The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness. (5)
Way to start us off, O'Connor. From the start, we feel like something bad is going to happen—if you begin with "liver-colored monstrosities," you know this bus is going nowhere good.
We see it again when Julian and his mom are waiting for the bus, and the "frustration of having to wait on the bus as well as ride on it began to creep up his neck like a hot hand" (37). Julian is like a volcano, just waiting for the right moment to erupt.
The southern part is easy: we're in the American South, shortly after integration. But Gothic? Does that mean, like, castles? Gargoyles? Goth kids?
Well, kind of. Gothic lit dates way back to the mid-1700s, with European Romantics getting their spook on with castles, tyrants, and captivity. Around the 1930s, Southern writers like William Faulkner and our own Flannery O'Connor started playing with similar elements—but instead of castles, they used decaying mansions; instead of tyrants, they used oppressive families; and instead of captivity, they used, well, captivity—of the slavery kind.
The Gothic is a little suppressed in this story. After all, it takes place on a bus heading to the Y. But we do get hints of horror through the use of adjectives and sensory details found in the opening scene: "The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities […]" (5).
And later, during the climax, the violence comes; Carver's mother "explodes like a piece of machinery" and hits Julian's mother with a "black fist" and "the red pocketbook" (102). Organs, death, and smackdowns? Not exactly a light and airy atmosphere.
Not to mention the "decayed mansion."
"Everything that Rises Must Converge": way to mystify things, O'Connor. Let's take a look at a few pieces of evidence to try to hammer some meaning out of this bizarre title:
Let's take these one at a time.
In the end, we don't know if we should take the title as a warning, a statement of fact, or an optimistic promise. Pretty cool, right?
The last line in "Everything Rises Must Converge," leaves us with a killer open-ending: "The tide of darkness seemed to sweep [Julian] back to [his mother], postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow" (121).
If you were left scratching your head over this and what exactly happened, maybe these interpretations will help:
The great thing about this ending is that it allows us to come to our own conclusions. O'Connor trusts her readers enough to judge the events, and makes us feel downright smart when left to our own imaginations. What's yours telling you?
Thanks to the use of dialect, not to mention the subject matter, we know this story (like many of O'Connor's) is set in the South. The tension in this setting is perfectly summed up in the first page when we learn that Julian's mother "would not ride the buses by herself at night since they had been integrated […]" (1).
Talk about tense. After a decade of desegregation, the 1960s had mostly succeeded in integration. On the surface. Blacks and whites could ride the same buses, attend the same school, and hold the same jobs. But as this story shows us, things aren't always what they seem.
On a more micro level, most of the action of the story is set on a bus. We have some ideas for why O'Connor chose this setting, and we can bet you could come up with a lot more:
And one more thing. Being taken on a ride that you can't escape? That sounds a lot like the kind of journey that Julian's mom is on, to us.
We were conflicted about this Tough-o-Meter. On the one hand, O'Connor's language isn't hard, exactly. Check out this sentence:
She was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on
her hat, while he, his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door
frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him. (2)
No SAT words here: pretty straightforward diction. But look at that sentence structure—clause after clause, building up information from matter-of-fact ("She was almost ready to go") to allusive and literary (Saint Sebastian).
To get the most out of this sentence, you'll need to know that Saint Sebastian was arrowed to death for being Christian. And that ludicrous comparison—this guy about to ride a bus with his mom feels like an executed martyr—clues you into O'Connor's highly complex, literary, and (dare we say) challenging theme.
Since most of the story is told through Julian's viewpoint, and he is definitely a drama queen, it makes sense that the descriptions are, well, a little hyperbolic. Like, when Carver's mother gets on the bus, she's described as being "[…] encased in a green crepe dress and her feet overflowed in red shoes" (77). Literal description? Probably not. But describing her body in this way makes her seem giant, volatile, and, ultimately, dangerous.
Or this: "[Julian's] eyes narrowed and through the indignation he had generated, he saw his mother across the aisle, purple-faced, shrunken to the dwarf-like proportions of her moral nature, sitting like a mummy beneath the ridiculous banner of her hat" (75).
Julian's vision of his mother is, at the very least, distorted. We doubt very much that her face is purple (red, florid), but we can see that he thinks of her as a literal monster—a mummy. But Julian isn't immune to this monstrous characterization, either: later, "The woman with the protruding teeth was looking at him avidly as if he were a type of monster new to her" (67).
Oh man. This hat. We hear so much about this hat that we kind of want one for ourselves, if only for the hilarity factor. Check out this juicy description:
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. (3)
Seriously, we can't even picture it. But, aside from the fact that it doesn't sound like anything Chanel would see, what's the deal with it?
Well, for one, Julian's mother has a bad case of shopper's guilt, debating whether she should keep it or not and finally says, "I'm going back to the house and take this thing off […]. I was out of my head. I can pay the gas bill with that seven-fifty" (10).
Julian's mom may be a penny-pincher, but she's got her reasons; she's a single mom with two mouths to feed, and probably not a ton of income coming in. (We never do find out if she works; we're guessing not, or at least not very much.) So, for her, that hat was a splurge, something she doesn't do often because she can't. That hat symbolizes not upward mobility or superficiality, but the opposite—it shows that Julian and his mother belong to the white lower-middle-class.
