She made the middle section more dramatic by adding the episode of the girl revivalist. By mid-October it was done, and it was brought out by her present publisher in May, 1960.

I saw Flannery twice again, once on a visit to the farm when the dogwood was flowering in April, 1961, and then at the Smith College commencement in 1963 when she received an honorary degree. The serenity of the natural scene on these occasions now frames for me the serenity of our old boarder, who had fought a good fight and been illuminated by it. In '63 as in '56 she won the first prize in the annual O. Henry short story collection, and she was working on a third novel. But early in '64 her great respite came to an end. She had to have an abdominal operation. In the aftermath of this her lupus returned, in April, and proved uncontrollable. In May, as I learned later, Caroline Gordon found her looking wan and wasted. She was in the Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta for a month in May and June. I heard nothing of this and had no notion that she was seriously ill until a note came from her with a new anecdote of farm life and the single sentence: "Ask Sally to pray that the lupus don't finish me off too quick." Late in July she was taken to the Milledgeville hospital with a severe kidney failure, and she died there in a coma on the morning of August 3.

The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete. No one was paying any attention to the sky. The stores in Taulkinham stayed open on Thursday nights so that people could have an extra opportunity to see what was for sale.

                                     (Wise Blood)

A catchword when Flannery O'Connor began to write was the German angst, and it seemed that Auden had hit it off in one of his titles as the "Age of Anxiety." The last word in attitudes was the Existentialist one, resting on the perception that beyond any immediate situation there is possibly nothing—nothing beyond, nothing behind, nada. Now, our country family in 1949 and 1950 believed on excellent grounds that beyond the immediate there was practically everything, like the stars over Taulkinham—the past, the future, and the Creator thereof. But the horror of recent human predicaments had not been lost on us. Flannery felt that an artist who was a Catholic should face all the truth down to the worst of it. If she worried about the side effects of the ungenteel imagination, she took heart that year from Mauriac's dictum about "purifying the source"—the creative spirit—rather than damming or diverting the stream.

In Wise Blood she did parody the Existentialist point of view, as Bernard Cheney has said (in the Sewanee Review for Autumn, 1964), but the parody was very serious. In this and in most of her later writing she gave to the godless a force proportionate to the force it actually has: in episode after episode, as in the world, as in ourselves, it wins. We can all hear our disbelief, picked out of the air we breathe, when Hazel Motes says, "I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar." And in whom is angst so dead that he never feels, as Haze puts it: "Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it."

Note the velocity and rightness of these sentences. Many pages and a number of stories by this writer have the same perfection, and the novels have it in sections though they narrowly miss it as wholes. I am speaking now of merits achieved in the reader's interest: no unliving words, the realization of character by exquisitely chosen speech and interior speech and behavior, the action moving at the right speed so that no part of the situation is left out or blurred and the violent thing, though surprising, happens after due preparation, because it has to. Along with her gifts, patient toil and discipline brought about these merits, and a further question can be asked about that: Why? What was the standard to which the writer felt herself answerable? Well, in 1957 she said:

The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of the characters or by a believable imitation of a way of life or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story for him to occupy himself with. This is not to say that he doesn't have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate reference or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with them only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.

This is an open and moving statement of a certain end for literary art. The end, and some of the terms used here, seem to me similar to those of another Christian writer who died recently, T.S. Eliot. I do not propose any confusion between a London man of letters who wrote verse and criticism and a Southern woman who wrote fiction, for indeed they lived a world apart. Only at the horizon, one might say, do the lines each pursued come together; but the horizon is an important level. It is also important that they were similarly moved toward serious art, being early and much possessed by death as a reality, a strong spiritual sensation, giving odd clarity to the appearances they saw through or saw beyond. In her case as in his, if anyone at first found the writing startling he could pertinently remind himself how startling it was going to be to lose his own body, that Ancient Classic. Sensibility in both produced a wariness of beautiful letters and, in the writing, a concision of effect.

When it comes to seeing the skull beneath the skin, we may remark that the heroes of both O'Connor novels are so perceived within the first few pages, and her published work begins and ends with coffin dreams. Her memento mori is no less authentic for being often hilarious, devastating to a secular world and all it cherishes. The O'Connor equivalent for Eliot's drowned Phoenician sailor ("Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you") is a museum piece, the shrunken corpse that the idiot Enoch Emery in Wise Blood proposes as the new humanist jesus.

"See theter notice," Enoch said in a church whisper, pointing to a typewritten card at the man's foot, "it says he was once as tall as you or me. Some Arabs did it to him in six months…."

And there is a classic exchange in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own":

"Why listen, lady," said Mr. Shiftlet with a grin of delight, "the monks of old slept in their coffins."

"They wasn't as advanced as we are," the old woman said.

The state of being as advanced as we are had been, of course, blasted to glory in The Waste Land before Flannery made her version, a translation, as it were, into American ("The Vacant Lot"). To take what used to be called low life and picture it as farcically empty, raging with energy, and at the same time, sub specie aeternitatis, full of meaning: this was the point of Sweeney Agonistes and the point of many pages of O'Connor. As for our monuments, those of a decent godless people, surely the asphalt road and the thousand lost golf balls are not a patch on images like that of the hillside covered with used car bodies, in The Violent Bear It Away:

In the indistinct darkness, they seemed to be drowning into the ground, to be about half-submerged already. The city hung in front of them on the side of the mountain as if it were a larger part of the same pile, not yet buried so deep. The fire had gone out of it and it appeared settled into its unbreakable parts.

Death is not the only one of the Last Things present in the O'Connor stories; Judgment is there, too. On the pride of contemporary man, in particular on flying as his greatest achievement, Tarwater in The Violent has a prophet's opinion:

"I wouldn't give you nothing for no airplane. A buzzard can fly."

Christ the tiger, a phrase in Eliot, is a force felt in O'Connor. So is the impulse to renounce the blessèd face, and to renounce the voice. In her work we are shown that vices are fathered by our heroism, virtues forced upon us by our impudent crimes, and that neither fear nor courage saves us (we are saved by grace, if at all, though courage may dispose us toward grace). Her best stories do the work that Eliot wished his plays to do, raising anagogical meaning over literal action. He may have felt this himself, for though he rarely read fiction I am told that a few years before he died he read her stories and exclaimed in admiration at them.

The title of the present book comes from Teilhard de Chardin, whose works Flannery O'Connor had been reading at least since early 1961 when she recommended them to me. It is a title taken in full respect and with profound and necessary irony. For Teilhard's vision of the "omega point" virtually at the end of time, or at any rate of a time-span rightly conceivable by paleontologist or geologist alone, has appealed to people to whom it may seem to offer one more path past the Crucifixion. That could be corrected by no sense of life better than by O'Connor's. Quite as austere in its way as his, her vision will hold us down to earth where the clashes of blind wills and the low dodges of the heart permit any rising or convergence only at the cost of agony. At that cost, yes, a little.

The better a poem or piece of fiction, the more corrective or indeed destructive it is likely to be of any fatuous happiness in abstractions. "Rising" and "convergence" in these stories, as the title story at once makes clear, are shown in classes, generations, and colors. What each story has to say is what it shows. If we are aware that the meaning of the stories is to be sought in the stories and well apprehended in the stories alone, we may try a few rough and cautious statements about them. Thus the title story shows, amid much else in a particular action of particular persons, young and old and black and white to be practically sealed off against one another, struggling but hardly upward or together in a welter of petty feelings and cross purposes, resolved only slightly even by the tragic blow. "Slightly," however, may mean a great deal in the economy of this writer. The story is one of those, like "The Artificial Nigger" in her first collection and "Revelation" in this, in which the low-keyed and calibrated style is allowed a moment of elevation.

What is wrong in this story we feel to be diffused throughout the persons and in the predicament itself, but in at least two of the stories, and those among the latest and most elaborate, the malign is more concentrated in one personage. I do not mean il maligno, as the Italians call the devil. There are few better representations of the devil in fiction than Tarwater's friend, as overheard and finally embodied in The Violent; but in these two stories, "The Comforts of Home" and "The Lame Shall Enter First," the personage in question is not quite that. He need not be, since the souls to be attacked are comparatively feeble. Brainless and brainy depravity are enough, respectively, to bring down in ruin an irritable academic and a self-regarding do-gooder. The latter story is clearly a second effort with the three figures of the novel, Tarwater, Rayber and Bishop, who are here reworked, more neatly in some respects, as Johnson, Shepard and Norton.

Other similarities link various stories to one another and to earlier stories. There is a family resemblance between Julian in the title story, Wesley in "Greenleaf," Asbury in "The Enduring Chill" and Thomas in "The Comforts of Home." The Wellesley girl in "Revelation" is related to all these and to the girl in "Good Country People." In the various mothers of the stories there are facets of Mrs. McIntyre in "The Displaced Person." Parker in "Parker's Back" has some of the traits of a latter-day Hazel Motes. The critic will note these recurrent types and situations. He will note too that the setting remains the same, Southern and rural as he will say, and that large classes of contemporary experience, as of industry and war and office work and foreign travel, are barely touched if touched at all. But in saying how the stories are limited and how they are not, the sensitive critic will have a care. For one thing, it is evident that the writer deliberately and indeed indifferently, almost defiantly, restricted her horizontal range; a pasture scene and a fortress wall of pine woods reappear like a signature in story after story. The same is true of her social range and range of idiom. But these restrictions, like the very humility of her style, are all deceptive. The true range of the stories is vertical and Dantesque in what is taken in, in scale of implication. As to the style, there is also more to say.

She would be sardonic over the word ascesis, but it seems to me a good one for the peculiar discipline of the O'Connor style. How much has been refrained from, and how much else has been cut out and thrown away, in order that the bald narrative sentences should present just what they present and in just this order! What counts is the passion by which the stories were formed, the depth, as Virginia Woolf said of Milton, at which the options were taken. Beyond incidental phrasing and images, beauty lies in the strong invention and execution of the things, as in objects expertly forged or cast or stamped, with edges, not waxen and worn or softly moulded.

If we look for pleasure of a secondary kind such as we take in the shadings and suffusions of Henry James, I suggest that this is given in these stories by the comedy. There is quite a gamut of it, running from something very like cartooning to an irony dry and refined, especially in the treatment of the most serious matters. John Crowe Ransom was the first reader known to me to realize and say that Flannery O'Connor was one of our few tragic writers, a fact that we will not miss now in reading "The Displaced Person" in the first volume or "The Comforts of Home" in this. But it is far from the whole story. On the tragic scene, each time, the presence of her humor is like the presence of grace. Has not tragicomedy at least since Dante been the most Christian of genres?

I do not want to claim too much for these stories, or to imply that every story comes off equally well. That would be unfaithful to her own conscience and sense of fact. Let the good critic rejoice in the field for discrimination these stories offer him. Before I turn them over to him and to the reader, I should like to offer a reflection or two on the late masterpiece called "Revelation." One of its excellences is to present through a chance collection in a doctor's waiting-room a picture of a whole "section"—realized, that is, in the human beings who compose it, each marvelously and irreducibly what he or she is. For one example of the rendering, which is faultless, consider this:

A grotesque revolving shadow passed across the curtain behind her and was thrown palely on the opposite wall. Then a bicycle clattered down against the outside of the building. The door opened and a colored boy glided in with a tray from the drug store. It had two large red and white paper cups on it with tops on them. He was a tall, very black boy in discolored white pants and a green nylon shirt. He was chewing gum slowly, as if to music. He set the tray down in the office opening next to the fern and stuck his head through to look for the secretary. She was not in there. He rested his arms on the ledge and waited, his narrow bottom stuck out, swaying slowly to the left and right. He raised a hand over his head and scratched the base of his skull.

Not only do we see this boy for the rest of our lives; for an instant we hear him think. But the greater excellence of the story is to bring about a rising and a convergence, a movement of spirit in Ruby Turpin that is her rising to a terrible occasion, and a convergence between her and the violent agent of this change.

The terms of the struggle are intensely local, as they will be in all such struggles, but we need not be too shy about seeing through them to the meaning that lies beyond at the usual mysterious depth. How else but at a mysterious depth can we understand a pretty notion like the Soul of the South? What the struggle requires of Mrs. Turpin is courage and humility, that is clear enough. Perhaps as a reward for these, her eyes are opened. And the ascent that she sees at the end, in an astonishment like the astonishment of the new dead, takes place against that field of stars that moved beyond Taulkinham in Wise Blood and that hold for a small boy, in another of these stories, the lost presence of his mother.

Patricia Dinneen Maida (essay date Fall 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2818

SOURCE: "'Convergence' in Flannery O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 4, Fall, 1970, pp. 549-55.

[In the following essay, Dinneen Maida discusses the idea of convergence in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and asserts that O'Connor shows man his inadequacies.]

Flannery O'Connor's fiction continues to provoke interest and critical analysis. The title story of her posthumous collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, has been among those stories that have received attention lately. But no one has yet examined the implications of the title. Robert Fitzgerald tells us that Miss O'Connor got the idea for the title when she read Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man in 1961.

Typical of an O'Connor work, this story has meaning on several levels; especially, the allusion to Chardin's theory of "convergence" offers an enriching dimension to the story. Essentially, it describes an experience of a mother and son that changes the course of their lives. Measured against the background of Southern middle-class values, the mother-son relationship has social and also personal implications. But, on a larger scale, the story depicts the plight of all mankind. Furthermore, as one considers the allusion in the title, the universality of Miss O'Connor's message becomes even more evident—as does the intensity of her vision and her aesthetic.

The focus of the story is on the disparate values of Julian and his mother, epitomized by the bourgeois hat she chooses to wear on her weekly trip to an equally bourgeois event, a reducing class at the "Y." More provoked than usual because he considers the hat ugly, Julian sullenly accompanies her on the bus ride downtown. His mother, a descendent of an old Southern family, lives on past glories that give her a sense of self-importance. Thus as she goes to her reducing class, she tells Julian: "Most of them in it are not our kind of people,… but I can be gracious to anybody. I know who I am." In his retort Julian sums up the attitude of his generation: "They don't give a damn for your graciousness…. Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. You haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now or who you are." His mother, however, is convinced of her ability to communicate amiably: when boarding the bus, she "entered with a little smile, as if she were going into a drawing room where everyone had been waiting for her." In contrast, Julian maintains an icy reserve.

Integration emerges as the divisive issue. When Julian and his mother first board the bus, there are no Negro passengers. But when a Negro man enters shortly afterwards, the atmosphere becomes tense. As one might expect, Julian's mother does not see any value in integration, whereas Julian favors it. He purports to be a liberal; yet he acts primarily out of retaliation against the old system rather than out of genuine concern for the Negro. We are told that "when he got on a bus by himself, he made it a point to sit down by a Negro in reparation as it were for his mother's sins." His sense of guilt proves to be a negative force; for although he has tried to make friends with Negroes, he has never succeeded. Even during the bus ride when he attempts to converse with a Negro, he is ignored, his ingenuousness apparently sensed by those he approaches.

Julian's cynicism shuts him off from any human association. His chief asset, his intelligence, is misdirected: he freely scorns the limitations of others and assumes a superior stance. During the bus ride he indulges in his favorite pastime:

Behind the newspaper Julian was withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time. This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him. From it he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without. It was the only place where he felt free of the general idiocy of his fellows.

Ironically, he had convinced himself that he was a success—even though with a college degree he held a menial job instead of becoming the writer he had once hoped to be.

The bus and its passengers form a microcosm, and the events that occur in the course of the ride comprise a kind of sociodrama. As Julian's mother, bedecked in her new hat, chats with those around her, Julian remains distant and uninvolved. However, when a Negro woman and her son board the bus, the situation changes. Suddenly all eyes focus on the Negro woman, who happens to be wearing a hat identical to that of Julian's mother. Both women are shocked at first, but Julian is delighted: "He could not believe that Fate had thrust upon his mother such a lesson. He gave a loud chuckle so that she would look at him and see that he saw." But she recovers and is able to laugh, while the Negro woman remains visibly upset. When the two pairs of mothers and sons emerge from the bus at the same stop, Julian's mother cannot resist the impulse to offer the Negro boy a coin—despite Julian's protests. This act provokes such anger in the boy's mother that she strikes Julian's mother with her handbag. As Julian attempts to help his mother up from the pavement, he realizes that the shock of the experience has caused her to suffer a stroke—thus she actually becomes victim to the outdated code by which she has lived. The patronizing act of offering a coin is completely natural to her, yet offensive to the Negro. Her lack of touch with reality is dramatically exhibited after the stroke when she reverts to former times completely: "Tell Grandpa to come get me." For Julian, however, the shock he experiences at his mother's condition seems to open his eyes at long last to "the world of guilt and sorrow."

Because Julian, unlike anyone else in the story, is distinguished by name, the story focuses on him and his development. Everyone else functions in relation to and for the sake of the learning experience that eventually becomes meaningful to him. On a larger scale, moreover, the story has mythic and universal proportions in terms of the treatment of how an individual faces reality and attains maturity. For Julian, maturity becomes a possibility only after his faulty vision is corrected. When he witnesses the assault on his mother and its subsequent effect, he experiences a form of shock therapy that forces him out of the "mental bubble" of his own psyche.

Julian's situation reflects the particular O'Connor combination of comedy and tragic irony. On the bus as he recalls experiences of trying to make friends with Negroes, his responses are genuinely funny. When he recounts his disillusionment in discovering that his distinguished looking Negro acquaintance is an undertaker, when he imagines his mother desperately ill and his being able to secure only a Negro doctor for her, when he dreams of bringing home a "suspiciously Negroid" fiancée—the comedy runs high.

But as one considers the bitter irony of the situation, the nature of the humor changes. The lesson that he had hoped his mother would learn turns out to be meant for him; the confrontation of the two women with identical hats is comical, but the comedy is quickly reversed. In a discussion of the author's unique comedy, Cheney contends that this kind of humor might be called "metaphysical humor." He describes the effect in this way: "She begins with familiar surfaces that seem secular at the outset and in a secular tone of satire or humor. Before you know it, the naturalistic situation has become metaphysical, and the action appropriate to it comes with a surprise, an unaccountability that is humorous, however shocking." It is metaphysical in the sense that such humor calls into question the nature of being: man, the universe, and the relationship of the two. The hat, a symbol of the self-image, and the convergence of the two women with identical hats poses several questions: What is the significance of the individual's self-image? What common qualities do all men share? How does one relate to the world and others in it?

The "convergence" of the hats and the personalities of the respective owners is a violent clash—unpredictable and shocking. Nevertheless, the timing and circumstances work together to produce a kind of epiphany for Julian. And this kind of epiphany seems to be conceived and produced by the author. The title of the story offers a key to a more complete understanding of the epiphany or convergence process in an O'Connor short story. From the structure of the story it becomes evident that the rising action culminates in a crisis, a convergence of opposing forces, causing a dramatic and decisive change.

In addition, an understanding of the origin of the title of the story reveals a link between content and form. In a commentary on The Phenomenon of Man, Miss O'Connor tells why the work is meaningful to her:

It is a search for human significance in the evolutionary process. Because Teilhard is both a man of science and a believer, the scientist and the theologian will require considerable time to sift and evaluate his thought, but the poet, whose sight is essentially prophetic, will at once recognize in Teilhard a kindred intelligence. His is a scientific expression of what the poet attempts to do: penetrate matter until spirit is revealed in it. Teilhard's vision sweeps forward without detaching itself at any point from the earth.

Chardin's vision seems to correspond with her own vision as she attempts to penetrate matter until spirit is reached and without detaching herself from the earth at any point. Penetration of matter occurs in an O'Connor story at the moment of crisis. Thus in the scene in which Julian witnesses the assault of his mother, the effect of physical violence produces a spiritual equivalent—Julian is forced to take stock of his soul. In fact, the theme of the story might be considered "a search for human significance in the evolutionary process."

Chardin conceives of evolution as a constantly emerging spiral culminating at the center with God. In the tradition of the Christian humanist, he affirms the value of the individual by emphasizing his role as an intelligent being capable of cooperating with his Creator through grace—a term used for the communication of love between God and man. Chardin describes grace as "Christic energy," an illuminating force operative on the minds of men. The individual realizes his potential as a person through self-awareness, which is the ultimate effect of grace. In its entirety, Chardin's treatise is optimistic: he looks forward to the time when love will unite all individuals in the harmony of their humanity to produce a renewal of the natural order.

In contrast, Flannery O'Connor's view does not appear to be quite so optimistic: "Everything That Rises Must Converge" describes a bus ride in which there is no real communication between people, no understanding, and no harmony. How does this correspond with Chardin's prophecy of harmony between men at the point of convergence? The crux of the difference lies in perspectives: Chardin looks to the future; Miss O'Connor is concerned with the present and its consequences in the future. In other words, a mother and son boarding a bus in a Southern town at the present time are important individuals; the way they live their lives is also important. Why? Because, as Chardin would agree, each man has the potential to fulfill himself as a human being. In his introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge, Fitzgerald says that Miss O'Connor uses the title "in full respect and with profound and necessary irony." The irony, however, is not directed at erring mankind or at Chardin's optimism; it is in the contrast between what man has the potential to become and what he actually achieves. For example, Julian deludes himself into thinking that no one means anything to him; he shuts himself off from his fellows and becomes the victim of his own egotism. In his immediate situation he is his own worst enemy and the cause of his own failure; but ultimately, he is less than a man—and, in this sense, his position is tragic. However, he does receive a revelation that may "redeem" him; that is, make him the man he could be.

The difference between the convergence described by Chardin and that which occurs in Miss O'Connor's story is ironic onlyin the contrast between the real and the ideal. Julian does experience a kind of convergence: his distorted vision is corrected (if not permanently, at least for a time): he does receive the opportunity to revamp his life. Consider how Julian arrives at his moment of truth: he does not seek it, nor does he achieve it himself through thoughtful deliberation. The means are external to him, gratuitous, though compelling. Chardin would call this a form of "Christic energy" or grace through which the individual is brought into closer communication with the source of truth. Miss O'Connor seems to be describing the same process, though in fictional terms. In discussing grace and its presentation in fiction, she said, "Part of the complexity for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him here is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what is." This statement explains her focus on the present; it also reveals the basis of her aesthetic.

In his study of Flannery O'Connor, Hyman contends that "any discussion of her theology can only be preliminary to, not a substitute for, aesthetic analysis and evaluation." Aesthetically, Miss O'Connor strived to produce a view of reality in the most direct and concrete terms. "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is a simple story told in almost stark language. But the combination of realism and the grotesque with simplicity and starkness effects a unique intensity. Consider, for example, the way realistic and grotesque elements form the imagery of the story. As mother and son begin their trip, "the sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness, though no two were alike." Even the hat, which plays such a focal part in the conflict, is especially hideous: "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." Julian is hypersensitive: color and form possess an emotional equivalent for him. Thus when the Negro woman sits next to him on the bus, he is acutely aware of her: "He was conscious of a kind of bristling next to him, a muted growling like that of an angry cat. He could not see anything but the red pocketbook upright on the bulging green thighs." The correlation between color and emotion is also evident when he looks at his mother after she recognizes the hat on the other woman: "She turned her eyes on him slowly. The blue in them seemed to have turned a bruised purple. For a moment he had an uncomfortable sense of her innocence." But the ultimate horror awaits him after his mother has suffered the stroke: "Her face was fiercely distorted. One eye, large and staring, moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed." Miss O'Connor does not flood her work with details; she is highly selective—choosing only those aspects that are most revealing. She does not cringe at ugliness; in fact, she seems compelled to highlight it when it is essential to meaning.

Julian has the potential to fulfill himself as a person and to be of use to a society in need of reform. Until his mother's stroke, he has no impetus to change his outlook; consequently, it takes a disaster to move him. The world in which he lives is grotesque, and perhaps the way in which he comes to his self-realization is appropriately grotesque. But the glimmer of hope shines only after he has been illuminated by the experience. Considering man's "progress" in human development, Flannery O'Connor seems to be painting the most vivid picture possible to show mankind where his inadequacies lie and to open his eyes to some painful truth. Through her keen, selective way of compressing the most significant material into a clear and simple structure, the message comes across with power and shocking clarity.

Marion Montgomery (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5061

SOURCE: "On Flannery O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in Critique, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1971, pp. 15-29.

[In the following essay, Montgomery refers to a superficial analysis of O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and proceeds to analyze the story on a deeper level.]

Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" first appeared in New World Writing Number 17, in 1961, from which it was selected for inclusion in both Best American Short Stories of 1962 and Prize Stories of 1963: the O. Henry Awards. It appeared posthumously, as the title story of the final collection of her fiction, in 1965. It has, in consequence, had special attention called to it over a period of years and has received critical, if sometimes puzzled, readings at a number of hands. Predictably, much (though not all) of that attention has centered upon the topical materials it uses, the "racial" problem which seems the focus of the conflict between the story's "Southern mother" and her liberal son. That sort of attention is one of the inevitable by-products of the turmoils that have engaged us since the story's initial publication, turmoils that fulfill Unamuno's prophecy that soon we would be dying in the streets of sentimentality. In the interest of getting beyond the topical materials of the story, to those qualities of it that will make it endure in our literature, I should like to examine it in some detail, starting, as seems most economical, with a particularly superficial evaluation of it which Miss O'Connor called to my attention.

When the story appeared as first prize winner of the 1963 O. Henry Awards, it was remarked in one of those primary sources of Miss O'Connor's raw material, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

… her basic plot line is provocative and witty: an old-guard Southern lady, afraid to ride the buses without her son since integration, parades out for an evening dressed in a new and expensive hat. On the bus she encounters a Negro woman in the same hat.

Unfortunately the denouement of the story (the good Southern lady drops dead) is uncomfortable. It is pushed just too far.

An Olympian, anonymous evaluation, by one who has not even noticed that Julian is the protagonist. Almost two years later, when the posthumous collection appeared, there followed a praiseful review of the collection in which its author was caled "the most gallant writer, male or female in our contemporary culture," in which review Julian's mother is again specifically identified as the story's "protagonist."

One no longer expects to discover incisive reviews in newspapers, more's the pity, and these notices themselves are of little importance except that they show forth a good bit of the context from which Miss O'Connor drew the materials of her fiction. She had immediate access to her "Christhaunted" figures through local radio programs; one need only canvass the location stations between 11:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. during the week and on Sunday mornings to hear the voices of her prophets, though not their substance, and to see what a true ear she had for that speaking voice. But she used as well the Atlanta daily papers (called by rural Georgians as often as not "them lying Atlanta papers"). In them, for instance, she could see every Saturday a fundamentalist column, run as a paid advertisement with the title "Why Do the Heathen Rage," the title she had given the novel she left unfinished. There was also on Saturday the famous Pickrick ads of Lester Maddox, with their outrageous turns of wit in the midst of absurdities. But these were only a part of what interested Miss O'Connor in the newspapers. There were also displays of the mind of her Julians and Sheppards and Raybers, in the editorial columns and on the book review page. As to what was constantly available to her, consider these excerpts from a regular column. It is a Sheppard's or a Rayber's version of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," underlining by contrast Miss O'Connor's sharpness in reading that particular "Southern" mind:

Sixteen-year-old Dixie Radcliff, daughter of an Amesville, Ohio, clergyman, is in jail, classified as an adult charged with being an accessory to murder. She is a tenderhearted child who doesn't like to see anyone hurt. Because of this feminine revulsion to seeing people hurt, she remained in the car while her friend and lover, young Donald Boggs, killed four men. Donald, she says, was considerate. He did not ask Dixie to do more than tie the victims' hands behind their backs. He then took them away from the car so that Dixie would not see the killing….

There is no particular moral to draw from this sordid, pitiful story. That Don is a dangerous criminal, with a compulsion to kill, and that he is uninhibited by any sense of fear or moral conviction is plain. That Dixie Radcliff is a retarded child is plain….

Dixie will offend most those who say that children become delinquent today because of a lack of religious influence about the home. Dixie Radcliff grew up, apparently, with a religious influence about her like her clothes or skin…. She must have heard papa preach, pound the pulpit and flog the devil and his works a thousand times or more….

… The psychiatrists who worked over Dixie found she knew quite well all that was going on and knew it was wrong and wicked.

Was the motivation of Don Boggs (and Dixie) something in their genes—or in their environment—or both?

We never will know. So we will send them both to jail and forget about it.

That Miss O'Connor's Raburs and Sheppards are with us as decisively as our Misfits is, I think, sufficiently evidenced by these excerpts from a Pulitzer winner's remarks, remarks that are vaguely disturbed by an anticipation of the fundamentalist reaction and by society's lack of primary concern for Don and Dixie over their hapless victims. The statement that Dixie is clearly retarded does not fit with the assertions of the psychiatrists. Nor does it seem to reside in the columnist's awareness that he has in fact drawn a moral from the story: namely, that parents and environment are either or both responsible for the unhappy plight of Don and Dixie. The columnist's position is that of a determinist, and if the grandmother in Miss O'Connor's story faces her Misfit with the same excuses for evil, she is able to do so from what she has absorbed from the Raburs and Sheppards who have inherited from the priest position of authority in moral matters, with the media as effective pulpit. (Still she was reared with a sounder understanding of evil as she finally admits.)

It is easier of course to make gestures of compassion or brotherhood in the daily press than to deal directly with our Dixies or Dons whom Miss O'Connor translates as a Misfit or Rufus Johnson. What she shows in the inescapable confrontations is, first, the stock responses such as the grandmother's or the columnist's or Sheppard's. Then she presses those responses, through the presence of antagonists, to the point where the response proves inadequate. The modern innocent so confronted is forced to acknowledge the existence of evil and of an older innocence, as the first step toward recovery. This we see in the grandmother's development following her encounter with the Misfit, but the same procedure is used in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" with an important exception. Here the central character is not a country grandma moved to Atlanta, but an aspiring candidate for the intelligentsia. Also the confrontation and the stock response to the confrontation occur in the same character. That is, Julian is, in effect, two presences in the story, the Julian who assumes himself aloof and detached from the human condition by virtue of his superior intellect and the Julian who destroys his mother before our eyes. The climax of the story occurs at a point where he recognizes his participation in the catastrophe that has occurred. I think we may make the point clear by first looking at the point of view Miss O'Connor has chosen, a point of view which led the newspaper reviewers to mistake the mother as the central character.

From the first sentence of the story we have it established that this is Julian's story, though with a sufficient freedom in the related point of view to allow the author an occasional intrusion. "Her doctor had told Julian's mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y." It is always Julian's mother; she is given no name. And we see her through Julian's eyes. The rest of the first paragraph, for instance, carries as if in Julian's sardonic mind, indirect reflections of his mother's words. Who else would speak of herself as one of "the working girls over fifty"? And there is a mimicry of his mother by Julian in such an indirect statement as this: "… because the reducing class was one of her few pleasures, necessary for her health, and free, she said Julian could at least put himself out to take her, considering all she did for him." The first paragraph concludes with a statement which is not quite neutral on the author's part, a statement we are to carry with us into the action: "Julian did not like to consider all she did for him, but every Wednesday night he braced himself and took her." The but indicates that on Wednesdays the consideration is inescapable, but also that Julian is capable of the minor sacrifice of venturing into the world from his generally safe withdrawal into "a kind of mental bubble." With the story so focused that we as readers are aware that we watch Julian watching his mother, the action is ready to proceed, with relatively few intrusions of the author from this point.

Our reading of Julian's mother, then, is made for us by him, so that one might very well see "the basic plot line" as dealing with "an old-guard Southern lady, afraid to ride the buses," as our anonymous reviewer put it. But our author gives a careful control of our reading, particularly in the imagery Julian chooses to describe his mother. Julian's distortions are those that a self-elected superior intellect is capable of making through self-deception; he is an intellect capable of surface distinctions but not those fundamental ones such as that between childish and child-like. In short, Julian takes himself to be liberated, older than his mother since he is more modern. He feels burdened by his retarded mother and so is free to enjoy the pleasure of his chosen martyrdom to her small desires. Still, there is no one available to him capable of appreciating him, and so no one to know, other than himself, the constancy of his sacrifice. While the mother doesn't hesitate to declare her sacrifices for him openly, he only acts out the pain of his own with expressions of pain and boredom. Standing slouched in the doorway, unwilling audience to her self-torture over paying $7.50 for a hideous green and purple hat, he is "waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows." He sees himself "sacrificed to her pleasure," and a little later finds himself depressed "as if in the midst of martyrdom he had lost his faith." In the bus, which he hates to ride more than she, since it brings him close to people, he sits by a Negro "in reparation as it were for his mother's sins." The disparity between his reading of his situation and our seeing that situation for what it is, is sufficient to put us on our guard in evaluating the mother.

Nevertheless, she too is full of a language disproportionate to her position, as he points out with pleasure. She repeats the cliches on the general decay of her civilization, recalling the days when her family was substantial. Her arguments are inherited, rather than learned as are Julian's, for Julian has, in his view of the matter, gotten on his own a first-rate education from a third-rate college, with the result that he is free. That is, he is already "as disenchanted with [life] as a man of fifty." His mother, in his account of the matter, is living a hundred years in the past, ignoring the immediate circumstances of her existence. It is rather obvious from what has been so far said that Julian is not only the central character of the story, but in many respects a less spectacular version of the Misfit. Disillusioned with life, he wants to be no closer than three miles to his nearest neighbor, as he says. That failing, since his ancestral "mansion" is lost to him, the only pleasure he gets from life is meanness, specifically that of torturing his mother by reminding her of the new world she lives in. But unlike the Misfit, his meanness is paralysed force, gesture without motions. He cannot make a decisively destructive move, since that would require his own self-shattering involvement. Actually it is he who lives in the past, though only his own private past, for he can deal only in abstractions fed by reverie and memory. Through reverie he builds a fantasy version of the world as he would have it be, which is of course not the one he actually inhabits.

Thus it is that he sees his mother as childish. Her eyes, "sky blue, were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten." Again, "she might have been a little girl that he had to take to town." He detaches accidents from essence, and mistakes them for essence. A pseudo-existentialist, he builds a fairyland, that "magnificent ersatz of the science of Phenomena" Maritain declares existentialism to be. For, unlike Sartre's Orestes, Julian's destruction of his mother is not deliberate. He mistakes self-justification for self-affirmation. It is a relatively simple matter then to make the mother be what it is comfortable to him to suppose her. From being simply as innocent as when she was ten, she becomes eventually an obnoxious child whom "he could with pleasure have slapped." She becomes so through the exercise of his withdrawal, leading him finally to feel "completely detached from her."

But words, even when poorly used or deliberately distorted, have a way of redounding upon the user. It is thus with the terms Julian uses in his careless abstractions. In addition to the metaphors of his mother as child and himself as martyr, there is also the metaphor of evil that slowly worms its way into his language. At the bus stop, he finds in himself "an evil urge to break her spirit." Neither evil nor spirit here carries full meaning, for he intends only to express his impulse to embarrass her in public. He sets about that petty meanness out of a vanity which sees as his own most "miraculous" triumph that "instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother." Love is at this point no more than an emotional attachment as seen with the intellectual freedom Julian professes; so too is evil. And so the possibility of catastrophe is remote indeed to his thinking as he sets about harassing his mother. Thus, when he gives the woman with protruding teeth and canvas sandals "a malevolent" look, he is practicing his revenge upon the mother at a level very close to June Starr's sticking out her tongue at Red Sammy's wife. He is more nearly naughty than malevolent. His childishness is fed by his satisfaction in seeing "injustice in daily operation," since that observance "confirmed his view that with few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles." It is this state of withdrawal that we must be aware of in seeing his actions on the bus. When he sits down by the Negro man, he stares across at his mother "making his eyes the eyes of a stranger." His tension lifts "as if he had openly declared war on her," which of course he has, thus making his withdrawal from the world possible. His only reaction to those about him is that of hate, but his expression of that hate is capable only of irritating, except in the case of that one person in his world who loves him, his mother.

It is in respect to that love that the story's title is to be read. For in the first instance convergence carries the sense Hardy gives it in "The Convergence of the Twain." It is only after the devastating collision Julian experiences that any rising may be said to occur. The collision is presented initially in the comical exchange of sons, Julian for the small Negro boy, on the bus. One notices, as Julian sees the large Negro woman get on the bus, that she has a hat identical to that his mother wears. But Julian, observing the accident of color, does not notice it. He can connect nothing with nothing. As in the grandmother's first encounter with the Misfit, Julian is aware only that there is something vaguely familiar about her, the huge woman waiting for tokens. When it finally dawns on him that it is the hat that is familiar, he thinks the problem solved. It is only begun. Feeling triumphant, he awaits his mother's recognition of the hat, for it seems the chance he has waited to teach her "a lesson that would last for awhile." But the real shocker is that he discovers his own likeness to the Negress, the ironic exchange of sons becoming ultimately more terrifying that he anticipated. We see this by observing the Negro mother in comparison to what we know of Julian, ours being an advantage scarcely available to Julian. Though he is very much annoyed by her physical presence as she crowds him in his seat, he doesn't look at her, preferring rather to visualize her as she stood waiting for tokens a few minutes earlier. His is a retreat into the memory such as he accuses his mother of, and in that retreat he realizes that it is the hat that is familiar. It is at this point of recognition that he sees his mother's eyes once more and interprets them. "The blue in them seemed to have turned a bruised purple. For a moment he had an uncomfortable sense of her innocence, but it lasted only a second before principle rescued him." Principle, as abstraction imposed upon the concrete circumstances, rather than derived from them, delays for the moment the threat of the abyss to Julian. He sees that his mother "would feel" the symbolic significance of the purple hat but not "realize" it, as he, Julian, is capable of doing. His mother is to him just like the Negro woman in the world his mother refuses to acknowledge.

But that is merely reverie's abstraction on Julian's part, for the Negro woman is very much unlike his mother. The facts of her size and color are accidental dissimilarities which Julian's sophistication removes, but there is an essential unlikeness to his mother that underlines the strange woman's kinship to Julian. She, like Julian, is unaware of the possibilities of love. The Negro child, Carver, acts toward Julian's mother to the discomfort of the Negro mother, but with an innocence that Julian can't claim for his childishness. When the mother has snatched the child back, he presently escapes back to "his love," Julian's mother. Afterward the Negro woman slaps the "obnoxious child" as Julian only imagines doing to his mother. When the game of Peek-a-boo starts between Julian's mother and Carver, Carver's mother threatens to "knock the living Jesus" out of the child. And later, we see her carry the child down the bus steps by its arm as if it were a thing and not a child. She then shakes Carver angrily for his conspiracy of love.

At this point we might reconsider Julian's mother as an "old-guard Southern lady." It is perfectly true that her words are such as to make her appear condescending to her "inferiors" when they are black. And she sees little difference between herself and such people as the white woman with the protruding teeth, a person with far fewer historical credentials than she, this last failure one which Julian is very much embarrassed by. But there is a more fundamental rightness about Julian's mother than her inherited manners and social cliches reveal. So long as Julian is allowed to deal with the surfaces—with her stock words and responses to the immediate social situation—he is safe to enjoy his pretended indignation within his mental bubble. He can make a surface response to surface existence. It is when he is forced to go deeper that horror intrudes, as when for a moment he glimpses a child-like innocence in his mother's blue eyes, from which horror "principle" rescues him back to his portrait of her as childish. Eventually, though, a "terrible intuition" gets the better of him as he realizes that his mother will give Carver a coin. "The gesture would be as natural to her as breathing." He, rather than his mother, can feel now the symbolic significance of her act, though he is not yet ready to "realize it." For the world Julian insists upon as changed from the world he takes his mother to dwell in is the world of time untouched by that transcendent love that begins to threaten him. Julian's and the Negro woman's world is one in which a penny is hardly an acceptable substitute for a nickel, or any gift at all suitable since it represents an intrusion that can only seem condescension of the Haves to the Have-nots. Julian's is that world of history out of the eighteenth century in which Progress and Change have removed the obstacle of "Original Sin" through an intellectual exercise. Julian's mother cannot make distinctions of minor significance, as her son is capable of doing with his college-trained mind. But being child-like, she can make major distinctions, even as Carver can. The mother's gesture of love with the penny has removed from it any concern for the worldly value of her gift. It is a bright coin, given with an affection misunderstood by both Julian and Carver's mother. In the world made by a George Washington Carver with synthetics on the one hand and by Sartre with synthetic existence on the other (the worlds pursued by the Negress and Julian respectively) things and actions have a value in respect to their surfaces. Action and thing precede essence and intrinsic value. In such a world, where the possibilities of love are ignored, things and actions are ultimately only mechanical. Thus it is to be expected that the Negro woman explodes "like a piece of machinery," striking Julian's mother with the lumpy pocket book. And Julian, a more subtle machine of his own making, is like a clock, capable of telling only the present confused moment. He is trapped by history, his mother's and his own.

His mother lying on the ground before him, the Negro woman retreating with Carver "staring wide-eyed over her shoulder," Julian picks up his old theme. "That was your black double," he says. He reads the significance of the event to her: "The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn." But for the first time he remembers bitterly "the house that was lost to him." In his earlier remembrance it has been a mansion as contrasted to his mother's word house. Now when he insists to her "You aren't who you think you are," the words begin immediately to redound upon him. For now his mother's blue and innocent eyes become "shadowed and confused." He does not try "to conceal his irritation," and so there is no sign of love in his face. That is why she looks at him "trying to determine his identity." He begins to abandon his separateness ("Are we walking [home].") Still, when she ignores him, he reads her the stock lesson of our moment of time. The Negro woman is "the whole colored race" rising up against such people as his mother. The mistake Julian is incapable of seeing is that the Negro woman is more than the colored race; she is the human race, to which he himself belongs through the burden of man's being a spiritual mulatto. The mother's earlier words, simple-minded in Julian's view, that she feels sorry for "the ones that are half white" since "They're tragic" take on theological symbolism still beyond his ken. In the presence of his mother dying, he sees her eyes, one moving as if "unmoored," the other fixing on him and finding "nothing." It is the final terrible mirror to his being which he has fleetingly seen reflected in the Negro woman on the bus. But now he cannot deny his own condition by any act of abstraction, by "principle," his old means of escaping his emptiness. His mother's return to her childhood at the moment of death, her acting "just like a child" as Julian says, leads her to call for "Grandpa" and then for her old nurse "Caroline." Only at this point does Julian realize her serious condition. But his reaction is in regard to his own safety rather than hers. Stunned, he is aware of "a tide of darkness" that seems to be "sweeping her from him." The word mother no longer suffices, and it is the beginning of a new Julian when he calls out his frightened "Mamma, Mamma!"

The story, then, is one in which Julian discovers, though he does not understand it, the necessity of putting aside childishness to become a little child. It recalls those errors of our childhood in which we take pleasure in our superiority over those younger than we. That superiority we take, with pride, to be a measure of our intellectual station. But the shocking revelation comes as we realize that the pinnacle of this moment's superiority on which we rise is tomorrow's dark valley out of which it is difficult to see. Or in another figure also appropriate to our story we play childishly with out supposed inferiors, as Julian does: we hold up before a mirror a message only we can decipher in its backwardness since we were privy to its writing. Or we write the mirror image and hold it up to be reflected aright for others to read with awe and wonder at our cleverness. What is shattering to us is the larger mystery of our own life which includes childishness but which our intellect cannot comprehend. Thus Julian delights in the mirror reflection of his mother in the Negress, only to discover the dark woman a truer image of himself, the denier of love. Thus too those metaphors of love and hate play mirror tricks as they grow larger than their childish use by Julian, so that "true culture" appears no longer simply "in the mind" as he insists early. Perhaps it is "in the heart." as his mother insisted." Setting out with "the evil urge to break her spirit," he has finally succeeded in breaking his own.

The convergence in the story then, at its most fundamental level, is not that of one person with another but of Julian with the world of guilt and sorrow, the world in which procedures have replaced manners, both of which are surface aspects of that world. For, while the spectacle of the convergence of Julian's mother with the Negro mother is indeed a convergence in a "violent form," as one critic of the story puts it, the most violent collision is within Julian, with effects Aristotle declared necessary to complex tragedy. The tragedy is Julian's, in which he recognizes that he has destroyed that which he loved through his blindness. He has so carefully set himself off from his mother that, through the pretenses of intellect, he is as far removed from her as Oedipus from Jocasta. But the Christian implications of Julian's tragedy separate him from Oedipus. Guilt and sorrow come of knowing that one has spurned love. Already the possibilities of grace are present as he cries out to her with the voice of a child. Whether he will perform a more significant expiation on his own behalf than the childish gesture he pretends for his mother's sins—his sitting by the Negro man in the bus—is left suspended. What we do know is that, as if repeating an error of his namesake (St. Julian the Hospitaller of the Saints' legends), he has, through the childishness of intellectualism, made himself capable of a mistake of identity. And like Oedipus and St. Julian he has been an instrument in the destruction of his parent. As he goes crying to any person who might happen along in his dark night, the tide of darkness seems to sweep him back to his mother lying on the ground dead. But in his favor, he is opposing that tide of darkness which would postpone "from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow." He has at the least arrived, as Eliot would say, at the starting place, as Miss O'Connor's characters so often do, and has recognized it for the first time. He is now ready to profit from those words of Teilhard which give the story its title, but they are words which must not be read as Teilhard would have them in his evolutionary vision. For in Teilhard there is no place for guilt and sorrow since human existence has had removed from it that taint of original sin which this story certainly assumes as real. It is a Dantean reading of Teilhard's words that we are called upon to make:

Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourself united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge."

John F. Desmond (essay date Autumn 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2075

SOURCE: "The Lessons of History: Flannery O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. I, Autumn, 1972, pp. 39-45.

[In the following essay, Desmond discusses the influence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's ideas about human history and redemption on O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge."]

This vision of human history developed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—a synthesis of biological and psychological evolution and the Christian conception of historical redemption—is one which strongly appealed to Flannery O'Connor and influenced much of her later work. In The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard describes the process of evolution as one which follows a law of increased complexification and convergence toward greater consciousness as the inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process. For Teilhard, the drive toward synthesis is caused by the energy of union—love—and he warned strongly against isolation or refusal of reconciliation in any form, racial or individual. Teilhard sees the energy of union as an Omega point which is the source and object of love, and to the theist Omega is God. The central position of Christianity in this perspective, with its beliefs in a personal God and its own universality, is that the actuality of Omega is achieved through Christ's Incarnation, uniting Himself organically with human history, with all matter and all psychism. Attempts at isolation from corporate human history—from the universal bond of fallen yet redeemed mankind—are in fact attempts to deny the concrete reality of suffering, grace, and redemptive love in favor of a specious "innocence" that projects one outside or above the redemptive process. Such a stance is, of course, the classic one of pride.

In a letter to this writer in December 1963, Miss O'Connor acknowledged the influence of Chardin and remarked that "what he attempted appeals to my imagination." While Miss O'Connor could agree with Teilhard's vision of history and its apotheosis in Christ, she could not, as she often said, let her Christian beliefs distort what she actually saw going on in the world around her. And what she actually saw were not only prideful refusals of redemptive grace on the part of man, but the more fundamental refusal to admit any need for redemption. Convergence means the universal drive toward spiritual union amog men, through love. However, Miss O'Connor shows this drive as one which is everywhere resisted, by characters who choose various forms of isolation and immunity—such as retreat into abstract intellectualism or into a romanticized past—to escape the demands of concrete union and growth. For redemption includes the total, corporate community of humankind, and through pride these characters implicitly and explicitly try to deny their place in this process. Consequently, they resist "convergence," and because of this the initial action which must occur is the destruction of their false identities and false, detached "place" of immunity. Because of their hardened isolation, it takes an apocalyptic-like violence to penetrate their shell, but this violent encounter can, though not necessarily, work mysteriously to open the character to see and accept his true place and identity in redemption history. Some characters retreat from this terrible knowledge, but even these are chastened so that they cannot return to their former "innocent" state. Such knowledge is the purpose of the violent convergence in "Everything That Rises Must Converge," where Miss O'Connor dramatized particular cases of modern pride typologically as part of her vision of history.

In the story the violent convergence occurs between a stout Negro woman and an aristocratically inclined white woman, whose son Julian witnesses the impact. The encounter between the two women dramatizes the violent forces which erupt in a clash whose racial manifestations are the terms of deeper spiritual conflict. Both women, as well as Julian, are guilty of a denial of love and charity because of their prideful isolation.

The relationship between Julian and his mother is the central focus throughout the story, and the irony of their relationship derives from the fact that while she is a product of the now-faded aristocratic past, Julian's mother has adapted somewhat to their present "reduced" condition. It is Julian's indulgence of her as a figure from the past, made in his own image, that is as much responsible for her gesture of condescension toward the Negroes as her own pride. A pseudo-intellectual, Julian espouses the gospel of liberalism—toleration of all—but in truth his liberalism is only a reactionary response to his own ambivalent feelings toward his family history. He has created his own idealized view of this past and sustains it through the attachment to his mother, but his real dependence upon her is hidden from his eyes by the blinder he wears—an apparent hatred of what she represents. Thus Julian's so-called progressivism, based upon intellectual and cultural elitism (he wishes to associate with intelligent, liberal Negroes) rather than a recognition of spiritual equality, is specious and in fact much akin to his mother's own aristocratic pretensions. He uses his liberalism simply as a means of revenge against a past he both falsely idealizes and nostalgically admires. Both mother and son are dissociated from reality, from history, and they must be returned to the real at a terrible cost.

The weekly trips made by Julian's mother to the YWCA "Reducing Class," a comic symbol of both their reduced circumstances (she was formerly a "Godhigh") and the "Fall" from pride which awaits her, underscore the fact that she is slightly more adaptable to present realities than her son wishes to believe. Yet she is also possessed of an exalting pride. What distinguishes her from "common" humanity is the ridiculous purple and green hat she wears, and though she thinks the hat too expensive and wants to return it, it is Julian, significantly, who insists that she keep it. Thus her son fosters the indulgent pride whereby she assumes an aristocratic stance above common humanity, epitomized in the salesgirl's remark, "with that hat, you won't meet yourself coming and going." Nevertheless, she is willing to live in the decayed neighborhood, whereas Julian, a typewriter salesman with literary ambitions, dreams of isolating himself from society in a place "three miles" from any neighbors.

Possessed of a sense of identity that her son lacks, Julian's mother nevertheless suffers a moral blindness manifested in her nostalgic affection for the past. To her, the world is in "a mess," though she still can appear gracious to other women in the reducing class while convinced of her superiority. Julian's belief that she is "out of touch" with the present is accurate; yet ironically it is through his belief in her as a representative of the past that he sustains his own false identity—"innocently" detached from reality and aristocratically superior in his condemnation of her limitations. Her view of equality and social evolution through integration—convergence and reconciliation—is one of retrenchment and moral isolation. "It's simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence." Sentimentally, she recalls her visits to the Godhigh plantation before its decline. Observing this, Julian concludes that his mother's adaptability to present circumstances is simply due to her insensitivity; yet the real basis of his irritation with her is the fact that in her adaptability she does not conform to the idealized image of her he uses to support his own retreat from the real present. When she insists that her family retained self-respect in spite of reduced circumstances, Julian's own nostalgia is revealed.

"Doubtless that decayed mansion reminded them," Julian muttered. He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing. He had seen it once when he was a child before it had been sold. The double stairways had rotted and been torn down. Negroes were living in it. But it remained in his mind as his mother had known it. It appeared in his dreams regularly. He would stand on the wide porch, listening to the rustle of oak leaves, then wander through the high-ceilinged hall into the parlor that opened onto it and gaze at the worn rugs and faded draperies. It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated it.

After they have boarded the bus together, Julian retreats into a "mental bubble" while his mother discusses the race question with two other women passengers. From his detached perspective, ironically. Julian sees his mother as living in a "fantasy world," while she believes accurately that her son is inexperienced in the "real world." As a further irony, Julian sees himself as liberated from her, when in fact he is vitally dependent upon her as the scapegoat for his own intellectual and moral self-righteousness. When a sophisticated Negro passenger boards the bus, Julian's postured "toleration" is revealed when he unsuccessfully tries to engage the Negro in conversation by borrowing matches, though a NO SMOKING sign is posted clearly. When the Negro isolates himself behind a newspaper, Julian recalls his other attempts to become acquainted with "the better types" and imagines the revenge he could perpetrate against his mother's bigotry by bringing a Negro woman home as his fiancee. His "fantasy" ends when the large, fierce-looking Negro woman boards the bus with the child, Carver, and the stage is set for the violent convergence and Julian's shattering epiphany.

The bond between Julian's mother and the Negro woman, both isolated and proud, is of course symbolized by the identical hats which the women wear. Furthermore the fact that the Negro child sits with Julian's mother and the woman next to Julian, separated by the aisle, signifies their moral kinship and the incipient theme of convergence. Recognizing the equality implied by their similar hats, Julian's mother appears "as if sickened at some awful confrontation," while her son blindly gloats at her humiliation. Nevertheless, she suppresses her indignation by assuming a comical attitude toward the likeness, as if "a monkey" were wearing the hat. The real link between the two women is established through the child Carver—whose name suggests the difficult process by which suffering is transformed through Christ-like love—and both women fail in this opportunity provided by his presence to transcend intolerance. Julian's mother sees the child as "cute" and smiles at him patronizingly, anticipating her disastrous gesture of condescension later when she offers Carver a penny. The Negro woman, on the other hand, pulls him across the aisle to her as if "snatching him from contagion," and threatens to "knock the living Jesus" out of him if he doesn't behave. The two women are identical in their blind moral isolation, and their encounter erupts inevitably into violence when Julian's mother's offer of money is answered by the Negro woman's blow.

For Julian, the defeat of his mother is a momentary triumph, a confirmation of his self-righteousness and intellectual "hatred" of her values. Yet while the effect of the violent convergence upon his mother is a fatal heart attack on the way "home"—she is retreating into the romanticized past as she dies, calling for her childhood Negro maid—her death also reveals Julian's shallowness and "innocent" detachment from the real. Ironically, his mother now becomes "the past" he has not only seen her as representing but from which he has created his own reproachless, false progressivism; and the false identity this provided him is suddenly destroyed by her death. He must face the "void" alone. His perversion of her real values and his own prideful isolation have fostered a moral adolescence in which he has had no mature spiritual identity, and now alone, "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."

The death of his mother brings Julian for the first time face to face with the reality of history—the "world of guilt and sorrow"—and unprepared in his innocence, he wishes to retreat from this terrible knowledge. The god he has served has been the idolatrous one of self, his gospel one of social progress through strictly human means, which Miss O'Connor found woefully inadequate to overcome the real human condition of the Fall. Only Redemption through Christ could transform the "world of guilt and sorrow" and cause man's humble acceptance of his true place in the slow working out of the redemptive plan through the wounds of history and man's acceptance of the healing grace that can truly unite mankind.

Preston M. Browning Jr. (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10152

SOURCE: "Everything That Rises Must Converge," in Flannery O'Connor, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 99-130.

[In the following essay, Browning asserts that in O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge, "she recognized that the recovery of depth, or being, was possible only by stripping the masks from men whose fraudulent righteousness had rendered them too complacent even to be damned."]

In Flannery O'Connor's posthumous volume of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, subject and setting are very much a part of the contemporary South. Economic growth is under way, and its partisans are feverishly engaged as midwives to "progress" ("A View of the Woods"); racial integration is a fact increasingly difficult to ignore, and white Southerners of all classes are forced to assume some attitude toward it ("Everything That Rises Must Converge"). The upheavals wrought by World War II and the Korean conflict have unsettled class lines, and the sons of tenant farmers are on their way to becoming "society" ("Greenleaf"); the dispersion of poor whites throughout the urban North is well advanced, constituting opportunity for many of the young but exile in an alien and hostile land for the elderly ("Judgement Day"). And, as in the novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the techniques of modern psychology are being liberally applied by social worker-types reared on progressive philosophies ("The Lame Shall Enter First"). Wherever one turns in these stories, he encounters evidence of Flannery O'Connor's sensitivity to the changes which her region was undergoing during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

As always, Miss O'Connor brought to these subjects an intelligence keenly alive to the complexities of the human mind—its subterfuges, its self-deceptions, its seemingly inexhaustible capacity for rationalization. In her two novels and in such early stories as "Good Country People," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "The Artificial Nigger," she had demonstrated an astonishingly mature grasp of the dynamics of human psychology. Yet something new (in degree if not in kind) seems to distinguish the stories of the second collection: an almost clinical understanding of certain forms of neurosis. The title story, for example, is a virtual case study of what psychoanalysts would describe as denial and projection.

The narrative itself is simple enough: Julian and his mother travel by bus to the Y in order that she may attend a reducing class. Contemptuous of his mother, from whose values and prejudices he thinks he has freed himself, Julian attempts unsuccessfully to befriend a Negro man and indulges in malicious glee when a large Negro woman boards the bus wearing a hat identical to the one his mother has on. As they leave the bus together, Mrs. Chestny offers a penny to the Negro woman's small son and is knocked to the sidewalk by the infuriated Negress. After pointing out to his mother that she has been taught a proper lesson, Julian discovers that she is dying and runs for help in a last futile effort to delay his entrance in the "world of guilt and sorrow."

Like many of the sad young men of Flannery O'Connor's last stories, the protagonist of "Everything That Rises Must Converge" wants desperately to distinguish himself from everything in the South which he finds morally, intellectually, and aesthetically repugnant: its racism, its nostalgia for the glorious past, its (to him) petty concern with manners, its barren intellectual life, its insufferably banal social intercourse. (Julian is cast from the same mold that produced the rebellious "artistic" or "intellectual" sons of "The Enduring Chill," "The Comforts of Home," and "Greenleaf." Julian, Asbury, Thomas, and Wesley make up a quartet of angry, frustrated individuals caught in "late adolescent" impotence so acute that they can direct their hostility only against their protective, and oftentimes patronizing and controlling mothers.)

Julian wants to be different, and since everything about the South which affronts his sense of decency and decorum is symbolized by his mother, Julian wants especially to be different from his mother. Merely being different, however, is not sufficient; his hatred for all that his mother epitomizes is so venomous that he must constantly insult it. As it is impossible to insult the entire Southern ethos, Julian is reduced to the expediency of humiliating and insulting his mother. But Julian's relation to his mother, like his relation to the South itself, is less unambiguous than he would like to imagine. What he thinks he detests, he also loves and longs for. What he believes he is totally free of, he is, in fact, fearfully dependent upon.

While Miss O'Connor undoubtedly portrays the bad faith of Julian as the more damning, it must be conceded that there is something exasperating about his mother. She is one of those legendary Southern matrons of "aristocratic" birth who, though forced to live in relative poverty, continues to insist upon a distinction which she believes birth has conferred upon her. Though she must use the now-integrated public transportation system and must associate at the YWCA with women of a lower social class, she insists that because she "knows who she is,'" she "'can be gracious to anybody.'" Indeed, it is this assumption that the glue which holds society together is a certain politeness and openness of manner—almost always, however, practiced with a degree of unconscious condescension—which enables Julian's mother to face the unpleasant alterations in her external circumstances with a calm and cheerful assurance that she herself at least has not changed. It is her ardent faith in the primacy of manners, in fact, which is one of the sources of the conflict between Julian and his mother. She insists that authentic culture is "'in the heart … and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.'" Julian's attitude provides the starkest contrast, since he maintains that with the new fluidity of class structure, his mother's graciousness counts for nothing. "'Knowing who you are is good for one generation only,'" he declares. "'You haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now or who you are.'"

Naturally, Julian is convinced that he knows where he is. Yet he is in fact far more pitifully confused than his mother. In him Flannery O'Connor has drawn a devastating portrait of the young white "liberal" Southerner who is doing all of the supposedly right things for the wrong reasons. Conceited in his assurance that he is free of his mother's prejudices and her unrealistic attachment to a dead past, Julian betrays in every gesture and word his thoroughly ambivalent attitudes toward the principal objects of her bigotry (Negroes) and her nostalgia (the ancestral home). How small the distance is he has put between himself and the heritage which he condemns is suggested in this description of his feelings about the family mansion he had once seen as a child.

He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing. He had seen it once…. The double stairways had rotted and been torn down. Negroes were living [in] it. But it remained in his mind as his mother had known it. It appeared in his dreams regularly…. He preferred its threadbare elegance to anything he could name.

In some way reminiscent of Quentin Compson's tortured exclamation at the conclusion of Absalom, Absalom!, "I don't hate it, I don't hate it" (the "it" referring to the South), Julian's reveries reflect much of the ambivalence but little of the profundity of Quentin's attitude toward the traditional South. For, whereas Quentin stands much closer to the great decisive events which have shaped Southern history and must grapple existentially with their meaning, as well as with the meaning of his own family's former glory and present decadence, Julian is a child of the 1950s and sixties, and, as such, faces the quite different problem of establishing personal identity in a South for which neither the grandeur nor the guilt of the past are ever-present, haunting realities. Yet the tradition which his mother represents, while attenuated and diluted, is nonetheless a factor with which he must reckon. Wishing to assert his independence from his mother, he vehemently proclaims his independence of the cultural heritage from which she derives her identity. But as he finds his present life and surroundings drab and humiliating, he is forced against his conscious will to identify with that very way of life which he can neither appropriate completely, as his mother thinks she has done, nor repudiate completely, as he would like to believe he has done.

The confusion of his attitude toward the Southern past is recapitulated and underscored in his ambivalent feelings toward his mother, whom he considers a child, "innocent and untouched by experience," for whose protection he must sacrifice himself. Remote as Julian's mother's world may be from reality, Julian's own fantasy world is even more remote. With his arrogant sense of superiority ("he realized he was too intelligent to be a success"), Julian's habitual way of dealing with the unpleasant aspects of life is to retreat "into the inner compartment of his mind … a kind of mental bubble" from which he may judge the intellectual bankruptcy of the rest of mankind. Somewhat like Hulga and very much like Asbury of "The Enduring Chill," Wesley of "Greenleaf," and Thomas of "The Comforts of Home," Julian suffers from a form of neurosis in which his idealized image is threatened by self-doubt and self-pity and can be protected only by maintaining an uncommitted and superior attitude toward the world. At the same time subjecting the world to withering scorn for its failures and fearing to engage the world in creative struggle, Julian withdraws into his bubble where the self is free to judge without making itself vulnerable to judgment.

The viability of Julian's defensive psychological mechanism largely depends upon the availability of someone whom he can continuously belittle and scorn and whose stupidity and phoniness (as judged by him) can serve to point up, by contrast, his own supposedly enlightened and authentic existence. And that person is his mother. But while Julian thus needs his mother, she also poses a constant threat, to the extent that she is able to withstand his attacks and, through simply being what she is, to insinuate the possibility of some radical discrepancy between his idealized image and the actuality of his life. Ultimately, therefore, he must attempt to destroy her or destroy for her that system of values which makes her life possible.

On the bus an opportunity of attack presents itself when a white woman moves from a seat next to one just occupied by a Negro man. Ostensibly to "convey his sympathy" but actually to embarrass his mother, Julian crosses the aisle to the vacated seat. Now so situated that he can stare at her as though he were a stranger, Julian experiences a release of tension such as might accompany a declaration of war. Julian now fantasizes about various ways of hurting his mother, though always the conscious intention is "to teach her a lesson." Interestingly, all of his schemes involve Negroes or causes related to Negroes.

Here brief reflection upon Julian's "liberalism" should help to illumine the moral and psychological ramifications of the story. It is clear that Julian uses his putative tolerance and freedom from racial bias as a weapon in the struggle with his mother. What is far worse, he uses Negroes for the same purpose. Significantly, Julian has "never been successful in making Negro friends"; the reason for his failure is not difficult to locate, since he all too obviously wishes only to accumulate "some of the better types,… ones that looked like professors or ministers or lawyers" to bolster his always tenuous hold upon his self-image as a liberated representative of the "new South." Julian's own latent prejudice begins to show itself when a huge, fierce-looking Negro woman, who could not possibly be mistaken for a member of the Negro intelligentsia, boards the bus and settles in a seat next to his. Julian is "annoyed." Quickly his annoyance turns to elation as he sees the symbolic appropriateness of the two women having "swapped sons" when the woman's small child sits next to his mother. Julian's triumph is completed when he notices that the Negro woman's hat is an exact match of the one his mother is wearing for the first time.

Reveling briefly in his mother's distress, Julian discovers their true relationship after she has been struck to the ground by the hostile Negro woman. Attempting to reinforce the "lesson" with what sounds like a rehearsed lecture, Julian assures his mother that the fury she has just witnessed is not that of a single "uppity Negro woman" but rather that of "the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies." His speech is lost on his mother, who, calling for "Grampa" and Caroline (the Negro mammy who had cared for her as a child), willingly submits to "a tide of darkness" which carries her swiftly back to the ordered world of childhood and thence to death. Julian, who had moments before wished to prove to his mother she could not expect to be forever dependent upon him, is compelled at last to recognize how total has been his dependence upon her. Crying "Mamma, Mamma!" he throws himself beside her, but "Mamma," whose gaze had earlier scanned his face but recognized nothing there, lies motionless. Last seen racing toward lights which appear to recede beyond his grasp, Julian postpones momentarily "his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow." On this unmistakable Hawthornesque note the chronicle of another American Adam is concluded.

For a number of reasons the choice of this story to open the collection was a happy one. Like the stories examined in the chapter on A Good Man Is Hard to Find and like most of the stories in this volume, "Everything That Rises Must Converge" focuses upon the existential dilemmas of the self—its anxiety before the truth of its condition, the contemptible dodges it employs to deceive itself, and the inescapable surge of guilt as the shock of awareness is delivered. But in this tale the social context is broadened, thereby providing a connecting thread to the last story in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, "The Displaced Person," in which race relations play a significant role, as well as pointing forward to the other pieces in the present volume, in most of which there is a heightened consciousness of the social ambience within which the awakened individual must live in the presence of grace. Both the title and the story's action give evidence of Flannery O'Connor's growing interest in the movement of the isolated self toward union with others; and while many commentators have maintained that Miss O'Connor uses the line borrowed from Teilhard de Chardin ironically, I find myself in agreement with those critics who contend that in the narrative of Julian and his mother there is a true convergence, although not a simple one. As the title suggests, the story concerns both rising and converging. Before their bus ride, Julian's mother had spoken of the propriety of Negroes rising, "but on their side of the fence." Her encounter with the outraged woman attests to the rising which has already occurred, as well as the fragility of the fence and the difficulty of maintaining it. But a convergence, albeit a violent one, does take place, and there are numerous hints besides the obvious one of the identical hats, that Julian's mother and the Negro woman are more alike than either would care to admit. If nothing else, the story's action foreshadows a convergence such as that envisaged by Teilhard, who speaks of "courage and resourcefulness" as necessary ingredients in the struggle to overcome "the forces of isolationism, even of repulsion, which seem to drive [men] apart rather than draw them together." Though the results of this particular convergence are quite the opposite of those anticipated by Teilhard when mankind achieves its unity in Christ, and though it would seem that here there is only reinforced isolation and repulsion, emphasis should perhaps be placed upon the pain and cost of both rising and converging. Such emphasis is certainly congruent with Miss O'Connor's belief that redemption is never easy and always involves suffering. The frustration and anger of the Negro woman and her courage imply a depth of spirit out of which might someday come the "resourcefulness" requisite for genuine convergence.

But since it is Julian, not the Negro mother, who is the main character, it is his rising and convergence which is central. As in other renditions of the fortunate fall, Julian's calamity will eventually lead, so all the evidence indicates, to "growth of consciousness," to raised sight, to a risen spirit. According to Teilhard de Chardin, growth toward unity with others is the spiritual direction of evolution and is a process to which those with "expanded consciousness" contribute. It is, moreover, the true end of man. "To be fully ourselves it is in … the direction of convergence with all the rest, that we must advance—towards the 'other.'" Teilhard distinguishes between individuality and personhood and asserts that the latter can be achieved only by "uniting together…. The true ego grows in inverse proportion to 'egoism.'" Insofar as Julian is able to replace his defensive idealized image with a realistic view of the self which obviates the necessity of belittling others in order to enhance the value of the self, to this extent will it be possible for him to attain personhood, a "true ego" capable of proper self-love and proper love of others. The capacity to develop such an ego is the psychological equivalent of the Christian's faith in man's ability to be radically altered by grace, and in the volume as a whole this capacity emerges as a central concern.

One critic offers a useful clue to the basis of these stories' commonly acknowledged excellence when he observes that "[i]t is as though in the struggle against her illness [Flannery O'Connor] had come to locate grotesqueness and grace in the common life of men and that she had no more time or talent to waste on merely being odd or bizarre." Here one may feel compelled to demur, since today most critics agree that even in her earliest fiction Flannery O'Connor spent little of her time on the merely odd or bizarre. Yet this reviewer has put his finger on something real and important in the development of Miss O'Connor's talent: in the last stories she has apparently left behind the blatant melodrama of, say, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Her Misfits are no longer psychopathic killers or voyeuristic Bible salesmen. They are instead the ineffectual sons of well-meaning but exasperating mothers. Or they are the emotionally disturbed Wellesley student and the self-righteous Mrs. Turpin of "Revelation." Exceptions there are, two or three stories which demonstrate Flannery O'Connor's penchant for the extreme situation and the exaggerated character—for instance, "Parker's Back" and "The Lame Shall Enter First." But for the most part she did seem to find her imagination creating less extravagantly fanciful characters than Tom T. Shiftlet or Manley Pointer or Hazel Motes. More often than not, too, it is in the "common life of men" that she located the workings of grace. Which is not to say that there is anything commonplace or tame about the stories in Everything That Rises; on the contrary, here is abundant grotesquerie and violence. Instead of abandoning altogether her taste for melodrama, "she severely disciplined it to weight the consequences of perverse will and crooked passions," the result being that in such a story as "A View of the Woods," what appears as a more or less harmless and humorous contest of wills detonates into a fury of destruction, and self-destruction, even as the comic surface is preserved almost to the very end.

The action is easily summarized: an old man, Mark Fortune, permits his son-in-law Pitts, whom he detests, to farm his property; but, from time to time, largely to provoke his daughter and her family, Mr. Fortune sells off a lot. The only member of the Pitts family the old man can tolerate is the youngest daughter, Mary Fortune, who bears an uncanny likeness to her grandfather and whom he considers virtually an extension of himself. These two form an invincible alliance against the Pitts clan until the old man conceives the idea of selling the land directly in front of the house. Since Mary Fortune has heretofore shared his enthusiasm for "progress," the old man assumes that she will be free of what is to him an irrational Pitts attachment to the land. To his dismay he learns that on this issue Mary Fortune sides with her family, and, in the story's denouement, he attempts to punish her physically for opposing his scheme. Having counted on neither her ferocity nor her strength, the old man finds himself overpowered by the girl, and it is only when she releases her hold that he is able to subdue her. Inadvertently, he strikes her head against a rock, killing her, and then himself dies of a heart attack.

This bare outline, of course, provides no indication of the comedy of the piece. Neither does it allow for more than a hint of its tragic dimensions. Presumably it was a failure to discern these tragic elements which led Stanley Hyman to the otherwise mystifying conclusion that the ending involves "the unnecessary multiple death of Jacobean drama." Obviously, if Miss O'Connor intended this as merely a comic story, the deaths are not only unnecessary but downright inappropriate. What seems to be the case, however, is that "A View of the Woods" is an example of that modern genre which Flannery O'Connor practices with considerable success—the story with a comic (or "absurd") surface beneath which lies a feeling for the human reality which approaches the tragic.

Mark Fortune, the story's protagonist, most certainly exhibits traits usually associated with the hero of traditional tragedy. He is a man whose sense of self is magnified to the point of becoming monstrous. He cannot tolerate criticism, claims a godlike omniscience with respect to the thoughts and feelings of others, meets opposition with unhesitating action and unswerving faith in the correctness of his judgment. He considers himself on the side of Fate or the gods (in this case, "progress") and aspires to immortal glory (a town to be named after him). His excessive and misplaced confidence in the justice of his cause and in the power of his will to implement that cause leads to events which shatter his project and destroy both himself and the chosen agent of his dream. Finally, in the moment of death, Mark Fortune, the proud tyrant of a cherished if insignificant kingdom, perceives both the mocking emptiness of his life and the fatality which has lain hidden behind the façade of his willful rationalizations and self-justifications. Mark Fortune is no Oedipus or Hamlet, and perhaps he lacks the tragic (or tragicomic) potential of even a Hazel Motes. Yet he is anything but a "perfect comic" character, and his violent death is, as I shall show, the only fitting conclusion (dramatically as well as morally) to this story of monstrous egotism and haughty disdain for the feelings and rights of others.

An extremely self-centered and possessive man, Mr. Fortune had apparently resented his daughter's marrying—at any rate, marrying the "idiot" Pitts. Hence, when she comes home with her none-too-successful husband and seven children, "she [comes] back like any other tenant." Of Mary Fortune, he makes a conspicuous exception as she has "his intelligence, his strong will, and his push and drive." But his feeling for her transcends mere respect or affection. For in the nine-year-old child Mr. Fortune sees so much of himself that she represents for him the hope of an almost literal reincarnation. When he is dead and can no longer torment the Pittses, Mary Fortune, he thinks, will perpetuate that source of gratification, since he has secretly left his property in trust to her.

From the old man's standpoint, one thing only mars this relationship. This is Pitts's periodic, sadistic beating of Mary Fortune for no apparent cause, and Mr. Fortune is enraged and made physically ill each time it occurs. For he conceives Pitts's aggression to be directed toward him, as clearly it is; "This was Pitts's revenge on him. It was as if it were he that Pitts was driving down the road to beat and as if he were the one submitting to it." And each time he confronts Mary Fortune with her "cowardice," her failure to defy her father, the child emphatically repudiates his accusation, stoutly maintaining that no one has beaten her and that "'if anyone did [she'd] kill him.'" Considering the extreme pain which Mary Fortune's humiliation and suffering cause him, it is a reasonable assumption that the old man's motives in taunting Pitts are colored by a tinge of masochism. But, whatever his unconscious motives, his conscious hatred of Pitts grows with each brutal assault upon Mary Fortune, causing him to seek ever more devilish ways of inflicting pain upon the child's father.

Clearly, affronting Pitts and his "tribe" satisfies some deep psychological need in the old man. So too does any act which reinforces his conviction that he, unlike the dull and backward Pitts, is on the side of "progress." Thus his eagerness to see a town arise on his property. As a beginning, he intends to sell the "lawn" to the owner of one of those combination roadside businesses—gas station, country store, dance hall and junk yard—which dot the Southern landscape. Tilman signifies for Mr. Fortune the resourceful man who goes boldly forward to meet the future, "the kind … who was never just in line with progress but always a little ahead of it." The narrator's description of the man is more sinister and more revealing: Tilman normally sits at the counter with folded hands, "his insignificant head weaving snake-fashion above them." Mr. Fortune may believe, when he signs the deed of sale, that he is dealing with an enlightened apostle of progress, but Flannery O'Connor suggests, rather too obviously perhaps, that he is signing a pact with the devil.

What is soon made evident is that he is signing his own death warrant as well. For in his refusal to heed his granddaughter's initial complaint that the "lawn" not only makes possible a view of the woods but also provides space where "[her] daddy grazes his calves," there is a foreshadowing of the fatal miscalculation which is destined to demolish all of Mr. Fortune's grand hopes. For the child is like him in so many ways that he is quite incapable of believing that, in this instance, her sympathies are with her "daddy." The irony of his position is perfect, since it is those very qualities which he most admires in the child—her independent spirit, her strong will, her obstinacy—which compel her to oppose him when he forces her to choose ("'Are you a Fortune,' he said, 'or are you a Pitts? Make up your mind'") between her family and him. In forcing this choice he is, in effect, asking her to submerge her individuality in his, something her spirited, self-assertive nature will not permit. Thus she responds to his challenge by saying she is "'Mary—Fortune—Pitts,'" or, in other words, herself: a Pitts, with an abundance of Fortune temperament, but finally MARY—an independent self which transcends categories and clans. The old man's shouted reply, "'Well I am PURE Fortune!'" is later echoed by the child as she sits astride his chest, having just administered him a savage pummeling: "The old man looked up into his own image. It was triumphant and hostile. 'You been whipped,' it said, 'by me' and then it added, bearing down on each word, 'and I'm PURE Pitts.'" Enraged to hear his "own image" claiming to be everything that the loathes, the old man takes the child by the throat and pounds her head on the ground, after which he "stare[s] at his conquered image."

The language of this and other passages intensifies the impression of Mark Fortune as a deeply troubled and divided man. His inordinate identification with the child clearly indicates that she fills the role of his double. Yet, when their basic interests conflict, he learns to his dismay that she embodies not only that part of himself which he admires but also another, unacknowledged and suppressed aspect of his humanity. The child stands for a quality of imagination and sensibility which can recognize in ordinary pine trees some of the glory and wonder of nature, the loss of which no amount of "progress" can compensate for. That quality, atrophied and nearly extinct in himself, still lives feebly on in the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind, and when it threatens to interfere with his conscious purposes, he acts (as if by compulsion) to destroy it. Hence his killing of Mary Fortune, while not a consciously willed act, corresponds to a profound conflict within his unconscious. Her death symbolizes a violent extirpation of a part of himself and it is indeed his own "conquered image" which he beholds as he stares at his lifeless granddaughter.

The story's imagery illumines this division within the old man's psyche. There are two primary and opposing patterns, corresponding to the two dimensions of Mr. Fortune's self. The first of these patterns consists of images of mechanisms, is associated with the old man's belief in progress, and is represented chiefly by the earth-moving machine which is digging an artificial lake. This machine is portrayed as if it were some living, mindless creature compelled endlessly to devour and then disgorge the earth. Like her grandfather, Mary Fortune is enthralled by its activities; both are depicted as "looking down into the red pit, watching the big disembodied gullet gorge itself on the clay, then, with the sound of a deep sustained nausea and a slow mechanical revulsion, turn and spit it up." The machine seems intended to symbolize a malignancy, a repulsive disease in the old man or in the dream of progress to which he is so compulsively committed. Its description as a "disembodied gullet" conjures up a picture of grotesque, unnatural voraciousness, while the phrases "sustained nausea" and "mechanical revulsion" suggest a form of nonintelligent resistance to the ceaseless gorging. Interestingly, there are links between the two symbols of "progress," the machine and the Snopes-like Tilman: both are portrayed as reptilian (Tilman as snake, the earth mover as perhaps mechanical dinosaur), both as devourers without intelligent purpose. Correspondingly, the old man's obsessive pursuit of the future, in utter disregard of the feelings of those closest to him, is an analogue of the mindless rapacity of the machine.

The images of the second pattern are drawn from nature, the central image in this configuration being the woods themselves. In contrast to the machine, the woods are pictured as lifelike, virtually human. The distinction is established early: the already examined passage describing the machine is from the story's third paragraph; in the first paragraph the reader is told that the lake construction is "bordered on [one] side by a black line of woods which appeared at both ends of the view to walk across the water." Near the middle of the story, Mary Fortune rejects her grandfather's efforts at reconciliation, all the while staring across the front lot to the distant trees and looking "into this scene as if it were a person that she preferred to him" [emphasis added]. Disgusted with her behavior, Mr. Fortune enters the house for his afternoon rest. Twice he goes to the window and each time sees "just woods."

The third time he got up to look at the woods,… the gaunt trunks appeared to be raised in a pool of red light that gushed from the almost hidden sun setting behind them. The old man stared for some time, as if for a prolonged instant he were caught up out of the rattle of everything that led to the future and were held there in the midst of an uncomfortable mystery that he had not apprehended before. He saw it, in his hallucination, as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood. After a few minutes this unpleasant vision was broken by the presence of Pitts's pick-up truck grinding to a halt below the window.

In this crucial passage it becomes apparent that, through the medium of the woods, some elemental and persistent component of reality is attempting to communicate with the old man and that he finds this inchoate communication unsettling and threatening. His fixation upon the future is momentarily suspended as a force deep within himself enters into a kind of mystical communion with a force in nature. But the mystery is too "uncomfortable" to be long endured, and the old man is soon snatched back into the safe and familiar world of mechanism by the "grinding" of Pitts's truck. The experience, however, has penetrated his defenses, the magnitude of its threat being disclosed by the extravagance of the rationalizations to which he is driven later that evening.

The conflict symbolized by the machine/woods opposition is brought to a climax in the final paragraph. Mary Fortune lies motionless on the ground; next to her lies the old man, whose heart, threatening to give way throughout the narrative, at last succumbs to the excitement of his violent encounter with the child. Again a "vision" forces itself upon his imagination and this time he perceives, too late, the meaning of the trees and machine and, thus, the meaning of his life. Feeling himself pulled along toward the water and desperate to escape the encircling woods (always, in an O'Connor story, a sign of the presence of grace), the old man imagines himself about to be enfolded by the lake's miniature waves. He remembers that he cannot swim, and then the trees, which earlier had seemed "ugly," begin to thicken "into mysterious dark files" and march away "across the water," leaving him utterly alone "except for one huge yellow monster … gorging itself on clay."

The significance of the "huge yellow monster" is evident; the symbolism of the trees requires further investigation. Sister Bernetta Quinn has written that "the woods … represent those moments of grace, of inspiration, which come to all of us from time to time." But since the old man rejects this grace, to him the woods are "first of all a vision of hell." This conclusion is undoubtedly suggested by the consummation of the old man's vision on the previous afternoon when, after looking at the woods three times, he returns to bed and then "against [his] closed lids hellish red trunks [rise] up in a black wood." Moments earlier, however, the "uncomfortable mystery" had been bodied forth in a different guise: "He saw it … as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood." In this trope and in the incident when Mary Fortune stares at the woods as though she were seeing a person, the trees take on attributes of the human. But, as Sister Bernetta's remarks imply, we seem here to be dealing with the human extended to that limit of height or depth where "human" and "divine" meet and fuse. The moment in history when this meeting was most radically concretized is recalled, I think, in the imagery of "the gaunt trees [which appear] to be raised in a pool of red light that gushed from the almost hidden sun…." But, whether it is Christ's crucifixion which is being recollected in the figure of the trees "bathed in blood" or Mary Fortune's or his own death which is being foreshadowed, the story's ending leaves no doubt that in repudiating the trees and the "grace" which they symbolize, Mr. Fortune has chosen for himself a lonely, despairing death.

This ending may be melodramatic; but, then, so also is that of Doctor Faustus. And the vision of damnation, while patently more modern than that of Marlowe's play, is scarcely less terrifying. The comparison, in fact, is not altogether gratuitous. For, like Faustus in his uncompromising pursuit of knowledge and power, Mr. Fortune allows his blind passion for the dream of "progress" to destroy the agents necessary for the realization of that dream—Mary Fortune and himself. But his true tragedy (and again the analogy with Faustus is surprisingly apt) resides in the fact that his dream is of such a nature that its "success" depends upon the destruction of a faculty within himself which, though suppressed and underdeveloped, is nevertheless essential for his existence as a whole human being. Only in his dying moments, when the "gaunt trees" have "thickened into mysterious dark files," only when these signs of the deep mystery surrounding man's life (and invulnerable to his rapacious gorging) have deserted him, does Mark Fortune come to a full recognition of the sterility and dehumanized bleakness of his dream.

Almost every critic who has commented on Flannery O'Connor's novella "The Lame Shall Enter First" has noted its similarities to The Violent Bear It Away, published two years earlier. In the shorter work the trio of characters from the novel—Rayber, Bishop, and Tarwater—are metamorphosed into a social worker, Sheppard, his not overly bright child, Norton, and Rufus Johnson, a clubfooted juvenile delinquent with a missionary zeal to expose his "tin Jesus" benefactor for the sham that he is. As in the novel, the child dies, the rebellious teen-ager wins the struggle with the "positivist" adult, while the latter discovers, in a convulsive moment of self-revelation, the hollowness of his soul.

In other ways, too, the works are alike: Sheppard shares Rayber's belief in the power of rational understanding over irrational impulse, and the action of the story is generated, in large part, by his effort to prove true Rayber's dictum that "[w]hat we understand we can control." Rufus, the recalcitrant youth, like Tarwater, has imbibed from a fanatical grandfather a great religious passion, though in his case the satanical and criminal element is overt and pronounced. To Sheppard's bland assertions that Rufus can make of himself anything he sets his mind to, the boy retorts, tauntingly and mockingly, "'Satan … has me in his power.'" Rufus also differs from Tarwater in another respect, for he is without any ambivalence toward his would-be "savior": from the beginning he feels only contempt, and when he does occasionally express toward Sheppard some slight trust and affection, he is all the while slyly baiting a trap.

There are other important ways in which the two works differ, one of the chief being the nature of the central conflict in each. As we saw, the Rayber-Tarwater conflict involves principally the clash of a positivist world view and an understanding of reality which allows for something "left over" after man's abstracting intellect has exhausted its potency. This theme is also present in "The Lame Shall Enter First," but the novella is much more than a simple reworking of the material of the novel. At bottom, the conflict of the later story is the conflict of faith versus works, even though the faith is a demonic one and the works are secular in character.

As his name suggests, Sheppard is a man desirous of being a pastor, though not of course in the conventional sense. For Christianity or any other system of religious belief he feels nothing but scorn. At the reformatory where he devotes his Saturdays to counseling wayward boys, he encounters his first prospective follower, Rufus Johnson—a wild, sullen, Satan-dominated grandson of a zealous "prophet." Rufus seems a compulsive criminal, and since he has a monstrous clubfoot, Sheppard immediately concludes that the boy's rebellion can be explained simply as compensation for feelings of inferiority. Sheppard also learns that Rufus has been brutally beaten by his grandfather and subjected to general neglect; therefore, when Rufus is paroled, Sheppard determines to befriend the boy, hoping to win his confidence and affection by giving him the "advantages" of a home and a loving parent.

As the story unfolds, the ambiguity of Sheppard's motives quickly becomes apparent. Not only does he consider himself a kind of surrogate priest, listening to the "confessions" of troubled teen-agers in a narrow, cramped office at the reformatory, but, having turned what he calls his unselfishness into a surrogate religion, he makes a fetish of self-denial, sleeping in "an ascetic-looking iron bed" in an uncarpeted room. For his work at the reformatory he receives no monetary compensation, and it is obvious that, in order for Sheppard to derive from it the psychic benefits he needs, his work must be done without pay. In this way he can maintain the fiction that he is "helping boys no one else care[s] about" and "receiving nothing" in return.

Driven as he is by the need to have continually before him an image of himself as "good" and unselfish, Sheppard is constantly annoyed by his son Norton, who hoards money and understands only one sense of sharing—his being given part of something that belongs to someone else. Sheppard contemplates with disgust the likelihood of Norton becoming a banker or, even worse, the manager of a loan company; and since Norton appears to be decidedly inferior to Rufus in intelligence, Sheppard virtually dismisses his son as an object worthy of his attention. Norton thereafter becomes a pawn in the struggle which develops between Sheppard and Rufus, once the delinquent accepts Sheppard's invitation to come and share their home.

