If you’ve read an American Fiction anthology printed in the last thirty years or so, you’ve likely read one of two stories by Flannery O’Connor:
Everything That Rises Must Converge, or
A Good Man is Hard to Find
As short fiction goes, these two stories are included in anthologies of the best American short stories because they embody the generous-yet-stingy nature of a good short story.
O’Conner’s work is generous in that her writing is filled to overflowing with the elements that make good story telling rise to the level of great story telling: Character, Setting, Conflict, & Plot. Each of her stories display an abundance of these critical elements, as we’ll discuss below.
But like all superior short story writers, O’Conner is able to give us a rich literary landscape in just under 7,000 words. (As a reference, President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address was closing in on 7,500 words. I’ll leave the literary impact of that speech up to the reader…)
The key to telling good short stories is economy of words played against a wealth of ideas.
In Everything That Rises Must Converge, O’Conner gives a master class in balancing this elaborate world she has created with the restraint necessary in short-form fiction.
Flannery O’Connor said, “A good story resists paraphrase.” Her stories resist paraphrase.
The one sentence overview would be: A man and his mother ride a bus in the racially-tense, post-Integration South, and after a brief, unfriendly, physical encounter with a black woman, the man’s mother experiences a break-down, both physically and emotionally.
Everything That Rises is–in its essence–the story of Julian and his mother. The mother has been advised by her doctor to get some exercise, so she has joined a “reducing class” at the YWCA. She is a woman of a different time, however. She is afraid to ride the integrated buses alone, and she enlists Julian–an underemployed, recently graduated, socially disgruntled young man–to ride with her to assuage her fears.
She is a woman of simple means, though she’s recently splurged on a hat that Julian tells her is fine, but he secretly thinks is silly looking. She prizes it for its unique style. She debates returning it, but at Julian’s recommendation–given mostly to get her out of the house and get them on the bus–she decides to keep it.
On the bus trip, the mother talks to another reluctant rider while Julian attempts to befriend a black man, just to make his mother uncomfortable. He even daydreams about marrying a black woman; or at least a woman of mixed race. He revels in the idea of making his mother even more uncomfortable in her “old fashioned ways.”
As they near the YWCA, a black woman and her child get on the bus. Julian is amused that the black woman is wearing the exact same hat as his mother, and he thinks that will put her in her place. Instead, Julian’s mother attempts to befriend the child. She doesn’t see color the same way in the children. She tries to give the boy a nickel as they get off the bus. This is a gesture the boy’s mother–rightly–sees as condescending. A struggle follows which leave’s Julian’s mother flat on the ground, experiencing a kind of mental breakdown. Julian, who has been vindictive and cruel in the ways he wished to torture his mother over her inability to adapt to modern race relations, suddenly realizes the guilt and remorse he is going to feel when he examines how he’s treated his own mother. We are left with the distinct impression that this breakdown and physical failure is not a temporary thing, but that the mother is actually poised upon the precipice of death, and Julian is begging for another chance to treat his mother right.
Why is this story important? Let’s look at the four points about story telling (Characters, Setting, Conflict and Plot) that I mentioned above, as it pertains to Everything That Rises…
Characters – There are two main characters, and though we spend a relatively short amount of time with them, we still know a lot about them. We see the mother’s generational prejudice, though she remembers fondly “the old darky” who took care of her as a child. We see the struggle between her frugal nature and wanting to do something nice for herself. We see the push and pull between a mother’s desires for her child and a son’s sense of superiority to his mother. We see Julian’s haughtiness demonstrated as contempt. In very few words we understand complex inter-personal relationships between these characters.
Setting – Physically, this story takes place in the home of Julian and his mother, on the bus, and on the street outside the YWCA. But the setting of Everything That Rises… is more about the time and region than it is about the physical location. O’Connor is able to show us the tension of the post-integration South through her use of very little detail and exposition. Her dialogue and the reactions of characters not only push the story along, but they help tighten the screws of tension.
Conflict – There are several layers of conflict. Mother vs. Son, White vs. Black, Old vs. New, Educated vs. Experienced, Blind Justice vs. Mercy (in the son’s ultimate reaction to his mother being pushed beyond her breaking point). Layer upon layer of conflict is present in this relatively simple story.
Plot – As I said above, this story is not easy to “plot.” The plot–as described in the short paraphrase above–is deceptively simple. And yet, much like the category of Conflict, there is much more going on than meets the eye. The hat first introduced as a point of humor, becomes a focal point. The woman with whom the mother is first conversing because of a shared distrust of the black riders, turns out to be a point of reference to show that Julian’s mother–while still filled with much of the racism of her youth–is actually more moderate than other white adults of the time. Julian’s own failings–his being forced to sell typewriters and his relying on his mother’s generosity when he can’t fend for himself–serve as a counterpoint to his haughty and superior dismissal of his mother’s old ways.
Everything That Rises Must Converge is one of several stories that O’Connor produced in her too-short life which bears multiple readings. O’Connor’s style is unique and not particularly suited to the times. But, in spite of the age of these stories, there is much to be learned by a modern writer when it comes to exploring the ways in which O’Connor was able to produce such rich, layered, and complex stories with an economy of words.
Buy The Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor.