The Use of Structure in O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge”
by Brad Windhauser
In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a story of a young man who attempts to teach his mother a lesson about her racial beliefs, author Flannery O’Connor uses structure effectively in order to gradually build and then capitalize on tension between a mother and her son. (The sections I mention here are the ones I see, not ones the author established explicitly.)
Establishing the story’s foundation
In the first section, where we meet the characters, we learn several key foundation details:
- Julian’s mother needs to lose weight due to her high blood pressure
- The setting is the recently-integrated south
- Julian’s mom bought a hat she was not sure she wanted or needed
- Julian’s mother is concerned about money (attending the Y to work out is free, she’s worried she overpaid for the hat)
- Julian is impatient with his mother
- She has gone to great lengths to care for her son
As you can see, there’s a lot here, but what we learn constructs the foundation upon which O’Connor can now add the more significant character nuances as Julian and his mother walk to the bus stop (the second section).
Build on the foundation by strengthening themes
As the mother and son walk, O’Connor uses clichés to depict the mother as being mentally stuck in the past. She also makes racist comments about certain people not being “our kind of people.” The fact that Julian (according to his mother) might not “know who [he] is” troubles her. This is both a race and class issue for the mother. She also believes that blacks were “better off when they were [slaves].” Yet she contrasts these awful racist comments by asserting that she has always had respect for her colored friends. Julian, on the other hand, takes it upon himself to always “sit down beside a Negro” on a public bus in order to show how accepting he is. This seeming benevolence positions Julian as the protagonist. As such, his beliefs are cast as the ones to respect and the mother’s are not. (Although, interestingly enough, here they are shown as contradictory—not as black and white as Julian sees them.).
Introduce first major plot point in order to antagonize tension
In the third section, as the bus approaches, they get snippy with one another, when, with a little irony, the mother asks, “Why must you deliberately embarrass me?” Yet the son is the one who thinks her over-the-top hat was worn by her “like a banner of her imaginary dignity.” Once the bus arrives and he helps her aboard, we learn that everyone on the bus is white, which satisfies the mother and at least another woman, who remarks, “[there are no blacks on board] for a change.” The two women banter about the change in acceptance of race in society and even the son’s accomplishments. Bringing the women together in here—midway through the story—adds some strength to the mother’s racist point of view—she’s not alone in her thinking. This establishes the type of mindset Julian has to combat. This prompts the statement that Julian feels he has turned out well in spite of his mother (and her backwards views).
Introduce second plot point in order to antagonize tension
In the fourth section, a well-to-do black man boards. The mother’s new female acquaintance moves far away from the man, an action which the mother gives “an approving look.” Noticing this, Julian sits next to the man. Though it’s clear that the gesture is as much about trying to appear accepting, it is also clearly designed to annoy his mother. Here the story’s real tension begins, especially since the man is indifferent to Julian’s presence—without paying attention, the man has no way of appreciating Julian’s gesture. This is also when the mother’s “face seemed unnaturally red, as if her blood pressure had risen.” (The first paragraph mentioned her blood pressure issue. This is the first place it resurfaces.) Since we’re in Julian’s point of view here, he notices but keeps pressing forward with his lesson for his mother. He even imagines the different ways he can teach her something, from dating a Negro to her becoming desperately ill and only having a Negro doctor available to her. These thoughts mark the turn in the story—a ratcheting up of the story’s tension and message. Just as Julian thinks he’s imparting something worthwhile, it’s clear he’s using the Negroes around him.
Introduce third (and final) plot point in order to antagonize tension
The fifth section takes the tension one step further—at the next bus stop a black woman and her young son board. Here, Julian sees another opportunity to shame his mother: he hopes the woman sits next to him. Added bonus: the woman is wearing the same over-the-top hat as his mother. The mother’s complexion turns gray. Strange for Julian though: the mother warms to the black child. Apparently, all children are cute to her. Undeterred by this, Julian here hopes to teach his mother a “permanent lesson.” The mother then plays a game with the child.
Is this the thought of a racist? The mother couldn’t tell you, probably, and has no reaction when her new female acquaintance does not share her thoughts on black children. The distinction in reactions here creates a difference in racist opinions; as if there were different levels here—or perhaps that the mother is not actually racist. She does, however, wear the look she does when she is being gracious to “an inferior.” But, again, this is from Julian’s point of view. She may not see the interaction between herself and an inferior (the child). The black mother, however, is not amused with her son’s interplay with a strange white woman—she snaps at him to quit playing.
Close the story to let the tension resolve and story’s message surface
In the last section, the climax, the two parties exit at the same stop. The black mother and son exit first. Julian’s mother wishes to give the boy money (a coin), which the other mother is not having. Perhaps a gesture of wanting to do something for a child, the action is viewed (based on that mother’s reaction) as a white woman taking pity on a black child. She refuses the gift, with “frustrated rage.” Shocked, Julian’s mother sits on the sidewalk, dumbstruck—she doesn’t understand the race part of the interaction (oddly). Julian feels vindicated: mother’s lesson at last. She “got exactly what [she] deserved.” Then the blood pressure issue resurfaces again, sending Julian into a panic, wherein he exhibits the first genuine sign of concern for his mother. But as she crumbles to the pavement, he may be too late, and the permanent lesson will be his. If his mother dies, perhaps he learns to not be so judgmental of his parent.
So what is O’Connor’s message in this story?
Given that racism factors so heavily in this story, to suggest that the message is not really about that is troubling. However, the mother is built up as a racist, and then placed next to a real (or more of a?) racist in order to show her ideas may come from somewhere else perhaps, and not genuine hate. Is there such a difference? And is understanding where an idea originates important when it comes to assessing it? Complicated stuff, with this story offering no easy answer to such an issue. So what else is it about? The structure also builds to show how cold Julian becomes over the course of the story. Had it come all at once it would have overwhelmed the reader. Spread out over seamless sections, these details arrive at appropriate places in the narrative. So the story is as much about the duty of a son to his parent. Was Julian being a good son by trying to teach his mother a lesson about her awful ideas about race? According to the story, his head might have been in the right place but his approach wasn’t.