The Deception of Self in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Flannery O’Connor, the mid-20th century, Southern Gothic writer, is often lauded for her abnormal characters and introspection on the intersectionalities of race relations, ethics, and morality in the South. Published posthumously in 1965, O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” presents a seemingly simple plot: a self-characterized intellectual son, Julian, escorting his old world (racist), gentile mother, Mrs. Chestny, to her nightly exercise classes by the means of their city’s recently integrated public transport system.

Julian, who harbors an immense disdain for his mother’s childlike aloofness and unremitting racism, provides companionship simply out of his son-to-mother duty. Narrated from the perspective of Julian, the story features an obvious bias and contempt for the mother, along with a self-righteousness for his personal disgust in his surroundings and moral superiority. Through both the mother’s and son’s interactions with Negroes (O’Connor’s own words) boarding the bus, the story’s major theme centers itself on the tensions within race relations during the period of desegregation in the Southern US; however, O’Connor’s actual interests are concerned with illuminating the self-deception that Julian and his mother undergo to evade the historical context of their identities.

Subjected to his mother’s ingrained racist ideology, Julian portrays himself as someone on a higher moral-plane. After hearing his mother state, in regards to integration, that “they (Negroes) should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence,” Julian takes it upon himself to assert his morality and teach her a lesson, believing that her thoughts are both antiquated and deserve to be nullified/eradicated. The irony is that Julian — one of the few college graduates from his hometown, a typewriter salesman, a hopeful writer, and someone with an identity founded on his own intellectualism and moral superiority — comes from a tainted past, one in which his great-grandfather was a plantation owner who owned over 200 slaves. In this regard, Julian is nothing more than O’Connor’s version of the liberal intellectual.  He imagines himself as a free individual, visualizing himself as his mother’s opposite (as the positive diode in their relationship):

“The further irony of all this was that in spite of her, he had 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.”

Yet, as the story unfolds, Julian’s narration only unveils how troubled his method of thinking is, while equally illuminating how dependent he is on his mother.

The primary hints we receive regarding this theme are from Julian’s  dreams of the Godhigh’s mansion, his mother’s grandfather’s home, one that Mrs. Chestny consistently returns to in her own memory, wherein she idealizes her childhood and the period before segregation. Julian had never seen the house in its clean, well-kept state, so he has no visual aid committed to memory. Instead, his vision is only that of when the house was in its present condition, disheveled and out of the family’s hands, in which “Negroes were living in it.” Rather than committing this image of the mansion to memory, accepting the fate of his family’s history as it is, his dreams are consumed by the means “as his mother had known it.” Commenting on the depressed area in which he and his mother currently live in, he dreams that the property could be returned to its previous state: pristine and in the hands of his families. While he forces himself to embrace the future (forcing this similarly on his mother), he is equally dependent in wishing that the past had never changed — that he and his family could enjoy the simple pleasures that their privilege and oppression of others allowed them.

Julian’s moral superiority is similarly contested by his utilization and appreciation of Negroes. When interacting with them on public transport, he grades their worth based solely upon their appearance. He felt comfortable in dealing with the first Negro bus-goer because “(he) was well dressed and carried a briefcase,” and while he was irked by the presence of the “giant,” “bulging” Negro woman with her child, he was infatuated with her once he realized that her clothing mirrored that of his mother, something he could utilize to teach his mother a lesson. Furthermore, while dreaming of how to get back at his mother, he dreams of means in which he could bring Negroes home, perhaps a “distinguished Negro professor or lawyer,” by securing a “Negro doctor” if mother ever fell ill, or to bring home his to-be wife who is  “intelligent, dignified, even good, and she’s suffered and she hasn’t thought it fun.”

Yet, in reality, the Negroes he attempted to interact with on the bus leaves him feeling both cheated and jaded — a “distinguished-looking dark brown man” turning out to be a sonorous, solemn undertaker and a “Negro with a diamond ring on his finger” turns out to just be a seller of lottery tickets. For Julian, there is no use beyond any of these people, simply because they aren’t even people to him. In reality, they are still below him, as pawns for his amusement and in critiquing and shaming his mother. They are nothing more than tools, similar to the slaves that his great-grandfather had owned.  Julian is in a state of delusion: he believes that he is living in the future of the South, accepting the oncoming state of desegregation, but he is actually participating in the culture of the past, demeaning and dehumanizing Negroes for his own personal use and gain.

The climax of the story culminates following the interaction between the Negro mother/son and Julian and Mrs. Chetney, wherein Mrs. Chetney attempts to give the Negro child a penny once they have exited the bus. Mrs. Chetney attempts to to do this much to the disdain of Julian, wherein he warns her of the implications of doing so. After agitating the opposing mother, illustrating desegragation through the physically empowered and individualized African American, Mrs. Chetney is violently knocked to the ground, stunned into silence by the interaction. As Julian tries to capture his mother’s attention, now feeling empathy for her following the altercation, she begins having a violent stroke, entering into a dream state, returning to the innocence of her childhood while calling for both her grandfather and her old “darky” nurse, Caroline.

While the mother is obviously stunned and is entering into a seizure, Julian is even more taken aback. He suddenly realizes that he has gone further than he had intended, possibly killing his mother rather than just teaching her a lesson. In the final sentence of the story, the “tide of darkness” is no longer consuming the mother, but it is equally consuming Julian, “postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.” Just as he was wrong in believing that he garners a moral superiority while living in the present, he was similarly incorrect in believing he was separate from his mother.

While Julian believed that he knew “who he is,” he was ultimately wrong, never transcending his family’s surname and the history that came with it. Living in the fearful, depressed present, Julian longs for a simpler time that would grant him with easily attained love, success, and wealth. Through his daydreams of his grandfather’s mansion, his mistreatment of African Americans as tools of oppression, and his dependence upon the continuation of his mother’s safety and internalized worldview, O’Connor displays that Julian is a character that cannot transcend his families history, no matter how hard he might try.

For the disarray of his supposed moral superiority and social liberalism, Julian further complicates his narrative, the lives of the African Americans he interacts with, and the health of his mother. Although he views himself as a greater being (a Godhigh) than his mother (someone who had lived her whole life trying to “act like a Chestny”), he proves that he is no different than her. Or, his mother says of him, “You remain who you are.”

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