The saleswoman who sells the hat to Julian's mother tells her that she "at least won't meet [herself] coming and going" (6). You know, because it's so ugly that no one else will buy it. (Nice sales pitch, BTW. We're going to try that when we need to get rid of some of these at a yard sale.)
But it turns out that the saleslady is wrong. Carver's mother sports the same hat. And the cool thing is that, for Carver's mother, that hat is a sign of her upward mobility. For her, it's a triumph that she can shop in the same store as any white woman.
Is this giving you any ideas about the title of the story? Check out "What's Up with the Title?" for some of our thoughts about it.
Gee, we wish strangers would still give us money for being cute. Or, uh, something like that.
Anyway, while giving out a penny seems innocent enough to Julian's mother, there's a much more dire side to it. A tails side, if you will. (Oh, we will.)
Side one. Heads. Julian's mother saw a cute kid. She wanted to give him something. And isn't the act of giving a sort of sacrifice? Remember that she's going to her Y class because it's free and when she searches for a nickel all she finds is a penny that "shone bronze in the dim light" (101). She's not even rich enough to give him a nickel, so this is actually a pretty nice gesture.
Side two. Tails. It's not hard to understand why Carver's mother lashes out at Julian's mother. From her point of view, white people giving money to black people is nothing more than a continuation of slavery and an assertion of dominance. Yeah, we get it. We can't really contest her view of the thing.
Just like the hat, the penny means two different things depending on which side of the race fence you're on. It's a symbol of oppression and generosity—and, maybe more than either, it's a symbol of the fractured nature of race relations.
O'Connor uses the integrated bus as a sort of petri dish: She mixes up whites and blacks, the poor and poorer, the educated and uneducated, and keenly observes how they interact with another. In that way, the bus becomes a symbol of 1960s South, giving us a microscopic view of a particular slice of society.
The bus is also a place where characters can't hide from each other, especially now that blacks and whites can sit wherever they want. It literally shakes Julian out of his meditations, because every time the bus stops and lets on new people, he is reminded of his present situation. Take the well-dressed black man: is Julian able to have a conversation with him? Nope. What about Carver, or Carver's mother? Not even close.
The bus is a constant reminder that Julian is not so liberal, even if he can't quite see it.
The narrator of "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is super involved in the story. We get the characters' thoughts and feelings through dialogue and action, but also through omniscience (basically we're in Julian's head a lot). From his inner dialogue, we learn a lot about his character and how he views his mother, like this charming, "Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him" (3).
Although the story is told through Julian's point of view, the narrator is present throughout, almost acting as devil's advocate. While Julian criticizes his mother, society, his neighborhood, the passengers on the bus, he seems unaware of his own faults. This is when the narrator comes in, pointing out things he tries to ignore (unsuccessfully).
In Julian's opinion, he is "[…] free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts," and "he was not dominated by his mother" (62). Sure, we might buy that—if it weren't for the smooth interjections on the part of the narrator; "[…] he had never been successful at making any Negro friends," (74) and that he imagines himself participating in a sit-in demonstration but doesn't "linger with it."
Why does it matter? By slyly challenging Julian, the narrator makes us question where our loyalties lie—and maybe ask ourselves which role we'd be playing in this little drama.
Julian is a grown man living at home with his mom. We feel you, man. Worse, he's forced to take her to the Y every week for a weight-reducing class. More problems: His mother is kind of (okay, a lot) racist and embarrasses him with her frumpy fashion sense; and he's got a dead-end job selling typewriters when all he wants to do is write.
Okay, so it's not 99 problems but it's enough more than enough to set up potential for a whole lot of drama.
This was the era of Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, and integration. Basically, buses were a big deal. So what better place for Julian to teach his mother a life lesson?
But when he sits next to a black man on their weekly ride to the Y, nothing happens except that his mother (and the man) get annoyed. Julian contemplates all the ways he could shock his mother into realizing how backward her views on race are. And we're building to two conflicts: the mother-son drama, and the old-world vs. new-world struggle that's about to get a lot more real.
A cute little boy, Carver, and his mother, a not-so-happy-looking black woman, board on the bus. No big deal right? Carver takes a liking to Julian's mother, while Carver's mother gets increasingly fed up with his antics—and with his cozying up to a white lady. Why might a black kid and a white woman not seem like the best pair in this integrating world?
Julian's mother wants to give Carver a nickel, but Julian points out that it might come off as a little insulting. Turns out, Julian's mom only has a penny—so she gives a penny to the kid. This is totally going to end up in some life-affirming, hug-it-out scene when the two families learn to see themselves in each other, right?
Uh, no. As Julian predicted, Carver's mother takes offense. Like, really takes offense. She smacks Julian's mother with both her fist and purse, knocking her down. Julian doesn't expect the violent act, but he still thinks it's all for the best—she learned a lesson, and now she's set up for a big redemptive moment that will change her life forever.
For all his college smarts, Julian doesn't catch on right away to exactly how life-changing this little encounter will be. Mom's blood pressure has skyrocketed. She can't walk, can't talk, and basically seems to be having a stroke. Are we about to see some heroic action from our passive, slightly irritating Julian?
Uh, no. Again. Julian's mother collapses, asks for her dead husband and her childhood nanny, and Julian runs off in tears, screaming for help. We're left with a sense of dread, knowing that Julian will have learned a lesson in "guilt and sorrow." But we have to wonder—what will Julian feel guilty about? Will he really change as a person? O'Connor doesn't tell us.