Everything That Rises Must Converge, Religion, and Symbolism

This article was an essay I wrote for a literature class, I hope you all enjoy. If you’d like to read these articles a week before everyone else, back my Patreon! Taking article commissions as well!

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Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge is a very religiously charged work. The writer herself has a history as a Catholic, but paying close attention to the story itself, various symbols, and reoccurring ideas can reveal its true religious core and message. She also uses historically charged images as well, relating to older values that were connected heavily to faith. O’Connor uses symbolism to teach the readers that people must not cast away secular values for logic and realist views entirely, and that one must follow the teachings of the Christian faith and adapt with the changing world through them.

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John Ower mentions the importance of the penny and nickel featured in the story particularly. In his essay “The Penny and the Nickel in Everything That Rises Must Converge” points out that these symbols are connected to history and possibly religion. Both coins state “In God We Trust” and have “LIBERTY” printed on them, creating a religious connection and highlighting the destruction of Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks. They have Lincoln and Jefferson’s faces on them respectfully, two men who both opposed the institution of slavery, though representing two different political viewpoints and time periods. Lincoln was progressive and one who helped bring in the new age of emancipation, while Jefferson was more conservative and worked through his life as a critic of the institution of slavery. The coins are meant to clash against the views of Julian’s mother and inform the reader that she is wrong in this account, even though is of her time and value set in most ways. They also both have “E PLURIBUS UNIM” (“Out of Many, One”) printed on them, suggesting both that people should accept the federal government’s judgment of giving blacks more rights, as per the desire of the many people that make the one country. The phrase also may refer to the work of Teihard de Chardin, who stated that man is moving to a “convergence” where it will become one with Christ at an “Omega point,” a similar concept to the phrase given and one that seems to fit with O’Connor’s religious views, thus why she names the story after Teihard’s theory. As we evolve as people, we will eventually connect through love and converge at the final stage of evolution as a people. It further suggests that he mother resisting the new found liberty of black people is resisting god’s plan and that eventual convergence. Ower also states that he sees the coins as a way to say that the old south is gone and one must change their values with the changing world, supporting the idea by pointing out that the mother can’t find a nickel to give the black child on the bus, thus the old south that it represented is gone forever. (Ower)

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Alice Hall Petry cites in her essay, “O’connor’s EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE,” that the presence of the YWCA signifies just how far Julian’s mother has fallen in status. She states that the YWCA was established by high class women for lower class women, and that Julian’s mother is taking classes there (ones labeled for “working girls over fifty”) is informing just how much her place in the world has changed. Under normal circumstances, she would be funding the program, not taking part, and helping the lower class through it. It also parallels the mother’s fall, as the YWCA had fallen as well, though it was originally a very liberal and progressive organization that supported ideals the mother would be against. The organization took strong stances in the past for social change, including changing divorce laws, teaching sex education, and siding with unions, becoming a place where people of any race could safely gather. As of the story’s time, it had become mostly a hangout place for poor white women. Also of note is that the YWCA was originally a very Christian organization that had lax its membership standards overtime and became mostly as a gym and not a place of any real spiritual meaning. This would add to the credence that the story is religiously charged, making the organization’s current state told though a joke about the age of Julian’s mother a point of satirical tragedy. The great things the organization once did are now no longer possible that it has lost its faithful core ideals. (Petry)

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David Jauss’ “Flannery O’connor’s Inverted Saint’s Legend,” explores the significance of Julian’s name. O’Connor has a habit of writing characters with meaningful, symbolic names, usually with a sense of irony, and Julian is no exception. Jauss argues that Julian’s name comes from St. Julian Hospitator, making Julian out to be a twisted version of a saint. O’Connor includes an illusion to the legend of saint Sebastian with a line about Julian “waiting…for the arrows to pierce him,” and also mentions that his chore of taking his mother around on Y trips is a form of “martyrdom,” yet his actions don’t paint him as a saint. These phrases are used for the sake of irony, making a joke out of Julian and his self-centered nature. The saint he’s named after was a man who was said to have been cruel to the innocent in youth and killed his father and mother, so he repented his entire life by helping others as a ferry man, eventually being risen to Heaven after caring for a leper that was actually Christ. He even covered the man to keep him warm, a possible connection to the convergence theory O’Connor uses. Julian’s story is completely opposite, starting with him as a “ferry man” guiding his mother, and then killing a parent by triggering her stroke. In the end, he fails to “converge” with her and is damned for it, unable to treat someone close to him properly. He gives no love, and that becomes his gravest sin that he is punished for. (Jauss)