The story's opening scene unveils Sheppard's confused attitudes toward the two boys. As the father sits eating breakfast cereal "mechanically," Norton wanders about the kitchen in search of a breakfast of his own—stale cake spread with peanut butter and ketchup. Sheppard lectures the boy on Rufus's pitiable condition (his mother is in the penitentiary and he must search for food in garbage cans) and suggests to Norton that he share his hoarded wealth with the delinquent, perhaps buying him a new shoe for his clubfoot. The boy is threatened, becomes agitated, and vomits—"a limp sweet batter." Sheppard is overcome by a sense of the injustice of things—the intelligent Rufus "deprived of everything from birth" and the uninspiring "average or below average" Norton who "had had every advantage." Of course, far from having had every advantage, Norton is utterly starved for love, love which Sheppard is incapable of giving him for two distinct but related reasons. First, Sheppard's need to be good and unselfish is so obsessive that it can only be satisfied when he helps those who have no right to expect his help. Given his psychological make-up, Sheppard is inevitably blind to the needs of those closest to him; he neglects Norton, because his desire to be "good" springs from an emptiness in himself which can only be filled by gratuitous deeds of charity in behalf of the world's suffering and underprivileged. His son Norton has a claim upon him, and hence no particular "merit" attaches to anything he may do for the boy. Thus he feels deep sympathy for Rufus who must scavenge for his food, but none at all for his own child who must make a breakfast of ketchup and stale cake. He laments the fate of a boy whose mother is in the penitentiary, but is without pity for his own son's longing for his dead mother. He is sensitive to the psychological scarring which he imagines Johnson's clubfoot has caused, while oblivious to the desperate loneliness of Norton.

The second reason for Sheppard's failure as a father is that, treating the human and the intellectual as interchangeable quantities, he imposes upon the living reality of his child an abstract image; then he responds to the image he has created rather than to the actual boy. Norton is selfish and he is (or appears to be) dull. But he is dull largely because of Sheppard's refusal to treat him as a significant human being. (It is important to note that Rufus awakens much that is repressed in Norton, who seems brighter, livelier toward the story's end; even Sheppard, myopic as he is, discovers in Norton's eyes an alertness which he had not noticed before.)

As he fails to see Norton except as a creation of his mind, so also does Sheppard refuse to see the real Rufus. The flesh and blood Rufus tells him that he commits crimes because he's "good at it," but Sheppard insists upon interpreting the boy's behavior according to textbook psychology. Rufus declares that he is in Satan's power, but because his intellectual system has made no provision for the demonic, Sheppard must reject this notion with an outraged cry of "'Rubbish!'" And, when Rufus speaks of heaven and hell as real places to which people go in an afterlife, Sheppard responds by assuring Rufus that he considers him "too intelligent" to believe such nonsense. Because Sheppard has attempted to force reality to conform to an intellectual construct of his own creation, intelligence is for him the decisive factor of human existence. Therefore, Rufus is a more "interesting" specimen of humanity than Norton.

It is his inordinate faith in reason which prevents Sheppard from understanding the power of feeling. He knows, of course, that Rufus possesses feelings of aggression; but because of his idée fixe that the source of these feelings is the clubfoot, Sheppard is incapable of taking seriously the boy's outrage at his self-righteousness and his propensity for playing God. Most importantly, Sheppard's obtuseness extends to his own feelings and to the motivation for his behavior. Convinced as he is that he is "good" and that he is "'stronger than [Rufus],'" Sheppard is shocked when he discovers that he can hate and is utterly confounded by the realization that, before the determined lucidity of Rufus's vision of damnation-with-the-possibility-of-salvation, his own self-serving "goodness" is as fragile as a paper doll's house.

The depth of Sheppard's confusion about his own feelings is revealed in the first episode involving Rufus and the police. Just prior to the arrival of the officers who come to arrest Rufus for a "smash job," Sheppard discovers the boy's absence and decides that his method of dealing with his protégé has been less successful than he had anticipated: "He had been over-lenient, too concerned to have Johnson like him. He felt a twinge of guilt." For a moment Sheppard determines to lay down strict rules for Rufus. But when he realizes that Rufus's response will be merely another assertion of independence and a threat to walk out, Sheppard panics: "Oh my God, he thought. He could not bring it to that. He would have to be firm but not make an issue of it." Sheppard obviously is much "too concerned to have Johnson like him" to force the unambiguous understanding which the boy might respect. Yet the twinge of guilt is sufficient to cause Sheppard to fail Rufus at the one point in the story when the boy's confidence might have been won. As the police prepare to take Rufus off to jail, the boy denies knowledge of the crime and turns to his benefactor and protector and asks, "You believe me, don't you?"

There was an appeal in his voice that Sheppard had not heard there before.

This was crucial. The boy would have to learn that he could not be protected when he was guilty. "You'll have to go with him, Rufus," he said.

"You're going to let him take me and I tell you I ain't done a thing?" Johnson said shrilly.

Sheppard's face became harder as his sense of injury grew. The boy had failed him even before he had had a chance to give him the shoe. They were to have got it tomorrow. All his regret turned suddenly on the shoe; his irritation at the sight of Johnson doubled [emphasis added].

Rufus is guilty, and, as we subsequently learn, he wants Sheppard to vouch for him so that he can ultimately compromise and expose this man who is determined to "save" him. The significance of this episode should not be underestimated, since it renders unmistakably clear that weakness in Sheppard which makes him an easy prey for Johnson's malice: Sheppard is so completely a captive of his confused feelings and his voracious hunger for ego satisfaction that he is incapable of dealing with any situation except in terms of its capacity to minister to his psychological needs. Thus, out of shame, he abdicates the little authority he has heretofore maintained over the boy, when he learns the following day that the police have arrested someone else for the crime and are releasing Rufus. Later, when Johnson rejects the new shoe with the scornful comment, "'I don't need no new shoe….' 'And when I do, I got ways of getting my own,'" Sheppard's response to this new rebuff confirms our image of him as a man totally incapable of responding to life except on the level of childish demands for ego gratification and equally childish petulance when those demands are frustrated.

He wanted to recover his good humor, but every time he thought of the rejected shoe, he felt a new charge of irritation. He did not trust himself even to look at Johnson. He realized that the boy had refused the shoe because he was insecure. Johnson had been frightened by his own gratitude…. Grudgingly, Sheppard felt a slight return of sympathy for the boy. In a few minutes, he lowered his paper and looked at him [emphases added].

Here by skillfully interweaving Sheppard's attempted analysis of Johnson's psychological problems and intimations of Sheppard's failure to see his own psychological shortcomings as equally damaging, Flannery O'Connor underscores this mock-pastor's moral and spiritual blindness. In Sheppard, Miss O'Connor has created a classic example of one form of "bad faith" as defined in existentialist philosophy—the detached observer or manipulator who refuses to acknowledge that he is part of the problem he is trying to analyze.

Because he treats the boy with a condescension rooted in nothing more substantial than his limitless faith in reason, Sheppard's image of himself is destined to be shaken to its very foundations when he discovers the implacable reality of Johnson's dedication to evil. Like many of Miss O'Connor's earlier protagonists, both among the positivists and the positive thinkers, Sheppard commits the fatal error of supposing that good and evil are only words, denoting alternative conditioned responses to social reality. From this it follows that he should assume that it is intelligence which can free man (Rufus) from "evil" responses, just as he believes that he himself is too intelligent to be evil. Hence, because he considers Rufus endowed with intelligence equal to his own, he persists in maintaining—in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary—that the boy is "too intelligent" to commit the crimes which the police attribute to him. Only at the last, when Rufus has confessed to being the culprit, has allowed himself to be caught, and has (falsely) accused Sheppard o making "[i]morr'l suggestions"—only then does Sheppard recognize the impotence of his philosophy that man can make of himself anything he wishes, by virtue of intellect alone.

In one respect, Sheppard is correct about Rufus; the boy is intelligent, so much so, in fact, that he immediately perceives that Sheppard's supposedly humanitarian interest in others is in reality a form of self-aggrandizement (cf. Julian of "Everything That Rises"). Therefore, Rufus insists upon being what he is, rather than a creature of Sheppard's theories. He is obstinate, vindictive, malicious, ungrateful, unregenerate—all these and more. In him we encounter once again the criminal-compulsive who so often serves as a spokesman for the author's most deeply felt convictions. Like that earlier prototype, The Misfit, Rufus declares that man faces a choice between Jesus and the devil; but Rufus's faith in both the divine and the satanic is less anxiety-ridden, more rooted in positive conviction. He revels in his depravity while at the same time maintaining that "'[n]obody can save [him] but Jesus'" and that if and when he does repent, he is going "'to be a preacher,'" because "'If you're going to do it, it's no sense in doing it halfway.'" Here Rufus sounds very much like Tarwater, whom he resembles in other respects, principally, I think, in the clarity of his understanding of the relation of act and consequence and in his unswerving insistence upon the primacy of will over reason.

Near the story's conclusion, as Johnson is about to be taken off to jail, he shouts: "'I lie and steal because I'm good at it! My foot don't have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first! The halt'll be gathered together. When I get ready to be saved, Jesus'll save me, not that lying stinking atheist.'" This outburst causes Sheppard to reflect: "'I have nothing to reproach myself with.'" Then, as he counts over his "selfless" acts of devotion to the cause of "sav[ing] Johnson for some decent kind of service," there reverberates through his mind, like the drumbeat of an attacking enemy force, the words, "'I did more for him than I did for my own child.'" Immediately, in a crescendo of revelation, Sheppard hears the "jubilant voice" of Rufus shouting, "'Satan has you in his power,'" and at that moment, in the boy's mocking eyes, Sheppard sees an image of "the clear-eyed Devil," malicious and triumphant.

Norton's face rose before him, empty, forlorn…. His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself…. His image of himself shrivelled until everything was black before him. He sat there paralyzed, aghast.

At this instant, Sheppard experiences a wave of "agonizing love" for his son, only to discover the boy hanging from a rafter in the attic where "he had launched his flight into space."

Sheppard's failure as a human being is figured here with exquisite irony, since it had been his ambition that his son become an astronaut, conquering space and exploring the stars. But Norton has responded instead to Rufus's very concrete, vivid and immediate faith in heaven and hell, remaining impervious to Sheppard's lectures about the glories of science and man's penetration of the darkness of the universe. Affirming his own humanity, Norton chooses to join his mother, whom he believes he has sighted in heaven (through the telescope Sheppard had bought principally to interest Rufus in science!), in preference to continuing his empty existence with the man who has given him "every advantage." It is Sheppard who at last begins to penetrate the darkness, not of outer space but of his own heart. Perhaps Sheppard is too much of a caricature to be fully believable; and perhaps for this reason he cannot be considered a tragic figure. Yet this story has about it an ironic fatality as beautifully contrived and as inexorable as that of any Greek tragedy.

Not the least of the virtues of this tale is the clarity with which Flannery O'Connor has portrayed the manner in which a passionate belief in the truth of the divine Word may exist simultaneously with a passionate commitment to the demonic principle. (Rufus swallows a page from the Bible and cries, "'I've eaten it like Ezekiel and it was honey to my mouth!'" On the other hand, the success of his lying and stealing is a source of immense satisfaction to him, and he assumes the role of Satan's helper with a gusto which is breathtaking.) Rufus has been described as "a basic figure in modern existentialist literature—the criminal who is seeking God," and has been compared to Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov. The comparison is in many respects apt, not so much because of a resemblance uniting the two characters as such, but because of the basic similarity of the religious or metaphysical questions explored in Crime and Punishment and in Flannery O'Connor's novella. Rufus's clubfoot clearly symbolizes a crisis of the spirit not unlike that by which Dostoevsky's hero is afflicted, and the experiences of both Raskolnikov and Rufus suggest that at certain stages in the disintegration of a spiritual tradition, it is only through apparent dedication to the devil and through motiveless crime that a new, authentic humanity can be born.

This notion of commitment to the satanic principle illumines certain features of Miss O'Connor's work that have long been problematic. That the devil plays a conspicuous role in her fiction there is no denying, and one sympathetic commentator has suggested that Flannery O'Connor's authorial voice and that of her devil often appear indistinguishable. From this observation John Hawkes concluded that, whether she was conscious of it or not, "as writer [Flannery O'Connor] was on the devil's side." Granting the truth of Hawkes's description of her authorial stance as sometimes "black," and of the creative impulse in her writing as often "so unflagging and so unpredictable as to become, in a sense, 'immoral,'" I believe Miss O'Connor's attraction to the demonic can better be explained as part of that metaphysical enterprise mentioned in Chapter One—the quest of being and the Holy. For it appears to have been one of her cardinal beliefs that without a recovery of the demonic there could be no true "rediscovery of man." As we have seen in our examination of such characters as Mrs. Cope, the grandmother, and Sheppard, O'Connor's fiction projects an image of man who has lost so completely his capacity for apprehending true evil that he is equally incapable of recognizing true good. And his addiction to superficial and platitudinous conceptions of both good and evil seems the consequence of a loss even more profound—the experience of the self as grounded in being.

Both O'Connor's positivists and her positive thinkers, then, like the "faithless pilgrims" of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, suffer from a malaise which is, at bottom, ontological. Dispossessed both of their original innocence and of their postlapsarian knowledge, they seek, however unconsciously, a way back into being. But the way to being is fraught with peril, since it entails confronting the irrational and destructive aspects of the self, facing up to the ugliness and cruelty of life, exploring that foul "dungeon of the heart," which Hawthorne, Dostoevsky and other spiritual forefathers of Flannery O'Connor considered of the essence of human existence but which centuries of moralistic Christianity and bourgeois culture have tended to deny or obscure.

Thus when Flannery O'Connor set out to represent "the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it which we breathe in with the air of the times," she in fact created a body of fiction one of whose major accomplishments is to present a persuasive dramatic case for the reality of the demonic. But belief in the demonic is only one step from belief in the Holy, for the two stand, so Paul Tillich has argued, in dialectical relation to each other. ("The divine," Tillich states, "embraces itself and the demonic," and he talks of "divine holiness" and "demonic holiness.") Flannery O'Connor's intention, apparently, was to render intelligible the concept of demonic holiness as a way of affirming the reality of holiness itself, and in so doing to bear witness to some depth reality, some "ground of Being" (to borrow another phrase from Tillich), where both the demonic and the Holy reside and out of which man's own being emerges.

Flannery O'Connor, it might finally be argued, sought to recover the depth dimension of existence in order to adumbrate an answer to the "ontological void" posited by Ionesco and other contemporary artists and philosophers. But she recognized that the recovery of depth, or being, was possible only by stripping the masks from men whose fraudulent righteousness had rendered them too complacent even to be damned. Therefore her strategy as a writer was to make as vivid as possible the reality of the demonic, to celebrate, as it were, "spiritual crime," to employ the shock of evil over and over again, in the hope that, finally, by plunging into those fearful psychic depths she might bring up some evidence that, in a time marked by moral chaos and ontological deprivation, it was yet being, not absurdity, which would have the last word.

John V. McDermott (essay date Spring 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2698

SOURCE: "Julian's Journey into Hell: Flannery O'Connor's Allegory of Pride," in Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 171-9.

[In the following essay, McDermott discusses Julian and his loss of faith in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge."]

In Flannery O'Connor's abrasive allegory "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian Chestny runs vainly from his soul's imminent dissolution as the story reaches its inevitable climax. The fact that Julian "had lost his faith" is proven conclusively in the story's final scenes, where "his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow" is nothing less than his entrance into the world of hell, and where his pride, now dethroned, seeks to flee from the crippling abject image it finally has of itself.

The essential inevitability of the climax is an integral part of the studied structure of the work, which in its compactly interwoven, parable-like form makes one realize that nearly every incident is symbolic in action, and that there is in fact a chain reaction, imperative in essence, where one sees one action precipitate another, in an unremittingly lethal fashion, for the unfortunate characters who are involved in its enactment.

In opposition to the profoundly pessimistic conclusion concerning the final, pitiful condition of Julian's soul that I have reached are Leon V. Driskell and Joan T. Brittain, who grow rather optimistic and feel that "Julian … [when] brought face to face with his own weaknesses must learn to acknowledge reality" and that consequently "the moment of truth can offer nothing but hope."

But to judge the story in this way is to deny completely Miss O'Connor's recognition of "the interpenetration of the real and the ideal" and the fact that she did not divide "the world into [the] ideal and reality." If this is so, then to judge her story on the singular level of "transcendence" is to pronounce the separation "of the real and the ideal" rather than to stress their "interpenetration." To think of the story in these terms is to place it strictly in "the province of thought," and in doing that we must deny every word, thought and deed that makes the story what it is—an allegory that reveals how man, through excessive pride, may lose all touch with reality and, in the subsequent process, destroy himself.

Certainly to ignore "Julian's treatment of his mother [as] beside the point" is to ignore the major theme of the story, which shows Julian, as the personification of pride, dooming himself because of the gradual and insidious inversion of his living soul; for rather than reaching out to others, he turns more and more toward the center of himself as the story progresses. His role in his mother's death causes him finally to move not on a "horizontal … treadmill" toward de Chardin's "point omega" but rather in a self-centered, solitary orbit where his pride-driven soul can only ultimately disintegrate in its terrifying, lonely subjectivity. His words and actions after his mother's death clearly reveal his knowledge of himself as a "cause" in her death, and his knowledge of this makes him frighteningly aware of the "evil" within himself. His reactions are inconsistent with any idea of "transcendence" where, at the point of full "convergence or growth" such ideas as "cause and effect … 'good' and 'evil'" have no meaning. In contrast, these reactions are filled with ominous portent.

Another critic who feels optimistic about Julian's final fate is Carter W. Martin, who says that Julian "crosses over into maturity and knowledge" as the story concludes. It is my contention, however, that Julian fits into the category of those of Miss O'Connor's characters whom Sister Bertrande D.C. Meyers describes as "people with a defective sense of spiritual purpose," and thematically the story itself seems to center on the idea of "'un-Redemption,' the warping evil of unaided human nature." As Robert Drake perceptively notes, Miss O'Connor's "characters prepare their own ends…. She refuses to let them off the hook by interfering with the consequences of their actions." Julian, I feel, is one of the characters whom Miss O'Connor "refuses to let … off the hook." His pride is so consuming that it prevents him from seeing the erosive effect it has on his spirit. It is not so much that he "painfully discovers … the history of the world progresses at the same time in the line of evil and in the line of good"; rather, his terror at the end is caused by the shock of his realization that he does not truly know himself. His self-righteous self-image having been destroyed by the sudden, jarring awareness of what he has done to his mother, he is left with only the figure and appearance of a man. He finally sees himself in the naked light of truth and cringes at the sight, since, in his case, the truth represents the corrosive and hideous alternates of beauty and goodness.

To comprehend the story fully and give it its just due one must keep in mind Miss O'Connor's precise use of "anagogical vision," that insight which enables her "to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation." In considering one of the story's significant final scenes, the "nothing" that Mrs. Chestny sees, as her eyes "rake" her son's soul, is the equivalent of the total absence of goodness in Julian's now vacuous spirit. His life spirit, having been warped by pride, has become irreparably shattered, and his pathetic cry for help is without true fervor or substance; it is, as Miss O'Connor writes, "thin, scarcely a tread of sound." In this mournful conclusion we see the "lights" drifting from him and "the tide of darkness" sweeping him up. He has indeed become one of the living dead.

Because Julian has lost his soul, his physical nature reacts without purpose ("his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere"), and it is as if his pride, having risen and converged upon itself, suddenly realized the hollow void upon which it had built itself. Indeed his pride throughout the story was simply the mask, or "mental bubble," which had helped him escape the reality of himself. It was the castle of illusion he could go to without walking "with his hands … in his pockets and his head" (if not literally, at least psychologically) down. It was the fantasy world he fled to, to escape from his binding feelings of self-inadequacy. Indeed throughout the entire story he moves about in a climate "saturated in depression."

In reaching a conclusion such as the one I have drawn, one must first remember Julian's initial reaction to his mother's frightening collapse. We are made not only to see but to hear his bitter reaction: "He stood over her for a minute, gritting his teeth … 'You got exactly what you deserved,… now get up.'" And in the terrifying moment before her final breath Julian's seemingly tender call of "Darling, sweetheart, wait!" is met by his mother's unerring eye, the eye of the "heart" which "remained fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed." Thus the empty reality which he had become was unbearable to his mother. She realized his cries were generated, not out of his love for her, but out of fear for his own hopeless state. She recognized that he was devoid of life because love for him, like "darling" and "sweetheart," were merely hollow sounds. He runs in terror at the end from the fleeting monstrous image he glimpses of himself, and, like his mother, closes his eyes to it. His "post-poning from moment to moment" will evolve into a perpetual state for him. He has become at the end a completely lost soul.

If one is to see Julian clearly, however, he must note the close association Julian has with the black woman. As an allegorical figure she represents very dramatically the violent and acrimonious nature of Julian's seethingly hostile mind. Josephine Hendin is correct when she says "the black woman … fulfills Julian's fantasies of revolt," for the woman is simply the personification of his active and malignant imagination.

From the beginning the black woman is at one with him in spirit. They both reflect strong and obvious contempt for their fellow man: "The downward tilt of her large lower lip was like a warning sign: DON'T TAMPER WITH ME." This is simply the counterpart of Julian, whom we see "establish himself in … a kind of mental bubble … when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him." His pernicious imagination which "began to imagine various unlikely ways by which he could teach [his mother] a lesson" makes him a kindred spirit to the black woman. She personifies the insidious gradations of his angry mind. "He was conscious of a kind of bristling next to him, a muted growling like that of an angry cat." And whereas she reflects man's inclination to react in violent passion, Julian, on the level of idle fantasy, represents man's equally treacherous tendency to destroy by passive indifference. "He studied [his mother] coldly…. He felt completely detached from her. At that moment he could with pleasure have slapped at her as he would have slapped a particularly obnoxious child in his charge." But what Julian only thinks, the black woman finally does, for as the symbol of his violent imagination, she rumbles "like a volcano about to become active." The frenzied woman's attack is indeed shocking to his mother, but it is not this woman's act of violence that causes Mrs. Chestny's final collapse; rather, it is Julian's reaction to the attack—"You got exactly what you deserved"—that totally destroys her spirit. Searching for the familial reality of love, Mrs. Chestny let "her eyes [rake] his face, [but] she found nothing familiar about him." Later, and with the author's obvious emphasis, we read that she "raked his face again [but] she found nothing and closed [her eyes]." The black woman, then, is basically the allegorical figure of Julian's fury, which he has always prided himself in being in rigid control of, like the martyr St. Sebastian.

In considering Julian's plight one must take careful note that the spirit of evil has not, like some powerful incarnate force, overcome this pathetic figure against his will. Rather, he has obviously exercised free choice. We note that on the fateful bus ride it was his deliberate choice to leave his mother's side, and thereby later afford the Negro woman the opportunity to sit by his side. "Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals. From this position, he looked serenely across at his mother…. He stared at her, making his eyes the eyes of a stranger. He felt his tension suddenly lift as if he had openly declared war on her"; at this moment he was indeed preparing his own end.

In considering the precise role of the Negro woman in the story Miss Hendin feels that she may be considered a "heroine" who reaches "a sudden, cataclysmic maturity." She feels that Julian is "powerless before the black woman's violence." But this is true only to the extent that his will has finally surrendered to his dark, angry thoughts. He is not "powerless" because he is the black woman's fearful enemy; rather he is "powerless" because he is her true ally. She represents, in indelible terms, the volcanic part of his nature that has finally erupted and converged upon his reason. That is why his mother fails to recognize him, and why, after her death, he refuses to recognize himself.

In keeping with the sustained symbolism of the story, we note the subtle biblical references to the devil that further ally Julian to the Negro woman: "He was tilted out of his fantasy again as the bus stopped. The door opened with a sucking hiss and out of the dark a … sullen-looking colored woman got on." A short time later we note that just before leaving the bus, Julian reacts to his mother's desirc "to give the little boy a nickel…. 'No!' Julian hissed. 'No.'" And finally we see them leave the bus together: "He reached up and pulled the cord. The woman reached up and pulled it at the same time." Thus as the allegorical embodiment of his anguished mind, the Negro woman acts in perfect consonance with him.

In touching on the true spiritual level of the story, we see that Miss O'Connor is not interested in forced brotherhood, in integration on the physical, surface level where men are forced by executive order to bend their wills to the laws of the land. In his essay on Miss O'Connor, Stanley Edgar Hyman stresses the theme of social integration by saying that "the characters, a travesty segregationist mother and a travesty integrationist son, are not adequate to the finely structured action." And later, "Integrationism is savagely travestied as sentimental and fatuous in Julian … and the opposing view just as savagely travestied in the mother." But this interpretation, I feel, tends to belabor the obvious and ignore the allegorical intent of the story, for Miss O'Connor is interested only in a true integration of the spirit, an integration, freely given, by which man allies himself to his fellow man out of love. What one sees in this story is exactly the opposite. Here the atmosphere is permeated not by love, but by an imperative chain of selfishness and fear, which produces in each man's heart a feeling of hatred, born out of wounded pride; for when one thinks only of the self, there can be no reciprocity of affection. Each person on the bus tries desperately to shield and preserve his own self-image, but in so doing tends to isolate himself. "The Negro … immediately unfolded a newspaper and obscured himself behind it"; "[t]he woman with the red and white canvas sandals had risen at the same time the Negro sat down and had gone further back in the bus …"; "Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals." Each person then tends to display and personify distrust, fear and hatred, and Julian's desire to sit by the Negro's side is motivated not by brotherly love, but by his desire to "declare war" on his mother.

The story, in keeping with its oppressive tone and theme, begins and ends in darkness. The entire landscape is bathed in colors pertinent to the theme of Christian death. We read that "the sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it" and, in the dire conclusion that immediately precedes Mrs. Chestny's physical death and Julian's spiritual demise, that "Rising above them on either side were black apartment buildings, marked with irregular rectangles of light." And then, in the very next sentence, we see what can only be interpreted as a final, comprehensive symbol of man's divided heart: "At the end of the block a man came out of a door and walked off in the opposite direction," leaving Julian and his mother to their isolated problem. This gesture is indeed symbolic of what happens when man locks himself in his own world and takes pernicious delight in excluding others. And it is fairly evident that throughout the story Julian's wounded pride thrived on offending others by excluding them. We see he longed to feel "free of the general idiocy of his fellows," but he focused and intensified this feeling of antipathy on his mother; "he had ceased to recognize her existence." To his great sorrow, she later does the same thing to him; "trying to determine his identity …, she found nothing familiar about him." She finally closes her eyes on him, and, in guilt, he tries to do the same thing to himself. His earlier taunt to his mother, "You aren't who you think you are" proves ironically and direfully prophetic when finally applied to himself. He is at the end a man without a "voice" or "identity"; he has become "nothing" where it elicits the deepest pain—in his own mind.

Robert D. Denham (essay date Autumn 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3015

SOURCE: "The World of Guilt and Sorrow: Flannery O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, Vol. IV, Autumn, 1975, pp. 42-51.

[In the following essay, Denham discusses O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" as a journey towards Julian's growth, and asserts that the bus scene serves to make Julian unsympathetic and provides the means for the story's climax.]

"In the act of writing," says Flannery O'Connor, "one sees that the way a thing is made controls and is inseparable from the whole meaning of it. The form of a story gives it meaning which any other form would change." She adds that unless the reader "is able, in some degree, to apprehend the form, he will never apprehend anything else about the work, except what is extrinsic to it as literature." These statements imply a neatly capsulated set of principles for one kind of critical inquiry, the kind which seeks to explain a fictional whole not only in terms of its parts but also in relation to the reader's apprehension of the story's shaping principle. Miss O'Connor's brief statement, in fact, closely parallels R. S. Crane's Neo-Aristotelian argument about causal inquiry as a method of criticism. Crane contends that in order to speak critically about any one part of literary work it is first necessary to determine its "essential cause." This cause, he argues, is the writer's primary intuition of form, an intuition which will enable him to synthesize his materials into a unified whole and which, in turn, will correspond to the reader's experience of the work. In other words, we cannot determine the function of the individual parts of a story without a prior induction from the story itself of a shaping principle which, in what Crane calls "imitative" works, has the power to affect our emotions in a certain way. The starting point, therefore, in this kind of inquiry, would be a description of the moral and emotional qualities which characterize our experience as readers, the assumption being that if we have read carefully and sensitively, our experience will coincide closely with the shaping principle of the whole. This is what Miss O'Connor means, I think, when she says that we must be able to "apprehend the form" before we can "apprehend anything else about the work"; which is to say that the relationship between the way a thing is made and its shaping form is an integral one. It is this shaping form, according to Crane, which we as readers, by reasoning backward from effect to cause, can use to make explicit the function of any part of a well-made story.

Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" can be read from the perspective of these general principles. This is not to suggest, of course, that other views are not possible. Perhaps the most frequent readings of the story have derived from the thematic perspective and have aimed to show the relationship of O'Connor's fiction to something else. Although thematic principles and analogical methods make for legitimate critical inquiry, they are not calculated to shed much light on the particular shape of an individual story as this is reconstructed by formal analysis. All I am suggesting therefore, is that we can account for the form which gives the story meaning by beginning with the plot as experienced, that is, by beginning with the affective reaction which our experience of the story forces upon us. If we then take this response as related to the synthesizing or shaping of the whole, we can use it to explain some of the narrative choices Flannery O'Connor made in developing the story.

Our experience of "Everything That Rises" is primarily a reversal of our expectations and desires for the principal characters and a change in attitude toward them. Standing at the center of the action is Julian, a disheartened, cynical, confused, misanthropic young man. He habitually uses his sense of moral superiority to elevate himself and thereby judge the inadequacies of others. Playing the intellectual sophisticate, he sees his task as instructing the unenlightened, especially his mother, in the ways of "true culture"; and for Julian true culture is always defined in terms of "the mind." He is, in short, a self-pitying malcontent who enjoys the role of martyr and who treats his mother with an unrelenting contempt, offering her no love or sympathy and delighting in her discomfort. Only twice does he waver from what he is shown everywhere else to be: first, in one of his initial reveries, when he longs for the old Chestny mansion; and later, on the bus, when he senses his mother's innocence. But in each case the real Julian quickly emerges.

Julian's mother, on the other hand, is a poor, struggling widow, who has sacrificed her own well-being for her son's education and who sees him now, with diploma in hand, reduced to peddling typewriters. Naive in outlook and understanding, she sees her identity in terms of a glamorous but lost past, truth in terms of the platitudinous cliché, "true culture" in terms of "the heart," and success in terms of social melioration. Her concern is genuine but her vision is limited.

These are the two characters whose conflict Miss O'Connor plays out before us in three scenes. In the first scene, Julian's depression, occasioned by his mother's rather outlandish garb, erupts eventually into a string of contemptuous rejoinders at her efforts at conversation. At every point mother and son are diametrically opposed, whether the issue be the purple and green hat, or the remembrance of things past, or the "rise" of the Negro. The conflict is developed further in the bus scene, where their attitudes about the racial question, prepared for in scene one, become the central issue. Here, Julian's gambit with the Negro man having failed, talk subsides as mother and son engage in a game of glances. The narrator's intrusions into Julian's mind at this point show us most clearly the shallowness and pretension of his intellectualism. His efforts to atone for his mother's racial prejudice are sham, since his motivation to dramatize her pettiness precludes any humane concern, even though he postures such concern. The climax of the second episode, and of the story itself, comes in the encounter with the Negro woman, everything that rises converging figuratively in the recognition by Julian's mother that she and the Negro woman are wearing the same hat; and converging literally, moments later, with the impact of the black woman's fist.

What occurs in the final moving scene is Julian's discovery: the recognition which issues in his change of character. His perverse intellectualism suddenly pales before the stark reality of his mother's death; so that his futile, yet tender, cry to her, just before she crumples to the pavement, makes mockery of his earlier testimony that "instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free from her and could see her with complete objectivity." But now, the terrifying moment becomes for Julian an epiphany, dissolving the vanity in his assertion of emotional freedom and melting his contempt. His cries for help suggest not merely the panic of the moment, effacing his earlier claim of fearlessness; they suggest also his desperate awareness of the dark state of his own soul. The final words of the narrator, which show Julian on the threshold of "the world of guilt and sorrow," make explicit his discovery. Recognition and reversal are coincident, and the change which comes from Julian's new knowledge is imminent.

What Flannery O'Connor has done in the final moving scene is crucial in the description of our overall experience of the story; for it is here that what I have referred to as the reversal of our expectations, desires, and attitudes is forced upon us. By carefully controlling our feelings about the two characters, Miss O'Connor has turned upside down what we have been made to feel up to this point. Our experience is one of agreeable astonishment, in that a young man, who has knowingly done evil and yet who is unaware of the pretension in his moral posturing, encounters a shocking event that changes his moral nature: it alters the attitude toward the evil he has done wittingly and deflates his unconscious moral egoism. Our experience, in the first place, is agreeable, in that an unsympathetic character, one whose actions and thoughts have aroused our moral indignation, has changed in such a way that our reaction of vexed displeasure toward him has become understanding; our disapprobation, sympathy. In short, the change in Julian's character is for the better, and we are gratified by the moral reversal. Our experience, in the second place, is one of astonishment, in that within Julian's character there has been too much which is unredeemed for us to desire this moral change and too little which is redeeming for us to expect it. Rather, what we expect and desire until the reversal occurs is something quite singular: the belief that poetic justice will be served if Julian is somehow punished.

In the case of Julian's mother, we experience quite the opposite effect: something neither unexpected nor agreeable. Her moral nature throughout the story has caused reactions more sympathetic than our response to Julian; and this is due to the fact that her shortcomings are less vicious and blameworthy, since they derive from unconscious prejudice and naivete. In other words, she is more innocent than Julian, and our feeling toward her at the end is one of pathos. She is a pitiable, unknowing victim, struck down before moral change becomes an option. And thus our response to her fate is the reverse of that satisfaction we find in Julian's imminent new understanding.

Precisely what happens to Julian's mother is significant, for it qualifies our reaction not only to her fate but also, and more importantly, to Julian's. I have spoken of the death of Julian's mother, even though there is no explicit statement to this effect. But we must assume, I think, that when her eye closes having raked Julian's face and found nothing, she does die, or at least that she is to die shortly. What happens to Julian—his imminent entry into the world of guilt and sorrow—is difficult to explain unless we draw this inference. To approach the question from the other end: Given the narrator's statement that Julian is shortly to become sorrowful and guilty, what are the causes in the action which explain this effect? To have Julian's mother suffer only a stroke is not enough to account for the change; for although the narrator expresses at one point Julian's qualms about pushing his mother to the extent that a stroke would result, he is possessed throughout by a malevolent desire to see her suffer, to teach her a lesson in morality by hurting her, even by directly inflicting the pain himself ("he could with pleasure have slapped her"); so that a heart attack alone is insufficient cause for Julian's final reaction. In other words, if death does not ensue, then Julian gets more or less what he desired all along; and if this were the case, we would be forced to imagine the last lines of the story informing us of something quite different, like Julian's re-entry into his world of moral pride and smug self-esteem. To see Julian's mother suffer anything less than death is sufficient justification for his sadness, at most, but hardly for guilt and sorrow. In short, to assume that his mother does not die is to call into question Flannery O'Connor's artistry.

If our reaction to the moral and emotional qualities of the story as a whole corresponds to the shaping principle or form, then, as I have argued, the various parts of the whole should contribute to this essential cause. Take, for example, the scene on the bus. How does this part of the story help to develop the shaping cause? Comprised of three separate episodes (each marked by someone boarding the bus), the scene serves two primary functions: first, it further develops Julian's character and thereby makes possible the complication of the conflict between him and his mother; and second, it provides a means for achieving the narrative climax.

In the first scene of the story Julian's character is presented only in outline. He is depressed about the prospects of tagging along with his mother, gloomy about what the future holds for him, possessed by mixed feeling (contempt and longing) regarding the ancestral heritage in which his mother takes such pride, and overcome by self-pity to the point of having a martyr complex. Clearly, this sketch of Julian's character must be developed if we are to explain the conclusion to the story and our reaction to it. It is not surprising, then, that this becomes one of Miss O'Connor's chief aims in the bus scene. And it is especially because of this scene that Julian emerges as a highly unsympathetic character. His malevolence and misanthropy and moral pretension are particularly heightened, especially in those places where the narrator gives us extended inside views.

It is significant, I think, that after Julian's abortive attempt at conversing with the Negro man, he utters not one word for the remainder of the scene; for this, coupled with his fantasies, indicates the kind of passive character he is and contrasts sharply with the later, genuine outburst to his stricken mother. It is also in this scene that we see that Julian's views of himself are precisely the wrong views. Some such process of artistic reasoning as just described seems to have guided Miss O'Connor in developing Julian's character in this scene. The form of the whole, created by that intuition of hers which works to shape the total effect, demands that she endow her characters with certain moral traits. I am suggesting that Julian must possess those qualities developed in the bus scene for our experience of the effect to be what it in fact is; so that creating these traits in Julian's character is one of her chief accomplishments in this scene.

If the form of the story requires that Julian embody these necessary moral qualities, it also demands particular kinds of probable incidents. Reasoning a posteriori, we can see that with the entrance of the Negro woman and her son, Flannery O'Connor has introduced the means for reaching the story's climax. It seems likely that by this point in the story she must have had some conception of a conclusion which would call for a sudden, shocking event, resulting in the heart attack and subsequent death of Julian's mother. Some violent action could be used to achieve this effect. It is highly unlikely, however, that Julian, passive dreamer that he is, would be capable of perpetrating any violence upon his mother. Other characters, therefore, will be needed as a means to this end.

If these are reasonable assumptions, Miss O'Connor's problem now becomes that of determining some point of dissension or conflict which will lead to the violent action. Her introduction of the Negro woman and her son, with the ingenious little game of musical bus-seats and son-swapping that ensues, is a perfect solution; for this will bring the racial issue clearly to the fore. And given the kind of woman Julian's mother has already been shown to be, the conclusion of the scene is practically inevitable. We have already seen her condescending racial attitudes—initially, in her discussion with Julian in the first scene, and later in her brief dialogue with the woman with protruding teeth—so that we expect her to display the same kind of unthinking attitude toward the Negro woman and her son. And we are also prepared to encounter some blundering expression of this patronizing manner, given the disposition of some of her previous remarks about "darkies," "colored friends," "mixed feelings," and the like.

Julian's mother, of course, obliges our expectations in both cases, the immediate result being the blow to the face, and the ultimate effect being death and Julian's subsequent change. The racial issue itself, which is so prominent throughout, should not be construed as the story's shaping principle. It is simply a means necessary for the climax and final effect: the Negro woman disappears when she has served her function, just as the Negro man, having performed his fictional duty, is made conveniently to disembark when Miss O'Connor's front seats get a bit too crowded. My conclusion is this: Given the form of the whole, which I have defined experientially in terms of the achieved effect, the two chief things accomplished by the bus scene are both probable and necessary: making Julian into a morally unsympathetic character and providing a means for the story's climax. As Flannery O'Connor herself has said, "I try to satisfy those necessities that make themselves felt in the work itself."

Finally, it should be observed that Julian's mother has also made a discovery in having to confront, shockingly, the truth of Julian's one correct claim: her condescending and patronizing attitude toward Negroes. But her discovery issues in the tragedy and irony of death: tragedy, from Julian's perspective, since it is only through the loss of his mother that he can enter his new life; and fateful irony from his mother's perspective, since her irresponsibility, though more innocent than his, is not allowed the same potential for change. Whereas she has been shown throughout to be ludicrous and pathetic and even pitiable, she embodies at the end, in her lurch toward death, what Yeats called "a vision of terror." We respond accordingly. Julian, on the other hand, for whom we have been able to muster little sympathy, has now become a young man whose desperate cries give us sympathetic joy in his change and more than a modest optimism for his future. The story, then, is finally Julian's story. His mother's death becomes the terrible means by which he can grow toward maturity. And the beginning of this growth is what the story is all about.

Dorothy Tuck McFarland (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10157

SOURCE: "Everything That Rises Must Converge," in Flannery O'Connor, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976, pp. 43-71.

[In the following essay, Tuck McFarland analyzes the different instances of rising and convergence in the stories from O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge.]

The stories in O'Connor's second collection reflect her concern with questions implicitly raised by the rather gnomic title "Everything That Rises Must Converge." The phrase comes from the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist-philosopher. Teilhard hypothesized that evolution, far from stopping with the emergence of homo sapiens, continues to progress toward higher levels of consciousness, and that its ultimate goal is pure consciousness, which is Being itself, or God.

Teilhard's concept of the progress of evolution, actual and predicted, can best be visualized as a globe. At the base of the globe—the beginning of the evolutionary process—lines radiate outward and upward, representing the diversification of many forms of life which are moving upward toward greater levels of biological complexity. At the midpoint of the globe the diversification stops and one species—man—comes to dominate the earth. Moving from the midpoint of the globe upward, the lines begin to converge as they approach the topmost pole, the evolutionary destination that Teilhard called the Omega point. The converging lines now represent individual human consciousnesses which, as they rise, grow closer and closer together.

One aspect of this convergence can be seen in the increased intercommunication and interdependence of men in modern mass society. The increasingly complex interaction of men, Teilhard believed, tends to generate fresh bursts of evolutionary energy that produce still higher levels of consciousness, and these increases in consciousness find material expression in new technological breakthroughs. Teilhard, however, did not equate rising in consciousness solely with social or intellectual or scientific advances; he saw these achievements as manifestations of an increase in consciousness that was primarily a growing toward the fullness of Being—God—that is the source of all life.

O'Connor certainly regarded an increase in consciousness—which in her stories is signified by an increase in vision—to be a growing toward Being. However, her characters typically resist this kind of rising and the spiritual convergence with others that accompanies it. This has led some commentators to conclude that O'Connor's use of the title "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is largely, if not completely, ironic. (According to one critic, nothing rises in the title story but Julian's mother's blood pressure.) It is true that O'Connor deliberately plays off the meaning of the title against numerous metaphors of non-convergent rising, and especially against her characters' desire to rise without convergence; for instance, the "rising" of Negroes is acceptable to Julian's mother only as long as there is no convergence: "they should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence." The thrust of most of the stories, however, is to bring the protagonist to a vision of himself as he really is, and thus to make possible a true rising toward Being. That this rising is inevitably painful does not discredit its validity; rather, it emphasizes (as Teilhard's conception does not) the tension between the evolutionary thrust toward Being and the human warp that resists it—the warp which O'Connor would have called original sin.

Julian, the protagonist of the title story, considers the position in which he finds himself to be monumentally benath his dignity. He is taking his mother, who is overweight and has high blood pressure, to her reducing class at the Y, because she will not ride the buses by herself at night now that they have been integrated. As he waits for her while she adjusts a hideous green and purple hat, he feels as if his sensibilities are suffering martyrdom; leaning against the door frame, he seems to be "waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him."

A would-be intellectual, Julian likes to think that he has raised himself, by his own efforts, above his mother's anachronistic values and above the intellectual sterility of his environment. This rising implies no convergence. Although he has fantasies about making friends with Negroes (to express his liberal views and annoy his conventional Southern mother), he has no real desire for convergence with anyone. He thinks of himself in proud isolation from others, retreating into an "inner compartment" of his mind whenever "he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him." His idea of an ideal home is one where the nearest neighbors are three miles away on either side.

Whatever signs of convergence of social classes or races are evident in the story are dealt with by the characters in ways that minimize any real meeting. Julian's mother believes she can "go anywhere"—i.e., mix in any kind of social situation—because she is a descendant of a once-proud family: "if you know who you are, you can go anywhere." When a Negro woman gets on the bus wearing a hat identical to her own, she is dismayed by this sign of identity between them. She handles the situation by reducing the other woman to a subhuman level and seeing the implied relationship between them as a comic impossibility: "She kept her eyes on the woman and an amused smile came over her face as if the woman were a monkey that had stolen her hat." She thinks the Negro woman's child is "cute," and attempts to give the little boy a "shiny new penny" as they get off the bus. The woman, outraged at this sign of white condescension, literally converges with her and batters her in the face with her enormous handbag. Julian's mother, knocked to the ground, suffers a stroke.

Thus far, the metaphors of rising and convergence in the story seem to be purely ironic. Julian's mother's death, however, does bring about a rising in consciousness in Julian, and the nearness of death brings her to a real desire for convergence with a beloved Negro nurse of her childhood. The motions of true rising in both characters come about through an apparent descent, a regression back to childhood. Julian, in the midst of an angry tirade at his mother, finally becomes aware of what is happening to her. Shocked out of his self-justifying and isolating "adult" behavior by this realization, he is precipitated back into his childhood love for her: "'Mother!' he cried. 'Darling, sweetheart, wait!' Crumpling, she fell to the pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, 'Mamma, Mamma!'" She, too, regresses to childhood, calling out for her old Negro nurse Caroline to come and get her. Unable to accept the convergence of social equality with Negroes in life, she nevertheless turns to the memory of a Negro with a true motion of convergence as she is dying.

