In Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” Julian’s mother, in denial of a changing South’s existence, escapes back to her childhood once she might be convinced of the modern world. The first of her realizations comes in the form of understanding her son, if only for seconds before her death. One of the clearest outright observations of the story is that Julian’s mother lives a great deal for her son. Within the first paragraph she mentions that he might go out of his way to help her a little bit, “considering all she did for him” (p485 Collected Works). The text shows that “all she did for him” has turned out to be quite a lot as best illustrated by the fact that “her teeth had gone unfilled so that his could be straightened” (491). She, raising Julian “without the Chestny goods” (491) has also managed to send him to college. Furthermore, with limited means she is “‘supporting him still, until he [gets] on his feet’” (485) despite the fact that he has been “out of school a year” (486). Although living for Julian, at the same time Julian’s mother also merely does so to maintain the family reputation and her own worth. Her fifty or more years of life of, as the reader knows it, consist of nothing besides childhood and middle age. Were it not for Julian’s existence in the story as progeny, there would be no sign that she had ever married. I intend to prove here that in the end, Julian’s mother’s resistance to accept the world’s change and her eventual awakening to its existence is what kills her.
Julian’s mother’s resistance to change causes an instability in her actual self worth, which she fails to see, though the reader can recognize through the story. Her own perception of her full self worth requires her recognition of her family’s history as well as her success in raising Julian, two accomplishments which ultimately clash with one another in her son’s view. The principal reason for this clash is because what appears to Julian’s mother as merely nostalgia (her ancestral home and family history) appears to Julian as bigotry toward blacks. At the same time, the son’s looking beyond his mother’s values is justified by the fact that her family history and name are virtually meaningless in their present day. Julian’s mother is a child of “aristocratic birth” who now lives in comparative poverty (486) while still holding on to her own past for support. Readers can somewhat understand Julian’s feelings concerning this point because it is clear that his mother has not grown in the years since her childhood. Her visions of the past’s coda may be illustrated by her grandfather’s mansion’s grandiose double staircases, which eventually rotted and were torn down before Julian even graduated boyhood (488). Remaining the granddaughter of a governor (Godhigh), Julian’s mother’s family name of Chestny, as well as the name of her late husband, is lost; aside from being known only as Julian’s mother, she becomes a nameless character. Judging by her speech and assumed expectations for Julian to carry on the greatness of her family, it is questionable how important Julian’s father’s role in the family history is. Julian’s mother is still very much a Chestny/Godhigh as exemplified by her statement that “‘you remain what you are…your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves’” (487). That statement also contains another root of the clash between mother and son. Julian’s mother believes that authentic culture is “‘in the heart…and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are’” (489) while Julian takes an opposite stance, arguing that true culture is in the mind and thus rejecting his surname and the past his mother so adores.
Julian’s opposite stance returns me to the topic of bigotry. Julian’s mother comments that the “world is in a mess everywhere” as her summing-up of the story’s present day (490). What comes between the mother and son is that while she speaks in reminiscence of the good old days, he is willingly ignorant of any such days; his willingness is shown by the fact that he still envisions her grandfather’s mansion as it was in his mother’s youth instead of how it looked when he actually saw it (488); Julian openly only concerns himself with political ideology. Her memories are fashioned around the romantic image of order and stability of a hierarchic South; for this same reason and her inability to accept change, she still views herself in a position of superiority. Her nostalgia accounts for her condescending comments, such as “[blacks] were better off when they were [slaves]” (487) and “the bottom rail is on the top” (487). In the imaginary world of the past she lives in, just as she believes her ugly neighborhood (486) to still be fashionable after forty years, the progress of blacks in America does not agree with her vision of an unchanging world. She wants to count in this new world but feels excluded now, as she comments that blacks “should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence” (488). Also for these reasons she believes herself able to handle change due to the fact that she “most certainly know[s] who [she is]” (487), while the truth of the matter is that her knowing herself thereby enables her resistance to the changing of the world.
The realization of the world’s change is what possesses Julian’s mother during her dying moments. In her dying, Julian’s mother spiritually returns to her childhood, showing that she has essentially never changed or grown up. First, she lucidly hears Julian’s insulting words for the first time and instead of calmly pushing them aside as she does previously, she instead rejects Julian entirely, continuing “to go on as if she had not heard him” (500). Perhaps she realizes that her son isn’t the son she meant for him to become; the futility of all she gave him is apparent when he shows no signs of love for the family or a prosperous future in both actions and speech. Second, after the black woman who has “risen” strikes her, Julian’s mother becomes a child calling for her old black nurse, Caroline; Caroline, who Julian’s mother had a “great respect” (488) for is an example of how high a black person might rise in the old South and acts in contrast to the woman who has just hit her. By striking her, the black woman off the bus breaks down these barriers through the assault, quite the opposite of Caroline’s nursing. Julian’s mother’s hair comes undone and her pocketbook drops, but she shows no care as she loses her years of antebellum dignity (499). She calls for her Grandpa and nurse Caroline to come get her, speaking like the child she was long ago. She cries out for “home” (500); Julian attempts to persuade her back to a bus thinking she means to go to her apartment, but the reader understands that the home she speaks of is the home of her youth, half a century and more previous to the present, and the reader also understands that she means to return there.