Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, 1961
The magic trick:
Mastering the art of dark comedy
Let me be clear: Flannery O’Connor’s stories are funny. They all are. Very funny. Most of them could be described as funny tragedies. “Everything That Rises Must Converge” tips the scales. I would call this masterpiece something closer to a dark comedy.
There are moments in this story that are laugh-out-loud funny. Consider the double punchline of the matching hats. O’Connor’s use of cartoonish description is remarkable. She writes: “It was a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out.”
But it’s more than the funny language. Julian’s attitude toward his mother – which really is at the heart of the story – is an amazing bit of juggling by O’Connor. He is razor-sharp in his cruelty, and yet also made to be the butt of the joke at the same time. The reader respects his wit and intelligence even as we also think him hopelessly naïve, oblivious, and even hurtful. I wish I could tell you how O’Connor manages this trick but I’m just not smart enough to understand. I think it has a lot to do with the point-of-view trick she often uses in her stories, where she’s bouncing between multiple characters’ vantage points, elbowing the reader in the ribs and laughing the whole time.
Published eight years after her seminal debut story collection, “Everything That Rises” shows an author building on the successes of her early work and operating at an even higher level of comedy and artistry. Heartbreaking then that she would be dead less than a year later. Everything that made her stories amazing – the humor, the generational clashes, the southern society, the anger, the darkness, the death – converge in this story and make it, for my money, her greatest accomplishment. And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
As she waited for her tokens, the woman was surveying the seating possibilities – he hoped with the idea of sitting where she was least wanted. There was something familiar- looking about her but Julian could not place what it was. She was a giant of a woman. Her face was set not only to meet opposition but to seek it out. The downward tilt of her large lower lip was like a warning sign: DON’T TAMPER WITH ME. Her bulging figure was encased in a green crepe dress and her feet overflowed in red shoes. She had on a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. She carried a mammoth red pocketbook that bulged throughout as if it were stuffed with rocks.