The shock of his mother's dying brings Julian not only into contact with his buried love for her but also to the verge of realizing his repeated betrayals and denials of that love. The story has an almost tragic force in its evocation of the horror attendant upon Julian's dawning discovery of his blindness of what he has been and done. His all-too-human reluctance to be fully illuminated, and the nature of the illumination that is awaiting him, are beautifully suggested in the final lines of the story. O'Connor describes him seeming to be swept back toward his mother, toward his childhood connection with her, by a "tide of darkness" that "postpon[es] from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow."

In "The Enduring Chill" O'Connor uses conventional religious imagery for comic purposes but finally reveals in the imagery an unexpected and terrifying reality. Asbury, the protagonist, is another would-be writer who believes himself to be far superior to the Southern environment in which he was raised. As the story opens, he has just come back from New York City to his mother's dairy farm, believing he has a fatal illness. Wanting to bring his mother to a realization of how her commonplace life has stifled his artistic talent, he plans to leave her a lengthy letter—"such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father"—to be read after his death. His attitude toward death is full of romantic posturings; he believes that "he had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death."

His life, too, is full of posturings. Before his illness he had attempted a ludicrous "communion" with the Negro hands on his mother's farm by smoking with them and trying to get them to share a glass of unpasteurized milk with him in the dairy. Now, convinced he is dying, he badgers his mother into sending for a Jesuit priest because he wants to talk to "a man of culture" and he believes Jesuits to be sophisticated and worldly, and also because he knows it will annoy his Methodist mother. The priest, who turns out to be Irish and orthodox, brusquely turns aside Asbury's attempts to initiate a literary discussion and (in one of the funniest scenes in the O'Connor canon) examines him on his catechism. Finding Asbury deplorably ignorant, he exhorts him to ask God to send him the Holy Ghost. Asbury, furious at this turn of affairs, retorts to the priest that "the Holy Ghost is the last thing I'm looking for!"

When his illness is finally diagnosed as undulant fever (which is recurrent but not fatal), contracted by drinking the unpasteurized milk, Asbury's pretentious illusions about himself suffer a terrible blow. Instead of a romantic death, he is condemned to the terrifying reality of living and seeing himself clearly for what he really is. His eyes look "shocked clean as if they had been prepared for some awful vision about to come down on him." As that vision comes, an image made by water stains on the ceiling above his head—which has seemed to Asbury since childhood to be a "fierce bird" with icicles hanging from its wings—seems suddenly to be in motion. O'Connor identifies the bird with the Holy Ghost, traditionally imaged as a dove and the agent of spiritual illumination:

Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.

O'Connor uses allusions from classical mythology to suggest the deeper levels of meaning present in "Greenleaf." Even the names of the protagonist, Mrs. May, and her tenants, the Greenleafs, suggest the springtime of the world and the ancient rites of fertility associated with that season. Mrs. May's character, however, is in ironic contrast to her name, for there is nothing yielding, receptive, or springlike about her. She runs her farm with an "iron hand." She pits herself against her tenants, the Greenleafs, who embody for her all that is shiftless and irresponsible, who live "like the lilies of the field." She fears that Mr. Greenleaf will wear her down by sheer attrition if she doesn't keep her "foot on his neck all the time." She sees the "rising" of the Greenleaf boys (they now own a prosperous farm after being educated on the G.I. bill) as a threat of unwelcome convergence. "And in twenty years … do you know what those people will be?" she asks her sons. "Society," she replies blackly. However, she consoles herself with the thought that "no matter how far they go, they came from that." "That" is slovenly, uncouth Mrs. Greenleaf, who conducts "prayer healings" in the woods, moaning and crying over buried newspaper clippings recounting the atrocities of the world. Mrs. May's rejection of that—all that is primitive, unsocialized, mysterious, powerful—is even more adamant than her refusal to consider any offspring of the Greenleafs socially acceptable.

As is usual in the O'Connor canon, the mysterious, chthonic forces of nature are symbols of divinity, and Mrs. May's relentless resistance to these forces suggests that the primary convergence she is attempting to avoid is union with God. The specific embodiment of the divine in the story is a "scrub" bull belonging to the Greenleaf sons. The bull, who likes to "bust loose" (suggesting the uncontainable power of divinity), appears at the opening of the story eating a hole in the hedge outside Mrs. May's bedroom window. The hedge (like the wall of trees surrounding her property) is a symbol of the metaphoric walls behind which Mrs. May isolates herself, and the bull is a destroyer of such defenses. His symbolic role as divine lover is made quite explicit early in the story. Standing outside her window, he is likened to "some patient god come down to woo her." Crowned with a wreath of hedge that has slipped over his horns, he is also implicitly associated with the garlanded victim of ancient sacrifice.

The threat that the bull represents to Mrs. May is expressed largely through sexual metaphors. On the naturalistic level, she is afraid that this "scrub" bull will get in with her well-bred dairy cows and "ruin the breeding schedule." She has the same fear in regard to the Greenleafs themselves; she is afraid that her ill-tempered sons (who seem capable of doing anything in order to annoy her) will marry "trash" like Mrs. Greenleaf and "ruin everything I've done."

Basically, Mrs. May's fears of the bull and the Greenleafs represent her anxiety about the intrusion of that which is vaster than she into her well-controlled life; she is afraid of being overpowered, either by the forces of nature or those transcending nature. Inasmuch as both the bull and the Greenleafs symbolize these forces, Mrs. May directs all her energies to keeping both the bull and the Greenleafs under her control.

When the bull repeatedly breaks out of his pen, and the Greenleaf boys display no eagerness to come and get him, Mrs. May decides to make Mr. Greenleaf shoot him. She orders Mr. Greenleaf to get his gun and drive out to the pasture with her. When the bull runs into the woods, she sits on the front bumper of the car and waits for Mr. Greenleaf to drive the bull back into the pasture. When the bull—who does not like cars—comes out of the woods, he gallops toward Mrs. May with "a gay rocking gait as if he were over-joyed to find her again." The imagery again suggests that the bull is both a lover and a destroyer of defensive walls. Charging toward her, he "buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover…. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip." The tree line surrounding the pasture—symbolic of her outermost wall of defense—now appears to her as a "dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky." That wound is analogous to the wound the bull makes in the wall of her body as he penetrates to the very core of her being—her heart.

This "convergence" with the bull and all he symbolizes brings Mrs. May to an overwhelming illumination: "she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable." The bull, the divine lover whose embrace is death to the walled-in and controlling self, becomes the sacrificial victim as Mr. Greenleaf runs up and shoots him "four times through the eye." (The analogy between the bull and Christ, who is traditionally the divine Bridegroom as well as the sacrificial victim on the cross, is too close to be overlooked.) United with the bull in death, Mrs. May seems to accept her divine suitor; as the bull's huge body sinks to the ground, Mrs. May is pulled forward so that, loverlike, she seems to be "bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal's ear."

Even more than Mrs. May, old Mr. Fortune, the protagonist of "A View of the Woods," is determined to resist convergence. In the consequences of his resistance, O'Connor may be suggesting that convergence—with others and, ultimately, with God—is demanded of man, and his unrelenting refusal of it makes him experience what is potentially a source of joy as the pain of hell. This is hinted at in Mr. Fortune's response to the woods. The view of the woods, and the cow pasture that commands it, have much the same function as the bull in "Greenleaf." They embody something non-utilitarian and gratuitous, something charged with mysterious power. They appear under different aspects according to how they are regarded. To the Pitts children in the story, who love the pasture, it is "where we play," and the view of the woods is of immense importance. To old Mr. Fortune, who cannot see letting trees and a pasture stand in the way of progress, the woods embody an "uncomfortable mystery" that he finds distinctly unpleasant. As he stares at the woods at sunset, the red light of the setting sun makes it seem to him "as if someone were ounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood." To his eyes, the vision of the woods is "hellish."

Mr. Fortune is an old man who sees the advent of "progress" in his rural neighborhood as a means of maintaining his position of dominance over his family. He is of the opinion that "[a]nyone over sixty years of age is in an uneasy position unless he controls the greater interest." When an artificial lake is created adjacent to his property, he is able to sell off lakefront lots, thus both strengthening his financial position and causing considerable pain to his despised son-in-law, Pitts, who farms the old man's land and wants to buy it himself. Mr. Fortune's attitude toward his family—with one exception—is that of enormous contempt. The one exception is his granddaughter, Mary Fortune Pitts, who bears a strong resemblance to him and whom he sees as an extension of himself.

Mr. Fortune has decided to sell the pasture in front of his house as a site for a gas station, partly in the expectation of seeing his rural environment grow into a modern town, and partly for the pleasure of annoying his son-in-law. To his surprise and consternation, Mary Fortune—who heretofore has always supported him in his enterprises—strenuously objects to the sale because "We won't be able to see the woods across the road." Moreover, she adds, "My daddy grazes his calves on that lot." The child's loyalty to her father infuriates the old man, partly because it is loyalty to someone other than himself and partly because it is given to Pitts, who, for no apparent reason, beats her. She inexplicably submits to these beatings, though she denies to the old man that they take place. She even boasts that "Nobody's ever put a hand on me and if anybody did, I'd kill him."

As her name suggests, Mary Fortune Pitts embodies the union of Fortune and Pitts. In addition to her physical resemblance to her grandfather, she shares his fascination with signs of progress, particularly the construction of a fishing club on the shores of the artificial lake. She is, however, (though Mr. Fortune would like to overlook this) also a Pitts, as is reflected in her name, in her intense commitment to the view of the woods, and in her loyalty to her father. To Mr. Fortune, the convergence of Fortune and Pitts is abhorrent. As Mary Fortune's stubborn loyalty to the view of the woods and her father's calf pasture makes the Pitts in her more apparent, Mr. Fortune attempts to force her to choose between them: "Are you a Fortune," he asks her, "or are you a Pitts? Make up your mind."

Mr. Fortune's rejection of the importance of the view of the woods, and his refusal to accept the Pitts in Mary Fortune, have dire consequences. O'Connor suggests the spiritual dimensions of those consequences in the way she describes Tilman, the man to whom Mr. Fortune sells the pasture. Tilman has a triangular face, very narrow green eyes, and a head that weaves "snake-fashion" above his body. Tilman's serpentine appearance suggests that Mr. Fortune is completing a deal with the devil.

When the sale is concluded Mary Fortune bursts into the room in a fury and begins hurling pop bottles at Tilman. Mr. Fortune, appalled at her behavior, decides he has been too lenient with her and takes her out in the woods to whip her. However, she will not consent to be beaten by him; she attacks him, overcomes him, and crows in triumph, "You been whipped … by me … and I'm PURE Pitts." Mr. Fortune is so outraged to see "his own image" call itself Pitts that he strikes her head against a rock, asserting "There's not an ounce of Pitts in me." Having done literally what he intended to do metaphorically—kill the Pitts in the child—he suffers a fatal heart attack.

As he is dying he has a hallucinatory vision: he believes he is running out of the mysterious and threatening woods toward the artificial lake. When he reaches it he realizes that he can go no further, for he has no boat and he cannot swim. Only the trees, the very things he is trying to escape from, seem able to move on beyond the lake: "On both sides of him he saw that the gaunt trees had thickened into mysterious dark files that were marching across the water and away into the distance." He himself is stopped at the shore of the lake, the construction site where he had sat with Mary Fortune and watched the yellow machines of progress eating a hole in what had been a cow pasture. The hopelessness of the situation to which his choices have brought him is suggested in the final line of the story:

He looked around desperately for someone to help him but the place was deserted except for one huge yellow monster [an earth-moving machine] which sat to the side, as stationary as he was, gorging itself on clay.

In "The Comforts of Home" the action that starts the story moving is an act of charity on the part of the protagonist's mother that represents a true movement toward convergence: she has taken an amoral and incorrigible girl who calls herself Star Drake (née Sarah Ham) into the home she shares with her son Thomas. She undertakes this quixotic act of charity because, as she tells Thomas, "I keep thinking it might be you…. If it were you, how do you think I'd feel if nobody took you in? What if you were a nimpermaniac [sic] and not a brilliant smart person and you did what you couldn't help and…." To Thomas, a good man devoted to order and moderation, being identified in any way with the "little slut" is insufferable; hearing his mother thus link his condition, even in the realm of remote possibility, with that of Sarah Ham, Thomas feels "a deep unbearable loathing for himself, as if he were slowly turning into the girl."

The motions toward convergence that are embodied in his mother's actions and attitudes are seen by Thomas, who is the point-of-view character, to be excessive, foolhardy, useless, and destructive of the peace of their home. And, though Thomas's outrage and frustration at the loss of his comforts of home are portrayed in a comic light, Thomas himself is presented as a character whose views it is possible to take seriously. His desire to get Sarah Ham out of the house seems eminently understandable and even justifiable, as does his furious refusal of any kind of convergence with her—whether that of ordinary politeness, or the convergence of the sexual encounter that she openly invites, or the spiritual convergence implied in his mother's repeated "it might be you."

Though Thomas's refusal of convergence with the girl grows out of his loathing for the corruption and moral disorder she embodies, his desire to get rid of her leads him to an undesired convergence with the evil spirit of his deceased father. Thomas had not been able to endure his ruthless and dishonest father when he was alive, but as his exasperation grows and his mother persists in her course of "daredevil charity," he remembers that his father would have put an end to any such nonsense before it got started. The voice of his father begins to rasp in his head: "Numbskull, the old man said, put your foot down now. Show her who's boss before she shows you." The evil nature of Thomas's father is suggested in the description of him taking up a squatting position in Thomas's mind; the image recalls that of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, squatting in the form of a toad at the ear of Eve.

Thomas initially resists the tempter's suggestions. "Several ideas for getting rid of her had entered his head but each of these had been suggestions whose moral tone indicated that they had come from a mind akin to his father's, and Thomas had rejected them." However, after Sarah Ham has been in the house for a week, during which time she has histrionically (and ineffectively) cut her wrists, entered Thomas's study in his absence and taken his gun from his desk drawer, and entered his bedroom unclothed at night, Thomas delivers an ultimatum to his mother: either the girl goes or he goes. When this does not work, he finally capitulates to his father's suggestions that he see the sheriff—a man "as easily dishonest" as his father—and get her arrested for stealing his gun.

Having arranged for the sheriff to come and search her room for the gun, Thomas returns home and finds, to his dismay, that the gun is back in his desk drawer where it belongs. Frantic, he gives in to his father's commands to plant it in her handbag. Caught in the act by the girl and accused by her in the presence of his mother, Thomas (prompted by the voice of his father) delivers a counter-accusation: "The dirty criminal slut stole my gun!" Furious, the girl lunges at him and Thomas, again responding to his father's promptings, fires. But his mother has thrown herself between them to protect the girl, and the shot kills her instead. At that moment the door opens and the sheriff, unnoticed by Thomas and the girl, surveys the scene. The story concludes with his interpretation of what he sees: "the fellow had intended all along to kill his mother and pin it on the girl…. As he scrutinized the scene, further insights were flashed to him. Over her body, the killer and the slut were about to collapse into each other's arms."

The convergence with the girl that Thomas was so determined to avoid is thus brought about by his own actions. This convergence is emphasized by the sheriff, who assumes a sexual relationship between Thomas and the girl and sees them, in addition, as partners in crime. In actual fact the sheriff's interpretation of the scene is grossly inaccurate—the furthest thing from Thomas's mind was to kill his mother, whom he loved, and embrace the detested girl; however, the sheriff's view does accurately manifest some important symbolic realities. Thomas's planting of his gun in the girl's purse is, symbolically, a sexual act; the phallic symbolism of the gun and the description of the "skin-like feel" of the purse—which, when opened, emits an odor of the girl—are only too obvious. He has thus symbolically united himself with her; moreover, he has also joined her (as the sheriff thought) in criminality, for Thomas's intent in planting the gun was plainly dishonest. He and the girl have not committed the same crime, but his actions have demonstrated that he is more like the girl than he has been willing to acknowledge. It is not true that he has "No bad inclinations, nothing bad [he was] born with."

In O'Connor's theological view, the "something bad" one is born with, which one cannot help, is original sin. O'Connor evidently felt that the man who is good by secular humanitarian or ethical standards tends to disbelieve in any inherent evil in himself; this she saw to be a major obstacle to a true rising in consciousness, to vision, and to true convergence. True rising, she implies, begins with the recognition of oneself as a non-privileged member of sinful and suffering humanity, and true convergence involves union with what is most despised.

Sheppard of "The Lame Shall Enter First" is, like Thomas, a man who disbelieves in the existence of evil in himself. Even more than Thomas, Sheppard disbelieves in the reality of evil qua evil. In the course of counseling inmates at the reformatory, Sheppard comes across Rufus Johnson, a 14-year-old delinquent with a record of malicious mischief, an I.Q. of 140, and a club foot. Sheppard's explanation of Johnson's behavior is psychological: "His mischief was compensation for the foot." Johnson—raised by a fundamentalist grandfather—counters Sheppard's view with his own uncompromising belief that he does what he does because of Satan: "He has me in his power." Because of the boy's superior intellectual capacity, Sheppard is eager to "save" Johnson and to prove to him that he is "not evil" but only "mortally confused."

Sheppard values intelligence, goodness, and the amelioration of social ills. He is deeply disappointed in his own son, ten-year-old Norton, who is mediocre in intellect and uninterested in sharing what he has with poor children or with the disadvantaged Johnson. What Sheppard does not realize is that Norton, who has all the material advantages, feels himself more radically disadvantaged than Johnson. Norton's mother is dead and the boy's grief is inconsolable. He fears he has irrevocably lost her, for Sheppard—contemptuous of stories of heaven and hell, which he feels are "for the mediocre"—has told him that she no longer exists. Sheppard is incapable of grasping what the thought of his mother's nonexistence means to Norton; when he tells Norton about Johnson's disadvantages, he lists the fact that Johnson's mother is in the penitentiary. At this Norton breaks down and howls: "'If she was in the penitentiary,' he began in a kind of racking bellow, 'I could go to seeeeee her.'" Later, when Johnson talks to Norton about heaven and hell, Sheppard observes with disgust that Norton "would rather she be in hell than nowhere." Sheppard's values are thus shown to be inadequate to meet the needs of his son. Indeed, his values cause him to reject his son and to commit the betrayal of love that is high on O'Connor's list of major sins.

If we look at Sheppard's values in terms of "rising" and "convergence," we see that he values rising very highly indeed; he wants both Johnson and Norton to rise to high levels of intellectual ability and social goodness. Imagistically, Sheppard's interest in rising is expressed in terms of his particular ambition for the boys: he wants them to study the stars through a telescope and rise to the heights of the physical heavens in space travel. This intellectual rising, however, implies no convergence. Similarly, Sheppard's conception of goodness leads to isolation rather than to convergence. He conceives of his goodness as an "armor of kindness and patience" which protects him from Johnson's insults. The image suggests that the effect of his goodness is to make him insensitive to the reality of Johnson's malice, but also—such being the nature of armor—to the reality of Norton's grief and need for love.

Sheppard is convinced that he can save Johnson by the force of his own goodness. Johnson, however, is equally determined to prove to Sheppard that he, Johnson, is evil and that Sheppard cannot save him. Part of Sheppard's program to save Johnson involves getting him a new orthopedic shoe. Though he allows himself to be fitted for the shoe, when it is ready he refuses to accept it. His deformed foot in its ugly, battered shoe is a visible symbol of his spiritual condition, and he will not accept Sheppard's attempt to deny the symbolic significance of the deformity by improving on its physical appearance.

The breakdown of Sheppard's faith in his own goodness and in his ability to be Johnson's savior is brought about through Johnson's deliberate malice. Johnson continues to commit acts of vandalism, though he at first denies them in a malicious effort to get Sheppard to trust him. When Sheppard has been sufficiently taken in, Johnson flaunts his crimes before him. Johnson also befriends poor Norton, apparently with the intention of annoying Sheppard by teaching the boy about heaven and hell and Jesus. Almost certainly, however, in telling the grief-stricken Norton that his mother is in heaven and that he, Norton, would go to heaven if he were to die right now, Johnson is deliberately setting the child up to kill himself.

Johnson is motivated not only by sheer malice but by outrage at what he perceives to be Sheppard's violation of truth. Early in the story, when Norton had attempted to defend his father by saying he was good, Johnson burst out, "I don't care if he's good or not. He ain't right!" Later, when Sheppard was reasserting his determination to save him, claiming that the "good will triumph," Johnson retorted, "Not when it ain't true…. Not when it ain't right." Truth, for Johnson, is fundamentally religious: that there is a heaven and a hell, that the Bible is true, and that nobody is capable of saving him—when he gets ready to be saved—but Jesus.

Sheppard, however, is convinced that Johnson does not really believe these religious truths: "I flushed that out of your head in the reformatory. I saved you from that, at least." Johnson's final actions in the story grow out of his furious determination to prove to Sheppard that he does, indeed, believe them, and to confront Sheppard with the truth. Johnson commits another act of vandalism, allows himself to be caught, and demands to be taken to Sheppard. In the presence of the policemen who have brought him, Johnson declares that he committed his vandalism to "show up that big tin Jesus!… He thinks he's God…. The devil has him in his power." He asserts that a natural inclination to evil, not maladjustment, is at the root of his behavior. "I lie and steal because I'm good at it!" he shouts at Sheppard. "My foot don't have a thing to do with it."

Sheppard, pained, defends himself: "I did more for him than I did for my own child. I hoped to save him and I failed, but it was an honorable failure. I have nothing to reproach myself with." Sheppard's defense contains his own condemnation: "I did more for him than I did for my own child." Finally, hearing his words echoing in his ears, he sees the truth of what he is saying: "He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself." The agent of this revelation is "the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts," whom he sees "leering at him from the eyes of Johnson." With this rising in consciousness, Sheppard experiences a true desire for convergence; he feels a "rush of agonizing love" for Norton and hurries to tell him "that he loved him, that he would never fail him again." Norton, however, has sought rising and convergence elsewhere; believing that he has seen his mother in the heavens through the telescope that Sheppard bought to interest the boys in space travel, Norton has hanged himself to get to heaven where she is, and Sheppard finds him dangling from the beam "from which he had launched his flight into space."

Mrs. Turpin, the protagonist of "Revelation," is, like Sheppard, convinced of her own goodness. Mrs. Turpin is a good Christian woman who looks after the poor, works for the church, and thanks Jesus effusively for making her what she is—and not "a nigger or white trash or ugly." Mrs. Turpin's failure of charity, despite her works of charity, is obvious as she sums up the other patients in the doctor's waiting room in which the story opens. Sizing up a "stylish lady" as one of her own kind and striking up a conversation with her, Mrs. Turpin reveals, through her words and thoughts, her interior judgements on the others present. Her veiled racism and social snobbery, her cheerful complacency, and her unabashed pride in her good disposition are too much for the stylish lady's daughter, a fat, scowling girl who has obviously had to suffer much of the same sort of thing from her mother. The girl responds to Mrs. Turpin's remarks with ugly looks until finally, provoked beyond endurance, she flings a book at Mrs. Turpin's head and lunges at her throat. "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," the girl whispers to her fiercely.

Hog imagery has already been introduced in the conversation between Mrs. Turpin and the stylish lady. Mrs. Turpin mentioned the hogs she raises in a concrete-floored pig parlor. Responding to an unwelcome interruption by a "whitetrash woman," who declares hogs to be "Nasty stinking things, a-gruntin and a-rootin all over the place," Mrs. Turpin coldly replied that her hogs are washed down every day with a hose and are "cleaner than some children I've seen." ("Cleaner by far than that child right there," [the "white-trash" woman's child] she added to herself.)

O'Connor uses hogs in this story (and elsewhere) as symbols of unredeemed human nature. As no amount of external cleanliness can fundamentally change hog nature, so no amount of external goodness can fundamentally change human nature, which, in O'Connor's view, is contaminated with evil—whether it be the consciously chosen evil of Johnson or the more subtle evil of pride and self-righteousness displayed by Sheppard and Mrs. Turpin.

Evil seems a strong word to apply to a character like Mrs. Turpin, who, for all her pride and complacency, is surely not a "bad" woman. Yet O'Connor obviously felt that Mrs. Turpin's belief in her own goodness was, if anything, more of an obstacle to the salvation of her soul than an outright commitment to evil. Thomas Merton reflects on this paradox: "Truly the great problem is the salvation of those who, being good, think they have no further need to be saved and imagine their task is to make others 'good' like themselves."

Mrs. Turpin is at first shocked and indignant at the injustice of what has happened to her. Why should she, a hardworking, respectable, church-going woman, be singled out for such a message when there was "trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied"? At the same time, however, Mrs. Turpin senses that the girl "knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition," and the message, unpleasant as it is, has for her the force of divine revelation.

After pondering the girl's words with increasing wrath and indignation all afternoon, Mrs. Turpin marches down to the pig parlor on her farm and contemplates her hogs. "What do you send me a message like that for?" she demands of God. "How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?" She rails at God with increasing sarcasm until, with a final surge of fury, she roars, "Who do you think you are?" An echo of her own words comes back to her, like an answer, out of the silence.

Who does she think she is? The imagery surrounding this scene suggests that Mrs. Turpin considers herself the equal of God. The sun, that perennial symbol of God in O'Connor's fiction, seems comically obedient to Mrs. Turpin's presumption, and hangs over the tree line in an attitude almost exactly imitative of her own position on the fence of the pig parlor: "The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs." While this image embodies Mrs. Turpin's assumption of the equality between her and God, it also suggests that the true relation between them is that God is the farmer, the world is His farm, and Mrs. Turpin is one of the "hogs"—humanity—at which He is gazing. His gaze—His light, symbolically the infusion of His grace into the world—is transforming; in the light of the setting sun the pigs are suffused with a red glow, and appear to "pant with a secret life." Mrs. Turpin, too, is touched by this transforming light, and life flows into her. "Like a monumental statue coming to life," she bends her head and gazes, "as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs."

The mystery of humanity, as O'Connor saw it, is that it is rooted in earth, yet bathed in God's light that fills it with secret life, the life of grace that is in no way dependent on worthiness or on the scale of human values Mrs. Turpin cherishes. The irrelevance of social values in the sphere of grace is manifested in the vision that is given to her as she lifts her eyes from the pigs and gazes at the purple streak in the sky left like a trail by the setting sun:

She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud [her husband], had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right…. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

For her to rise, to follow even at the end of the heaven-bound procession, it is necessary for her virtues to be burned away, for her to see herself as no more worthy of God's grace than the Negroes and white trash and freaks and lunatics she habitually looks down upon. Good works, in O'Connor's view, do not redeem; they only prevent Mrs. Turpin from seeing that she shares in the poverty and limitation and evil proclivities common to all humanity. She is not capable of lifting herself out of this condition by her own efforts; indeed, her efforts to do so only compound evil by making her think herself superior to others and thus reinforcing social inequality, pride, and complacency. "Rising" comes about by grace, and by Mrs. Turpin's response of openness to it. Appropriately enough, the instrument of grace—the ugly girl who hurled a book at Mrs. Turpin's head and declared that lady's kinship with hogs and hell—is named Mary Grace.

In O'Connor's stories, a character's refusal of convergence with others is an externalization of a deeper refusal to accept convergence with Being. A character's desire to remain autonomous and in control of things prevents his surrender to the transcendent—to that which is greater than he, which is uncontrollable, which is, in the words of "Parker's Back," "to be obeyed." Expressed in other stories in naturalistic symbols—the bull, the sun, the woods—in "Parker's Back," transcendent Being is embodied in the face of a Byzantine Christ that is tattooed on the back of the protagonist, O.E. Parker.

A man who is otherwise as "ordinary as a loaf of bread," Parker was stirred with a mysterious longing when, at the age of fourteen, he saw at a fair a man covered from head to foot with tattoos that formed "a single intricate design of brilliant color." This initial response of wonder to what is to Parker a thing of beauty makes him literally a marked man, for ever afterward he has been subject to an unrest that can be assuaged only by the acquisition of a new tattoo. However, the total effect, on him, is "not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched."

Parker's frustrated longing for the perfection of aesthetic form grows more acute as the space on the front of his body is used up and the single, intricate effect is not achieved. His dissatisfaction provokes him to actions he does not understand, notably his marriage to Sarah Ruth Cates, the daughter of a Straight Gospel preacher. Sarah Ruth, a plain-looking woman, thinks his tattoos are a "heap of vanity." She spends most of her time telling him "what the judgement seat of God will be like for him if he doesn't change his ways."

Though he is unimpressed with Sarah Ruth's religious convictions, Parker is driven to consider getting a tattoo with a religious subject in order to get Sarah Ruth to look at it. Parker feels strongly that his tattoos are to be looked at. To have a tattoo on his back, where he cannot see it, seems to him sheer foolishness if Sarah Ruth will not look at it either. It is against her religion, however, to contemplate anything in the natural world as a sign or symbol of the transcendent; to do so, she thinks, is idolatrous. To her way of thinking, religion is entirely spiritual, entirely disembodied.

In O'Connor's view, however, the natural world is the medium of divine revelation. Thus when Parker, preoccupied by his need for a new tattoo and unable to think of one "that will bring Sarah Ruth to heel," runs his tractor into a big tree in the middle of a hayfield, the result is not simply a comic catastrophe but an event with supernatural significance. Parker is knocked out of his shoes and the tree bursts into flame. The flaming tree is implicitly for Parker what the burning bush was for Moses: a manifestation of the divine Presence. Struck with holy terror, Parker crawls backward toward his truck and drives straight to the city and to the tattoo parlor. There, trembling, he picks out the head of a Byzantine Christ with "all-demanding eyes" to be tattooed on his back.

The image of Christ on his back has literally the effect of a sacrament; though it is a symbol, it acts on Parker as if it were Christ Himself. Parker seeks out his pool-hall buddies but, unable to take their friendly razzing about his new tattoo, he gets into a fight and finds himself thrown out into the alley. O'Connor compares the pool hall, and the "nerve-shattering" calm that descends on it after Parker's ejection, to the ship "from which Jonah had been cast into the sea." The comparison suggests that Parker's motive in going to the pool hall in the first place was, like Jonah's, an attempt to evade a prophetic mission. Jonah had been called by God to preach to the city of Nineveh. Parker's prophetic mission is not so specific, but he does have a prophetic name—Obadiah Elihue—which he has kept a secret, using only the initials O.E.

Sitting in the alley outside the pool hall, Parker inspects his soul, the depths of his being that he had thought "was not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion." His soul is in the process of being transformed from a "spider web of facts and lies" to "a single intricate arabesque of brilliant color" by the image of Christ that is now forever on his back.

That Parker is becoming a "new man" in Christ is emphasized in the description of his trip home: "It was as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him, even at night." Moreover, his attitude toward Sarah Ruth has changed radically; from wondering, in the opening of the story, why he had married her in the first place and why he did not leave her in the second, he comes to look to her as a source of guidance, and to want to please her. Bewildered at the effect the "all-demanding eyes" of the Christ on his back are having on him, he drives home to Sarah Ruth, confidently expecting that she "would know what he had to do … and she would at least be pleased. It seemed to him that, all along, that was what he wanted, to please her."

When he arrives home, Parker finds the door barricaded against him. When he identifies himself as O.E., Sarah Ruth denies she knows any O.E. and demands to know who he is. Just as the sun comes up, shooting a "tree of light" (reminiscent of the earlier tree of flame) over the horizon, Parker answers that he is "Obadiah Elihue." All at once he feels the light (here, as in "Revelation," a symbol of divine grace) pouring through him, "turning his spider-web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts." Sarah Ruth, however, is unmoved by the new tattoo that has accomplished the transformation of the designs on his body from "something haphazard and botched" into an aesthetic unity. When Parker tells her that the tattoo is a picture of God, she is outraged. "'Idolatry!' Sarah Ruth screamed. 'Idolatry!… I can put up with lies and vanity but I don't want no idolater in this house!'" She picks up a broom and proceeds to beat Parker on the back "until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door."

In this image O'Connor graphically conveys the suffering of Christ incarnate in humanity, and expresses her belief that convergence with Christ means union with Christ's suffering, not escape from suffering into some abstract realm of spiritual bliss. And here also, as in the title story, Flannery O'Connor emphasizes that the rising in consciousness that precedes true convergence is expressed not through an increase in external power or dominance over others but, paradoxically, in a descent into vulnerability, into suffering, into weakness, into man's essential poverty. The story concludes with the image of the prophet, Obadiah Elihue, having been driven out of the house by his harridan wife, "leaning against the tree, crying like a baby."

In the last three stories in this collection, O'Connor began to go beyond the point at which, heretofore, she had characteristically ended her stories: the violent conclusion that implicitly contained a revelation capable of bringing the protagonist to see himself as he really is. "Revelation," the third from the last story, is transitional; the story continues, after Mary Grace's violent attack on Mrs. Turpin, to explore Mrs. Turpin's struggle to respond to the girl's message, but it does not go beyond Mrs. Turpin's tacit acceptance of the vision of herself bringing up the rear of the horde of souls trooping into heaven. What happens to a character after that acceptance is suggested in "Parker's Back"; Parker accepts the Christ on his back and his prophetic name, and the unexpected result is that he finds himself beaten and weeping underneath a tree. He has begun, the imagery suggests, to participate in the sufferings of Christ.

In "Judgement Day," the last story in the collection, old Tanner, the protagonist, has begun before the story opens to accept a convergence with the lowly and the suffering, symbolized by his relationship with his Negro friend Coleman. In old Tanner's situation O'Connor suggests that acceptance of convergence inevitably brings one "down" in the world—down into helplessness, into suffering, into the lot of the most disadvantaged members of humanity. At the opening of "Judgement Day" old Tanner is already reduced to a state of childlike weakness and dependency. Enfeebled by a stroke, he is living in unhappy exile with his daughter in her New York City apartment. In the course of the action he experiences violent rejection, suffering, and finally death. His death is not a means by which a revelation of something he had vigorously resisted is forced upon him, as is the case in most of the earlier stories in this collection. Rather, it is the means of completing, both literally and symbolically, the journey "home" that he was determined to set out on at the beginning of the story.

"Home" is one of the dominant images in the story. Literally, it is Corinth, Georgia, where old Tanner lived all his life until his "high and mighty" daughter found him living in a shack with his Negro friend Coleman. Scandalized that he had come to "settle in with niggers," she urged him to come and live with her in New York City. Despite the fact that her opinion of his living situation "shamed" him, Tanner might not have gone with her had he not, that same day, discovered that the land on which he and Coleman had built their shack had been bought by a pompous Negro doctor. The doctor, Foley, let him know that if Tanner wanted to stay, he would have to accept a reversal of the traditional Negrowhite roles. Unwilling to operate a still for the doctor and be "a nigger's white nigger," Tanner had gone north with his daughter. Once in New York, however, he regretted his choice: "If he had known it was a question of this—sitting here looking out of this window all day in this no-place, or just running a still for a nigger, he would have run the still for the nigger." He was not in New York a week before he had decided to take the bus back to Georgia as soon as his next monthly pension check arrived.

Before Tanner's check arrived, a Negro moved into the apartment next door. Tanner's daughter warned him not to "go over there trying to get friendly with him." In the crowded city "convergence" is a physical reality, but "all stripes of foreigner" living together in a "pigeon-hutch" of an apartment building does not bring spiritual convergence. Tanner's daughter expresses what O'Connor felt to be the urban secular refusal of convergence: "you mind your business and they'll mind theirs. That's the way people were meant to get along in this world."

Tanner, however, lonesome himself and confident that "the nigger would like to talk to someone who understood him," waited for his new neighbor in the hallway and tried to make friends with him. To the city-bred Negro, however, Tanner's style of friendliness smacked of white patronage. Enraged at Tanner's repeated approaches, and at Tanner's addressing him as "Preacher" (the Negro is an actor and an atheist), he slammed the old man against the wall. The assault gave Tanner a stroke, and the medical expenses ate up his pension check.

Thus prevented from getting home on his own power, Tanner made his daughter promise to have him shipped home to Georgia when he dies. Relieved, he slept peacefully for a while and dreamed of arriving home in his coffin and surprising his friends, Coleman and Hooten the station agent, by springing up and shouting, "'Judgement Day! Judgement Day! Don't you two fools know it's Judgement Day?'" As this fantasy indicates, Tanner equates "home," with all its particulars (Corinth, Coleman, Hooten), with heaven on the Day of Judgement, when the dead will be raised and the just will live eternally with God. Judgement Day is thus the equivalent of Teilhard's "Omega point," at which all created consciousness will be united with Being itself, with God.

Tanner's daughter, however, had no intention of keeping her promise. When Tanner learned of this—he overheard her telling her husband that she would have the old man buried in New York—he made up his mind to get home himself, "dead or alive." When the story opens, he is waiting for his daughter to go out shopping so that he can slip out of the apartment, hire a cab to take him to the train yards, and get aboard a southbound freight. He has written a note and pinned it in his pocket: "IF FOUND DEAD SHIP EXPRESS COLLECT TO COLEMAN PARRUM, CORINTH, GEORGIA." Barely able to walk, he gets as far as the head of the stairs before his legs fail him and he pitches down the steep staircase. He is found there by the Negro actor and his disdainful wife. Believing that he has reached home and that the coffin containing his body is being unloaded from the train, Tanner murmurs, "Coleman?" The Negro actor interprets this as a contemptuous epithet—"coal man"—and, mocking the old man, he pulls Tanner's hat down his over his face and thrusts his head and arms through the spokes of the bannister.

This violent convergence with a hostile Negro on the physical level brings about, on the spiritual level, a convergence with "otherness"—what is not oneself, and especially what is feared and despised as alien and inferior. Tanner's final convergence with the "negative image of himself" is suggested through the position of his body on the stairs. That position recalls an image that had come to him thirty years before, when he first met Coleman. Then he had been a lone white man bossing a team of unruly Negroes at an isolated sawmill. A man with a reputation for being able to "handle" Negroes, Tanner disarmed the half-drunk and potentially dangerous Coleman by whittling a pair of spectacles out of a piece of bark and giving them to him:

"What you see through those glasses?"

"See a man."

"What kind of a man?"

"See the man make theseyer glasses."

"Is he white or black?"

"He white!" the Negro said as if only at that moment was his vision sufficiently improved to detect it. "Yessuh, he white!" he said.

"Well, you treat him like he was white," Tanner said.

The spectacles enabled Coleman to "see" and accept Tanner in the traditional white man's role; but they also gave Tanner a momentary glimpse of a different vision. When Coleman put them on and looked at him and

grinned, or grimaced, Tanner could not tell which … 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.

The subsequent events of Tanner's life brought him increasingly closer to realizing that "common lot." He lost his property and lived with Coleman on terms of at least economic equality in the shack they built together. Then, in New York, he became willing to accept the reversal of traditional roles and work for the Negro doctor. Finally, in the circumstances of his death, he takes on the traditional Negro posture of "clownishness and captivity." The position of his body in death is that of a man confined and offered up to public mockery: his feet dangle over the stairwell "like those of a man in the stocks."

This is apparently an image of total defeat. Tanner has not got where he was going. The atheistic Negro has derided Tanner's belief in Judgement Day as the day of the resurrection of the dead and has asserted that the only judgement day is the day of death: "Ain't no judgement day, old man. Cept this. Maybe this here judgement day for you." Tanner's daughter carries out her intention to have him buried in New York. Yet the concluding paragraph of the story suggests that out of these apparent defeats, Tanner has achieved the ultimate convergence. After his daughter has had him buried, she cannot sleep at night, and she finally has him dug up and shipped to Corinth. That Tanner does, at last, arrive at his literal home suggests that he also arrives at his ontological home, union with God, imaged in the story as heaven on Judgement Day.

John Ower (essay date Winter 1986)

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SOURCE: "The Penny and the Nickel in 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 107-10.

[In the following essay, Ower discusses the symbolism of the coin Julian's mother gives to the young boy in "Everything That Rises Must Converge."]

In O'Connor's story, the violent climactic "convergence" of black and white races is precipitated by Julian's mother offering a coin to a little Negro boy. Her customary gift to black children is a nickel, but she has been able to find only a cent in her pocketbook. That the fateful coin is a penny, and that it is newly minted, are both emphasized by O'Connor through being twice mentioned. The author thereby hints the significance with regard to "Everything that Rises …" of the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel (the two coins current in 1961 when O'Connor's story was written). The designs of these pieces suggest a nexus of meanings relating to the social, racial and religious themes of "Everything that Rises…."

The obverse of the Lincoln cent bears the portrait of its namesake, to the left of which is the motto "LIBERTY." The chief feature of the reverse is a representation of the Lincoln Memorial. These three details have an obvious relevance to O'Connor's sympathetic concern with the "rise" of Southern blacks from slavery towards true freedom and socio-economic equality. Thus, the features of the Lincoln cent just mentioned suggest (1) the freeing of Negroes by the "Great Emancipator" and (2), by extension, the activity of the Federal Government in O'Connor's own day to ensure the rights of Southern blacks. Regarding the second, the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and its aftereffects (including the sit-ins of 1960) constitute the immediate historical background for the action of "Everything that Rises…." The story suggests how the crumbling of the "Jim Crow" system was making possible a new "liberty" for Negroes in the South. Blacks have gained both a greater physical freedom in their world and increased opportunities for socio-economic mobility. This twofold access of "liberty" is exemplified by the well-dressed Negro man with the briefcase who sits with the whites at the front of the bus. The new possibilities for betterment opening to blacks are intimated not only by the abovementioned details of the Lincoln cent but also by its "bright," shiny freshness.

Julian's mother is unaware of the ways her "new penny" suggests the historical "rise" of Southern blacks, and would be dismayed if she recognized such implications. She represents the reactionary element among white Southerners who want to reverse history with respect to race relations. Julian's mother would like to return to the days of segregation ("They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.") and seemingly even to the era of slavery ("[Blacks] were better off when they were [slaves]."). The retrograde desire of Julian's mother to reduce Negroes to their antebellum servitude stands in ironic contrast to her penny as recalling Lincoln's emancipation of blacks. Furthermore, the date on the obverse of the "new" (presumably 1961) cent is exactly a century after the start of the Civil War, and almost a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). The 1961 date thus underlines just how antiquated are the racial views of Julian's mother.

As opposed to the Lincoln cent, the Jefferson nickel in part suggests the conservative and patrician outlook of Julian's mother, the quasi-mythical old South in which she psychologically dwells. In particular, Jefferson's life strikingly parallels that of the aristocratic grandfather whom Julian's mother so reveres. Both men were slaveholding plantation owners, and both were governors of their home states. It is by virtue of such distinguished ancestry that Julian's mother identifies with the antebellum Southern aristocracy, to whom she romantically attributes a lofty preeminence balanced by "graciousness." That combination of qualities is suggested by the palladian architecture of Jefferson's "stately home" Monticello, depicted on the reverse of the nickel. Monticello further ties in with the Godhigh country mansion as a symbol of the aristocratic heritage and accompanying social pretensions of Julian's mother. Just as the somewhat Olympian Monticello suggests the superior position of the white aristocracy in a class and racially stratified order, so does the plan of the Godhigh house (the owners being elevated above the black cooks who work on the ground floor). It is from such an apparently secure social eminence that Julian's mother looks down on Negroes with a blend of snobbish condescension, "graciousness" and paternalistic benevolence. That set of attitudes is expressed by Julian's mother in bestowing small change upon black children. The Jefferson nickel is especially appropriate as the usual coin for such largesse because it implies the identification with the old Southern aristocracy that largely determines the racial views of Julian's mother.

