- Series: FSG Classics
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (January 1, 1965)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374504644
- ISBN-13: 978-0374504649
Mary at Mary’sLibrary has done an effective job of putting me back on the track of reading southern literature. She’s embarking on a veritable Faulkner Odyssey, which reminded me this is a mission I should never have abandoned.
That’s how life is, of course. We start on something with all best intentions, then something happens and we careen off wildly in another direction. Or at least I do. Everyone may not have this problem to the same extent, but I’d sleep better telling myself it’s human nature at work. Please don’t burst that bubble.
I haven’t picked up Faulkner again just yet, but it’s in the forecast. I’m working my way back up to him via another Southern master, this one of the short story, Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor is a writer who died far too young, at the age of 39. Her output in her short life was more than respectable, but considering how much more she could have done had she lived is nearly unendurable.
The title story in Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge is at its core a story about bigotry and hatred, only the particular bigotry and hatred at issue here isn’t what it first appears. While it’s true the main male character in the story professes frustration with his mother for her attitudes toward African Americans, when it comes down to it something about that just doesn’t equal bigotry of an inter-racial nature. What it more closely resembles is a natural coming-of-age, and the tendency to grow to resent your upbringing after you’ve been away for a while.
The young man in the story has graduated from college, and as a result of all his newfound “wisdom” he comes home to find his mother a pathetic, tired, old woman. When the story opens she’s getting ready to go to a “slimming class.” She needs to lose weight, in order to avoid having a stroke or other weight-related health issues, and her son is going to escort her to her class. She’s afraid to ride the buses after dark, when the “Negroes” are likely to be riding along with her. Her son, fed up with her attitude, goes with her, but impatiently. He makes snide remarks, he derides her, and when a black man sits next to him on the bus, he looks triumphantly for his mother’s reaction.
She does react. She is disappointed, but she’s not making nearly the spectacle of herself that her son is. As the story progresses there’s more of the same, the young man derides his mother, and she does her best not to react in a way that will provoke him further.
I can’t reveal the ending of the story, which is a little frustrating because it does limit how thoroughly I can discuss it. But I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone else who hasn’t read it. What I can say about it is, the young man gets his comeuppance, though in a terribly ironic way. The title of the story illustrates the “rising” of the young man, and his ultimate “convergence” with the prejudices and bigoted landscape he thought he’d successfully escaped, and to which he felt so superior.
Though he’s right to be impatient with his mother’s prejudiced attitudes, and he’s right to rebel against being the same sort of narrow person she is, where he fails is in his lack of appreciation for what his mother has done for him, despite her limitations. She’s sacrificed herself so her son can become what he is. He knows that, but rather than finding that inspiring he thinks she’s a simpleton for not being more selfish. Her own lack of selfishness in raising him makes him feel guilty for his over-ridingly selfish nature, and that’s what’s at the core of all his derision. There’s no nobility of purpose here. He himself isn’t free from all bigotry, even if he may appear so on the surface. When he thinks of really getting back at his mother by bringing home a black girlfriend he clearly illustrates what sort of person he is. He’d be willing to use another human being in order to get back at his mother. That’s not being unprejudiced. That’s quite the opposite. It shows he’s still completely willing to use someone of another race, maybe not in slavery, but in a way that would make the both of them miserable. And why? To hurt his mother.
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is a gem. Its theme is universal and timeless. If you’ve ever rebelled against your parents growing up, or against the place you’re from once you’ve left it, you’ll understand the significance of this tale.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite and that you’ll give it a read. I plan to read the others in this collection. Maybe then I’ll be ready to cozy back up with Mr. Faulkner. It’s not that I’m hesitant to read him, but one of the reasons I stopped in the first place was his works are all so beautiful. That doesn’t seem to make sense in a conventional way, I know, but I mean it in the sense there are a finite number of his works. Once I get through all of them there’ll be nothing new of his to read. I can re-read them, and I have re-read some, but to read something for the first time is an experience you can’t repeat twice. That also sounds simplistic, but there’s a very big difference between a first read and subsequent re-reads. The re-reads are in no way inferior, but there’s something about that first time. It seems inexplicable, but that describes a lot of things about me…
Time to admit life itself isn’t finite, I guess, and bravely plow the rest of the way through the Faulkner canon. From here on out it’s the re-reads that will console me. At least that’s what I’ll be telling myself.