"Everything That Rises Must Converge": An Analysis of What the Critics Say
Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is a short story filled with symbols of emptiness and darkness. Paul Elie observes that "the symbolism is 'the coin of the realm, which has the face worn off of it'" (323). David Allen White suggests that the story's theme is concerned with intellectual pride and that the penny serves as a symbol of charity, now nowhere to be found in the city -- a point that is reflected in the darkness of the buildings where no lights shine (and to which Julian turns hopelessly for help at the end of the story). John F. McCarthy views Julian as a character who is more or less a symbol of arrogance (1144), and O'Connor herself viewed her creation as one predominantly concerned with charity and the lack thereof -- symbolized, of course, by the dark "world of guilt and sorrow." This paper will analyze the claims of these four analyses and show why David Allen White's bears the most resemblance to O'Connor's own objective, which she reveals in her correspondence from the same time period.
At about the same time O'Connor had finished writing "Everything That Rises," she had written to friends stating that she hoped her stories could inspire one toward charity first and foremost: "I think if the novel is to give us virtue the selection of hope and courage is rather arbitrary -- why not charity, peace, patience, joy, benignity, long-suffering and fear of the Lord? Or faith?" (O'Connor 438). If one may call O'Connor a critic of her own work (and one sees no reason why he may not), then to a large extent the critics are all in agreement that "Everything That Rises" is only superficially a story about race and prejudice. Paul Elie's critique of the story is perhaps the most superficial, since he dwells mostly on the exteriors of the tale: the difficult race problem in the South; the difficulty that both Julian and his mother face in dealing with the rising Negro class. For him, the penny that Julian's mother gives to the little Negro boy on the bus represents not so much a reflection of her innocence and charity (as David Allen White argues), but merely a reflection of that loss of a national or Southern character, due to the sudden change of class structure.
However, while contemporary issues were certainly of interest to O'Connor, her stories transcend contemporary issues to focus on deeper problems and afflictions within the human soul itself. As she states elsewhere in her correspondence: "Everything That Rises Must Converge…is a physical proposition that I found in [the writings of] Pere Teilhard [de Chardin] and am applying to a certain situation in the Southern states and indeed in all the world" (438). Here, O'Connor reveals a much wider intention than Paul Elie is willing to allow: she sets herself up as a moralist for all humanity, and illustrates the effects of pride through the rising of the social classes.
David Allen White comments at length on the story's obsession with intellectual pride. He notes how Julian has gone off to college and come home a bitter and unhappy boy, antagonistic to his mother (who, in her simplicity, retains an old Southern worldview and refuses to adopt the modern progressive creed). White observes also that Julian's mother may consider race -- but she is no racist: after all, her nurse growing up was a Negress named Caroline, and it is Caroline that she calls as she lies dying on the sidewalk. She gives a penny to the little Negro boy out of a desire to see him happy. It is the Negro boy's mother who is perturbed by the thought of a "white" woman offering charity to her son. The Negro boy's mother is filled with as much pride as Julian (who also sees race before he sees humanity) -- and neither have time or patience for Julian's mother. They both look on her condescension with spite -- offended that she should see herself as somebody in a superior position.
White's view of symbolism in "Everything That Rises" includes the penny exchange as well as the setting. White sees Julian as someone so filled with intellectual pride (and progressive views) that the boy fails to realize who he really is and how abjectly he actually treats his own mother. This analysis corresponds with John F. McCarthy's which notes (with an obvious ironic tone) that Julian "has succeeded in getting such a first-rate education that he is unfit for any type of work" (1144). The joke, of course, is O'Connor's -- but, according to McCarthy, it illustrates the phoniness of Julian's degree: he is unfit for work precisely because he has received no real education at all; all he has been given is intellectual pride. He is consumed by a theoretical knowledge of how things should be, and has no sense of how things actually tend to be. McCarthy concurs with White in this regard, and both see in the story a deeper aspect -- a depiction of a fallen human nature, that is only really educated when one's self is humbled.
Thus, White asserts that the bleakest symbol in the story is the small "cluster of lights" which Julian chases in his search for help after his mother has fallen from a stroke. The vision, White attests, is one of a city filled with more proud folk just like Julian and the Negro woman -- people who have no time (and no light of grace) for others like Julian's mother. That is why, White argues, the lights seem to recede from Julian as he chases them, "drift[ing] farther away the faster he ran."
In their view of Julian as a symbol of selfishness and phony self-knowledge, McCarthy and White agree. Elie focuses more on the racial problem, which is what Julian also focuses on as a diversion form focusing on himself. Elie, like Julian in the story, only scrapes the surface of things. He is distressed by O'Connor's rather unsentimental use of the word "nigger" in her stories and correspondence, which shows a precise lack of political correctness. O'Connor obviously had more in common with Julian's mother than Elie is prepared to see -- and so, like Elie, he bristles at O'Connor's "old world" manners.
White and McCarthy, however, peel back the layer of self-deception that O'Connor has used to cover the tale, and view Julian as someone who has sought only to free "himself from all love for his mother, who is 'blinded by love' for him" (McCarthy 1146). The symbols they see in the narrative are closer to O'Connor's spiritualized purpose, which, as she states, was to turn modern man back to Christ -- not to politics. For O'Connor, Christ was the real solution -- and one not given by the university: "The fact of the matter is that the modern mind opposes courage to faith. It also demands that the novel provide us with gifts that only religion can give" (O'Connor 438). White views the penny as the symbol of charity that Julian's mother (like O'Connor) strives to hold and maintain. Julian puts his mother's penny back in her purse when the Negro woman rejects it, showing that he rejects it as well. The awful irony is that, in rejecting her charity, both he and the Negro woman have rejected her -- and become cruel and sinister themselves (White).
In conclusion, David Allen White provides the most engaging analysis of symbolism in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises" by focusing on the penny (as a symbol of charity) and Julian and the city (as symbols of a lack of charity and grace). McCarthy's analysis agrees with White's and…