However, the aforementioned connotations of the Jefferson nickel are in contrast with meanings implied by the motto "LIBERTY" on the obverse of the coin. The slogan brings to mind Jefferson's chief fame as a champion of democratic ideals. In relation to "Everything that Rises …," Jefferson's advocacy of "liberty" and equality is (1) basically antithetical to the cherished social assumptions and racial views of Julian's mother and (2) essentially in keeping with the movement towards freedom and equality for blacks implied by the Lincoln cent. Concerning the second point, Jefferson although a slaveholder himself found the South's "peculiar institution" morally repugnant. He accordingly devoted considerable effort to advocating the gradual emancipation of Negroes, and he likewise freed some of his own blacks at his death. Jefferson's enlightened attitudes towards slavery, which anticipate Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, are diametrically opposed to those of Julian's mother. Far from seeing slavery as morally repellant, she believes that blacks were "better off" in servitude, and is proud that an ancestor owned two hundred Negroes. Such sentiments are undercut through the Jefferson nickel by implicit contrast with the views of one of America's foremost political and social thinkers.

Another detail of both the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel which is relevant to "Everything that Rises …" is the motto "E PLURIBUS UNIM" ("Out of many, one"). While the slogan is intended to refer to the U.S. as a nation federated out of various states, it also suggests the American ideal of a unified society tolerantly encompassing racial and ethnic diversity. Both possible meanings of "E PLURIBUS UNIM" are germane to the racial situation that existed in the South in 1961. Since the main impetus towards desegregation came from the U.S. Federal Government, the resistance of Southern white reactionaries threatened to create strife not just between the races, but also between Dixie and the rest of the nation. The first of these potential conflicts is suggested in "Everything that Rises …" when the black woman assaults Julian's mother. The second is implied by the Lincoln cent as recalling the Civil War. In opposition to both possible evils, the motto "E PLURIBUS UNIM" indicates how the South should accept the will of the Federal authorities and help create a society where the races can coexist in harmony.

The motto "E PLURIBUS UNIM" also ties in with the theology of Teilhard de Chardin that influenced O'Connor when writing "Everything that Rises…." Teilhard maintains in The Phenomenon of Man that an eschatological evolution is moving the human race from "diversity to ultimate unity." Such a "convergence" will be completed at "Omega point" with the oneness of all men in Christ. In order for convergence to occur, individuals must surrender their "personal or racial egotism" and join with one another in love. Teilhard's convergence of mankind from "diversity to ultimate unity" is of course brought to mind by the motto "E PLURIBUS UNIM." The slogan would thus for O'Connor relate both to God's plan for unifying all men and to U.S. history, suggesting the two are connected. More specifically, O'Connor evidently saw the progress of race relations in the South since the Civil War as part of the convergence of all humanity towards Omega point. The segregationist views of Julian's mother and her like accordingly constitute a sinful resistance to God's redemptive plan for mankind. That opposition is caused in the case of Julian's mother by a "personal … [and] racial egotism" arising from her pride of ancestry and class status. Such "egotism" is suggested by the name Godhigh borne by Julian's grandmother. The name stands in neat ironic antithesis to the motto "IN GOD WE TRUST" on the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel, a slogan which implies a humble self-surrender to the divine plan moving man towards convergence.

In "Everything that Rises …," the penny and the nickel thus relate the racial situation in the South of 1961 to a larger cultural, historical and spiritual context. On the one hand, the Lincoln cent suggests a century of political, social and economic progress elevating blacks towards a final Teilhardian convergence with whites. On the other hand, the Jefferson nickel most obviously intimates a conservative, aristocratic mentality contributing to Southern white resistance to integration. The ultimate defeat of such reaction is implied when Julian's mother cannot find a nickel to give the little black boy. O'Connor is suggesting that the old South called to mind by the five cent piece is gone forever. The "new penny" Julian's mother does discover indicates the time has come for Southern whites to accept social change, abandon their obsolete racial views, and relate to Negroes in a radically different way. Instead, Julian's mother stubbornly clings to a quasi-mythical past and refuses to accept the realities of the present. This wrongheaded strategy is seen when she tries to use the coin suggesting a new order in a way appropriate to the old. The violent rejection of the "condescending" penny by the black woman is for Julian's mother an appropriate, if ultimately tragic, initiation into verities she so willfully denies.

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "The Mechanical in Everything That Rises Must Converge," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 14-26.

[In the following essay, Folks discusses O'Connor's relationship to the Southern literary tradition and to the industrialization of the South as expressed in the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge.]

To many critics, the views of Flannery O'Connor on science and technology have seemed self-evident. The modern faith in science was the extension of a Post-Reformation reliance on Nominalism, a philosophical position that O'Connor never ceased to question. More damaging than pure science, the popular belief in technology as a panacea had led the twentieth century away from religious faith and toward belief in a future paradise to be brought about by technology.

As Jane C. Keller insisted, O'Connor's empiricists had erected barriers between themselves and the recognition of the universe as the work of God. In the figure of Sheppard, Thomas Carlson saw "the supreme exponent of Pelegianism," a character who "tries to render the material thing spiritual through technology, a kind of latter-day alchemy."

Certainly O'Connor's writing has provided ample evidence that the concept of mechanization is to be viewed in opposition to the religious message of her works. In a letter of March 17, 1956, to Shirley Abbott, O'Connor expressed her rejection of the strictly empirical approach: "It is popular to believe that in order to see clearly one must believe nothing. This may work well enough if you are observing cells under a microscope. It will not work if you are writing fiction. For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing." Speaking of the sweeping impact of mechanization on the South and its effect on the southern writer, O'Connor stated in "The Regional Writer": "The present state of the South is one wherein nothing can be taken for granted, one in which our identity is obscured and in doubt." As a result of this sort of comment, one might well conclude that O'Connor's orthodox Catholicism, attested by her own statements and the great majority of her critics, has set her in opposition to the modern forces of science and technology. According to this interpretation, modernization, as represented by a host of characters from Sheppard to Rayber to Mrs. McIntyre, may be read as the clear villain in each of her works. The representation of the machine carries with it an implied negative cast, and the extent to which characters such as Mr. Head or Parker are depicted as "mechanical" indicates the working out of the destructive effects of a nominalist philosophy.

In view of the frequency with which this reading is repeated, it is striking to find that O'Connor had an extensive interest in natural and social science. While she implied at one point that science has led to the decline of Biblical knowledge and Bible reading, she admired Teilhard de Chardin as a scientist and a Christian, and in a review of his work, she spoke scathingly of "a caricature of Christianity … which sees human perfection as consisting in escape from the world and from nature." As O'Connor's book reviews indicate, O'Connor nurtured an open-minded interest in psychology; she praised Cross Currents for printing "the best that can be found on religious subjects as they impinge on the modern world, or on modern discoveries as they impinge on the Judeo-Christian tradition."

One can trace the tension in O'Connor's writing between the traditionalist eager to decry the abuses of modernization, as when she describes the mass media as a "diet of fantasy," and the sophisticated modern, aware of the latest advances in psychiatry and philosophy. One suspects that this internal struggle between traditionalist and modern underlies her comment singling out a quotation from Baron von Hügel: "'how thin and abstract, or how strained and unattentive, the religion of most women becomes, owing to their elimination of religious materials and divinely intended tensions!'" Though certain of her readers have sought to disregard the battling of "divinely intended tensions" in her fiction, her fictional treatment of the changing South benefited enormously from her appreciation of the need to preserve these tensions in her stories. The outright dismissal of mechanization would have resulted, as she recognized, in a very thin and "inattentive" body of fiction; more important to O'Connor, it would have mitigated against a clear-sighted application of religious truths to the modern world. O'Connor came to recognize that the predictable revulsion of the southern traditionalist to the "evil" of science was a failure of vision, a narrow-sighted disregard for the world of sense experience. Her marginal lining of a passage in George Tavard's Transience and Permanence: The Nature of Theology According to St. Bonaventure highlighted the statement "that sense forms the first degree of the way to God and has thus a momentous religious value." The emphasis of the concrete image as the starting point of vision is indeed fundamental in O'Connor's aesthetics, but the assumption that she arrived at this aesthetic position out of a deductive process of reading medieval exegesis or theology seems entirely inconsistent with what we know about the emergence of her narrative art. Rather, her reading in Catholic and non-Catholic theology, philosophy, and social science must have confirmed ideas on aesthetic practice that had already been formed long before any serious theological study occurred. Whether her recognition of the value of concrete writing was the result of the influence of the New Criticism, a movement that deeply marked her work, or was the working out of her own psychological needs during her narrative apprenticeship is a question that will probably be impossible to answer conclusively. That she was influenced by the ideas of Allen Tate and particularly by the advice of Caroline Gordon, that she had read a number of New Critical texts, and that she was trained in a school of writing which was New Critical in emphasis can be demonstrated.

More pertinent to the issue of this study is the result of O'Connor's remarkable shaping of an aesthetic theory that demanded complete fidelity to the naturalistic facts of the objective world while it sought to express supranaturalistic insights. O'Connor had been trained from the inception of her writing career in an aesthetic theory that excluded the rhetoric of transcendence, an aesthetic that Faulkner only partially practiced and that Tate worked toward throughout his career only to abandon at the end; but in O'Connor's case the realistic bias in her aesthetic conflicted sharply with her intention to write a form of moral fable. From one perspective, we can see that Wise Blood is the perfect example of the Jamesian novel, written with strict control of the point of view and a density of specification that fell clearly within the New Critical understanding of Jamesian theory as interpreted by Percy Lubbock, and later by Brooks and Warren, Booth, Schorer, and others. Nonetheless, in other respects O'Connor's first novel reveals intentions that fall outside the tradition of James, for while the technique of O'Connor's writing, the careful limitation to the point of view of individualized characters and the accretion of specific details, are convincingly Jamesian, the larger shaping of her fictions is wildly subversive of the middle-class assumptions about motivation and behavior that are equally a part of the aesthetic of New Criticism and its understanding of literature. Without intending to downplay O'Connor's ultimate compassion for the Mrs. Mays of her fiction, one can see that the "secure" untroubled matrons and bachelors whose "faith" is grounded more than anything on illusive commonplaces of bourgeois language are the targets of her often virulent satire. Her character by and large is not the fully rounded "intelligence" whose consciousness is gradually revealed but the representative figure closer to caricature. The Jamesian technique, predicated on the aesthetic assumption of complexity, only serves to exacerbate the sense of a debased idiom.

Furthermore, in an amazing strategy of aesthetic indirection, O'Connor has created fiction which ultimately confirms the sexless and often friendless middle-aged heroines and heroes by insisting that their limitation is the basis of a spiritual search, a pattern that neatly parallels the dialectic of O'Connor's aesthetic: with the legacy of a Jamesian aesthetic of self-effacement and limitation, O'Connor opens her fiction to the corrosive effects of satire and ambiguity, only to end with a seemingly more secure confirmation of her aesthetic origins. I would say "seemingly," because to many of her readers and to O'Connor herself, the interpretation of her fiction is clouded by psychological forces that pull in the opposite direction of her orthodox intention.

The issue of mechanization is crucial to this process of aesthetic reevaluation and formulation. Growing up in the postwar South at the point of its greatest industrial transformation and social change, O'Connor observed a radically different land from that of earlier southern writers. When Faulkner wrote of the machine, he still had the agrarian ways very much in mind if not as a viable future, at least as an experienced past. Almost all of his characters could remember with some nostalgia the pre-industrial South in which the automobile was a rarity. Even Allen Tate, who outlived O'Connor by fifteen years, grew up in a southern cultural milieu which was centered mythically if not actually in the agrarian past. For O'Connor, perhaps because she was a woman and because of her illness, the modernization of her region was a more compelling, inescapable reality. The transformation of the physical landscape of the South and the concurrent transfiguration of human manners and values became O'Connor's primary subject, and the enormous pressures of dealing with this material led to shifts in the aesthetic which O'Connor inherited from her predecessors. With O'Connor the southern aesthetic for the first time fully accepted mechanization as the permanent and inescapable destiny of the region. Whatever theological fable O'Connor felt compelled to satisfy on the symbolic level of her stories, the concrete reality out of which she writes is the fact of sweeping social change with all the dislocation, destruction, and excitement it brings about. O'Connor is writing a fiction of "outrage," as Ihab Hassan recognizes, in which there is "a radical threat to man's nature." In this Post-Modernist fiction, the sense of outrage arises not out of time, as it does in the writing of Modernists, but from space, so that the southern landscape becomes a metaphor for violence.

Although the outrage of which Hassan writes is present in all O'Connor's books, the stories that comprise Everything That Rises Must Converge, written toward the end of her life, contain the greatest sense of a mechanical world. As several critics have noted, these stories center on the conflict between parents and children, and this conflict, as Claire Katz states, resembles the larger global struggle of technological society "to assert the magnitude of the individual against the engulfing enormity of a technological society which fragments social roles, shatters community, and splits off those qualities of warmth, intimacy and mutual dependence which nourish a sense of identity." According to Katz, "the environment becomes a projection of sadistic impulses and fears," yet there is no sense of any attempt or even wish to flee from the technological landscape. Instead, its sadistic power to corrode human feeling and to unveil illusions about the meaningfulness of human life is willingly embraced by the characters and by the author. The extent to which O'Connor relished the technological landscape is implied in her description of the New South as "a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech."

One might argue, as Katz has, that the nourishment that O'Connor received from the barren landscape of the New South is the result of a Freudian necessity to repress and violate the Ego: "Her peculiar insistence on absolute powerlessness as a condition of salvation so that any assertion of autonomy elicits violence with a vengeance … suggest[s] that at the center of her work is a psychological demand which overshadows her religious intent." Despite the accuracy of much of what Katz has to say, one can recognize the need for "absolute powerlessness," I think, without attributing it to a Freudian conflict of unspecified origin. A more convincing argument may be made for the aesthetic necessity of experiencing barrenness and powerlessness. The timing of O'Connor's arrival as a fiction writer required her participation in a southern literary tradition which had become dominated by New Criticism with its bias toward a Jamesian theory of narrative. At the same time, her coming to adulthood coincided with the period of greatest technological change in the South, so that the only authentic subject for her art was modernization. It was not necessarily a projection of O'Connor's psychological need to experience violation.

The New South, in which O'Connor was among the first generation to grow up, was much changed from the South of the young William Faulkner. The southern phenomenon of industrialization was also different from that of the North, in which the industrial and urban experience was long familiar. Certainly one would have to return to the writing of Emerson or Melville to find recorded the fresh sense of outrage with which the southerners of O'Connor's generation write of the machine, an outrage that helps to explain why the machine is so often associated with the startling epiphanies at the end of her stories. Indeed, the "sadistic" landscape is the source of the "richest" humor, a paradoxical comedy that arises from our relief at admitting what we already know: that human beings are often little more "human" than machines. In her treatment of the New South, the Faulknerian portrayal of the destruction of the wilderness or the ghastly rise of the Snopeses in the social order is inconceivable because the distortions of landscape and social order brought about by mechanization are intrinsic to O'Connor's world: the mechanical is so closely connected with the human condition as to make consciousness for any length of time unbearable without the recognition that we have been reduced to insensibility and repetition.

More fully than in either of her previous books, O'Connor presents an unremittingly mechanical world in Everything That Rises Must Converge. The shift toward the use of males as central intelligences may be connected with the intention to present the milieu of machinery and technological knowledge, although the farming operations of Mrs. May and Mrs. Turpin reflect a fully developed appreciation of the "benefits" of technology. If a maturing of O'Connor's aesthetic has taken place in this collection, as I believe it has, it is toward an appreciation of the richness of the "barrenness" of technology. O'Connor's satire of mechanization is no longer as overtly funny as it had been in A Good Man Is Hard to Find because O'Connor has meditated the distinction, raised by philosophers such as Jacques Maritain, between "Making" or productive action unrelated to the use of its product, and the modern sense of "making" as industrial production. While Mrs. Turpin's pride in the cleanliness of her swine is certainly grotesque, her understanding of the farming operation is not entirely overwhelmed by the technological emphasis on ends. Her appreciation of a certain aesthetic of hog-farming, however comic it is made to seem by O'Connor's narrator, lies somewhere between the Scholasticist notion of use-less and the Modern use-ful forms of Action. The best stories in this collection—"Greenleaf," "Parker's Back," and "A View of the Woods" among them—are equally unresolved: they lead us neither to embrace nor reject industrialization but to marvel at the ambiguities of the human condition in its fundamental mechanicalness. Carlson's reading of "Parker's Back"—that "Parker intuitively grasps and rationally rejects … the union of spirit and matter, for the natural has no lasting meaning except to the degree that it is informed by the supernatural"—does not recognize that Parker's "search" is carried out through the mechanical world of the tattoo parlor and the pool hall. Certainly, the tattoo parlor has functioned aesthetically as more than "the false temple": it is the landscape that is as necessary to Parker's understanding of himself as was Dante's mountain called Purgatory. Similarly, Mr. Fortune is more than "the modern fortune hunter, unable to accept nature for what she is rather than for what he can get out of her." By accepting the Post-Modernist landscape as her necessary canvas, O'Connor has recognized that to some extent the attitude of mechanized culture toward nature will always be "what he can get out of her" and this recognition has indelibly marked her aesthetic.

Even Sheppard, perhaps the most "hopeless" of O'Connor's protagonists, reflects the maturity of the Post-Modernist aesthetic. Though we are tempted to label him as one of O'Connor's "intellectuals," a moral ingénue who has fled the complexity of human life for a self-assured life of rationalization, Sheppard arrives at the most tragic sort of knowledge only because he has been immersed in the technological culture. His occupational specialization in testing, his belief that an IQ score measures the worth of a person, his faith that a special shoe, the product of medical technology, will bolster the image of a juvenile delinquent who sees the world as grotesquely evil are examples of technological society's most fervid expressions of compassion. Sheppard's act of making a telescope available to Rufus Johnson is an attempt to free the boy's perception from cultural limitation.

The physical world is inherently "mechanical" to O'Connor, and Sheppard is beginning at the proper point in the journey to self-understanding. Restricted in his own physical senses, inhibited by his hypersensitivity to touch and smell, Sheppard lives with a child who moves like a "mechanical toy" and has taken on a delinquent rebel whose reflexive criminal acts assume no sense of freedom, an adolescent whose insults Sheppard describes accurately as "part of the boy's defensive mechanism." Rufus Johnson is almost a parody of the modern, a grotesque double of Sheppard himself, for he cynically advances the traditionalist religious rhetoric of his father only to further his own destructive whimsy. The point is that Rufus is the distortion of modernity, while Sheppard is the true modern, sincere in his intentions if uncertain of his direction. A rural transplant to the city who is cynical of "progress" but unable to live within the limitations of a pre-modern culture which his father's Fundamentalism evokes, Rufus lives with a despair which is expressed in his comment to Norton that "'if you live long enough, you'll go to hell.'"

The major action of the story is Sheppard's gradual awakening to the mechanism of the world in which he lives, and the key symbol for this mechanism is the telescope. Unlike Rufus, who sees the telescope as a possession, an object of selfishness, and unlike Norton, who naively assumes that the instrument is the means to sight his lost mother, Sheppard feels that the telescope is a means of instruction. O'onnor's depiction of Sheppard as "instructor" is not predominately ironic, for he truly desires to teach Rufus and Norton about the future society in which they will live, including the possibility of space travel, and his purchase of the machine is intended to lead to a reformation of Rufus's character. O'Connor's hints that the telescope will lead to self-instruction do not diminish Sheppard's stature as a seeker of knowledge.

His search for knowledge intensifies during his visits to the brace shop, of which the description, like the symbolic interiors of Hawthorne's fiction, grimly symbolizes the human condition of suffering. Forced by the store clerk's complicitory wink to become an accomplice in fitting the shoe to Rufus's foot, Sheppard is struck by the accidental quality of human suffering, and the extent to which the natural failing of the human body is intensified by the mechanical lack of feeling with which it is treated. "'In this shoe,'" the clerk comments, "'he won't know he don't have a normal foot.'" Soon afterwards, Sheppard begins to see himself more accurately in the "distorting mirrors" of Rufus's eyes. Sheppard's own voice becomes increasingly mechanical and his efforts to save Rufus are now "involuntary," indications of a greater understanding of just how difficult the sort of freedom he seeks may be. What Sheppard understands at the conclusion of the story is the difficulty of maintaining his idealism, the moral sincerity that makes him a "shepherd," at the same time that he participates fully in a modern technological culture, working with its necessarily limited possibilities for human freedom and creative action. He has not abandoned his quest to "reach for the stars," even on the night when he finds his only son hanging from the telescope which symbolizes his belief in self-development. Instead, Sheppard has only arrived at the stage where his self-instruction has led to a merging of his positivist assumptions with a broader understanding of the future direction of human life. He has not worked "through" his faith in science but found that it coincides with a knowledge that transcends questions of immediate means. Sheppard's new understanding will never free him from the mechanical element in life, but it will lead to an appreciative humor in which the mechanical nature of life is the object of comic pleasure.

The vision of progress in "A View of the Woods" again surveys the region's transition toward the industrial New South. Once again, the effort to portray the effects of this transformation mark O'Connor's aesthetic strategies more importantly than anything else in the story. By no means a "satire" of the New South or an attempt to suggest a return to the simpler ways of the agrarian life, the story succeeds aesthetically because it does not "promote" alternatives. It oes, however, require the reader to move emotionally into the mechanical heart of the technological society and to replicate the spatial "barrenness" which the modern human condition has imposed.

Repetition, the most important feature of technological life, is a motif throughout the story from its early description of the digging machine which would "gorge itself on clay, then, with the sound of a deep sustained nausea and a slow mechanical revulsion, turn and spit it up" to the exact mirroring of the grandfather's face in Mary Fortune's. The persistent but ultimately unsuccessful effort of Mr. Fortune to comprehend modernity is the central action, for like many of O'Connor's works, the story traces the arrival of the southern countryman at the entrance to modern culture. Fascinated by the machine and by the notion of "progress" which it represents—more awed of course than the sophisticated city dweller would be by these mechanical wonders—Mr. Fortune fails the other human beings around him, however, not because he has abandoned agrarianism for modernity, but because he has not understood modernity well enough. In an important sense, his failure is that he has not come far enough into the technological society. Like the protagonist of "Parker's Back" and other stories of rural immigrants to the city, Mr. Fortune clings inordinately to agrarian concepts of human free will and to sentimentalized ideas of human worth—illusions that have increasingly little application in an urban industrial South. Thinking that progress is his "ally" against a stubbornly independent son-in-law, Mr. Fortune plays into the hands of an enemy which he does not understand.

The sense of Mr. Fortune's misunderstanding of progress is paralleled by the larger community's clouding of the whole notion of urbanization. The fishing camp which is the basis for the new "town" of Fortune, Georgia, is the product of the urban misprision that the pastoral world provides a retreat from an urban workplace which is unliveable but inevitable. The comforts which city dwellers hope to find in the country are based on the mythic illusion that the country offers a simpler life than the city and that the pastoral landscape is the healing retreat for those who have suffered the woes of city life, a notion that O'Connor always dismissed with brisk irony.

Like Sarah Ruth, the fundamentalist wife whose narrow demands of morality seem irresistibly attractive to Parker, the rural southerner in O'Connor's tales is usually hypocritically attracted to the machine culture that he or she claims to despise: Sarah Ruth, who first notices Parker standing beside his broken-down vehicle on the roadside, later insists on a civil wedding ceremony in the Country Ordinary's office. Her insistence on the ugliness of the human body is an expression of her alienation from any satisfactory human identity beyond the mechanical idiom of the fundamentalist, and her final violent rejection of the "idolatrous" Byzantine Christ tattooed on Parker's back indicates a severance of religious rootedness in the past, not the comfortable religious traditionalism that it seems.

Mr. Fortune is among the most significant of O'Connor's advocates of progress. Because he is essentially a countryman without real experience of industrialization, Mr. Fortune is all too susceptible to the allure of the machine, so much so that he wishes to merge with it: sitting in his car with Mary's feet on his shoulders, he seemed "as if he were no more than a part of the automobile." Despite this merging, he understands industrialization in a very imperfect way, for he sees it through the distorting lens of the myth of progress. Much as the railroad appeared to the nineteenth-century American, the bulldozer seems to Mr. Fortune the awe-inspiring savior. Mr. Fortune is one of those "afflicted with the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature by its own efforts" that O'Connor describes in "The Teaching of Literature." As such, he is unusually disturbed by the "natural" fallenness of his son-in-law, whose beatings are inflicted without apparent cause on his favorite granddaughter.

The crucial scene in the story is the beating which Mr. Fortune himself attempts to inflict on Mary. His granddaughter's violent resistance implies that the beating which he inflicts is of a different order than that administered by her father. In fact, Mr. Fortune beats the girl to extract an admission that she is a replication of his attitudes and behavior—that she is the exact product of his training. Most significantly, he wishes Mary to subscribe to his faith in the myth of progress by denying that her father has the right to beat her.

Mary does not recognize her father's violence as "beating" because she understands that the human condition is inherently flawed, or in O'Connor's words that "a sense of loss is natural to us." Coming of a later generation which is quite at home with mechanization and has seen its mark on the landscape with open eyes, Mary Fortune is willing to humor her grandfather's belief in progress up to the point when he decides to spoil the view of the woods by selling her father's cow pasture to erect a filling station. Although she can hardly have any sentimentalized notions of the nature of rural life, Mary insists on preserving the "view," the vision of a transcendent value beyond the reach of a strictly mechanistic philosophy. Even after the tragedy of accidentally killing his granddaughter, Mr. Fortune is still unable to grasp Mary's understanding of mechanism. The conclusion of the story, with the rows of trees marching away across the lake, implies that the need for a transcendent view evades Mr. Fortune even at the end of his life.

Mr. Fortune is consequently in a much worse condition than many of O'Connor's protagonists because there is no recognition on his part of the myth of progress as a myth. Though it is in fact no "monster," the bulldozer appears as such to Mr. Fortune at the end because he failed to humanize the machine by accepting it for what it is. He is still responding to the myth of the machine as savior, so the mechanical beating that he receives from his granddaughter ("five claws in the flesh of his upper arm where she was hanging from while her feet mechanically battered his knees and her free fist pounded him again and again in the chest," is the appropriate mirroring of his own distorting vision. To this limited extent he has managed to inscribe his self on another, the granddaughter who is his favorite only because she appears to acquiesce to his ideas.

Mr. Fortune becomes a truly grotesque figure not because he is the proponent of progress, but because he knows so little about the modern industrial culture. Understanding none of the larger psychic and emotional implications of technological society, he has adopted the machine as a kind of toy, and his taking Mary to watch the bulldozer dig up the earth reminds one of a childish sort of play. The extraordinary sadness of the story derives from the fact that Mr. Fortune is so much the product of an outdated generation that once exuberantly hailed the machine as the sign of a utopian age. In the modern South, Mr. Fortune is bound to be a lonely exponent of this enthusiasm.

In "A View of the Woods," O'Connor's purpose is not to satirize the industrialization of the South but to explore the necessity of the mechanical element in human society. O'Connor understands that flight from mechanism is more damaging than the machine itself, which has no power to harm those who understand it. More important, the mechanical plays a key role in O'Connor's comic aesthetic. The machine is not just a neutral force to be controlled by humane purposes—it is the best representative symbol for the repetitive, mechanical element in which human beings live most of the time. Typically, human beings resemble machines in O'Connor's fiction, because as she views everyday life, the "normal" condition is one of insensitivity and automatism. However, if "mechanical" describes the normal condition of human society, it is also the basic trope in O'Connor's fictional aesthetic. To be "mechanical" is to be in a condition which is capable of warmth, humor, and compassion; it is also to be in a perpetual condition of need, just as Parker ("heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread") standing before the tattooed man at the fair feels a "peculiar unease" about "the fact that he existed." Unlike the Modernist generation of writers who viewed the machine by and large as a monstrous intrusion into the normal human society in which meaningful action was possible, O'Connor has depicted the mechanical level of reality as the primary and normative subject for her art. The artistic challenge that O'Connor set for herself was to portray the response of southerners to modernization without allowing herself to regress to thinking in terms of the agrarian myth. O'Connor was in no sense a traditionalist whose work calls for a return to a simpler, agrarian community. Her art is more severely realistic in its treatment of the psychological reactions of southerners to change than that of her predecessors, for her recognition of mechanization as the inevitable, permanent condition of human society permits no recourse to escape through a mythic history of pastoral. Instead, O'Connor's realism is the aesthetic foundation for a comic art in which the concrete details of mechanization are the source of her greatest humor.

Alice Hall Petry (essay date Spring 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3132

SOURCE: "Julian and O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 101-08.

[In the following essay, Hall Petry compares Julian from O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" to the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate and discusses their rejection of Christianity.]

In a brief note published in 1978, Mary Frances Hopkins argues that critics of Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" should desist from imposing the name "Mrs. Chestny" on Julian's mother. "No author names characters more deftly than does O'Connor, with all the deadliness of a Thackeray or Waugh but with none of the weaknesses inherent in their lack of subtlety," so the omission of a name for the mother is not an oversight but rather a statement in itself. As much as there is a studied purpose behind O'Connor's decision to give her character the generic label of "Julian's mother," so too there is a rationale underlying the name of the son: Julian. Marion Montgomery sees it as evocative of St. Julian the Hospitaller, while a more suggestive explanation is offered by Josephine Hendin. She perceives a connection between the fictional Julian and the emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 331 or 332 to AD 363), remembered to this day for his vigorous campaign to rid the Roman Empire of its official religion, Christianity, and to reinstate the paganism of the ancient Greeks. Writes Hendin, "Julian's relation to his mother and the past she represents is implied in his name. He is an apostate Julian raised to be a gentleman…. Although raised as a Christian,… Julian still yearns after the old gods, or, more specifically, the old Godhighs." Hendin takes the matter no further, unfortunately, for the connections between the Julian of O'Connor's story and Flavius Claudius Julianus are too numerous to be coincidental. More to the point, these connections help to guide the reader's responses to this most analyzed and enigmatic story.

In terms of their personal situations and temperaments, the fictional and the historical Julian have much in common. Each was born to the purple, albeit this proved to be a mixed blessing for both. The Julian of O'Connor's story is perpetually reminded by his mother of his aristocratic background: "'Your great-grandfather was a former governor of this state…. Your grandfather was a prosperous landowner. Your grandmother was a Godhigh.'" This is cold comfort for Julian, whose knowledge of his aristocratic background serves only to intensify his bitterness that this blue-blooded youth must sell typewriters for a living and accompany his mother on weekly trips to the YWCA. Julian the Apostate found his own aristocratic links problematic at best, deadly at worst. Although eventually he would be designated Caesar (AD 355) and then acclaimed Emperor during the Gallic campaigns (AD 360), Julian spent his entire childhood and adolescence under house arrest at a series of private homes and fortresses scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The power struggles of the fourth century hit close to home: His father and brother had been slaughtered before his eyes by his older cousin, the emperor Constantius, who spared the five-year-old Julian but kept him surrounded by guards and spies until he reluctantly named him Caesar to replace Julian's older brother, the Caesar Gallus, whom Constantius had murdered in AD 354. The point would not be lost on a writer such as O'Connor, who utilizes "estrangement within the family" as a major source of "sublimated violence and overt feuding" in her stories. Such familial internecine strife is particularly evident in "Everything That Rises," and no better model for verbal and physical violence directed against blood relatives could be found than the personal and historical situation of Julian the Apostate. Fourth-century Rome was characterized by political turmoil, bloody religious clashes, a costly policy of military aggression, and severe inflation. Whether one attributes this situation to climactic change, birth control, or low-level lead poisoning from the city's water system, the fact remains that Julian the Apostate lived in a world where old standards, old values, and the secure old lifestyle had been obliterated. To someone living in the South of the early 1960s, chaotic fourth-century Rome would be an apt emblem of the turmoil attendant upon the Civil Rights Movement, as Congress attempted to deal legislatively with social and economic changes which had been underway for a century and accelerated by a series of international wars. As Julian's mother laments, "'the world is in such a mess,'" and under the circumstances it is not surprising that familial strife, especially between generations representing the Old South and the New, would come to the fore. No wonder either that both the fictional and the historical Julian cultivated salient features of their personalities to establish their identities and to ensure survival in a world turned upside down.

Both Julians became withdrawn. O'Connor's Julian longs to live "where the nearest neighbors would be three miles away on either side," and it is his habit to withdraw "into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time. This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself…. From it he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without." His sole companion is his mother, whom he can barely tolerate, and there is no mention of friends. The contemporaries of the Apostate record that he was singularly reserved and had "the air of being withdrawn in an inner world." He had no friends, his only close associate having been the eunuch Mardonios, a teacher whom he regarded as a mother figure. His marriage to Helena, sister of the murderous Constantius, was a political arrangement. The death in childbirth of Helena and their infant son had no impact whatsoever on Julian and, according to his contemporary biographer Libanius, "had it not been for that single encounter … Julian 'would have ended his days knowing nothing of human sexual intercourse save by report.'" The Apostate's chastity may have had a religious basis, but it was widely perceived as part of a lifelong pattern of asocial self-denial verging on self-destruction. He ate little and slept on straw; his death in battle from a Persian spear was regarded as suicide, since seasoned officers of the Roman army were not wont to dismiss their own bodyguards and go into battle without armor. The self-denying Apostate is thus an ironically monumental prototype for O'Connor's Julian, who apparently has no girlfriend, no friends to help him after the death of his mother, and a histrionic impulse to feel like Saint Sebastian, "pinned to the door frame, waiting … for the arrows to begin piercing him" simply because he must accompany his mother on a short bus trip. The self-destructiveness of the Apostate raises the question of whether O'Connor's Julian deliberately (consciously or otherwise) instigated the death of his mother. Certainly he knew that she had high blood pressure, he could plainly see her face turning "unnaturally red," and her death would leave him totally alone. Hence his torment of her would be in keeping with the pattern of asocial behavior and self-denial which characterized both himself and his historical namesake. And inasmuch as his identity is inextricably linked with hers (she has no name: just "Julian's mother"), her death would be a type of suicide for him.

Of course, an impulse towards self-destruction can stem from any number of factors, but, for both Julians, it may be symptomatic of their inability to deal effectively with reality. It is understandable how each man—his personal identity, social standing, family, and nation tottering—might turn some of his frustration inward rather than face directly the problems of the real world, especially when the source of distress either is murderous (cousin Constantius) or intangible (the "convergence" of various elements of American society at mid-century). Besides self-destructiveness, other modes of dealing with (or evading) harsh reality are evident in the two Julians. Both embodied and nurtured a childlike quality. Historian Robert Browning, for example, feels that in many ways the Emperor Julian, even after establishing himself as a canny politician and courageous army officer, was like "a child without experience" thanks to a life spent in isolation. In O'Connor's story, Julian's mother is quite correct that her son "was still growing up…. She said he didn't yet know a thing about 'life,' that he hadn't even entered the real world," and his childlike status is particularly evident in his close associations with little Carver, the son of his mother's "black double." Hence withdrawal from society, whether self-induced or imposed from without, leads to an immaturity that can serve as an effective buffer between the self and society.

Another way of responding to harsh reality is to become immersed in fantasies and dreams. Reportedly the Apostate turned from the Christianity of his youth to paganism in part because of a series of dreams in which he felt the gods were guiding him to greatness; indeed, his decision to do battle against the heavily-armed, elephant-mounted Persians minus his armor is said to have been his response to signs from the gods that they would favor him no longer. O'Connor's Julian fantasizes extensively about befriending educated Negroes, abandoning his mother at the bus stop, becoming engaged to a Black girl, anything that would enable him to evade the immediate world.

A less readily apparent mode of responding to an unpleasant reality is to lose oneself in the world of books, even to become a kind of perpetual student. The Apostate "had a very high regard for learning" and was exceptionally well-read in both Christian and pagan (ancient Greek) texts; he even brought his library with him on military campaigns and immersed himself in reading rather than consort with his officers. He also was a facile writer, best-known for his "Against the Galileans" tract ["Galileans" being his pejorative term for Christians]. Likewise, O'Connor's Julian acquired, "on his own initiative," a "first-rate education" at a "third-rate college," habitually reads newspapers, and longs to be a writer. But the intelligence and education of both Julians are misdirected, subverted, and perhaps even overrated. The generally sympathetic Browning, for example, notes that in "Against the Galileans" the Apostate "is repetitive and woolly, unable to distinguish between the fundamental and the trivial. Throughout his life he tried hard to be a great thinker and a great writer, although nature had not fitted him to be either." The "woolly" mind of the Apostate helps clarify how the reader is to respond to O'Connor's Julian, an important issue since the story is told from his point of view. The example of the Apostate confirms the reader's suspicions that Julian hides behind newspapers rather than read them, and that his asking a Black for matches when he does not even smoke betokens true woolly-mindedness more than liberal zeal. It is difficult, of course, not to sympathize with someone whose mother may be charitably termed "exasperating," but O'Connor counters the reader's impulse to sympathize with Julian by drawing parallels with his ancient Roman namesake, "Julian the Wicked," a man so reprehensible that, 1600 years after his death, Christianity "still shudders at his memory."

One of the elements that renders the Apostate reprehensible is that he used noble means for evil ends: He cultivated his tendency towards intellectualism and then channelled his considerable knowledge and reasoning ability into undermining his own faith and destroying that of others. For all his passion for dreams, the Apostate approached paganism in a coldly rational way: The gods had promised him success; success had come; ergo, continue to worship the gods, and impel others to do the same. Further, he equated paganism with Hellenism and Hellenism with all the best that civilization had to offer. It was quite rational, therefore, to destroy the upstart religion that embodied no culture of its own and which seemed to extol the emotional at the expense of the practical: "Basically [the Apostate] supposed that it was a matter of explanation. If the absurdities of Christian doctrine and the duplicity and hypocrisy of Christian practice were pointed out, people could not fail to be impressed by them and would return to the religion of their ancestors in some form." O'Connor's Julian assumes the same approach. He regards his mother's devotion to the past as irrational, a refutation of logic. When she speaks emotionally of Julian's Chestny and Godhigh ancestors, he responds rationally: "'Will you look around you,' he said tensely, 'and see where you are now?'" While he insists that "true culture is in the mind, the mind," she insists that "'it's in the heart,'" a response which would have been untenable to the cynical Apostate, who demanded "rational acceptance" as an emperor rather than the "unthinking, emotional loyalty" of his people. Smugly satisfied with their education and disdainful of emotions, the two Julians are so similar in temperament that historians and literary critics alike frequently seem to be discussing the "other Julian." What Classical historian Browning writes of the Apostate is certainly true for both Julians: He was "a bookish,… sober young man, a little inclined to priggishness and more than a little pleased with himself." Likewise, what Patricia Dinneen Maida writes of O'Connor's character applies equally well to the Apostate: "Julian's cynicism shuts him off from any human association. His chief asset, his intelligence, is misdrected: he freely scorns the limitations of others and assumes a superior stance." Biographies of the Apostate and critical studies of "Everything That Rises" repeatedly characterize the two Julians as cynics, as misanthropes, as dissemblers. It is in fact their fundamental duplicity—a duplicity facilitated by their misguided capacity for rational thought and their misdirected knowledge—which is perhaps the most suggestive similarity between the two Julians.

The duplicity of the two Julians is most apparent in their ostensible support for social minorities. The Apostate, for example, after pretending to be a good Christian for a decade, suddenly revealed himself to be a pagan and embarked on a campaign to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by Vespasian and Titus 300 years earlier. His campaign earned him the title of restaurator templorum, and he has had "a good reputation with Jews ever since." But Julianus disliked Jews intensely, as his personal writings testify. His impulse to rebuild the Temple was insistently political, a coolly calculated, purely rational means of consolidating his personal position and, above all, of "unsettling and discrediting his Christian enemies." The situation is identical to that of Julian and the Blacks in "Everything That Rises." Julian appears to be open-minded and selfless; he goes to great lengths to befriend Blacks, although "he had never been successful at making any Negro friends." But as John R. May recognizes, Julian "wants to hurt his mother more than make amends to God or Negroes," precisely as the Apostate sought to hurt Christians more than make amends to Jews.

What passes for a highly liberal, pro-minority stance may appear to be an immersion in reality, but, in fact, it is part of the pattern of avoiding reality. Both Julians are essentially reactionary. The Apostate, faced with an empire in turmoil at all levels, "took refuge in a return to a past which, like so many historical pasts, was in part mythical." For the Apostate, that partly mythical past was the pagan world of the Hellenes, a model of orderliness where the cosmos was parceled out to pantheon of gods who provided personal, practical advice through the medium of dreams. It appealed strongly to his love of reason and was quite unlike the state religion of Christianity, which he regarded as illogical, hypocritical, and effeminate in its emphasis on a loving, forgiving God. The "part mythical" past to which O'Connor's Julian longs to return is the Old South signified by the family mansion: "He never … thought of it without longing…. It remained in his mind as his mother had known it. It appeared in his dreams regularly." For all his ostensible support of civil rights and his verbal rejection of the segregated world of the Old South—"He never spoke of [the mansion] without contempt"—Julian's stance is false. The world he longs for is that of his grandparents and great-grandparents, in which he would have a secure, superior position, and in which that bottom rail would remain firmly at the bottom. For all their seeming liberalism and insistence upon reason, then, both Julians had a reactionary impulse that ventured upon sentimentalism. So much for cool rationalism.

But reactionism is rarely a long-term solution to widespread, accelerated change, and for both Julians, a dramatic encounter with harsh reality ends their respective stories. The Apostate, feeling abandoned by the pagan gods who previously had guided his good fortune through dreams, apparently deliberately allowed himself to be killed in battle. It is generally held that his dying words—"Vicisti, Galilea" ["Thou hast triumphed, Galilean"]—were his acknowledgment not simply that his empire-wide policy of reinstating paganism had failed, but that it had failed due to the rightness of Christianity: the evil Julian finally saw the light. In view of the parallels between the two Julians, the Apostate's conversion to Christianity when faced with adversity tends to confirm that "Everything That Rises," much touted as O'Connor's one attempt to deal with what she termed "That Issue," is more a story about the individual acceptance of Christianity in the increasingly secularized United States of the twentieth century than a story of racial tolerance. Carter W. Martin is doubtless correct that, although she does not express herself directly concerning God or faith, the mother is a "right-thinking Christian." Hence, Julian's rejection of her may be perceived as a rejection of Christianity which, in its way, is as virulent as that of the Apostate. But at the end of the story, Julian is about to make "his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow" and, for the Roman Catholic O'Connor, that "is the only world there is." From the traditional Christian perspective, the ending of the story is insistently affirmative in that the Galilean has triumphed once again.

Julian the Apostate proved to be "a Christian malgré lui," and this suggests that the close connections between O'Connor's Julian and his historical namesake have implications for other works by O'Connor. What Miles Orvell has identified as "the Rayber type" in her fiction, a character noted for "a desperate liberal zeal, a predictably thwarted sexual or married life, and an impulse toward self-martyrdom," may more profitably be termed "the Apostate type." In her creation of Rayber, Haze Motes, Joy-Hulga, and a host of others who use intellectualism, reason, and formal learning in their doomed attempts to deny Christ, Flannery O'Connor evidently found confirmation—if not direct inspiration—in the remarkable story of Julian the Apostate.

Alice Hall Petry (essay date Spring 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581

SOURCE: "O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge," in The Explicator, Vol. 45, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 51-4.

[In the following essay, Hall Petry describes the place of the YWCA in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge."]

As Patricia Dinneen Maida has pointed out, Flannery O'Connor "does not flood her work with details; she is highly selective—choosing only those aspects that are most revealing." The justice of this observation in regard to "Everything That Rises Must Converge" was confirmed recently by John Ower, who argues persuasively that Julian's mother's having to offer a penny to the little Black boy in lieu of a nickel illustrates the ascendancy of Lincolnesque racial tolerance over Jeffersonian segregation in the South of the Civil Rights Movement. O'Connor's capacity to utilize detail symbolically in "Everything That Rises" is evident even in the destination of Julian's mother: the local "Y." Mentioned no less than five times in this brief story, the Y serves as a gauge of the degeneration of the mother's Old South family and, concomitantly, of the breakdown of old, church-related values in the United States of the mid-twentieth century.