I feel that Ower really digs deep into the reading and I find myself agreeing with most everything. It also supports the idea behind the title, pushing convergence theory through the statement on the coins and tying them between their earthly meaning (obey the government as the will of many) and the spiritual (love thy fellow man and join together). His ideas also fit in well with Julian’s treatment of black people, as he sees them mainly as a means to upset his mother and less as actual people, even fantasizing about dating a black girl to get back at her. Julian is portrayed as wrong through the story, which suggests that O’Connor does indeed coincide her religious beliefs with social progress and not a means to keep the status que. Julian and the mother show what happens when you fail to keep faith, no matter if you follow old or new lines of thought.

Petry may be reaching a bit for significance of the YWCA. I agree with a lot of her ideas, especially its use to show how Julian’s mother has lowered in social position, but I’m not sure a parallel is being made consciously between the change of the Y and the lack of change in the mother. I’d argue it’s more connected to Julian, as a lack of faithful identity erodes the core of the organization, just as a lack of faith leaves Julian as a selfish fool. His mother certainly has faith, but not him. I also think there’s a clever irony there, as the once progressive YWCA had become regressive in the time of the story due to a lack of religious focus. Julian suffers from a similar problem, except he pretends he’s progressive while still giving recessive views in his mind, particularly in how he understands the plight of the black man, but is unable to view them as people in their own right and finds he doesn’t really relate to them as much as he thinks he does, as he can’t even properly converse with a black man on the bus. Like the YWCA, he has a history of spouting progressive ideals, but can’t properly back up those ideals due to a lack of faith.

Jauss, on the other hand, seems completely dead on with Julian’s name. I have no doubt that the story of St. Julian was central to coming up with Julian’s character and arc. His role in this story is like the fun house mirror version of the saint’s tale, and his personality as well. Julian has no experience as a person, while St. Julian gained faith and changed his ways because of experiences. Julian also finds no faith or desire to change from his sin, unlike the saint, only despair in his loss. He is incapable of learning anything because he doesn’t really know himself, so he fails to understand his role in the events that occurred. The story ends suggesting Julian won’t change, only be damned with the sorrow of losing his mother, because he shows no sign of a revelation beyond that he did love his mother. This is only a small part of his many flaws that need to be fixed. I also agree that the ironic bits about Julian being compared to Sebastian and martyrs is definitely purposeful and a major part of framing his character and informing to the major theme of the importance of faith.

O’Connor’s story states that faith is central to being a proper person in a changing world, and that you must also change with the world to join your fellow man in fellowship. It shows this by showing us two characters with different problems. One is religious, but she refuses to change with the times and causes her own final fall because of that inability to accept her fellow man as others have done. She goes against the teachings of loving one another. The son does as well, as he lacks faith altogether and only has an understanding of what the world is like, but no real anchor to it because he doesn’t see his own shortcomings and hypocrisies. He goes with the flow of the world, but has no love and lets his ego drive him instead of submitting to the teachings of God. It further supports this through all sorts of symbols and names, from the title of the story’s connection to a religious philosopher, to the historical importance of coins and gyms, to even the name of one of the main characters as it relates to a famous saint. The story alone is a tragedy, but the symbols scattered through it inform the larger meaning and theme and relating it to the need for faith to properly evolve as people. As the title of the story states, all that rises must converge.

Bibliography

Ower, John. “The Penny And The Nickel In ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’.” Studies In Short Fiction 23.1 (1986): 107. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2015

Petry, Alice Hall. “O’connor’s EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE.” Explicator 45.3 (1987): 51. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Jauss, David. “Flannery O’connor’s Inverted Saint’s Legend.” Studies In Short Fiction 25.1 (1988): 76. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

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