The Lessons of Hypocrites


Techniques tracked:
-opposites attract
-rising action

Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” begins with Julian getting ready to take his mother to her “reducing class at the Y.” He lives with her after graduating from college, unable to support himself as yet, and so he takes her to her class since she doesn’t want to ride on the newly integrated buses alone. His mother talks incessantly about knowing who she is and the good stock they’ve come from, the new hat she’s bought and her belief in segregation. Julian can’t stand her uppity ways, though he secretly longs for the old mansion the family lost when he was little. When they get on the bus his mother remarks to everyone that she “see[s] we have the bus to ourselves.” Then a black man (or a “Negro,” in the parlance of a college-educated liberal of the time such as Julian) gets on who Julian sits next to in order to upset his mother, though he ends up embarrassing himself when he asks the man for a light without actually having anything to light. Then a black woman and her young son get on who are dressed more flashily than the black man who has gotten off. In fact, the woman is wearing the same hat as Julian’s mother. He thinks this will teach her a lesson; instead she finds the boy cute, and when they all get off the bus at the same stop, she tries to give the boy a penny. When the black woman slaps her pocketbook away, Julian’s mother winds up sitting on the sidewalk. Julian tries to explain why this should teach her a lesson, but she keeps saying nonsensically that she wants to go home, and he realizes something’s wrong with her–likely a stroke. Severely rattled, his manner toward her shifts entirely before he runs for help.

The beauty in the ugliness of this story is that it takes a character that is traditionally reviled–that of the old Southern lady unwilling to part with her racist ways–and exposes the liberal attitude that judges her stance as problematic to be equally problematic itself. What Julian says and what he does–his actions and his alleged principles–are completely at odds. This overt opposition manifests early on in the story when Julian finds his mother’s hat “hideous” but, in order to get her out the door, says that she should have bought it; later, taking her arm in a “vicious grip,” he insists he likes it to keep her from returning home to take it off.

What he says and thinks about himself are also complete opposites:

“Some day I’ll start making money,” Julian said gloomily – he knew he never would – “and you can have one of those jokes whenever you take the fit.”

What he says and what he does are further shown to be in conflict in his attitude toward the old mansion: 

He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing.

His discrimination becomes overt in the line: 

He had tried to strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types, with ones that looked like professors or ministers or lawyers.

He judges based on appearances. He says his mother needs to learn that times have changed, but every socially progressive action he takes is not for the sake of principle, but for the sake of pissing off his mother.

The implicit likeness between Julian and his mother is further highlighted in Julian’s “withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his time” from which “he could see her with absolute clarity” and then what he sees so clearly about his mother is that she “lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world outside of which he had never seen her set foot.” The likeness between these two walled-off perspectives of the world is akin to the likeness between the black woman’s and his mother’s hats–they are, in fact, identical. The son is as small-minded as the mother, just in the opposite way.

While the bus as a symbol is emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s also a good setting in which to raise tension–a tight space into which strangers and acquaintances alike are forced into proximity. The action (which is to say, tension) arises from 1) integration manifesting itself in increasingly direct ways and 2) Julian’s growing desire to teach his mother a lesson.

The specter of integration is referenced in the very first paragraph; it is the reason the entire story exists, both thematically and narratively. If Julian wasn’t accompanying his mother because she wasn’t scared to ride the bus alone, the rest of the story could not take place. This is the acute tension’s initiating action.

Then, the mother presents her views on black people now:

“They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”

But as the title clues us in, everything that rises… The title is in fact a version of a plot summary, outlining where the rising action surrounding integration will go.

Once they’re on the bus, Julian’s mother calls attention to the fact that no black people are on it: the action rises slightly. Then a black man does get on it: the action rises further, as Julian uses the black man to try to teach his mother a lesson. Then the second more garishly dressed black person gets on, again inciting Julian’s hope for teaching his mother a lesson. Then they all get off at the same stop, symbolizing their innate equality. The convergence of the risen occurs when the black woman slaps Julian’s mother’s pocketbook away. Contact = literal convergence.

The action rising from the lessons Julian wants to teach his mother is intertwined with the integration-based action. The first lesson Julian wants to teach his mother comes from his sitting by the black man that gets on the bus; this backfires when he embarrasses himself over the matches. Then he fantasizes about different ways he could teach her a lesson–letting her ride home alone from the Y (“There was no reason for her to think she could always depend on him.”), marrying a Negro woman, getting a Negro doctor for her when she’s sick. Then he thinks she’ll learn a lesson from the black woman wearing the same hat as her, but his mother merely treats the woman condescendingly. Finally, when the black woman yells at her, Julian verbalizes to her the lesson she should have learned, this time undermined by the most extreme version of his mother’s refusal to accept reality, her stroke. The real lesson to be learned, which the events of the acute tension are pushing Julian toward, is the opposite of the lesson he wants to teach his mother–not that she won’t always be able to depend on him, but that he won’t always be able to depend on her.

The use of repetition initially manifests in Julian’s mother’s interminable use of clichéd phrases. We see her tell Julian “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and then repeat this to a woman on the bus. She repeats “‘I at least won’t meet myself coming and going.’” Her litanies are well known to him, so oft repeated that he “knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way.” Her clinging to the trite and meaningless in clichés is reflective of her larger inability to let go of the old social institutions, which is in large part what Julian can’t stand about her.

O’Connor uses repetition to different but equal effect with the description of the 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.

That O’Connor uses the verbatim description when the hat reappears on the black woman’s head is her way of cluing the reader into the fact that it’s the same hat before Julian himself recognizes it–implicitly showing us that he’s a little slow on the uptake–i.e., behind the times in a manner not dissimilar from his mother.

O’Connor has already clued us in to where this is all going.


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