As Julian's mother is wont to point out, she is related to the Godhighs and the Chestnys, prominent families of the Old South whose former status is conveyed nicely by the high-ceilinged, double-staircased mansion which Julian had seen as a child, and of which he still dreams regularly. But with the end of the plantation system, the mother's glorious ancestry is meaningless: she has had to work to put her son through a third-rate college, she apparently does not own a car (hence the dreaded, fatal ride on the integrated bus), and she lives in a poor neighborhood which had been fashionable forty years earlier. One of the most telling indicators of her loss of socioeconomic status is, however, also one of the most subtle: she participates in a program at the YWCA.

As Maida notes, a reducing class at the Y is a "bourgeois event"; but more than this, it suggests how much Julian's mother, and the socioeconomic system she represents, has declined by the early 1960s. The Young Women's Christian Association has been functioning in some form in the United States since 1866; the national organization of the "Young Women's Christian Association of the United States of America" was effected in 1906. From the beginning, it was a group whose local chapters were organized and financed by the very wealthy, including Grace Hoadley Dodge (1856–1914), the daughter and great-granddaughter of prominent American philanthropists. The civic-minded Miss Dodge managed to supplement her own generous personal contributions by soliciting enormous gifts from captains of industry such as George W. Vanderbilt, and YWCA chapters spread throughout the United States, including the rapidly industrializing post-World War I South. In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, then, a woman with the family background of Julian's mother would have been an organizer and financial supporter of the YWCA; but to actually participate in the programs would have been unheard-of, since the Association was intended specifically to benefit "young women of the operative classes"—that is, young women who were either immigrants or poor native-born country girls seeking employment in large cities, and who were "dependent on their own exertion for support." That the reducing class Julian's mother attends is for "working girls over fifty" is thus not only a transparent joke on the self-image of a middle-aged woman (i.e., a fifty-plus "girl") but alo a sad commentary on Julian's mother having become one of the desperate members of "the operative classes": with the loss of the Godhigh/Chestny plantation, she is simply another poor, naive country girl trying to survive in a hostile urban environment. And the hat and gloves she pathetically wears to the Y—those emblems of wealth and respectability of women such as Grace Dodge—serve only to underscore her socioeconomic decline.

At the same time that it sought to help working girls on a personal level, the YWCA of the United States was a surprisingly important force in national and international affairs. At the turn of the century the YWCA, under the leadership of its "industrial secretary" Florence Simms, was actively involved in exposing the poor working conditions of women and children and campaigning for legislation to improve those conditions. Through the publication of books, pamphlets, and magazines (such as Association Monthly, begun in 1907) and a series of well-publicized national conventions and international conferences, the YWCA called for America's participation in the World Court and the League of Nations; sought the modification of divorce laws, improved Sino-American relations, and world-wide disarmament; advocated sex education as early as 1913; and, through the platform known as the "Social Ideals of the Churches," campaigned vigorously for labor unions—a bold move at a time (1920) when anything resembling Bolshevism was anathema. In short, in its early years, the YWCA never shrank from controversial social issues and often was a pioneer in facing and correcting social problems. That stance was perhaps best illustrated by the 1915 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in which Black and white members of the YWCA met to discuss ways to improve race relations in the United States. In fine, had "Everything That Rises" been written in 1915, that YWCA to which she travels throughout the story might well have been the common meeting-ground of Julian's mother and her "black double"; but only 45 years after the pioneering interracial convention in Louisville, the YWCA had declined to the point where, far from being a center of racial understanding and integration, it was essentially a free health club for poor white women. The Black woman, after all, gets off at the same bus stop as Julian's mother, but there is nothing to suggest that she, too, is headed for the Y. And much as the YWCA had lost its earlier status as a force for racial understanding, it also had lost its status as a source of practical help: although the Y is only four blocks from where his mother collapses, Julian does not go there for help; and, unlike the early days when the YWCA would literally send its members to factories to conduct prayer meetings for the working women, no one from the Y comes to Julian's mother's aid. Where only a few years before the Y would have been the first source of aid for a desperate woman, by the early 1960s, it was as meaningless and impersonal as the gymnasium to which it had been reduced. The startling decline of the once powerful, liberal, and comforting YWCA parallels the decline of the Old South—and the old America—embodied in Julian's mother. As Driskell and Brittain observe, "the world around her has changed drastically and no longer represents the values she endorses."

The aspect of the YWCA's decline which would most have disturbed a writer such as O'Connor, however, is its secularization, for she knew only too well that the average American of the twentieth century was out of touch with Christianity. From its inception, the YWCA was regarded as the "handmaid of the Church"; in the early years, "The Sunday afternoon 'gospel meeting' was the heart of the whole organization; always there were Bible classes, and mission study extended the interest beyond the local community and out into the world," while the improved working conditions and wages of the working girls were seen not as ends in themselves, but as means of generating "true piety in themselves and others." But as early as World War I, the religious dimension of the Association was losing ground—a phenomenon noted with dismay by YWCA leaders, who nonetheless recognized that it was part of a nationwide move towards secularization: "The period extending from the day when Bible study was taken for granted as being all-important to the day when there might be no Bible study in the program of a local Association shows changes, not only in the Association, but in religion in general." Those changes were reflected in the requirements for admission to membership in the YWCA. To join the nineteenth-century "Ladies' Christian Association," a woman had to prove herself a member "in good standing of an Evangelical church"; by 1926, church membership was no longer a requirement, and the declaration that "I desire to enter the Christian fellowship of the Association" was deemed adequate for membership. Small wonder that the gymnasium, a standard feature of even the earliest YWCA chapters since bodily health was seen as conducive to spiritual health, became divorced form its Christian context: for many Americans after midcentury, "the Y" is synonymous with "the gym." Indeed, the secularization of the YWCA is conveyed dramatically by its nicknames. To its earliest members, the young Women's Christian Association was known informally as "the Association." That emphasis on Christian sisterhood is obscured by the popular abbreviation "YWCA," and it is completely lost by the Association's slangy contemporary nickname, "the Y"—a term with an implied emphasis on youth. It is ironically appropriate, then, that a "working girl over fifty" in youth-minded America would go to the Y for a reducing class, apparently oblivious to the Association's tradition of Christian living and racial understanding. For O'Connor, Julian's mother would be painfully typical of most mid-century Americans, who neither understand nor appreciate the meaning and purpose of the original Young Women's Christian Association. As such, Julian's mother's situation—like the degeneration of the YWCA into a gymnasium—is a gauge of the secularization of American life and the loss of the "old" values and standards.

David Jauss (essay date Winter 1988)

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SOURCE: "Flannery O'Connor's Inverted Saint's Legend," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 76-8.

[In the following essay, Jauss asserts that in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" the name of the protagonist is an allusion to St. Julian Hospitator, and that "By subtly calling our attention to St. Julian and the story of his life, O'Connor transforms this story of a tragic bus trip to the Y into an ironic, inverted saint's legend."]

As many critics have noted, Flannery O'Connor's stories are populated with characters who bear symbolic names. Many of these names are so overtly symbolic that we wouldn't be surprised to encounter them in an allegory by Bunyan or Spenser: witness, among the many examples, Joy, Mrs. Hopewell, and Mrs. Freeman from "Good Country People"; Mr. Paradise from "The River"; Mr. Fortune from "A View of the Woods"; Sheppard from "The Lame Shall Enter First"; and, of course, the Misfit from "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Other names, such as Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf from "Greenleaf," are only slightly less overt in their symbolism. But at least one of O'Connor's symbolic names is subtle and obscure enough to have escaped critical notice. I am referring to Julian, the protagonist of "Everything that Rises Must Converge." As both the story's events and its references to sainthood and martyrdom suggest, Julian's name is an ironic allusion to St. Julian Hospitator. By subtly calling our attention to St. Julian and the story of his life, O'Connor transforms this story of a tragic bus trip to the Y into an ironic, inverted saint's legend.

Early in the story, O'Connor establishes the idea that Julian is an inverted saint by comparing him to Saint Sebastian "waiting … for the arrows to begin piercing him" and by describing his weekly chore of taking his mother downtown to the Y as a "martyrdom." These religious allusions are obviously, even heavy-handedly, ironic. Julian is clearly no Saint Sebastian. He is not waiting to give his life for his faith (indeed, he has no faith); he is merely waiting for his mother to quit fussing with her new hat. And he is not a martyr but a persecutor, for he cruelly drives his mother toward a fatal stroke. The ironic discrepancy between Julian and Saint Sebastian's "martyrdoms" clearly suggests that Julian is anything but saintly. By inverting the legend of St. Julian in her story's plot, O'Connor not only extends this suggestion but also explains precisely why Julian fails to achieve salvation.

A devout, even a fierce, Roman Catholic, O'Connor may have encountered the story of St. Julian Hospitator in any of a number of works of hagiography, but most likely she discovered it in a tale by one of her favorite authors, Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert's "The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator" was based on standard versions of the legend found in Jacopo da Voragine's Golden Legend and the thirteenth-century Legend of St. Julian, as well as on the stained-glass window at Rouen Cathedral depicting the saint's life that Flaubert mentions at the end of his tale. Briefly, all of these sources describe Julian's youthful cruelty to people and animals, his parricide (he murders his mother and father in his bed, mistaking them for his wife and a lover), and his attempt to do penance for his sins by "spending his life in the service of others," in particular by helping travelers cross a dangerous river. The legend concludes with him ferrying a leper across the river during a hail storm, then taking him into his hut for the night. Although the leper is so contagious that everything he touches is instantly covered with scaly pustules, Julian shows no concern for his own health and sacrifices everything he has for the leper. When the leper says, "I am hungry," Julian gives him the last of his food. When he says, "I am thirsty," Julian gives him all of his remaining water. And finally, when the leper complains that he is cold, Julian gives him his bed, then lies down on him to warm him, "mouth to mouth, breast to breast." Through this act of compassionate union—what we might call "convergence"—with a repellent stranger, Julian is redeemed: the leper turns into Christ, and Julian rises to heaven in His arms.

Like his saintly counterpart, O'Connor's Julian serves as a "ferryman"—he helps his mother not from one side of a dangerous river to the other but from their home to the Y—and he is a parricide, for he mercilessly drives her blood pressure up until she suffers the stroke he has previously and unsympathetically imagined her having. But O'Connor reverses the order of her story's parallels with the saint's legend and inverts their significance. Whereas the saint first murders his mother, then expiates his guilt by selflessly risking his life to help strangers make a dangerous passage, O'Connor's Julian browbeats his mother into a fatal stroke after he selfishly refuses to help her make her simpler journey safely. And whereas St. Julian treats even the most noxious of strangers as someone deserving of love and sympathy, Julian treats his own mother as if she were "a stranger." Given these inversions, it is not surprising that the two stories end in ironically opposed ways. While the legend of St. Julian ends with his rising to heaven, O'Connor's inverted saint's legend ends with Julian "postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow," the world that St. Julian has transcended by sacrificing himself for others. Julian ends, then, where the saint began.

As all of this suggests, Julian fails to "rise" because he refuses to "converge" with his mother as St. Julian converged with the leper. He fails to recognize Christ in his mother and treats her like a leper, discriminating against her in a crueller way than she, with her condescending gift of a penny to a black boy, discriminates against blacks. He fails, too, O'Connor implies, to realize what St. Julian did: that every act, even if it's as mundane as giving someone a crust of black bread or taking one's mother to the Y on the bus, is an opportunity for redemption.

On the surface, "Everything that Rises Must Converge" is, until the apocalyptic ending, a relatively mundane account of a bus trip. But because of the story's subtly ironic parallels with the legend of St. Julian, its everyday, worldly events become charged with religious significance. At issue is not merely Julian's relationship with his mother but his very salvation. While the parallels to the saint's legend serve the purpose of ironic deflation—St. Julian becomes ordinary Julian, his boat a bus, and the dangerous river the streets of our modern world—they also serve to suggest that Julian could achieve salvation through something as ordinary as "ferrying" his mother to the Y, provided he did so with self-abnegation and compassion. By inverting the legend of St. Julian, O'Connor forcefully communicates both Julian's failure to achieve redemption and the spiritual perils and possibilities implicit in the most common and mundane acts.

Alice Hall Petry (essay date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: "Miss O'Connor and Mrs. Mitchell: The Example of 'Everything That Rises,'" in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 5-15.

[In the following essay, Hall Petry outlines allusions to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind found in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge."]

Flannery O'Connor knew only too well that she could not assume her audience brought a solid background in Christianity to their readings of her fiction. It was part of the price she paid for being an insistently Roman Catholic writer in the increasingly secularized United States of the mid-twentieth century. One element which she could count on being familiar to any American reader from any socioeconomic or educational stratum was, however, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. That familiarity enabled O'Connor to incorporate into her fiction various echoes of Mitchell's novel, echoes sometimes transparent and sometimes subtle, sometimes parodic and sometimes serious. In "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," for example, the reference to the "preemy" of twelve years before indicates that "General" George Poker Sash had attended the world premiere of the novel's movie version in Atlanta in 1939. Sadly, Sash's finest hour had come not during the Civil War, but during the premiere of the movie which, seventy-five years later, had romanticized and popularized the conflict. Likewise, in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" the grandmother tells little John Wesley that the plantation is "Gone With the Wind. Ha. Ha," her pallid joke pointing, once again, to the pervasive acceptance of Mitchell's rendering of the most painful era in southern history. One O'Connor story which has a special kinship with Mitchell's classic story is "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Taken together, these echoes of Gone with the Wind—some blatant parallels, some ironic reversals—underscore the story's thesis that Julian's and his mother's responses to life in the South of the civil rights movement are unreasonable and, ultimately, self-destructive precisely because those responses are based upon actions and values popularized by Mitchell's book. Even worse, in several instances, actions and values are pathetic distortions of what Mitchell presents in Gone with the Wind.

A clear connection between "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and Gone with the Wind is the mother's hat. As Patricia Dinneen Maida points out, O'Connor is "highly selective" in her choice of details; John Ower confirms this by arguing the importance of the mother offering little Carver a new Lincoln penny in lieu of a Jefferson nickel. Of course, the ugly hat which the mother has purchased for an outrageous $7.50, a hat identical to that of the large black woman, will help confirm that they are "doubles" and, thereby, will make a statement about racial equality. But there is more to the hat than this. Note O'Connor's careful description of it, presented twice: "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. [Julian] decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic." The purple of the hat suggests bruising. Thus it is very appropriate for a woman whose eyes seem bruised and whose face looks purple as her son torments her, and who will literally be struck to the ground by an overstuffed purse. Less obvious is the irony that her black double has no doubt suffered the bruises of psychological and physical abuse during her life in the South, bruises which are less apparent to whites who, for generations, had been conditioned to believe that blacks have less sensitivity to blows than whites. In addition, various commentators have pointed out that the color purple has religious associations, most notably Easter redemption and penance. At the same time, the antipodal orientations conveyed by the purple flap—"down on one side … up on the other"—graphically depict the twin socioeconomic movements in the South: the downward movement of aristocratic families like the Godhighs and the Chestnys, and the upward movement of "upwardly mobile" blacks who, because of improved economic status, have "as much freedom to pursue absurdity as the whites." In part, then, the hat's purple flap renders semiotically the impact of the civil rights movement on southern society. Less clear, however, is why the rest of the hat is green and looks "like a cushion with the stuffing out"—less clear, that is, unless one remembers Gone with the Wind. Overwhelmed by the familial and regional crises engendered by the Civil War, the widowed Scarlett O'Hara is all the more personally dismayed by the attire of Emmie Slattery, a "poor white trash" neighbor who has suddenly stepped up economically by marrying the underhanded Jonas Wilkerson, and who is considering buying Tara: "And what a cunning hat! Bonnets must be out of style, for this hat was only an absurd flat red velvet affair, perched on top of [Emmie's] head like a stiffened pancake." The velvet pancake, however "absurd," does not go unnoticed by Scarlett's creative self, for shortly thereafter the threadbare mistress of Tara, desperate for $300 more for municipal taxes, resolves to construct a new outfit out of household goods and coerce the sum out of Rhett Butler. With the help of Mammy, Scarlett makes a dazzling dress out of the mansion's "moss-green velvet curtains" and a petticoat out of the satin linings of the parterres; her pantalets are trimmed with pieces of Tara's lace curtains. Even the plantation's rooster surrenders his "gorgeous bronze and green-black tail feathers" to decorate the green velvet hat. Ashley Wilkes is duly moved: "he had never known such gallantry as the gallantry of Scarlett O'Hara going forth to conquer the world in her mother's velvet curtains and the tail feathers of a rooster." As Dorothy Walters points out, the fact that Julian's mother's hat looks like a cushion without its stuffing makes her "instantaneously ridiculous…. Imagery deflates ego. What the character conveys is not what he intends," but if one remembers the Scarlett O'Hara connection, it is clear that the hat suggests the mother's desperate bid for dignity, for a Scarlett O'Hara-type "gallantry," as much as it does a deflation of her ego. True, Julian's mother did not actually make her hat out of a cushion, but it is entirely possible that, at some level, Julian's mother—herself a widow from a good southern family down on her luck—may have been identifying with the plucky Scarlett, using her as a role model of a lady who survives by making do with what she has. Indeed one could say of Scarlett just as readily as of Julian's mother that she "had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and put [her child] through school," and Scarlett eventually does attain the economic and social prominence that Julian's mother can only dream of through her son, a would-be writer. Perhaps Scarlett's own makeshift outfit looked as "jaunty and pathetic" as the hat of Julian's mother; but it surely was unique (Scarlett would never "meet [her]self coming and going"), and the encounter with Rhett ultimately led to her successful business career. The redoubtable Scarlett must have been a role model for many women in the same situation as Julian's mother, so the hat—"hideous," "atrocious," "preposterous"—may be seen as her pathetic attempt to emulate not simply a southern belle in dire straits, but the most famous belle of them all. Whether Julian's mother consciously has Scarlett in mind is a moot point. What matters is that she is conducting herself like a romanticized fictional character from a book set a century before. Times, however, have changed.

Nothing illustrates these changing times more readily than the issue of ladyhood, an issue which permeates both "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and Gone with the Wind. Julian's mother insisted that "ladies did not tell their age or weight"; she was "one of the few members of the Y reducing class who arrived in hat and gloves"; and she entered the bus "with a little smile, as if she were going into a drawing room where everyone had been waiting for her." Julian's mother, in short, regards herself as the consummate lady. It is precisely here that she parts company most glaringly with Scarlett, who herself "found the road to ladyhood hard." Scarlett scorns those well-bred women, financially ruined by the Civil War, who cling desperately to the manners and trappings of the ante-bellum South. "She knew she should believe devoutly, as they did, that a born lady remained a lady, even if reduced to poverty, but she could not make herself believe it now" (emphasis added). For all her self-imagined kinship with archetypal belles like Scarlett, Julian's mother is actually more akin to these pathetic women who cannot give up the past. True, Scarlett creates for herself a magnificent outfit, one befitting a lady; but she does it only because she needs the $300 from Rhett. If not for this emergency, she would have continued wearing the slippers reinforced with carpeting and the "raggedy," much mended dress which her harsh postwar life on Tara demanded. She is practical and has no illusions about herself or about what she must do to survive. Julian's mother, however, is but a pale copy of Scarlett. She was practical enough to finance Julian's college education, and she realizes that the $7.50 she paid for the hat should be put towards the gas bill; but she only sent him to a third-rate college, and she capitulates with notable ease to her son's suggestion that she forget the bill and keep the hat. Likewise, she lives in a poor neighborhood only because forty years before it was "fashionable," whereas Scarlett would never fool herself into thinking that past glory had any true bearing on one's current situation. She wants to retain Tara, after all, out of principle and as a matter of family pride, not because it is chic.

The situations of Scarlett and Julian's mother are, of course, superficially similar, and one can see why the example of Gone with the Wind would appeal to a middle-aged southern woman of "good" family in the early 1960s. Scarlett is trying to survive in a South undergoing social, economic and racial upheavals due to the Civil War, while Julian's mother is trying to survive in a South undergoing similar upheavals caused by the civil rights movement, World War II and the Korean conflict. Julian's mother states repeatedly that "'the world is in such a mess,'" and that "'the bottom rail is on the top.'" This is precisely how Scarlett perceives her own world: "Ellen's [Scarlett's mother's] ordered world was gone and a brutal world had taken its place, a world wherein every standard, every value had changed." Scarlett's immediate response to this realization is chillingly like Julian's: she blames her mother. Scarlett's Julian-like cynicism and rudeness

helped her to forget her own bitterness that everything her mother had told her about life was wrong. Nothing her mother had taught her was of any value whatsoever now and Scarlett's heart was sore and puzzled. It did not occur to her that Ellen could not have forseen the collapse of the civilization in which she raised her daughters, could not have anticipated the disappearing of the places in society for which she trained them so well. It did not occur to her that Ellen had looked down a vista of placid future years, all like the uneventful years of her own life, when she had taught her to be gentle and gracious, honorable and kind, modest and truthful. Life treated women well when they learned those lessons, said Ellen.

Scarlett's resentment towards Ellen O'Hara may help explain Julian's own palpable contempt for his mother. She represents a world, a lifestyle that Julian wants but can never attain, and he bullies her like Scarlett bullies her sisters, wishing he could slap his mother and hoping that some black would help him "to teach her a lesson." But where the resilient Scarlett eventually comes to forgive her mother for the loss of her world, Julian cannot forgive his. He literally torments her to death.

For Scarlett, Julian and his mother, the focal point of the world they have lost is the ancestral mansion. Julian's great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves, and Julian dreams of it "regularly. He would stand on the wide porch, listening to the rustle of oak leaves, then wander through the high-ceilinged hall into the parlor that opened onto it and gaze at the worn rugs and faded draperies." But Julian's memory of it is marred: "The double stairways had rotted and been torn down. Negroes were living in it." The prospect of the family mansion undergoing such a reversal is also what haunts Scarlett. Part of the reason she so fears the purchase of Tara by its former overseer for his wife Emmie (the local "dirty tow-headed slut") is that "these low common creatures [would be] living in this house, bragging to their low common friends how they had turned the proud O'Haras out. Perhaps they'd even bring negroes here to dine and sleep." But, once again, Scarlett differs significantly from Julian and his mother: she is truly adaptable. To save Tara, "she changed swiftly to meet this new world for which she was not prepared," even taking advantage of her status as a "lady"—a status which, as noted, she does not take too seriously—to cheat male customers in her lumber business. Julian and his mother utterly lack Scarlett's imagination and resourcefulness, although they have both deluded themselves into thinking they do possess these qualities. As Sister Kathleen Feeley notes, Julian's mother, "secure in her private stronghold … can afford to be 'adaptable' to present conditions; such as associating at the YWCA with women who are not in her social class." However, this is hardly "adaptability" as the enterprising and non-sentimental Scarlett would understand it. Nothing illustrates this inability to adapt more graphically than the death of Julian's mother at the end of the story.

The death scene itself echoes Gone with the Wind. Ellen, Scarlett's mother, dying of typhoid, had regressed to her childhood: "'she think she a lil gal back in Savannah,'" and called for her long-dead sweetheart, Philippe. Likewise, Julian's mother regresses to her secure childhood and calls for her mammy Caroline, a request which indicates that, "for all its defects, the older generation had more genuine personal feeling for Negroes than [Julian's] with its heartless liberalism." The death of Julian's mother results from her "loss of illusion" and, concomitantly, her awareness that she can never adapt to the newly-revealed reality: it is "more than she can bear, but mercifully her mind breaks" (emphasis added)—a perfect verb to use since, like a brittle stick, Julian's mother responds to the stress of her realization by "breaking" physically and psychologically. Her son, albeit physically alive, is psychically shattered, pathetically calling "Mamma!" as he enters "the world of guilt and sorrow." In sharp contrast, Scarlett is like a reed. She bends under duress, adjusts, survives.

What Julian's mother could not accept, and what Julian had only deluded himself into believing that he did accept, is not that everything rises, but that everything that rises must converge. Hence her insistence that it's fine if blacks rise as long as they stay on their side of the fence, and her dismay over mulattoes, those emblems of the process of racial convergence. The fact that the black woman wore an identical hat (O'Connor takes care to describe it twice) is another blatant emblem of convergence, which Julian's mother had tried to deny "by reducing the other woman to a subhuman level and seeing the implied relationship between them as a comic impossibility"—that is, by responding as if the black woman "were a monkey that had stolen her hat." It is reminiscent of Scarlett's shocked reaction to Emmie's dressing like a lady (which she is not). Scarlett's response to the convergence which she sees around her in postwar Georgia is more constructive: she accepts what she must and changes what she can. Scarlett must often swallow her pride, lerning the lumber business from scratch and even, in effect, offering herself to Rhett in exchange for negotiable currency. But survive and thrive she does, and "ladylike" behavior be damned. And if it turned out that ladylike behavior could be damned so readily in 1865, what could be more pathetic than trying to retain it in 1960?

The superficial similarities in their situations may have led Julian's mother to emulate Scarlett, consciously or otherwise. But as Kathryn Lee Seidel argues, Scarlett is "both conventional and unique," as is evident from her green eyes. Writes Seidel: "Of all the belles I have studied, she is the only one with green eyes. By assigning Scarlett this eye color, Mitchell both acknowledges and overturns this small detail of the belle stereotype. It is a technique Mitchell uses masterfully throughout the novel; with it, she compliments her audience's knowledge of and affection for the stereotype, but uses it for her own purposes" (emphasis added). O'Connor is using an identical technique in her presentation of Julian's blue-eyed mother, who evidently has extracted selectively for emulation only the most conventional, most romantic aspects of southern womanhood that were popularized by Gone with the Wind. Without the "unique" qualities that are so vital in the characterization of Scarlett (her personal toughness, imagination, adaptability), the emulation of those conventional aspects is pathetic—and especially so in a middle-aged woman living a century after the Civil War. No doubt Julian's mother would be flattered to see the connection between herself and Scarlett O'Hara signified by the cushion-like hat; and no doubt Scarlett herself would find that connection a grim commentary on the self-image of Julian's mother.

There is no copy of Gone with the Wind in Flannery O'Connor's personal library; but in view of her considerable knowledge of southern literature, it is difficult to believe that she had never read Mitchell's novel. And one can surmise readily which features of it would be of special interest to O'Connor: the Georgia setting; the lovely description of ante-bellum Tara surrounded by flocks of turkeys and geese, birds being, of course, a life-long love of O'Connor's; the startling scene wherein Scarlett's father—like O'Connor, an Irish Catholic living in Protestant Georgia—is given a Church of England funeral (the ignorant mourners "thought it the Catholic ceremony and immediately rearranged their first opinion that the Catholic services were cold and Popish"); even the references to Milledgeville, O'Connor's hometown (e.g., Scarlett admits to Mammy, "'I know so few Milledgeville folks'"). It is far more to the point, however, that O'Connor could readily assume that other American readers and movie-goers, of whatever faith or region, would be familiar with Mitchell's story and would respond to echoes of it in her writings. As is illustrated by the case of "Everything That Rises Must Converge," those echoes could be used, comically or otherwise, to help guide our responses to the often enigmatic fiction of Flannery O'Connor.

Harbour Winn (essay date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: "Everything That Rises Must Converge: O'Connor's Seven-Story Cycle," in Renascence, Vol. XLII, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 187-212.

[In the following essay, Winn asserts that O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge is a short story cycle in which "O'Connor varies the location of her limited omniscient point of view and interweaves parallel thematic patterns to link together the seven stories."]

In modern fiction, writers have combined the aesthetics of the novel and the short story to construct grouping of interrelated stories that are too finely patterned to be described as a mere collection of stories and too dependent on individual components to be described as a novel. Among the names proposed for this new genre, Forrest Ingram's suggestion of "short story cycle" in Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century most clearly represents its nature. He defines a short story cycle as "a book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader's successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts." In this hybrid, writers combine the essential differences between the short story and the novel: each individual story within a cycle focuses upon a single moment of peculiar significance in the life of its protagonist, yet the sequence of stories traces a number of peak moments in a series of events.

Even though critical treatments of short story cycles have generally failed to illuminate their complex interrelationships, they have recognized that such obvious structural patterns as recurring characters or settings establish that the stories of a collection are interconnected. For example, it is apparent that the recurrence of Aram in Saroyan's My Name Is Aram and Fidelman in Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman groups together these stories just as the common locale of Dublin in Joyce's Dubliners and New Orleans in Cable's Old Creole Days links those collections. In the spectrum of the short story cycle genre, however, Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge represents the type of series of interconnected stories whose strands of unity are least apparent. Amidst the diversity of characters and settings that comprise the book, O'Connor, like Kafka in A Hunger Artist and Camus in Exile and the Kingdom, ties together the stories through similarly treated themes and motifs.

O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge poses additional difficulty because of the misconception surrounding its composition. Published posthumously in 1965, the standard edition consists of nine stories. Shortly before her death in 1964, however, O'Connor wrote to her publisher proposing that the book contain eight stories, one of which, "The Partridge Festival," she ultimately withdrew. While Robert Giroux, her publisher, and Robert Fitzgerald, her literary executor, fulfilled her intention in this instance, upon discovering two stories she had been working on shortly before her death, they seem to have disregarded her plan for the collection by adding them as the eighth and ninth stories, "Parker's Back" and "Judgement Day." Any attempt to discuss the book as a cycle, therefore, must assume that it is composed of only the first seven stories. Fitzgerald has since admitted the validity of such an assumption and illuminated O'Connor's cyclic intention by acknowledging that she had planned the order of the seven stories in the collection and intended it for publication in that order. A consideration of the relationship of the excluded story and the two added stories to the cycle, however, can reinforce an understanding of the distinctive interconnecting strands grouping together the seven included stories.

Since most critics of the book have not been aware of O'Connor's intention, they have regarded Everything That Rises Must Converge as a collection of nine rather than seven stories and thus failed to consider the actual make-up of the work itself. Of the seven book-length studies on O'Connor, for example, only one author, Josephine Hendrin, seems to have known of this misconception. Hendrin, however, discusses only six of the stories as a group, for she treats "The Lame Shall Enter First" in a chapter on The Violent Bear It Away. Nevertheless, with only two exceptions critics have not even considered the nine stories as a series of interconnected pieces; one typical critical observation summarizes the prevailing attitude to the collection: "The nine stories … have some common concerns. There are similarities in theme, method, and characterization among them, as there are resemblances to earlier works. But the similarities strike me less than the distinctive qualities of each story as an entity."

That O'Connor did not arrange the seven stories chronologically according to the date of their composition or publication shows that she brought them together to illuminate or comment upon one another through juxtaposition or association. Each of the seven had been published previously in magazines over a period of eight years: "Greenleaf" in 1956; "A View of the Woods" in 1957; "The Enduring Chill" in 1958; "The Comforts of Home" in 1960; "Everything That Rises Must Converge" in 1961; "The Lame Shall Enter First" in 1962; "Revelation" in 1964. In bringing together these stories for the cycle, O'Connor seems to have aimed for a much looser structure than, for example, Faulkner intended in The Unvanquished, for unlike him she did not revise any of the stories to make their interconnectedness more apparent. Instead, she seems to have viewed "Revelation," both the final story in the cycle and the last one written, as reiterating and concluding the patterns of thematic concern developed throughout the first six stories.

The parallel compositional history of O'Connor's other short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, which also can be considered a cycle, indicates that the process of arrangement in Everything That Rises Must Converge was not accidental. In the earlier work, O'Connor also arranged already-published stories in a significant order, the opening story bearing the same title as the cycle, and the final story, "The Displaced Person," strategically placed to conclude themes raised throughout the previous pieces. One critic, Burke, notes that like Joyce's Dubliners "the order of the stories is meaningful in both of Miss O'Connor's collections." O'Connor's own description of her writing habits while working on the first of her two novels, Wise Blood, can perhaps partly explain the process by which two unified cycles emerged from stories already written on similar themes: "I must tell you how I work. I don't have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again." Whether or not Wise Blood can even be considered a novel has been questioned by some on the grounds that it is too episodic and fragmentary. O'Connor herself stated: "I am not writing a conventional novel." Melvin Friedman regards it as more a "tightly knit collection of stories" than a conventional novel:

Four of the fourteen chapters were earlier published separately, which reinforces the sense of short stories being strung together to form a novel. The first edition, published by Harcourt, Brace, in fact leaves blank pages between chapters almost begging that we come to a complete endstop before proceeding to the next division.

Although more conventionally constructed, O'Connor's second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, contains a strong picaresque element and was also reshaped from shorter fiction published earlier. While most critics indicate that such observations on the episodic quality of her novels and their compositional history indicate that O'Connor was essentially a short story writer and not a novelist, those descriptions also point to O'Connor's affinity for the cyclic method of structuring.

One of the most salient means for penetrating the structural unity of Everything That Rises Must Converge lies in exploring the implications of its title. On one level the title can simply refer to O'Connor's classical method of constructing her stories through the rising action of conflict between two characters who either converge or collide at the climax of the story. The title contains far richer implications, however, for it refers to the convergence or collision throughout the seven stories of the rising Southern Blacks with white Southerners, the rising lower class with the upper class, and the rising younger generation with the older generation. But even these explanations do not approach the central underlying implication. The title comes from the writings of the French Jesuit theologian-scientist-poet, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom O'Connor greatly admired. For example, when asked by the editors of The American Scholar in 1961 to single out "what … were the outstanding books of the past three decades," O'Connor designated Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man with this comment:

It is a search for human significance in the evolutionary process. Because Teilhard is both a man of science and a believer, the scientist and the theologian will require considerable time to sift and evaluate his thought, but the poet, whose sight is essentially prophetic, will at once recognize in Teilhard a kindred intelligence. His is a scientific expression of what the poet attempts to do: penetrate matter until spirit is revealed in it. Teilhard's vision sweeps forward without detaching itself at any point from the earth.

Teilhard's vision seems to correspond with O'Connor's, for the central element of each centers around belief in a world penetrated by spirit. In his evolutionary system Teilhard sees the continuing movement of diverse species into higher and higher forms of consciousness until, ultimately, they combine or converge upon one another at what he calls the Omega Point, the stage at which spirit and matter exist in equal proportion and blend together as one. According to Teilhard, the individual must grow from egoism to self-awareness and love for human history to evolve toward Omega:

To be fully ourselves it is in the opposite direction, in the direction of convergence with all the rest, that we must advance—towards the "other!" The goal of ourselves, the acme of our originality is not our individuality but our person; and according to the evolutionary structure of the world, we can only find our person by uniting together. There is no mind without synthesis. The same law holds good from top to bottom. The true ego grows in inverse proportion to "egoism."

In this rejection of egoism as limiting being, Teilhard emphasizes man's capacity through love to rise to higher levels of consciousness where psychic convergences with others can transform the universe: "Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourself united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge."

Throughout the seven stories of the cycle O'Connor dramatizes this struggle of rising to higher consciousness by focusing on characters whose egoism distorts their perception, blinding them to the transforming power of the divine at work in the world. Declaring that "for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ," O'Connor expresses her Catholic world view of man's need for the sudden manifestation of grace offered the protagonists in the cycle by including physical sickness in each story to emphasize the disease of spiritual emptiness. Ironically, however, the potential moment of epiphany does not usually trigger self-awareness, for the narrow-minded, self-righteous protagonists of all but the final story collide rather than converge with this possibility for growth; instead of recognizing their tainted nature and participating in a collective effort to transform the secular into an ultimately divine order, they rationalize to maintain their self-righteous pose in a profane existence that serves as a microcosm for their Godless world. The successive exploration of this pattern in varying contexts from story to story provides a structural basis for the cycle.

It is principally through her use of point of view that O'Connor manages to avoid mere repetition with this pattern in the seven stories. Using indirect interior monologue much as Jane Austen did, she in a sense perches on top of the shoulders of the protagonist of a story in order to approximate the workings of the character's mind; the subtle shifting from objective narration to a character's idiom allows her to penetrate, throughout the cycle, the grotesque irony of the protagonist who reveals the self-righteous obsession with which he unknowingly confronts the world. The opening of "The Comforts of Home" illustrates this technique: "Thomas withdrew to the side of the window and with his hands between the wall and the curtain he looked down on the driveway where the car had stopped. His mother and the little slut were getting out of it." The objective description of the narrator in the first sentence subtly switches to Thomas's indirect interior monologue in the second sentence through the use of the derogatory phrase describing the girl his mother is bringing home; the cumulative effect of similar passages characterizes the pseudo-intellectual arrogance with which Thomas confronts reality. Throughout the cycle self-inflation manifests itself especially in the tension between generations in a number of ways: intellectually, socially, racially, morally, and religiously. O'Connor varies this basic situation in each story by shifting the location of her point of view from one generation to the other in successive stories in order to examine fully the dimensions of this recurrent pattern. For example, in "Everything That Rises Must Converge," she tells the story through the indirect interior monologue of a son in conflict with his mother; and in the next story, "Greenleaf," she shifts the point of view to a mother whose relationship with her sons and reality corresponds to that of the mother of the first story. This shifting of point of view from parent to child occurs in the succeeding stories until, in the final one, "Revelation," the point of view centers on a third person who observes and is affected by the conflict between a mother and daughter.

The opening story of the cycle, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," establishes some of the basic trademarks of O'Connor's fiction: the vivid use of color in the description of Julian's mother's hat to emphasize the grotesque quality of a character; the Southern setting in which the sound of idioms, speech patterns, and clichés capture the flavor of the region; the dramatic opening in the midst of an action whose background is not filled in until later in the story; the relentless use of verbal, dramatic, and situational irony to tear apart the protagonist's facade of pious respectability; and the building toward a carefully foreshadowed violent climax often resulting in death. The story, however, also introduces the character types, the technical use of parallelism or twinning, and the thematic conflicts present particularly throughout this cycle.

The parasitic relationship between Julian and his mother establishes the prototype for parent and child figures in subsequent stories. College educated, Julian prides himself on his cultural sophistication, racial liberalism, and ability to perceive his mother's genteel affectation and racial paternalism. Realizing that the governing principle of his mother's fantasy world "was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things," he revels in the thrill of his own self-assurance that in spite of her he has "turned out so well":

In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.

Ironically, however, Julian's pompous assumptions prove to be only self-deceptions, for his every action reflects his dependence on his mother. To maintain his delusion while still living with his mother who partly supports him until he can become a successful writer, he fabricates a martyr role that allows him to comply with his mother's ways and yet think he remains aloof from them. The ludicrous quality of his rationalizing is revealed when the narrator describes him awaiting his mother's departure in the opening with "his hands behind him,… pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him." While accompanying her to the YWCA his attention is consumed by the petty need to annoy her in every way possible: he mocks her class pretensions by removing his necktie and taunts her segregationist views by going out of his way to move to a seat on the bus next to a Negro. When he imagines means by which he might capitalize on her bigotry to "teach her a lesson," he reveals his sterile imagination as well as his own deep-rooted racism by resorting to such hypothetical clichés of white racism as the horror of being treated by a Negro doctor or of intermarriage. Throughout his fantasies his own racial hostility emerges as even more dehumanizing than his mother's, for he prides himself on favoring integration while she at least admits that she does not. His liberal facade discloses that he is concerned with the racial question only insofar as it confirms his misanthropic self-righteousness: racial "injustice in daily operation" gives "him a certain satisfaction," for it confirms "his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles." And while he outwardly scorns his mother's dream of her ancestral mansion, he secretly longs for the leisure life rooted in the institution of slavery that it represents.

Although Julian's mother's moral platitudes reflect her small-mindedness and her suffocating love contributes to her son's immaturity, she has a clearer understanding of the world she lives in. In uncanny fashion she often makes statements that contain more truth than she realizes. For example, without realizing the degree to which Julian is still dependent on her, she says he "didn't yet know a thing about 'life,' that he hadn't even entered the real world." Even though she appears more sympathetic juxtaposed to Julian, O'Connor's tone never becomes sentimental, for the mother's obsession with respectability and pride in her genealogy cripple her efficacy as an individual and parent.

The dramatic conflict of the story builds toward its climax through O'Connor's paralleling of objects and persons. When a Negro woman and child board a bus, Julian becomes elated when he realizes that she is wearing the same hideous hat as his mother who had earlier prided herself on its being one of a kind. O'Connor emphasizes her twinning intent by repeating the exact description of Julian's mother's hat in particularizing the grotesqueness of the Negro woman's: "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." In addition to the hat, the two mothers parallel each other in that both are overweight, concerned for their own son's welfare, and insensitive to each other—the one through hate and the other through condescension. When the woman sits by Julian and her son sits by his mother, Julian sees that symbolically they "had in a sense, swapped sons." Dumbfounded, he can hardly believe that "Fate had thrust upon his mother such a lesson." After his mother's paternalistic offering of the penny precipitates her violent confrontation with the Negro woman, Julian makes sure that she understands her lesson by explaining its meaning even though her shocked state increases the susceptibility to a stroke, given her high blood pressure:

"Don't think that was just an uppity Negro woman," he said. "That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black double…. What all this means," he said, "is that the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn."

The confrontation, however, proves both psychologically and physically too jarring to lead her to a higher level of self-awareness, for as she collapses she reverts back to her childhood plantation life whose passing she had never accepted. Ironically, then, Julian learns that the lesson has proven costly, for as he bends over her crumpled body his dependence surfaces in the childlike manner in which he addresses her: "Darling, sweetheart"; "Mamma, Mamma." The full implications of O'Connor's technique of twinning now become apparent: just as the parallelism with the Negro woman shattered Julian's mother's social pretensions, so, too, does the parallelism with a four-year-old child disclose Julian's hidden dependence. Both childishly attempt against their mother's wishes to gain the attention of a person of the opposite race and, in a sense, exchange mothers when they sit beside the other's mother on the bus. The "mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him" (italics mine) bursts, leaving Julian alone with the realization that his security depended on the existence of his now-dead mother. The heavily connotative diction of the final two sentences of the story indicates that rather than rising to maturity and knowledge Julian will always be weighted down in a life tormented by guilt and horror: "The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. 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." The brutality that characterizes Julian's relationship with his mother serves as the prototype for the subsequent exploration of conflict between generations throughout the cycle.

In "Greenleaf," O'Connor essentially repeats the themes of "Everything That Rises Must Converge" while shifting to the mother's point of view and emphasizing the role of the agent of destruction rather than the son's. Like Julian's mother, Mrs. May speaks in clichés, preoccupies herself with monetary concerns, and prides herself that as a widow she has sacrificed herself for the betterment of her sons. In her obsession with maintaining social status she, too, uses others—poor whites instead of Blacks—as a vehicle for rationalizing her innate sense of superiority. For example, when the Greenleaf boys were younger she patronizingly handed down to them her own sons' old clothes and toys. She also senses that her higher position in society is threatened, for the rising of Greenleaf's practical and educated sons promises to displace her own land and family just as Julian's mother's ancestral home was taken over by Negroes. Aspects of an older Julian appear in each of Mrs. May's bachelor sons, both in their thirties, who still live at home: as a misanthropic professor, Wesley indulges in sterile intellectualism; as an insurance salesman to Negroes, Scofield exploits them for his own benefit. Both respond to her overprotectiveness with the same petty contempt and impotent rage that Julian had hurled at his mother. Scofield, for example, strikes his mother where she is most vulnerable by threatening to marry a poor white who would thus inherit his other's farm.

O'Connor parallels parents and children in this story also. As a family on the rise, the Greenleafs—their name indicating ripeness—contrast with the Mays, a family in decline. Unlike Scofield and Wesley, Greenleaf's two sons, O.T. and E.T., are competent, married with three children each, and educated in agriculture. Whereas Wesley talks about Paris and Rome but never even goes to Atlanta, and Scofield was only a Private First Class at the end of his military service, the Greenleaf boys both became sergeants overseas where they met their French wives. Refusing to admit that the Greenleaf sons will eventually usurp the land and social position she hopes to maintain for her own sons, Mrs. May continually combats Greenleaf's innuendos to that effect. O'Connor also contrasts Mrs. May's religious attitudes with Mrs. Greenleaf's. Although the latter's primitive "prayer healing" appears grotesque and superstitious, it originates from the genuine conviction that her concern for suffering mankind carries some efficacy. On the other hand, Mrs. May is repulsed by this emotional outpouring directed at strangers, for she believes religion should be left at the church door and used only for such social ends as meeting prospective wives for her sons.

O'Connor develops the agent of the violent climax in "Greenleaf" more elaborately than in the first story, for, unlike the Negro woman, the bull acquires several levels of symbolism. On one level, it reflects an extension of the twinning technique: the bull—a scrub bull and therefore of inferior stock—poses a threat to the breeding habits of Mrs. May's herd just as the virility of the Greenleafs—whom Mrs. May thinks of as "scrub human"—threatens her conservative sense of a static class society. The bull gnaws at her hedges just as she feels that the Greenleafs have been gradually displacing her over the last fifteen years; the bull patiently waits for her until finally charging in anger just as Greenleaf has followed her demands patiently until finally losing his temper on the day she is killed. The bull is associated with the reproductive energy of the sun in her dream the night before her death just as the Greenleaf's modern milk parlor is filled with sunlight. The bull also symbolizes supernatural and reproductive forces moving Mrs. May toward regeneration: the hedge wreath that adorns the tip of his horns looks "like a menacing prickly crown"; the bull, described in the traditional religious imagery of Christ as bridegroom, listens at her bedroom window "like some patient god come down to woo her" and yet "like an uncouth country suitor"; at the end it buries its head in her lap "like a wild tormented lover." In O'Connor's Catholic world view, therefore, the bull ultimately symbolizes the life-affirming intrusion of grace which Mrs. May is free to accept or reject.

The "mental bubble" in which Mrs. May lives, however, will not permit her to recognize the clouded vision through which she perceives reality. Just as Julian's attempt to teach his mothe a lesson backfires, so does Mrs. May's attempt to get even with Greenleaf by showing that his son's lack of respect for him necessitates his killing their bull. Ironically, it is she who discovers the truth of the empty threat that she had earlier hurled at her sons, "you'll find out what Reality is when it's too late." Like Julian's mother who becomes disoriented at the moment of death, Mrs. May stands immobile in "freezing unbelief" like someone "whose sight had been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable." Any glimpse of self-revelation that penetrates her egoism is rejected, and the violent impact of the bull simply amounts to a collision that ends in death rather than a convergence with the divine that could effect a rising to a new level of consciousness. That her death occurs so violently stresses the degree to which O'Connor thinks that the ego must be jolted to perhaps glimpse the potential moment of epiphany.

In the opening of the next story, "A View of the Woods," O'Connor signals the continuation of her exploration of the narrow-minded self-righteousness of Mrs. May in the protagonist, Fortune, for he is first described as sitting on the bumper of his car in a tree-surrounded clearing just as Mrs. May sat on the hood of her car in the tree-surrounded field where the bull charged at the end of "Greenleaf." Older than Mrs. May, Fortune has had to face what Mrs. May only dreaded, the threat of a poor white like Greenleaf inheriting his property, for the man his daughter married against his wishes farms his land. To assert his sense of class superiority over Pitts, his son-in-law, who like Greenleaf has seven children, Fortune repeatedly sells prize pasture land to businessmen set upon developing the area for commercial interests rather than to Pitts. To insure, moreover, that Pitts does not inherit his land, he secretly arranges in his will to leave everything in trust to his favorite grandchild, Mary Fortune Pitts, with his lawyer as executor—an act parallel to Mrs. May's decision to entail her property so that her sons could not leave it to their wives if they married. Ironically, however, the proud attempts of both to perpetuate their wills after death are defeated, for the Greenleafs clearly are in the ascendance and Mary's death will provide Pitts with the property by default.

Although Fortune's daughter—like Julian, Scofield, and Wesley—feels bound by duty to tolerate her father, O'Connor shifts the emphasis of the conflict between generations from parent and child to grandparent and child in this story. In spite of the seventy-year gap in age, Fortune and Mary are spiritually close in their strength of will. Furthermore, O'Connor's twinning technique makes Fortune and Mary parallel figures: physically, Mary's face is "a small replica of the old man's," and temperamentally she possesses his same stubborn pride in resisting his determination to sell the lawn between the house and the highway. Only this recalcitrance and the seemingly willing acquiescence in allowing her father to whip her interfere with Fortune's conception of her as his double. To eliminate these imperfections he decides to teach her a lesson that, as with Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge," ironically reveals that he shares the faults he accuses Pitts of having: "a nasty temper and … unreasonable resentments." In the violent struggle with Mary in which he assumes the punitive role of Pitts that he so detests, Fortune's exclamation that "this ought to teach you a good lesson" rings hollow as he looks "down into the face that was his own but had dared to call itself Pitts." The spirit that he had intended to inculcate into Mary rages so violently when she kicks and claws him that he must strangle her in defense, only to suffer a stroke himself from the physical ordeal and the shock that his ever-spiraling capacity to rationalize his singularity has been deflated by his common identity with the character stains of Pitts.

In "A View of the Woods" O'Connor also elaborates on a theme only tangentially included elsewhere in the cycle: her questioning whether the progress of modern civilization proves that man spirals ever upward toward greater spiritual consciousness. Whereas the urban highrises that the bus journeys through in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" reveal the nightmare of the modern city, and the uniformity of the Greenleaf twins who seem "like one man in two skins" and live in a modern, warehouse-like home represents the hollowness of the middle class of the future, Fortune's conviction that he would not "let a cow pasture interfere with progress" signals the industrial exploitation and commercial dominance of modern life. Fortune's wedding of his patriotic cliches with "his duty to sell the lot … to insure the future" demonstrates the devitalization of the linguistic basis upon which American ideals are articulated. Envisioning the displacement of the woods by supermarkets, highways, and motels within five years, Fortune rationalizes the sensibility of selling the lawn plot because of the wealth and fame he will achieve as the founder and developer of a new vacation area. The Satanic overtones surrounding the entrepreneur who purchases the plot to build a gas station reinforce O'Connor's attitude; the spiritual emptiness of his combination country store, filling station, and dance hall is deftly suggested "by a field of old used- car bodies" and a line of tombstones for sale that border it on either side. The "huge yellow monster" bulldozer systematically "gorging itself on clay" at the beginning and ending of the story symbolizes Fortune's rationalistic pursuit of his unnatural designs on both Mary and the woods.

By locating her limited omniscient point of view in the younger member of the generational conflict in "The Enduring Chill," O'Connor explores similar situations from a different angle: like Mrs. May in "Greenleaf," Asbury's widowed mother has put her two children through college by running a dairy farm; like Fortune toward his daughter and son-in-law in "A View of the Woods," Asbury plans to triumph over his mother through his death. Returning home after attending college in the North and failing to succeed in as an artist in New York City, Asbury follows the same self-righteous pattern of O'Connor's other pseudo-intellectuals in his determination to introduce his mother to "reality" in order to "assist her in the process of growing up." Convinced that he suffers from a fatal disease promising imminent death, he hopes to accomplish this lesson through a lengthy letter to be read after his burial, accusing her of ruining his imagination and talent without destroying "the desire for these things." His equation of this letter with Kafka's letter to his father, as well as the attempt to simulate a Yeatsian style in its writing, deflate his pretentious, self-serving critical faculty. The picture in his room of "a maiden chained to a rock" epitomizes the sterile cliches in which his romantic self-pity envisions his fate.

The root of Asbury's inability to adjust to reality, however, lies not so much in his pose as an artist as in his dependency on his mother. Like Julian of "Everything That Rises Must Converge," except that he has attempted rather than merely projected an artistic career, Asbury struggles to combat the domineering mother set upon insuring that her child remains an appendage of herself. From the opening of the story, when in response to his mother's suggestion that he remove his coat he defensively shouts, "I'm old enough to know when I want to take my coat off," to the conclusion, all his actions stem from his need to defy her: he attempts to weaken her power by encouraging the Black dairy workers, Morgan and Randall, to break her smoking ban in the milk house; he irritates her Protestant mistrust of Catholicism by asking her to send for a Jesuit when he thinks he is dying. Even his approaching death, which he regards as "his greatest triumph" and a gift from "his god, Art to compensate for his artistic failure, was precipitated by his vain attempt to convince Morgan and Randall to break his mother's major rule by following his example and drinking unpasteurized milk. The significant experience he imagines death holds for him never arries, for his supposedly fatal illness is eventually diagnosed as undulant fever whose symptoms will recur periodically, ironically promising that he, rather than his mother, will be left with an "enduring chill." Compared to the tragic portrayal of Fortune's projected triumph through his death in "A View of the Woods," O'Connor's treatment in "The Enduring Chill" proves devastatingly comic.

O'Connor also imparts to the title another level of meaning through her development of the manifestation of the supernatural. Although Father Finn's formulaic apologetics are satirized along with Asbury's fashionable agnosticism, Goetz's Eastern philosophy, and Father Vogle's corrupt asceticism, he does diagnose Asbury's spiritual dilemma: "The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are—a lazy ignorant conceited youth." The reference to the Holy Ghost, who is frequently represented in religious imagery as a bird, can be paralleled to Asbury's earlier figurative association of his imagination with a hawk and his illusion that the water stains on the ceiling above his bed resemble "a fierce bird with spread wings" and an icicle in its beak. The continued presence of the bird above him which he felt "was there for some purpose" functions, like the bull in "Greenleaf," as the ever-available agent through which grace can be revealed. Just as the emblem of his imagination is encaged within his derivative writing style, however, the Holy Spirit descends ultimately "emblazoned in ice instead of fire," because Asbury's agnostic pose leads him to collide rather than converge with this manifestation of the divine; his spiritual as well as artistic "mental bubbles" burst, leaving him frozen like Julian in his incapacity to realize the implications of his revelation.

In the fifth and sixth stories, "The Comforts of Home" and "The Lame Shall Enter First," O'Connor focuses on the conflict generated by a parent's decision to bring home a delinquent to attempt rehabilitation. In both instances, however, the intruder proves incorrigible while upsetting the domestic tranquility and threatening the security of an only child. In "The Comforts of Home" Thomas and his mother resemble the parent-child types recurrent throughout the cycle: a bachelor at thirty-five, the pseudo-intellectual Thomas writes for the local Historical Society and still resides at the home of his widowed mother for whom he feels simultaneously both love and hate. Her decision to return home from her paternalistic jail visit bringing a nymphomaniac, Star Drake, to whom she has taken a box of candy—"her favorite nice thing to do"—unsettles Thomas, who condescendingly labels Star Drake a "moral moron" and petulantly warns that he will leave if she remains. When his mother's excessive sentimentalism leads her to conclude that she would not send Thomas back to jail if he had suffered like Star Drake and that the girl can thus share their home, Thomas, realizing that he cannot forfeit the comforts of home, wallows in comparing his own impotent efforts to remove the girl with the ruthless authority his father would have successfully exerted. In the resulting conflict O'Connor explores the Freudian implications of the parent-child types recurrent throughout the cycle: Thomas's Oedipal fantasy, his repressed desire for Star Drake, and his overcompensation for the failure to assume a masculine role.

On another level, though, O'Connor continues from "The Enduring Chill" her treatment of the sterility of the overly rationalistic view of life. She makes fun of the professional attempts of the psychiatrists and lawyer to categorize Star Drake's condition by satirically noting their verdict: she "was a psychopathic personality, not insane enough for the asylum, not criminal enough for the jail, not stable enough for society." She develops her theme through Thomas, who parallels Asbury in regarding the devil as "only a manner of speaking," but contrasts with Asbury's agnosticism in his Pelagian belief that Star Drake represents "blameless corruption because there was no responsible faculty behind it." Soon, however, he realizes the fatuity of accounting for her as an "unendurable form of innocence," for she unsettles his sense of order by disturbing him in a way that lies beyond "his power of analysis." On the other hand, his mother seems to advance beyond the simplicity of her sentimentalism and to realize the tainted nature of man, for the experience of Star Drake plunges her, like Mrs. Greenleaf, "into mourning for the world." When Thomas cannot mature beyond his rationalistic need to discern a world perfectly ordered for good and learn to accept O'Connor's belief in man's need of God's grace, he damns not only Star Drake "but the entire order of the universe that made her possible." In his desperation at the end he fires at Star Drake, hoping that the blast will "bring an end to evil in the world" and restore the "peace of perfect order." His shot, however, only multiplies the disorder, and the arrival of the sheriff whose brain works "instantly like a calculating machine" only reinforces the absurdity of attempting to account for experience through reason alone.

In "The Lame Shall Enter First," O'Connor transfers the limited omniscient point of view and the brunt of the irony to the parent and develops more fully a similar triangle of characters involved in the same plot situation. A widower of one year, Sheppard is more excited about what "he could do" (italics mine) for a fourteen-year-old delinquent, Rufus Johnson, than for his neglected ten-year-old son, Norton, who has not yet adjusted to his mother's death—a fact that Sheppard, unable to account for rationally, concludes reflects his son's selfishness. Very much aware that he is "busy helping other people" during his volunteer counseling at the reformatory, Sheppard is drawn toward the delinquent not out of sentimentality like Thomas's mother but because Rufus, the most intelligent and deprived boy he has worked with, represents a vehicle through which he can self-righteously demonstrate the efficacy and kindness of his good works. When all efforts to improve Rufus are met with resistance, Sheppard continually rationalizes to avoid confronting his own limitations and ineffectiveness. When the boy shows hostility toward him, he concludes that Rufus is only upholding his own pride by pretending not to like him; when the boy seems bored, Sheppard self-contentedly reflects in his inflated manner that Rufus is secretly learning the essential thing: "that his benefactor was impervious to insult and that there were no cracks in his armor of kindness and patience"; when the boy mocks Sheppard's efforts by breaking into a home, he decides as Fortune did with Mary that he only needs to be firmer to teach Rufus "that he could not treat with impunity someone who had shown him nothing but kindness."

O'Connor's satiric depiction of the Pelagian conception of man is continued and more fully developed in this story in Sheppard. Steeped in the modern theories of counseling and social work, Sheppard rationalizes that Rufus's delinquency results from his unfortunate backwoods upbringing by his fundamentalist grandfather and his abrupt transplantation to the city. To counteract these deterministic forces that have misshapen his values, Sheppard resorts to such secular means as encyclopedias, a telescope, new clothes, and a good home life to rehabilitate Rufus. In all his attempts to save him, however, he can never acknowledge what for O'Connor is the essential prerequisite for reform, God's grace; instead, when Rufus warns that only Jesus can save him, Sheppard appeals to the boy's intelligence, claiming that the Bible is only "'for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.'" Even when at one point he feels "a momentary full despair as if he were faced with some elemental warping of nature that had happened too long ago to be corrected now," he refuses to ascribe Rufus's defects to any cause that cannot be altered by man. His rationalizations that Rufus's incorrigible behavior was compensation for his club foot, O'Connor's symbol for original sin, and that an orthopedic shoe can rectify the deformity epitomize for O'Connor the absurdity of his secular optimism. Even at the end when Rufus threatens Sheppard's position in the community by telling a newspaper reporter about his atheistic beliefs, Sheppard clings to the same view, telling Rufus: "You're not evil, you're mortally confused. You don't have to make up for that foot, you don't have to…." Rufus, however, has proven to be a more formidable opponent to Sheppard than Star Drake was to Thomas, and Sheppard appears to be on the brink of revelation after Rufus is taken away, for the litany-like repetition of "I did more for him than I did for my own child" does seem to burst the "mental bubble" of his self-righteous claim that "I have nothing to reproach myself with." The epiphany is aborted, though, and, like Mrs. May who at the moment of death resembled "a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable," Sheppard "closed his eyes against the revelation." He cannot compromise his hopelessly optimistic humanitarianism to admit that man must acknowledge spiritual lameness to understand his nature. Norton's suicide, then, only reinforces the folly of Sheppard's position, for, ironically, Norton does launch a flight into space—symbolic for Sheppard of the infinite capacity of man's intelligence—but Norton's flight is to his mother and not the moon, and with Jesus and not in a space ship.

In "Revelation," the final story of the cycle as well as the last one written, O'Connor manages to cluster together motifs present in the other stories and to round out themes recurrent throughout the cycle. The assembly of middle-class whites, lower-class whites, and Negroes in the story amounts to a microcosm of the world depicted in the cycle, and their congregating together in a doctor's waiting room reiterates the motif of the lingering, often violent, effects of physical and psychological illness, representative for O'Connor of man's tainted condition: Julian's mother's high blood pressure, Wesley's rheumatic fever, Fortune's heart condition, Asbury's undulant fever, Star Drake's nymphomania, Rufus's club foot, and Claud's ulcerous leg. Ruby Turpin, paralleling the narrow-minded, self-righteous characters of the other stories, is the quintessential egoist, continually thanking Jesus for her superior character:

"If it's one thing I am," Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, "it's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is! It could have been different!!" For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. "Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!" she cried aloud.

Her more-than-coincidental resemblance to Julian's mother of "Everything That Rises Must Converge" seems to explain O'Connor's decision to frame the cycle with these two stories. In spite of being middle-aged and overweight, both regard themselves as attractive; just as Julian's mother considers herself the only "lady" who attends the reducing class because no one else wears a hat and gloves, Ruby confirms her socially superior status by noticing the shabbiness and gaudiness of the other patients' shoes; just as Julian's mother enters the bus "as if she were going into a drawing room where everyone had been waiting for her," Ruby enters the doctor's waiting room and is shocked to find no one willing to change seats to accommodate Claud and her; both begin a general conversation for the benefit of all and manage to sustain almost a monologue; just as Julian's mother patronizingly offers the Negro boy a penny, Ruby patronizingly explains to a Negro delivery boy how to push a button to ring for the nurse; and through bland complacency both enrage an adversary who triggers a violent confrontation. The opposite responses to the crisis, however, indicate the distinction between the two and signal the thematic turn in the cycle. The placing of such significance on the final story is characteristic of a short story cycle unified primarily through similarly treated themes, for in another short story cycle structured on this basis, Camus' Exile and the Kingdom, the final story, "The Growing Stone," also signals a thematic turn in the cycle. Whereas Julian's mother is only resorting to one of her stock phrases when, describing the disorder of the world, she says "the bottom rail is on the top," Ruby is on the brink of accepting the deflation of her egotistic ordering of the world and the grace concomitant with such an insight moments before her vision when she defiantly shouts, "Put that bottom rail on top."

Ruby also resembles other characters in the cycle. Her habit of naming and ordering the classes of people represents the same obsession with class distinctions Mrs. May and Fortune indulge in and, like them, she feels more hostility for "white trash" than Negroes, commenting "there's a heap of things worse than a nigger." When the "white trash" woman says that all Negroes should be sent back to Africa, Ruby and the stylish lady smugly exchange glances with each other, affirming an enlightened liberalism toward Negroes much like the progressive racial poses Julian and Asbury affect. Ultimately, however, Ruby's paternalism backfires on her as it does on Asbury, for when Asbury in desperation seeks communion with Morgan and Randall and Ruby turns to her Black workers for a candid evaluation of Mary Grace's accusation, both receive only flattery in return. Moreover, Ruby's sense of being pursued by some mysterious force in Mary Grace who "knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition" repeats and advances the pattern throughout the cycle of the intrusion of a figure symbolic of man's tainted nature of God's healing grace: Mrs. May and the bull, Asbury and the bird on the ceiling, Thomas and Star Drake, Sheppard and Rufus.

O'Connor also signals the emphasis "Revelation" carries as the climactic story of the cycle by breaking the pattern of the location of her limited omniscient point of view. In the six previous stories the point of view focuses three times on the older member of the generation conflict and three times on the younger member. But in "Revelation" O'Connor renders the story through the indirect discourse of Ruby, who observes the conflict between the stylish lady and her daughter, Mary Grace, both of whom through the twinning technique represent the gap between Ruby and her own self-image. Through the non-verbal glances of approval and the Gospel hymn clichés that she exchanges with Mary Grace's mother, Ruby is able to identify with an idealized vision of herself as attractive, slim and fashionable; on the other hand, the persistent staring of the fat, ugly, ill-natured Mary Grace threatens Ruby with the negative self-image she avoids confronting, repeatedly attempting to assure herself that "the girl might be confusing her with somebody else." Mary Grace's violent assault and humiliation of Ruby is motivated by seeing in her a less threatening double of the coercive parent figure who has retarded her independent growth by subtly holding over her pious platitudes demanding gratefulness for all she has received. Like the other young intellectuals of the cycle, especially Asbury who likewise has been educated in the North, Mary Grace arrogantly assumes the task of teaching Ruby and, indirectly, her mother, a lesson. The violent hurling of the book and subsequent physical attack only reinforce the impotence of her rage, though, for after being restrained she rests her head in her mother's lap and her fingers grip her mother's thumb "like a baby's," paralleling Julian's final childlike exclamation of "Mama, Mama" and grotesquely epitomizing the treatment of the profound cruelty involved in the generational struggle of parents and children throughout the cycle.

The significance of the placement of "Revelation" as the final story of the cycle is explained by the fact that it does not end at its violent climax like the six previous stories but continues on to show the effects of Ruby's epiphany. The degree to which Ruby's identity has been unsettled is reflected in her surprise upon returning home to find the farm unaltered. When she lies down, only to see the image of a wart hog, her state of shock eases and she begins to realize the implications of her revelation: "she had been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now…. The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working church-going woman." Throughout the afternoon she wrestles with this realization, scowling at the ceiling "as if there were unintelligible handwriting" on it: unlike Asbury, however, she is able to decipher and accept what she sees there. The request that Claud, who previously had amounted to nothing more than her satellite, kiss her demonstrates the dread in which she dwells and the awakened need for love she feels. Not until her vision at the pig parlor, though, does she fully understand and accept the grace offered her. Mary Grace's name suggests her symbolic function as the vehicle through which God's grace intrudes. There in a tree-surrounded, sundrenched open area reminiscent of the field in which the bull charges Mrs. May and the clearing in which Fortune beats Mary, the spiritual manifestation of Ruby's epiphany is delivered and not aborted.

O'Connor's paralleling of the pig parlor with the doctor's waiting room reinforces the grotesqueness of Ruby's spiritual slothfulness and her need for grace: the pig parlor is described as "a square of concrete as large as a small room"; the same "a-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin" sounds are heard in both; Ruby commands the arena of eight hogs before her just as she had attempted to command the attention of the eight patients. In the last fling of defiance at her revelation, Ruby squirts the eyes of the fat, slouching sow with the water hose, demanding to know just how it parallels her and not a slovenly "white trash" person. It is at this moment that the surroundings take on "a mysterious hue" and Ruby gazes down at the hogs "as if through the very heart of mystery":

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

Ironically, Ruby finds herself at the opposite end of the bridge from which her earlier self-satisfied belief in God's approval placed her, for the "bottom rail" is shown to be "on top." The vision serves as the synthesizing vehicle for the cycle, bringing into focus the leveling of the succession of self-righteous hypocrites whose inflated "mental bubbles" obscure their vision, generating a self-conception based less on reality than that of such "white trash" figures as Greenleaf and Pitts, such Negroes as Randall and Morgan, such "lunatics" as Star Drake and Rufus. Unlike the protagonists of the other stories, however, Ruby ultimately accepts her spiritual lameness and converges rather than collides with the grace offered in her moment of epiphany. As she walks away from the pig parlor at the end, the noise of the invisible crickets sounds to her like a hallelujah chorus; she has risen to a new level of consciousness where she can see the world as infused with spirit.

The demonstrated interconnectedness of these seven stories culminating with "Revelation" establishes that O'Connor intended Everything That Rises Must Converge to be much more than a mere collection of randomly selected and arranged stories. A consideration of "The Partridge Festival," the story she decided to exclude from the cycle, as well as "Parker's Back" and "Judgement Day," the two stories added by her editor after her death, only reinforces this viewpoint. Since it was written and published during the eight-year period from 1956 to 1964 in which the other seven stories were written and published and originally intended to be part of the cycle, "The Partridge Festival," as might be expected, closely resembles the included stories in character types, point of view, themes, and motifs. In Calhoun, O'Connor maintains her consistently comic and ironic treatment of the would-be intellectual returned home hostile to the materialistic values fostered by his great-grandfather and Partridge. Satirizing Calhoun's elaborate psychological theorizing about Singleton whom he had never met, O'Connor shows that the murderer Calhoun, cast as a scapegoat for the commercialism of the townspeople, is no more than a mentally deranged, lecherous old man. As with Asbury in "The Enduring Chill," O'Connor particularly mocks the inflated, sterile phrases Calhoun as an amateur writer resorts to in his romantic defense of Singleton: "He was an individualist…. A man who would not allow himself to be pressed into the mold of his inferiors. A non-conformist. He was a man of depth living among caricatures and they finally drove him mad, unleashed all his violence on themselves. An elaborate paralleling of characters provides the basic technical method for thematic development in this story also: Calhoun consciously identifies with the characterization he superimposes on Singleton, vicariously hoping "to mitigate his own guilt" for the devotion to commercialism his successful salesman's job represents; Because of Mary Elizabeth's similar identification with Singleton and her fledgling attempt at writing, she and Calhoun recognize "that in their common kinship with him [Singleton], a kinship with each other was unavoidable"; and, ultimately, Calhoun sees in his own reflection in Mary Elizabeth's glasses that in spite of his self-righteous attempt to remain aloof from Partridge's commercialism, he ironically resembles the "round, innocent, undistinguished" visage of the master-merchant great-grandfather he had condescendingly repudiated. (Mary Elizabeth's name relates her to the three other Marys of the cycle, all of whom exhibit a similar steadfastness in self-righteously asserting the concept of their own infallibility: Mary Fortune Pitts of "A View of the Woods," Mary George of "The Enduring Chill," and Mary Grace of "Revelation.") The concluding moment of epiphany, as in the first six stories of the cycle, is again aborted, for the incorrigible self-image Calhoun sees "fixed him where he was" and foreshadows the future azalea festivals he will never escape from. Clearly, the story as it was intended parallels the other stories in the cycle; moreover, considering the patterned movement of the location of the limited omniscient point of view from parent to child in one story after another, "The Partridge Festival" seems to have been intended to contrast with "A View of the Woods," for while the former focuses on the perspective of a great-grandchild, the latter focuses on a grandfather. Any explanation for O'Connor's decision to omit the story from the cycle can only involve speculation; perhaps she made what would seem an appropriately astute aesthetic judgement that "The Partridge Festival" simply lacked the suggestive thematic richness of the other stories in its all-too-formulaic working out of related thematic considerations. In any case, the story does bear out the theory that during this eight-year period O'Connor was composing individual stories with a cyclic framework in mind, even when one of them did not perhaps satisfy her aesthetic criteria for inclusion.

Just as the similarity of "The Partridge Festival" to theme and technique in the cycle reinforces the interlocking relationship of the seven included stories, so, too, can the differences of "Parker's Back" and "Judgement Day" further substantiate the structural unity of the collection. Written in the last few months of her life and later added to the cycle by O'Connor's editor, both of these stories resemble the others in the way any works of the same author reflect the stylistic and thematic concerns of a single creator. The particular method and thematic emphasis of the two, however, do not correspond to the stories intended for inclusion in the cycle and, therefore, hinder an understanding of the structural basis of the cycle if considered part of it. "Parker's Back" best illustrates this point, for such basic recurring elements in the other stories as sickness, the arrogance of a pseudo-intellectual, the struggle between social classes, the conflict between generations, and the twinning of characters are absent. And although "Judgement Day" contains these elements, they are tangential to its development. More importantly, "Judgement Day" relates less significantly to the cycle than to O'Connor's favorite story, "The Geranium," for "Judgement Day" represents O'Connor's final revision and expansion of the earlier story written ten years before the first story of the cycle was even published.

Considering only the published version of Everything That Rises Must Converge, though, "Parker's Back" and "Judgement Day" differ from the other stories in such cardinal aspects as tone and point of view. Although O'Connor does render the indirect discourse of the main character of each story from a limited omniscient viewpoint, she mixes omniscient commentary with it to a much greater extent than in the others, for the irony in these two does not hinge primarily on the protagonist's unwitting revelation of his own self-righteousness. As a result, O'Connor's tone toward Parker and Tanner is more sympathetic than to the seven protagonists of the cycle: Parker's allegorized search for meaning is motivated by a singular earnestness that leads him ultimately to assume the Christ-like burden—literally, the image of the Byzantine Christ is tattooed on his back—and to accept his Biblical name and the prophetic vision concomitant with it; Tanner's steadfast compassion for Coleman, his desire to return south for burial and his faith in a judgment day lead him at the end to the vision of physical resurrection that overshadows his death. As a result, the brunt of O'Connor's irony falls in "Parker's Back" on such minor figures as the commercial artist who desecrates religious images and the fundamentalistic Sarah Ruth who negates the joy of life and in "Judgement Day" on Tanner's vain daughter who helps her father only begrudgingly and the dehumanized Black actor who murders Tanner. Clearly, then, "Parker's Back" and "Judgement Day" differ from the seven stories of the cycle in theme and technique; in addition, their placement as the eighth and ninth stories upsets the placing of "Revelation" as the final story and climax of the book. That the two stories O'Connor worked on after completing the cycle diverge from the pattern of the included ones further supports viewing Everything That Rises Must Converge as a collection of purposely selected and arranged stories.

Throughout Everything That Rises Must Converge O'Connor varies the location of her limited omniscient point of view and interweaves parallel thematic patterns to link together the seven stories. Again and again she dramatizes the violent manifestation of grace to a spiritually empty, narrow-minded egoist, unbalancing him to the point that he cannot regain his equilibrium. The cumulative effect of her ironic leveling of self-righteous figures in varying contexts emphasizes her religious belief in man's spiritual lameness and need for God's grace. Ruby Turpin in "Revelation" exemplifies man's capacity to respond to this instant of direct illumination and assume his role in what O'Connor calls "our slow participation" in Christ's redemption. This eschatological view of mankind that she shares with Teilhard finds an apt structural vehicle for expression in the short story cycle, for the repeated exploration of protagonists who collide rather than converge with the grace offered in their moment of epiphany conveys her sense of the continual spiritual upheaval necessary if man's consciousness is to rise to converge with God at Point Omega.

Bryan N. Wyatt (essay date Spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9404

SOURCE: "The Domestic Dynamics of Flannery O'Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 66-88.

[In the following essay, Wyatt discusses the domestic center of O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge.]

By her own avowal, Flannery O'Connor writes from a fixed perspective of Christian orthodoxy. "I write the way I do," she insists, "because (not though) I am a Catholic" and adds that all her stories "are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to accept it."

Her view that her stories are all of a piece clearly is not shared by many of her readers and critics, especially those outside her faith who have interpreted her works in ways that she would consider severe distortions of her materials and aims. For example, a variety of O'Connor's critics have expressed reservations ranging from doubt as to whether any religious intent is realized in her writings to the suspicion that her artistry is in fact not theological but demonic.

If O'Connor's fiction fails to resonate sufficiently her spiritual theme, part of the reason may lie in her approach to writing. Discussing this approach, she emphasizes her greater attention to the technical demands of the stories than to other criteria affecting the formation and portrayal of her characters. Similarly, to the charge that, morally considered, her characters are typically too ambiguous to serve as either heroes or villains, she offers the defense of her affinity for Henry James's concept of felt life, holding that the writer's moral sense and dramatic sense must coincide and that in the best fiction the moral sense will thus emerge intact.

Related to this orientation, in its effect of moderating the religious theme in her works, is the very catholicity, the encompassing embrace, of her outlook. Her protagonists may not be able to support the grace that befalls them, but she loves them nonetheless. Compounding the problem is the fact that she loves the antagonists too and loves them just as much—understandably so, since these are modified into the protagonists of other works and thereby become the objects of the searching grace that finds them lacking. O'Connor confronts a drastically fallen world in which even the remnants of religious belief are vanishing and the instruments and recipients of grace themselves may be as sordid as the damned. She explains:

I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in [my] stories.

To feel ultimately the contemporary world, though it is inexorably devolving to an unbearable state, as nonetheless the sole precinct and medium for the teleological realization of mankind's salvation through Christ's redemption is, perhaps inevitably, to possess a concomitant ethos riven with ambivalence—constraining love for the thing despised, cherishing of a world beyond endurance, a world of the spiritually blind, the degenerate, the odious. O'Connor's writings belie neither such an ethos nor her embracing of such a world, the world her fiction limns, one whose future inhabitants, she fears, "will know nothing of mystery or manners."

This paraphrase of the Henry James speculation on the young woman of the future charts the principal dimensions of her fiction, the nonreceptivity toward the mystery of grace by a society ever less mindful of manners (as codified caritas), ever less observant of the gestures and rites nourishing social interaction. At the level of realism O'Connor's fiction dramatizes the clashes among her defective characters in the domain of manners, baring their frailties—selfishness, bigotry, pride—and their dubiousness as vessels of grace. It is no wonder that the supernatural action of grace, since it is unrecognized by those it touches, is also too often scarcely detected by her readers, unless O'Connor employs some seemingly obtrusive authorial device to underscore it, thereby accenting the allegorical component of her work, but, more often than not, weakening its artistry. Both her novels are obviously "marred" by this alleged disjunction, as are several of the pieces in her first short-story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, including the title story and, to some extent, what well may have been O'Connor's favorite of all her writings, "The Artificial Nigger."

In the last-written and most realistic of her books, Everything That Rises Must Converge, the disjunction is present but not so pronounced, the supernatural impress not so stark, as in the earlier works. The general domestication of the supernal, its attenuation to an appropriate blend with the "manners" component signaling social decay, is indeed one measure of the greater realism of this posthumous collection. And the central locus for this interplay of mystery and manners, the arena wherein the social skirmishes erupt and find resolution, is unremittingly the domestic one: the home, the family.

We may say, parenthetically and with due qualification, that the cohesive and nurturing tendency suggested by the centrality of the domestic theme in her stories is one clear index of the feminine consciousness in O'Connor's canon. Another is her deference to females as protagonists, and if not protagonists, at least stabilizers of the domestic realm, keepers of the house. Feministically viewed, an arguable axiom of O'Connor's works is that male can appear as protagonist or focal character only if he (1) is not the functional (though perhaps titular) family leader or head of household and (2) if head, has no wife alive or physically present.

With a woman, then, established principally as monarch of the domicile (a woman typically bereft, betrayed, despised), the domestic theme in O'Connor's last original collection may be examined, with attention to its sundry functions as medium and catalyst for her characteristic concerns.

The title story, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," is in its consuming secularity the most uniformly realistic of the volume, and as such provides a useful paradigm. Initially there is the conspicuous paradox of rising descent, the rising and convergence of a suppressed group (blacks) in society, while at the same time the society itself is devolving toward the terrible world we are coming to—a spiritual decay signified metaphorically by the themes of physical sordidness, displacement, hostility. This complex of degeneration marks a world "too much with us" today, presaging the irresonant, faithless world of tomorrow. The domestic arena becomes in effect a synecdoche of this transfiguration while providing a resistance to it, a tension affording possibilities for desirable modes of human interaction.

Julian's mother (note how O'Connor's women are typically designated by their familial roles—Mrs. May, his mother, Parker's wife, etc.), displaced from the elegant world of her childhood, suffers for attempting to practice her class-conscious mannerisms in a world that is "in a mess everywhere," where social convergence has blurred class distinctions, where "the bottom rail is on the top." Her displacement is heightened by her present status of living with her son Julian in a modest apartment in a neighborhood once fashionable but now deteriorated and dingy, as contrasted with her sense of her real home, the haven of her childhood, her grandfather's "mansion," toward which she reverts in the confusion of her fatal stroke at the story's end.

It has been said that for O'Connor home is always heaven. This is no doubt true in the light of her ultimate view of present society, but this story conveys no palpable awareness of the celestial home (as does, say, the later "Judgement Day"). Here it is only the lost mansion, not heaven, that the mother appears in the end to seek, her heritage—sold, ruined, possessed by Negroes. Significantly, Julian has an obsessive attachment to the house, regularly dreaming about it, assuring himself that only he, not his mother, could have appreciated it, and finally thinking "bitterly of the house that had been lost for him."

Lost for him: the symbolic import of the house is enlarged. Of the mother's many sacrifices for Julian, which he rationalizes as demanded in compensation for her ineptness, that of the ancestral home is primal and encompassing. One surmises that the house was lost for Julian's sake, that whatever legacy there was to his mother from its sale went to augment the funds scraped together by her in the struggle to better her son's welfare, as her own was largely neglected ("her teeth had gone unfilled so that his could be straightened"). In any case, at another level the house was Julian's link to his mother's world and world view, her manners and values; though decayed when he saw it as a child, "it remained in his mind as his mother had known it."

Clearly her vision determines and controls his own, here as in other respects, despite his professing that he is "not dominated by his mother." His very being, in fact, seems little more than a reaction to his perception of hers. "Everything that gave her pleasure," we are led to believe, "was small and depressed him," and

in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite of going to a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity.

A judicious reading of the story would mitigate these assumptions of Julian's. Consider, for instance, the "miraculous" one that he has severed himself emotionally from his mother and does not return the "blinding" love she has for him. O'Connor is not frivolous in her use of the word love; it occurs with startling infrequency in her stories. She asserts,

I don't think … that to be a true Christian you believe that mutual interdependence is a conceit. This is far from Catholic doctrine; in fact it strikes me as highly Protestant, a sort of justification by faith. God became not only a man, but Man. This is the mystery of Redemption and our salvation is worked out on earth according as we love one another, see Christ in one another, etc., by works. This is one reason I am chary of using the word, love, loosely. I prefer to use it in its practical forms, such as prayer, almsgiving, visiting the sick and burying the dead and so forth.

Within the family paradigm, the practical acts that issue from parental bonding, acts of caretaking, sacrificial acts, may be added to O'Connor's list, since those performing such acts (usually mothers who receive no gratitude from the children on whom their parental duties are discharged) are among the characters treated most sympathetically in her scheme of extenuation. Here Julian is correct in concluding that his mother loves him but excessive in contending that she is blinded by such love; and his cultivated ability to see her with complete objectivity looms as one of his severest frailties.

In the end what blinds her to him, beyond any recognition, is his rejection of her (evinced through various gestures, notably his viewing her as a stranger and contemplating abandoning her when they reach their bus stop, and culminating symbolically in his rationalized complicity with the contemporary forces that erupt in the black woman's assault on her). Ultimately this rejection is recognized for the evil that it was, and Julian tries to (re)establish genuine familial ties, discarding his conception of her as a child ironically after she has reverted psychically to her childhood, as he cries, "Mamma, Mamma." But it is too late. He has succeeded utterly in his sundering denial, succeeded in making them strangers to each other. Looking gropingly at him in the end, she finds "nothing familiar" about him, finds "nothing." She has returned to her world, the matrix of her identity, a world that antedates and excludes him.

Earlier Julian ridicules her contention that "he hadn't even entered the real world." It is true; if her sense of herself is unsuited to the modern temper, his premature world-weariness and arrogant misanthropy insulate him from any genuine relationship, even with his mother. It is his rejection of her, his figurative killing of her, that projects the "real world" that he must enter after her death—"the world of guilt and sorrow."

"Greenleaf" presents another struggling mother with ungrateful offspring, another who is beleaguered and victimized by the changing times. The external antagonists are again placed on the domestic stage, and again the home (homestead) is in danger of being lost. Mrs. May, through industry and perseverance, has succeeded in turning the rundown country property left her by her husband into a viable dairy farm, where she is able to rear and educate her two sons. The Greenleafs, the family of the hired tenant, epitomize for her the inferior order that threatens to supplant the "decent" class of people she represents. Like Julian's mother, she is assured of her social status and character—knows "who she is"—and like Julian, her bachelor sons are peculiarly dependent on her, while mocking her in their cavalier acceptance of, and complicity in, the social change that menaces her. The older, Scofield, takes pride in being "the best nigger-insurance salesman in the county" and taunts her with the professed intent of marrying, after her death, some farm girl to take over the place, someone like Mrs. Greenleaf.

For Mrs. May, Mrs. Greenleaf epitomizes the very dregs of the unsavory Greenleaf clan, a woman who neglects her duties toward her children (e.g., by failing to keep them clean), no mother at all, who directs her attention and energies into a particularly disgusting form of "prayer healing" involving praying and moaning while sprawling on the ground. Of course, for O'Connor Mrs. Greenleaf is a grotesque nearsaint, engaged in one of those practical acts—prayer—that manifest Christian love. The prospect of having the place taken over by the likes of her repulses Mrs. May, affording an avenue for her son's fiendishly sadistic torment of her.

It is through the Greenleafs that the central themes of the story are realized. In the case of O'Connor's supernatural emphasis, Mrs. Greenleaf and the bull (freighted with symbolism) that finally kills Mrs. May are the principal agents. With respect to the ubiquitous theme of class displacement, the spotlight shifts to the Greenleaf sons, with their foreign wives and progeny. As usual, however, these larger concerns are viewed through the domestic lens, through their impact on the home and family.

The shiftless Greenleafs have managed to produce two sons who, through (in Mrs. May's estimation) their fool's luck, their cunning application of whatever mother wit they possessed, and the largess of the federal government, have begun to rise in the world. Now situated nearby in their own dairy business, with equipment more modern than hers, they seem poised, in their "international" families, for social climbing and likely to become eventually what she calls "Society." In essence, they will be the inheritors. They have been variously successful where her own sons have failed, a fact kept before her by Mr. Greenleaf's harping upon the superior virtues of his sons, especially those involving family obligations: "If hit was my boys they would never have allowed their maw to go out after hired help in the middle of the night. They would have did it theirself." Unlike her sons, who are drastically different and forever squabbling, the Greenleaf twins are practically indistinguishable in name, appearance, family constituency, domicile, and disposition. Further, it is their bull that threatens to ruin her herd, which represents her sons' future, while the sons seem not at all to care what happens on or to the place. Her conviction that they will marry "trash" after her death and pass her bequest into the lineage of "scrub humans" leads her to entail the property, preventing their leaving it to their wives. The future and her legacy are reified in the homestead, which promises to be lost, ruined, as Julian's was.

The crushing domestic blow in O'Connor is familial rejection or denial. Her much-favored story "The Artificial Nigger" reaches its peak of intensity when Mr. Head denies his grandson Nelson, who is reaching out to him for protection in a moment of crisis, by saying to the child's persecutors, "I never seen him before." Perhaps it is because, in the theological tradition, the archetypal denial is yoked to the archetypal betrayal in the primal Christian family group of Christ and his disciples that the willful severing of kinship is so crucial for O'Connor. Clearly in the earlier story the episode of denial is heightened, as the estranged boy refuses thereafter to come near his grandfather; and it reaches resolution, resulting in communion, only through the symbolic influence of the Negro statue, a figure for divine grace and a type of crucifix.

In "Greenleaf" there is an arresting involuntary rejection by Mrs. May of her sons when she exclaims that the Greenleaf twins should have been her sons and that her boys should have "belonged to that woman!"—Mrs. Greenleaf. (Significantly, this outburst occurs only after one of them declares that he would not milk a cow even to save his mother's soul from hell.) Once uttered, Mrs. May's denial is so horrible to her that she is blinded by tears. Again, we see the larger, external theme of class conflict, of chauvinism, being subsumed by the more tangible, internal, and affective one of family loyalty.

The rejection of Mrs. May by her sons, especially by the younger Wesley, is cumulative, reiterative, and complete. Complete, at least, within the confines of the story, since in O'Connor's panorama there is no earthly closure. If her camera were to continue running after Mrs. May's death on the horn of the bull, for instance, we might see in the sons, as intimated in the case of Julian, and embracing of her as they wake to "the world of guilt and sorrow." But their rejection here progresses through the ghoulish anticipation of her death to Wesley's taunting contention that they are not really her sons. This rejection is heightened by an ensuing outburst between thm that ends in a fight. The rebuff wounds Mrs. May, who wheezes "like an old horse lashed unexpectedly" and runs from the room. Marking the ultimacy of the rejection is the fact that this is the last time the boys appear in the story, the last time they are together. Again the domestic dynamics inform and adumbrate O'Connor's social and religious themes.

"A View of the Woods" at its core presents an internecine clash of family loyalties configuring O'Connor's larger socio-theistic concerns. Thematically, the ecological interests implicit in the destruction of nature for the sake of "progress" merge with the spiritual ones involving the symbolic violation of the divine through the proposed sacrificing of the woods and the concomitant destruction of family unity. Tilman, the up-and-coming businessman to whom the lot fronting the woods is sold, is presented as a palpably Luciferian character who is even a little ahead of progress, a representative of The Future. The woods, as described and employed, and as O'Connor herself confirms, are associated with Christ. Old man Fortune allies himself with the new class, with destructive secularism, when he champions Tilman and what he stands for. Tilman's anticipated business enterprises will bring the world's conveniences and travelers of all types from across the nation to the family's door. The sale of the lot in front of their house for the construction of Tilman's gas station will initiate this new era. The sale, in Fortune's estimation, will be a supremely beneficent act, redolent of the highest ideals of patriotism, democracy, egalitarianism:

If his daughter thought she was better than Tilman, it would be well to take her down a little. All men were created free and equal. When this phrase sounded in his head, his patriotic sense triumphed and he realized that it was his duty to sell the lot, that he must insure the future. He looked out the window at the moon shining over the woods across the road and listened for a while to the hum of the crickets and treefrogs, and beneath their racket, he could hear the throb of the future town of Fortune.

Of course Mary Fortune Pitts, his granddaughter, knows nothing of these larger significances; her responses are domestic, familial: a gas station there would obliterate her family's view of the woods and would replace the "lawn" where her daddy, Pitts, grazes his calves. Daughter of Fortune's daughter who married the despised Pitts, the child becomes a hostage in the battle of wills between Fortune and the Pitts nuclear family. That she is like Fortune—his namesake and a replica in appearance and disposition—makes her his, the only Pitts he has any use for, the designated beneficiary of his total estate. At the same time, her parents suspect that since she is favored by her grandfather (because of her resemblance to him), she is the source of his hostility to them. So just as he punishes them through his partiality to her at their expense, they retaliate against him by chastising her for assumed complicity with the old man, for serving as a wedge against her own immediate family. Most remarkably, she is accused of putting him up to selling the lot to Tilman, for which suspected act she is beaten by Pitts.

The periodic beatings given Mary Fortune by Pitts remain rather mysterious and problematical throughout the story. Only within the domestic context, with respect to the issue of family integrity, do they become sufficiently meaningful. At first there is some question of whether they actually occur or are merely imagined by Fortune. When it becomes obvious that they are real, they may be assessed as a kind of bugaboo of Fortune's, enraging him by reason of the girl's acceptance of them, her displaying even "something very like cooperation." What remains baffling is that the child continues to fiercely deny them, proclaiming "Nobody's ever beat me in my life and if anybody did, I'd kill him."

A plausible explanation is that for O'Connor the beatings have a far larger symbolic than literal import, that they are received by the child not as punishment for particular wrong-doing (since from all indication she has done no particular wrong) but as acts of familial bonding, acknowledgment by her father and family that she is indeed one of theirs—a Pitts. They become expressions of acceptance denoting a parental prerogative that Fortune cannot proscribe and that, to his dismay, the child embraces.

It follows then that when Fortune attempts to usurp Pitts's authority and beat her himself for the first time (becoming the nobody who has ever beaten her, the anybody who ever might beat her), the beating becomes a literal one; and she makes good her pledge by, effectively, killing him.

The most conclusive blow in this homicide is not physical but psychological, and again domestic. Once more it is the ultimate terrestrial rejection: the denial of kin. After the girl pounds the old man to the ground in their mortal combat at the end of the story, she looks down into his eyes and says, "You been whipped by me, and I'm PURE Pitts." There are layers of implications here. Fortune, looking up into her eyes, sees his own image as she announces his vanquishment by pure Pitts. Apart from the evident symbolism of the Pitts clan's finally defeating and supplanting him is the less distinct form betokening his ultimate self-defeat. The pride resulting in his rejection of his daughter's family, except for the member he appropriates as his own, is incarnated in Mary Fortune; so that pride is the cause of his final overthrow, at the same time that he is inadvertently extinguishing it, as he slays the granddaughter who has spiritually betrayed and abandoned him in identifying with her father, the detested Pitts.

Fortune, of course, has rejected her earlier, in another instance of heightened familial denial. Significantly, it occurs when he belittles her for accepting the beatings from her father:

"Are you a Fortune," he said, "or are you a Pitts? Make up your mind."

Her voice was loud and positive and belligerent. "I'm Mary—Fortune—Pitts," she said.

"Well I," he shouted, "am PURE Fortune!"

There was nothing she could say to this and she showed it. For an instant she looked completely defeated, and the old man saw with a disturbing clearness that this was the Pitts look. What he saw was the Pitts look, pure and simple, and he felt personally strained by it, as if it had been found on his own face.

The impact of this rejection on the child is telling, and the defeat she suffers associates her thereafter with her father and against Fortune. From this point on in the story, she is deeply morose, glumly unresponsive to all Fortune's efforts to revive their previously communicative banter; "for all the answer he got," "he might have been chauffeuring a small dead body," we are told at one point. She will indeed soon be a small dead body, but already she is dead to him.

Not ignored by O'Connor in her complex of domestic concerns is the dutiful homemaker, Mrs. Pitts, who discharges what she deems her familial obligations to her father in taking care of Fortune in his old age. If her motivation is to be accepted as genuine, against Fortune's conviction of her ulterior motives, she is performing a sacrificial act, being regarded by her father as no more than a tenant while she, apparently against her family's persuasions and with no expectation of reward, stays to care for him. Fortune virtually rejects her when she marries Pitts, concluding that in so doing she has shown that she "preferred Pitts to home"; and a true home is what he has denied her ever since.

"The Enduring Chill" is the first story in the volume that does not end with an actual or imminent death, though Asbury's conviction of his impending demise suffuses the work. Asbury, the intellectual and would-be artist, has renounced his provincial home and family, seeing his mother as the culprit in the utter failure of his life; but, of necessity, it is to home that he returns to die.

Though Asbury is the story's protagonist, the one to be touched by O'Connor's "action of grace," as manifested in the conspicuous descent of the symbolized Holy Ghost upon him at the end, it is his mother who is the domestic focus. He blames her for his expected death; she dismisses the notion that she would allow him to die under her parental care, and it is through her efforts—deflecting his verbal attacks and stripping away his illusions at every turn—that his life is dispensed to him and he may begin to become a New Man. Mrs. Fox contends to him that he has a home, something his admired Northern associates would wish they had, and forces upon him the services of the local physician he desises, who, she is aware, will take a personal interest in him. The priest she secures for him expects that he will pray—with his family—and, if they do not pray, will pray for them. The mother's black dairy workers, with whom Asbury tries to establish an egalitarian rapport, wonder why he disparages his mother and speculate that the reason is her failure to "whup" him enough when he was little. His efforts to have "communion" with them by inducing them to drink with him unpasteurized milk—against his mother's rules, in defiance of the social and racial taboo, but in this instance also a medical taboo—results in his true disease. He drinks the milk (though the workers do not) and contracts undulant fever, which the country doctor, Block, eventually diagnoses, concluding that Asbury must have drunk some unpasteurized milk "up there."

Essentially it is Asbury's assumed realization that his woes have, in the main, resulted not from his mother's values, the values of home, but from his rejection of them that signals the final peeling away of his illusions. His spiritual deficiencies, exposed by the priest, may be most immediately tied to the religious climax at the end, but the realization of his domestic failures undergirds it.

"The Comforts of Home," as the title suggests, is anchored in the domestic, and in domestic disruption, since the loss of such comforts eventuates for the story's reflector, Thomas. While treating moral concerns, this work is less recognizably religious than "The Enduring Chill." O'Connor's dogma is well insulated by her domestic drama.

What is accentuated in the dramatization is the social theme. Sarah Ham, the "little slut" that Thomas's mother all but adopts and that she obtrudes upon their domain, brings with her the taint of ineffective, perhaps misdirected, institutionalized social services. The mother avers that what she truly needs is a home, though in providing her one she is displacing and alienating her son. A dissembling nymphomaniac who calls herself Star Drake, even Sarah dismisses the woman's do-goodism by labeling her "about seventy-five years behind the times," providing another instance of the ingratitude that frequently greets altruistic efforts in O'Connor's works.

The story illustrates some of the difficulties encountered in O'Connor that inevitably lead to interpretations she would find objectionable. In this regard it is instructive to view it alongside the next story in the collection, "The Lame Shall Enter First." Here too, out of the impurely good intentions of the homeowner, a disruptive force is brought into the home. Sheppard, seeing the potential in the clubfooted Rufus, attempts to rescue the boy from the stultifying and corruptive effects of his sordid background and the ineptness of related welfarism and to "reform" the boy himself by providing him a real home, even telling himself also that Rufus's presence will have a salutary, charity-building influence on Norton, Sheppard's young son.

Other parallels abound. Like Sarah Ham, Rufus feels no gratitude for the efforts directed toward his betterment and continues to pursue his usual antisocial, even criminal behavior while in the home of his benefactor, in some sense treacherously desecrating its sanctity. Neither has had a genuine home before, but each seems remarkably indifferent to the one generously provided. Thomas informs his mother that Sarah is "nothing but a slut. She makes fun of you behind your back. She means to get everything she can out of you and you are nothing to her." His mother concedes as much, saying, "I know I'm nothing but an old bag of wind to her." Likewise, when Norton tries to protest to his father about Rufus's breach of domestic ethics—sullying the sanctum of his dead mother's room and her personal effects, dancing, in her corset, with the black cook—Sheppard condemns him for tattling and will brook no denigration of Rufus, who mocks his reform attempts and disparages him for thinking himself Jesus Christ. The "congenital liar" Sarah, having been analyzed and instructed by psychiatrists, "knows" that she is incorrigible, that there is "no hope for her." Rufus flaunts his resistance to (Sheppard's) do-goodism, bragging that he persists in committing crimes because he's good at it and that he is in the power of Satan. The similarities go on and on.

A crucial difference is in intended impact; one gathers that O'Connor sanctions the charitable efforts of Thomas's mother. She has written that in "The Comforts of Home" "nobody is redeemed" but she explains that

the old lady is the character whose position is right and the one who is right is usually the victim. If there is any question of a symbolic redemption, it would be through the old lady who brings Thomas face to face with his own evil—which is that of putting his own comfort before charity (however foolish). His doing that destroys the one person his comfort depended on, his mother.

Her opinion of Sheppard's efforts, however, is clarified when she labels him "a man who thought he was good and thought he was doing good when he wasn't."

It may be asked to what extent these contrasting assessments are supported by O'Connor's fictional treatment and realized through her dramatization. Her tenet that the one who is right is usually the victim may be illuminating, but questions are raised concerning her definition of victimization. Does the victim have to die, for example, as Thomas's mother does and O'Connor's characters so often do? If a necessary determinant, is death a sufficient determinant of victimization? A case can be made in Thomas's behalf, defending him against the charge of "evil" that O'Connor makes. His analysis of his mother's behavior seems sound enough:

There was an observable tendency in all her actions. This was, with the best of intentions in the world, to make a mockery of virtue, to pursue it with such mindless intensity that everyone involved was made a fool of and virtue itself became ridiculous…. Had she been in any degree intellectual, he could have proved to her from early Christian history that no excess of virtue is justified…. His own life was made bearable by the fruits of his mother's saner virtues—by the well-regulated house she kept and the excellent meals she served. But when virtue got out of hand with her, as now, a sense of devils grew upon him.

Likewise, Walter Sullivan sees the mother's generosity as representing a "kind of sentimental, self-serving charity" resulting "from a misunderstanding of ultimate truth." Furthermore, Thomas's perception of Sarah's incorrigibility, her being beyond their help and better off in an institution, appears plausible.

The key to his culpability in O'Connor's scheme seems to lie in her rather deterministic revelation that Thomas "had inherited his father's reason without his ruthlessness and his mother's love of good without her tendency to pursue it." In other words, his problem is his very makeup as a family constituent. But in the context of the story this is far from obvious as a problem of culpability. Sarah is such an utterly repulsive character that his stance toward her has merit, and he does wonder, at least, what the attitude of God was to the "moral moron" Sarah—"meaning if possible to adopt it." Moreover, the voice of his dead father impugning the mother's impulsive violation of their home seems a defensible complement to Thomas's own outrage. Additionally, Thomas's mother virtually rejects him, ostensibly a grievous offense in O'Connor's moral scheme. He gives his mother an ultimatum—she must choose between him and Sarah, and she obviously chooses "the little slut" by bringing her back to the house. And on another occasion she allows the girl to stay there longer than just the one night she assures him of; so her credibility as a character is further reduced vis-à-vis his.

The voice of the dead father warrants further consideration. It is one of several components suggesting a mildly feminist strain in the story, wherein the inferior status of female characters is tacitly criticized through the mere highlighting of selected features illustrating their secondary condition. The man, we learn, was ruthless and a hypocrite, a dissembler who, in making the country men regard him as one of them, had "lived his lie" without ever having to tell one. Clearly, while alive he had been at odds with his wife over her "mindless charity" but apparently knew how to "handle her," how to "put his foot down." Thomas lacks his father's attributes in this respect, and to the old man this indicates that Thomas's masculinity is questionable. He belittles Thomas for letting a woman dominate him, proclaiming that she had never driven him from his own table. "Show her who's boss," his voice goads Thomas; "[you] let her run over you. You ain't like me. Not enough to be a man."

Extending this strain is Farebrother, the sheriff that Thomas finally goes to see for help, who has known the father and who apparently shares his temperament and tendencies. Farebrother reminds Thomas that the old man would never truckle to a woman and, after agreeing to come to the house and investigate Sarah's taking of the gun, orders him to "keep out of my way—yourself and them two women too."

There are hints of the feminist concern in other stories, e.g., "Greenleaf," where the Greenleaf females seem to be slighted in deference to the male children and to diminish in importance as the action progresses, and where Mrs. May laments that she is the victim, has always been because she is a woman. In "The Comforts of Home," though, as has been suggested, the voice of the dead father may well be taken not merely as a continuation of the battle of wills between the man and his widow but as the force sent to correct the disgraced status of the house resulting from her disruption of its domestic harmony through her "mindless" charity.

The word "mindless" is pertinent, since it fits into the mind-heart dichotomy so prominent in O'Connor's works. (The argument in the title story over the seat of genuine culture—the mind versus the heart—exemplifies the pattern of hyperrational, unfeeling characters scattered through her fiction.) Here the dichotomy operates most intensely within Thomas himself. Arguably, he may possess the better, or at least less extreme, qualities of both his respective parents—his father's reason, his mother's love of good—without their "worse" ones—ruthlessness and the (excessive) tendency to pursue good. But it is the ruthlessness of the dead father that invades Thomas in the end, signified by the gun (inherited from the old man) and her dead husband's voice that the mother hears issuing from the lips of her son before the trigger is pulled to end her life. The old man evidently triumphs.

Perhaps the strongest feature of the mother's altruism, making it a thing of the heart and therefore blessed for O'Connor, is again domestically based; it is seeing others as her own children. The protagonist of the title story in O'Connor's first volume evinces the action of grace when she recognizes the Misfit as one of her children before he kills her. Thomas's mother demonstrates the radical Christian virtue of loving thy neighbor as thyself, of holding even strangers in no less esteem than one's own kin. This is driven home to us by the reiterated explanation for her avid concern with Sarah's welfare: "I keep thinking it might be you," she repeatedly tells her son. The familial dimension of "The Comforts of Home" is vital. In no other of O'Connor's stories is it more deeply based or more multifunctional.

The altruism of Sheppard in "The Lame Shall Enter First" is of a different order. His attitude toward his son Norton falls somewhere between condescension and contempt. Hence his benevolence concerning Rufus is hollow—vain, mind-driven, absent of heart. His actions are dictated by self-regard, cold theory, social scientism, as opposed to sincere personal engagement. Rufus succinctly sizes up Sheppard by remarking that he may be good but he "ain't right."

Symbolically, because of the emptiness of his motivation, Sheppard is unable to create the family he attempts by positioning Rufus as a prospective brother to (actually a replacement of) his real son, and (the father rationalizes) deflecting Norton's obsessive attachment to his dead mother.

Sheppard stresses the "selfishness" in the child's fixation, but at least the attachment is concrete—to a real person whose death Norton cannot comprehend or accept, which cannot be mitigated (but rather is enhanced) by Sheppard's materialistic denial of a hereafter. And Norton's devotion is necessarily filial, born of a relationship with an integral member of the family and home he has known. Ironically, just as Rufus supplants Norton as Sheppard's son, he also replaces Sheppard as Norton's parent. The latter act is prepared for by Sheppard's rejection of Norton—as usual in highly intensified scenes. After desecrating the dead mother's room, Rufus is given her bed to sleep in; Norton becomes so incensed that his father whips him. Then the utter denial occurs when Sheppard refuses to entertain the thought that Rufus, despite the certainty of the police concerning his guilt, could have left the movie he attended with Norton and broken into a house, as alleged. The captivation is so complete that he misconstrues the words expressing Rufus's enthrallment of him as thanks and responds by calling Rufus "son." Immediately thereafter, as he sees Norton beckoning him from across the hall, he decides he cannot go to him without violating Rufus's presumed trust. Norton, of course, would have told him that Rufus did leave the theater to commit the break-in, but Sheppard willfully ignores the child's call. He denies his son. We are told that, in response, the child "sat for some time looking at the spot where his father had stood. Finally his gaze became aimless and he lay back down."

After this, we may conclude, the forsaken Norton's central objective is to establish contact with his one parent—who resides, according to Rufus, in the sky. Rufus plants the seed of suicide in the child's consciousness through teaching him the Bible, and finally triumphs over Sheppard in their struggle for the boy's soul when Norton hangs himself to join his mother in heaven.

The story shows that rationalized "good works" fail and that human (i.e., familial) sentiment is genuine, right, as the ground of altruism. But O'Connor becomes uncharacteristically didactic at the end and restates what has been portrayed, that Sheppard had tried to stuff "his own emptiness with good works" and "had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself." He at long last feels a rush of love for Norton, vows never to let him suffer again; but the child is gone. With this culmination the religious and domestic themes converge, and, as the story's action illustrates, the domestic configuration is once again a sounding board for the spiritual voice.

In "Revelation" the domestic theme is rendered essentially in interfamilial terms. O'Connor again brings to the fore class-consciousness and apprehension regarding the changing times, the new age, connecting the two with her religious component and giving them all about equal emphasis. The most comic of these stories, "Revelation" presents the unlikely phenomenon in O'Connor of a female protagonist with a living spouse, a more than incidental feature.

Through Mrs. Turpin's consciousness the gallery of characters is introduced in the doctor's waiting room; the descriptive details individualize each, yet place them all neatly in her pattern of class stratification, as outlined in her pastime of "naming the classes of people":

On the bottom of the heap were most colored people … then next to them … were the white trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land-owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well…. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.

Those in the waiting room are delineated by their words, dress, and demeanor, but it is important to note that domestic connections form the axis on which the class distinctions revolve and are a principle of character evaluation. Being "white-trashy," for instance, does not inhere simply in lack of possessions or education; it is revealed in the failure to keep one's child clean or teach it proper behavior. Also, the familial focus can serve as a means of disjunction. Mary Grace, the ugly girl whose pivotal act of assaulting Mrs. Turpin forms the story's climax, is viewed as an ungrateful family aberration, almost incomprehensible to her mother. A friendly and "stylish" lady, the mother criticizes the girl's thanklessness and failure to appreciate her advantages, i.e., her supportive, loving, sacrificing family and all it has provided for her. In this way the familial theme is dispersed in the story, serving as a generalized elastic device of coherence and emphasis. It is the abstract concept of family that serves functionally as a kind of meta-setting, as opposed to the conventional O'Connor application of the literal and immediate family.

But the immediate familial relationship is not completely neglected. Just before Mary Grace attacks her, Mrs. Turpin is rhapsodically expressing gratitude for her blessings:

"If it's one thing I am," Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, "it's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!" For one thing, somebody else would have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. "Oh thank you Jesus, Jesus, thank you!" she cried aloud.

It is worthy of note that the possibility of someone else's getting her husband Claud is not part of what she says, but something she thinks, realizes—and the realization of her husband as a gift fills her with joy and impels her to shout her thanks; which in turn causes the ugly Mary Grace to hurl the book at her face. Aside from whatever O'Connor's intent may be in having the assault occur on this note, the fact remains that what is set in pointed relief here is the primary domestic relationship—husband and wife.

At this point, with the girl's attack, the dispersed domesticism of the waiting room ends, and the reader is prepared for the Turpins' return to their actual domicile and family context. Emphasis here appears in the fact that Mrs. Turpin cherishes the reality that their home is still there ("she would not have been startled to see a burnt wound between two blackened chimneys"). More appears in the rather peculiar exchange between the spouses later, in bed, when instead of discussing the girl's indictment of her (an "old wart hog" from hell), Mrs. Turpin solicitously asks her husband how his injured leg feels, and later, when he is about to leave to take their workers home, impulsively says, "Kiss me." And, finally, before she has her revelation—of all the classes of people ultimately marching into heaven—there is a signal occurrence. She has just vocally confronted Christ, charging that even if he decrees that the class divisions be erased and the "bottom rail" put on top, there will still be a class system, a hierarchy, "a top and a bottom." Then she sees in the distance Claud's departing truck and realizes that "at any moment a bigger truck might smash into it and scatter Claud's and the niggers' brains all over the road." She remains fixed and anxious until she sees Claud's truck returning, sees it turn into their own road, to safety; only then does the spiritual revelation occur to her. In short, "Revelation" stresses social class-consciousness, minimizes starkly moral concerns, and follows the expected pattern of rendering the spiritual message in a domestic context.

"Parker's Back" is the least verisimilar, the most biblically allegorical, of all the stories in the collection. It has the least coherence and substance in the mimetic sense, and its characters are seemingly the most manipulated by O'Connor's religious thrust. The religious theme is paramount, even to the extent that it distorts and vitiates the realistic tenor of O'Connor's presentation. Despite all this, however, the domestic theme is discernible in several respects relating to significant events in the title character's life: (1) Parker's mother took him to revival, though he ran away and joined the navy; (2) his mother is responsible—paid—for the notable tattoo of his, but insisted that it include her name; (3) against his will Parker gets married, but marriage makes him gloomier than ever; (4) he feels the need for a tattoo on his back, but wants only one his wife would like; (5) he is surprised to be capable of staying with a woman who is pregnant; (6) he is driven to get a strange tattoo on his back (he says) because he married a woman who is pregnant; (7) it seems that all along his real desire was to please her (his wife); and so on.

Further, though relatively muted, a pattern of O'Connor's larger domestic concerns is detectable. For example, one senses the theme of displacement when Parker is in the city getting his transforming tattoo. He feels isolated and longs to be home with his wife, Sarah Ruth. And of course there is the theme of rejection—by Parker's cohorts, his "society," when he is thrown out of the pool hall, and by his wife. He has in a sense betrayed her through dissimulation regarding his female employer's attitude toward him and the like. Sarah Ruth rejects him, at least the secular him that has attempted to deceive her, by not responding at last to his preferred name but only to the Testamentary one—Obadiah Elihue.

In this story the domestic theme resonates in other subtle ways. When Parker comes home with his ultimate tattoo and his wife will not admit him until he submits to identifying himself with the name he despises, she has symbolically named him. After chastening him for his deception, aware now of the truth of his status with the female employer, she whips him with a broom. At one level of implication, she has become his mother, dominating him as she might a child. Here earlier strains assume related significance—the fact that she had to marry before having children, that he has been repulsed by her pregnancy, that he from all appearances has never known his own motivations, his identity. The story ends with him beaten, standing outside, "crying like a baby." Metaphorically, he is a baby, i.e., "born again"—the symbolic fruition of her pregnancy; and whatever implication this episode may carry thematically, it is steeped in domesticity.

The closing story, "Judgement Day," fittingly recapitulates a number of themes sounded in the earlier selections. Not the least of these is that of domestic displacement. As in the title story, the family holdings have been lost, along with the social status they signified. Old Tanner, a former landowner who raised four children, "was somebody when he was somebody," his daughter contends, but now he is decrepit and dispossessed, feebly seeking his Georgia homeland to serve as his final resting place. He, like Julian's mother, is spiritually rebuffed by his offspring and suffers a stroke after being accosted by a Negro who takes offense at a racially insensitive act.

Again the racial encounters illustrate the social phenomenon of rising descent that O'Connor projects. The blacks, as they advance—demonstrating for some the government's inexorable effort to turn society "upsidedown," to put "the bottom rail on top"—grow ever more assertive and testy, consequently engaging in confrontations with those Southern whites continuing to exhibit traditional racial mores. Sometimes, as in the cases of Julian's mother and Tanner, these confrontations prove deadly.

But the roles of the blacks in "Judgement Day" are just as vital to O'Connor's treatment of the story's domestic theme. Coleman, whom Tanner has mentally vanquished with the symbolic aid of the "spectacles" he absently fashions from bark and hay wire, becomes Tanner's domestic servant in their "home"—the shack they construct together as squatters on a plot of vacated land later purchased by a local Negro (only part black, also Indian and white), Doctor Foley. Tanner realizes, as does Foley, that his white skin, with "the government" against him, is no longer a badge of superiority; and Foley gives him the option of becoming his servant or being evicted.

Rather than accept such a humiliating role, Tanner goes to live with his daughter in her apartment in New York—which he finds a hellish new world, an impersonal "no-place," inhabited by "all stripes of foreigner, all of them twisted in the tongue." Desmond summarizes its racial and social dynamics:

The New York world of Tanner's daughter is one ostensibly marked by social progress, at least to the extent that a relative equality exists between whites and Negroes. But underlying this superficial advance is the deeper fact of spiritual alienation, signified by the estrangement from others that characterizes urban life there, the people of each race guardedly "minding their own business." In short, it is a mock community, a perversion of the idea of mystical community, a society which has lost the long view of history because it has turned away from the spiritual roots of such a mystical vision.

Here even Tanner's daughter is a stranger to him, one whose philosophy, too, is non-engagement ("Live and let live"), who shuts him out by conversing with herself, who ridicules his religious beliefs as "Baptist hooey," and who intends to renege on her promise to have him buried at home, in Georgia. This familial betrayal is the unkindest cut of all, and Tanner concludes that he made a colossal mistake in coming to live with her, that Coleman and he constituted a more genuine family, and that now he would gladly be Foley's lackey, his "white nigger," if it meant he could live again in the departed shack that used to be his home.

From this ungodly no-place, symptomatic of that terrible world we are coming to, Tanner must escape. His attempts to do so bring O'Connor's social and theistic themes into panoptic integration with their domestic vehicle. The black actor, whom Tanner has refused to except from his racially stereotypical views, tellingly asserts his difference by proclaiming that he is not any "coal man" before his violent disposal of Tanner as the story draws to a close. The irony in his apparently mistaking Tanner's confused tentative greeting—"Coleman?"—as merely a vocational label, instead of in effect a compounded racial typing, is pronounced. Even more so is the irony suffusing the fatal attack itself on Tanner, in response to the old man's plea for help to get home, an act of hostility that results in sending him not at once to the geographical home, which the old man immediately seeks, but to the otherworldly, eternal one for which he secretly longs. The homicidal act by "Preacher" becomes underhandedly a benevolent rite.

It remains only for the daughter to complete the domestic resolution of the work. She betrays her pledge to Tanner and buries his body there in New York City. But afterward, though herself a professed nonbeliever like the black Northern actor, she is unable to sleep well until she has her father raised and sent home as she had promised—after which her peace and good looks return. We may well see this corrective adjustment in the daughter's attitude as yet another instance of O'Connor's "action of grace." Nonetheless, its resulting gesture, the final and consummating act of the book, is firmly positioned on the clearly domestic fulcrum of filial obligation, familial duty.

Michael W. Crocker and Robert C. Evans (essay date June 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3453

SOURCE: "Faulkner's 'Barn Burning' and O'Connor's 'Everything That Rises Must Converge,'" in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, June, 1993, pp. 371-83.

[In the following essay, Crocker and Evans outlines similarities between O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and Faulkner's "Barn Burning."]

As two of the most important American writers of this century, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor wrote two of the most widely anthologized and widely read short stories of our time—"Barn Burning" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Although the relationship between the two writers has been a subject of occasional comment, such comment remains largely scattered and difficult to trace. In addition, although the two stories end in basically similar ways, these similarities seem not to have been discussed at any length. The links between the stories may be purely coincidental, or they may have been purposely designed. O'Connor greatly admired Faulkner (although her remarks about him seem not to have been brought together in one place before), and it is possible that her story was influenced—either consciously or unconsciously—by "Barn Burning." In any case, it seems worthwhile to collect O'Connor's comments on Faulkner, to gather some previous references to the connection between the two writers, and to note a few of the similarities between two of their most significant stories.

Various evidence suggests that O'Connor read and respected Faulkner's writings. For instance, the most recent catalogue of her library shows that she owned at least six different books by Faulkner; Conrad and Mauriac were the only two authors of fiction whose books were more plentiful on her shelves, with ten titles each. In addition, O'Connor's friend Robert Fitzgerald reported that during her brief stay in Connecticut with his family, she persuaded him to read As I Lay Dying—one of "only two works of fiction that I can remember her urging on me." Because of this, Fitzgerald surmised that Faulkner's novel was "close to her heart as a writer." Moreover, O'Connor's published correspondence contains several allusions to Faulkner and his works. For example, a letter dated 17 October 1949 refers to "the character in Sanctuary who 'had the depthless quality of stamped tin.'" Similarly, a letter dated 1 February 1953 mentions that she had been reading and enjoying a review by Faulkner of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Another letter, dated 13 October 1953, alludes to Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom! in a way that suggests her familiarity with that novel. Later, in a letter dated 19 May 1957, O'Connor claimed,

I had never heard of K.A. Porter or Faulkner or Eudora Welty until I got to graduate school, which may have been time enough for me in as much as I got to graduate school, but so many do not; they leave college thinking that literature is anything written before 1900 and that contemporary literature is anything found on the best-seller list….

Two days later, on 21 May 1957, she wrote to another friend: "I haven't seen The Town yet. I used to like The Hamlet—but for obvious reasons it is better for me to give the Snopes a wide berth." This reference is particularly intriguing, since the incident that is central to "Barn Burning" is alluded to and summarized in the opening pages of The Hamlet.

O'Connor's comments about her reading in graduate school suggest that she discovered Faulkner at precisely the same time that she was discovering and most developing her own talents. She was open to Faulkner's influence just when she was most likely to be influenced by him. Years later, after her own schooling was formally finished, she found herself recommending Faulkner to a friend, another young writer. In a letter dated 20 March 1958, she wrote: "Joe Christmas is the hero of Faulkner's book Light in August which you better had get and read. It's a real sickmaking book but I guess a classic. I read it a long time ago and only once so I'm in no position to say." Later that year, responding to her friend and fellow writer John Hawkes, who had sent her some Faulkner to read, O'Connor comically reported, "I braved the Faulkner, without tragic results." Her verb suggests some ambivalence in her attitude about Faulkner's possible influence—a point to be discussed more fully later. In general, though, her opinion of him was extremely positive. Once, a visitor, she states,

said he had a friend who was a writer in Mississippi and I said who was that. He said, His name is Bill Faulkner. I don't know if he's any good or not but he's a mighty nice fellow. I told him he was right good….

In fact, during the same year in which "Everything That Rises Must Converge" was first published, O'Connor was reading F.W. Dillistone's The Novelist and the Passion Story, a scholarly book focusing largely on Faulkner. A great deal of evidence, then, shows that O'Connor was not only familiar with Faulkner's work but that she also admired it.

O'Connor's admiration for Faulkner seems to have been rooted in several different sources. Her letters, essays, and interviews suggest that she shared many of the same values and attitudes as Faulkner. She also seems to have respected his public persona and private character—the way he lived his life as a writer. For instance, in a letter dated 28 August 1955, she referred to Faulkner as one of "the best Southern writers," and the context (which also mentions Kafka and Joyce) implies that she regarded him as one of the best international writers as well. She considered him, as she considered herself, an author whose works demanded intelligent and insightful reading. For example, in an interview given in the spring of 1963, she remarked that she did not view Faulkner or other modern novelists as "fare for the eighth grade," but she observed that "it is probably better to read Faulkner in the eighth grade than nothing. At the same time, it seems sort of insulting to Faulkner."

Nevertheless, despite her awareness of his fiction's sophistication, O'Connor seems to have respected Faulkner's lack of pretense and his identification with his native region. These were obviously values she also embraced. In an essay written in the winter of 1963, for example, she commented, "It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking. Faulkner was at home in Oxford…." In the same essay, she noted that honest and unpretentious readers in Oxford would have been "more desirable to Faulkner than all the critics in New York City [who were] unreliable [and] incapable of … interpreting Southern literature to the world." She mentioned "a story about Faulkner that I like. It may be apocryphal but it's nice anyway." When a local lady asked Faulkner if he thought she would like his latest book, "Faulkner is supposed to have said, 'Yes, I think you'll like that book. It's trash.'" This combination of regionalism, self-deprecation, self-respect, and wit suggests some of the traits belonging to Faulkner that O'Connor not only admired but also shared. She even seems to have sensed in Faulkner a greater sympathy for Christianity than was common among other modern writers. For instance, in a letter dated 1 February 1953, she mentioned having read a "nice" review by Faulkner of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea: "He says that Hemingway discovered God the Creator in this one."

However, some of O'Connor's comments about Faulkner suggest a certain ambivalence and sense of intimidation—an understandable "anxiety of influence." For example, in a letter dated 20 March 1958, she claimed to "keep clear of Faulkner so my own little boat won't get swamped." Similarly, in a letter dated 27 July 1958, she suggested, "Probably the real reason I don't read him is because he makes me feel that with my one-cylinder syntax I should quit writing and raise chickens altogether." Of course, the facts already cited show that O'Connor did read Faulkner, but her apprehension about being overpowered by his influence must have been felt by many younger Southern writers at that time. Perhaps the most emphatic evidence of this respectful wariness occurs in an essay written not long before "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Discussing the topic of "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," O'Connor asserted:

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn't just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what a writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

O'Connor's determination to preserve a sense of her own identity is shown in her remarks during a panel discussion on 28 October 1960, in which she said, "I don't know how either Eudora Welty or Faulkner looks at [the 'Southern community']. I only know how I look at it and I don't feel that I am writing about the community at all." This studied naiveté seems somewhat disingenuous, but it is understandable considering O'Connor's need to think of herself as a distinct and individual talent. In fact, O'Connor was often compared to Faulkner by contemporary critics, especially because of their mutual use of "the grotesque." This tendency among her early critics would seem to have intensified both O'Connor's awareness of Faulkner and her resolution to keep some distance from him. Nonetheless, by the late 1950s, O'Connor was clearly seen as one of Faulkner's heirs. Allen Tate, whose opinion O'Connor respected, maintained in 1959, shortly before "Everything That Rises" was written, that "If the Elizabethan age would still be the glory of English literature without Shakespeare, the new literature of the Southern states would still be formidable without Faulkner." He specifically mentioned the young Flannery O'Connor in his list of "formidable" Southern writers.

Over the years, many other critics have discussed in passing the relationship between O'Connor and Faulkner, although tracing their sometimes brief and scattered comments is often difficult. However, the connection between "Barn Burning" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge" seems not to have been considered at any length. Whether O'Connor had ever actually read Faulkner's story is uncertain. It was first published in 1939, so she certainly could have read it, especially during her time in graduate school or shortly thereafter, when she seems to have been reading and enjoying Faulkner. Or she could have read the work when Faulkner's Collected Stories were published in 1950. "Barn Burning" was the very first story in that collection, as if Faulkner wished to call special attention to it. It seems unlikely that a short-story writer of O'Connor's time, talent, and Southern background would have dismissed the opportunity to read the collected stories of such a great contemporary. Although there seems no hard proof that O'Connor actually did read the story, the possibility is hardly out of the question. In any case, the similarities and differences between the two stories are so numerous, so striking, and so significant that there seems some value in comparing and contrasting the two works—especially their concluding sections. The resemblances between those conclusions are so remarkable that they hardly seem coincidental.

The similarities between "Barn Burning" and "Everything That Rises" are plentiful and varied. Both stories focus on initiation, on the painful growth of maturity, and in both the crucial moment of initiation of the youthful central character is postponed, but abrupt and sudden when it comes. The events in both stories are seen through the eyes of sons struggling for independence from domineering parents, and both works deal with the theme of family heritage, of the influence of the past on the present, and of the inability to break free completely from such ties and memories. Both stories end with the parent figures in conflict with other adults, and in both works the sons see themselves as attracted toward the values represented by those others. Both stories end with suspense and tension caused directly by the conflict between the values of the sons and their parents. In both cases, this conflict leads to tragedy that involves violence being suffered by the parents. Also, circular structures are utilized in both stories: details in the opening paragraph of "Barn Burning" foreshadow ironically details and phrasing from the end of the story, and this is similarly true of "Everything That Rises." Both stories depict sons who want to change their circumstances, who want to escape what they regard as the confining strictures of a limited family life. Both sons think that achieving their own identities involves getting away from their parents, and in both stories the sons do escape in a sense. However, in both cases this escape ultimately involves strong feelings of guilt, loneliness, and loss. Most strikingly, both stories end with the sons running in isolation and in literal and metaphorical darkness, no longer sure of anything except that their futures will differ radically from their pasts, both full of a heavy sense of having lost a connection—however complicated—with someone previously very important to them.

The many similarities between the two stories are also emphasized by several interesting differences. For instance, "Barn Burning" emphasizes final isolation in the midst of a rural setting; "Everything That Rises" emphasizes final isolation in the midst of an urban setting. In addition, although both stories focus on the relationship between a son and his parent, in one case the son is still relatively innocent while his father is wholly corrupt, but in the other case the son is far more corrupt than his mother.

Both "Barn Burning" and "Everything That Rises" revolve around and explore a central character and his consciousness. Sarty, the central character in Faulkner's story, is a young boy who must break free from an evil father. Julian, the central character of O'Connor's story, is older than Sarty but less mature; he feels the need to break free from his supposedly inferior and old-fashioned mother. However, these are hardly the only similarities between Sarty and Julian. For instance, both sons are fascinated by large, white antebellum houses, which they associate with order, stability, and privilege. Yet while Sarty sees Major de Spain's mansion as a symbol of civility, order, and justice, Julian fantasizes about his family's old homestead and the lost power and social status which it represented. Here, as elsewhere, the differences between the two characters are often as interesting as the similarities. For example, although both sons enter the world of adulthood through a sudden, unexpected, but in some sense inevitable break with their parents, Julian still behaves childishly, especially when he scolds his stricken mother, saying, "I hate to see you behave like this…. Just like a child." Ironically, his determination to teach her a lesson is the surest sign that Julian himself needs to learn maturity. Sarty, on the other hand, seems relatively mature from the very beginning of his story. His decision to inform Major de Spain that Abner Snopes intends to burn the Major's barn results not from any desire to teach Abner a lesson, but merely from a decision to prevent any further harm. If Julian's basic motive is to punish, Sarty's basic motive is to protect.

At the ends of the stories, both sons feel personal fear from having broken all family ties; both feel entirely alone in the world. In addition, both Sarty and Julian feel that they have betrayed their parents, and feelings of grief, remorse, sorrow, and guilt quickly flood their minds. However, while Sarty's regret and responsibility are relieved by his knowledge that he has done the right thing, Julian's anguish and self-blame are intensified by his realization that he has behaved shamefully. Even the language the two characters speak is at once strikingly similar and revealingly different. For instance, the final speeches of both characters are dominated by exclamations and repetition. Sarty, standing before Major de Spain, can only cry out, "Barn!… Barn!" Similarly, Julian, left alone in darkness, can only exclaim, "Wait here, wait here!" and then, "Help, help!" Both sons seem literally and figuratively tired and out of breath, and both are left almost speechless in the face of tragedy, but young Sarty, significantly, finally seems the more thoughtful and articulate of the two. Interestingly, the transformations that occur in the ways they speak are also quite similar. For example, Sarty goes from shouting "Pap! Pap!" to shouting "Father! Father!"—a change suggesting increased formality, distance, and independence. Julian, on the other hand, goes from shouting "Mother!" to crying (almost melodramatically) "Darling, sweetheart!" to pleading "Mamma! Mamma!"—phrasing that implies belated love, tenderness, and dependence. Paradoxically, although Julian's words insinuate a return to boyhood, they also connote a new maturity. In all these ways, then, both the similarities and differences between the two central characters help emphasize the many parallels as well as the numerous meaningful distinctions that link the two stories.

In fact, the significant differences between "Barn Burning" and "Everything That Rises" are so numerous that they do not seem merely accidental. It is almost as if O'Connor had Faulkner's story in mind as she wrote her own. Certainly reading the two stories together helps sharpen our sense of their individual characteristics. For instance, whereas Sarty makes a decision to mature, Julian is much more passive: he is acted upon. Whereas Sarty's consciousness grows and develops during the course of his story, preparing him for the final deliberate decision he makes, Julian's consciousness remains stunted until it is jolted at the end. Whereas Julian seems to enjoy judging his mother and finding faults in her, Sarty seeks to avoid criticizing his father, instead searching for anything positive or good in him, even at the very end of the story.

Both works end by emphasizing the punishment of the parents, but whereas Julian initially gloats about his mother's unexpected fate, Sarty, even though directly responsible for the fate his father suffers, feels genuine conflict and remorse because of his love for his punished parent. Another difference between the two stories involves the ways the two sons face the losses of their parents. Whereas Sarty merely hears the shot that has only possibly injured his father, Julian has to face his mother's death directly. Moreover, Sarty at least can console himself with the thought that he stood for some higher, impersonal principle, but Julian can not, since he acts mainly from selfishness and pride. While Julian had only pretended to care about the sufferings of victims of injustice, Sarty's fateful decision proves that he does care.

Although Sarty achieves a measure of true personal identity at the end of his story, the achievement of such identity for Julian is left only implicit at the conclusion of "Everything That Rises." In fact, the final phrasing of the two works epitomizes their different tones and resolutions. O'Connor's very last words are memorably bleak and grim: "The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. 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." In contrast, Faulkner's final paragraph is full of details suggesting consolation and hope. A reference to the spinning of "slow constellations" symbolizes a sense of universal order. In addition, Sarty anticipates "dawn and then sun-up after a while"; after briefly falling asleep, "he knew that it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whipporwills." The growing light and the sounds of the birds singing suggest the beneficence of nature. Although Sarty feels "a little stiff,… walking would cure that … as it would the cold…. He did not look back." Sarty's ability to sleep implies both physical exhaustion and a kind of inner peace. Julian, on the other hand, will definitely look back; he will never forget either the moment of his mother's death or his own preceding behavior. Paradoxically, his inability to forget seems to be the only source of hope that O'Connor provides.

Perhaps it was O'Connor's inability to forget a reading of "Barn Burning" that subtly influenced the writing of her own story. Certainly the many similarities and differences between the two works suggest this possibility. What seems undeniable is O'Connor's admiration for Faulkner—an admiration tinged with ambivalence. When brought together in one place, her many references and allusions to Faulkner and his works confirm what we might have expected: that she often had Faulkner in mind, whether or not she wrote "Everything That Rises" under the direct and conscious influence of "Barn Burning."


O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery (Vol. 6)


O'Connor, Flannery (Short Story Criticism)