As do many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” deals with the Christian concepts of sin and repentance. The specific sin O’Connor focuses on in this story is pride. As a Catholic, O’Connor considered this offense against God a venial sin, an attempt to place human power and ability above God’s. O’Connor’s portrayal is set in the South, centering on two white characters: an elderly woman living in the past glories of her racial heritage and her college-educated son, Julian, who considers himself liberated from such stereotypical racist views of life. The story begins with the two embarking on a bus journey to an exercise class for the mother. As they travel, each character reveals not only racial prejudice but also severe antagonism toward the other.
Julian Godhigh, as part of a “new” generation, prides himself on the fact that he is unlike his mother in applying racial stereotypes: Such actions are obsolete echoes of a distant past, and he considers himself above them. Embarrassed constantly by his mother’s egotistical attitude (a fact emphasized by her overweight condition), Julian decides he will use the bus trip to “cut her down to size.” By attempting to make his mother see her own flaws instead of those of an “inferior” race, he will force her to come face to face with “who she really is.” Such self-discovery in spite of self-deception then becomes the major thematic emphasis of this tale. Ironically, however, both Julian and his mother progress from inaccurate self-images to the stark realization that the character traits they so prize are in fact petty and worthless.
Julian’s way of forcing self-discovery in his mother includes fraternizing with black people on the bus, an act that his mother considers outrageous but that Julian perceives as evidence of his tolerance and lack of racial bias. He feels his mind is obviously superior to hers, and thus he alone can see her flagrant mistakes. Mother, on the other hand, emphasizes the value of the heart over the head and insists that human feelings and emotions are more important than intelligence. Since she “feels” superior, she must be so, and Julian’s actions are therefore both insensitive and inconsiderate.
O’Connor reveals the flaws of both Godhighs through repeated imagery and through the use of dopplegangers, or doubles. Using the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” O’Connor suggests the tottering world of Julian and his mother: Their existence is truly not the “Julian” age of Rome’s expansion and success but rather an indication of its ultimate fall. In addition, through the use of doppelgangers, O’Connor points out the similarities of the seeming disparate races by introducing a black woman who boards the bus wearing the same purple hat that Julian’s mother has picked out earlier in the day. Carrying a small boy, the woman is the mirror image of her white counterpart. Julian, duly noting only part of the parallel, sees this as a delicious put-down of his mother’s arrogance but fails to note the parallels to himself in the little boy, who is also cowed and dominated by a fiercely aggressive parent.
Mother, fascinated by the young boy’s cuteness, is pleased when he sits down next to her, and symbolically O’Connor suggests that the mothers have exchanged sons. As the bus ride continues, Julian must watch as his mother continues to try to attract the young black boy’s attention, all the while fostering the condescending attitude to another race that Julian so despises. Eventually, when both parent/child pairs depart the bus at the same stop, Julian’s mother offers the child a shiny new penny, an indication of her insensitivity and her feelings of superiority. Julian exults when his mother receives a fierce blow from the black mother’s purse that knocks her to the ground. With prideful lack of pity and forgiveness, Julian believes his mother has received only the punishment she deserves. When, however, he notes that the blow has resulted in a heart attack or stroke that threatens his mother’s life, Julian finally understands that sin must be met with mercy and that his own self-centered attitude has prohibited him from ministry until it is too late.
O’Connor’s intriguing title for the story seems to suggest that all of life (classes, races, and religions) eventually will have to intersect, just as pure laws of physics would predict that everything on Earth that rises eventually will converge somewhere in space. Whether this action causes a disastrous collision or a peaceful merging of equals is left to the characters and to the reader.