Julian, a young man who has returned to his Southern hometown after graduating from college, is upset with his Mother. She has begun to attend a weekly exercise class at her doctor’s orders, and Julian must accompany her on these weekly excursions because she doesn’t like to ride the busses alone at night anymore now that they’re racially integrated. Julian bemoans her racist motivations for needing company, but he travels with her out of a sense of familial obligation. Before they leave the house, Julian’s mother debates whether or not to wear a new gaudy purple hat she bought. While he finds the hat hideous, Julian yells at her to wear it, wanting to begin and end their trip as soon as possible. While they walk through their eerie neighborhood toward the bus stop, Julian’s Mother regales him with her story of purchasing the hat, in which the clerk told her “with that hat, you won’t see yourself coming and going.”
The opening scene establishes several threads central to this story, most importantly both Julian and his Mother’s perspectives on race relations in the South and their relationship to each other. Julian’s Mother loathes racial integration, while Julian believes that whites and blacks should coexist. Julian despises his Mother for her bigotry, but still feels loyal to her and agrees to chaperone her trips. In this way, Julian also represents a young white Southerner’s fraught relationship to their cultural history. He believes in equality, but his family history connects him to a racist tradition. The abnormal description of the surroundings also creates an almost sinister, otherworldly tone, a trademark of Southern Gothic fiction. Finally Julian’s Mother’s fussing with the hat, an essential symbol in this story, demonstrates her investment in appearances.
Julian’s Mother begins to lament the current state of society in the South. She believes that their family—as well as the South overall—was better off in the past, mentioning that Julian’s great-grandfather was the governor of the state and that he owned two hundred slaves. She professes that it’s ok if black people’s status rises, only if it happens “on their side of the fence.” Memories of her family’s former mansion rush back to her, with its stately double stairway and her beloved black caretaker. Julian visited the mansion once when he was young and it was descending into a state of disrepair. He admits that it appears frequently in his dreams, noting that he “preferred its threadbare elegance to anything he could name,” especially the neighborhoods in which he grew up.
Julian’s Mother’s longing for the past is representative of many white Southerners’ relationship to their history. Her memory of the family home is wistful, focusing on its beauty and neglecting to connect the opulent home to her family history of slave-ownership. Thus, her view of history unjustly separates racism and exploitation from the regal parts of Southern tradition, demonstrating that she cares more about appearances than realities. This mentality is likewise reflected in her “separate but equal” rhetoric: she doesn’t care if blacks increase their social standing, so long as she doesn’t have to see it. Complicating his relationship to the family history, Julian, even in his progressivism, loves the elegance of the old estate. His dreams of the mansion show that even white Southerners who are trying to do right fall victim to the dark allures of a gruesome history.
As they get closer to boarding the bus, Julian continues to sicken listening to his Mother’s vain and bigoted commentary. He begins to feel in himself “an evil urge to break her spirit,” after which he removes his tie. Immediately, Julian’s mother scolds him for looking less presentable. He returns the tie to his neck, but not without making a comment undermining the importance of appearances. “True culture is in the mind, the mind” he tells her, to which she counters, “It’s in the heart and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.”
Julian’s feelings toward his Mother do not stay static throughout the story, suggesting a dynamic relationship to his Southern heritage. His feeling of loyalty morphs into a more insipid desire to punish her. Their diverging opinions about the root of “true culture” encapsulate their different views on race and racism. Julian believes that people demonstrate their character through what they believe, and, thus, can change. His mother’s view is much more rigid, and suggests that a person’s identity and worth are fixed.
Julian and Julian’s Mother board the bus and sit together next to a thin woman with protruding teeth. After some small talk about the weather, Julian’s Mother remarks that everyone on the bus is white. Upon hearing this, a woman sitting across the aisle, The Woman with the Red and White Sandals, begins talking about how black people have been all over the busses recently. The three women chat about social training and propriety. The Woman with the Protruding Teeth says that she’s been bothered by a news story about boys from “good families” stealing tires. She says that she warned her son about doing anything like that, telling him, “you might not be rich but you been raised right.”
This scene suggests that Julian’s Mother’s racist attitudes are common amongst other Southern whites. Interestingly, the other women on the bus share a form of racism similar to Julian’s Mother. They too believe deeply in manners and propriety while not believing in basic human equality. Their shared concern for acting in a fashion befitting one’s social class displays, again, a stronger commitment to appearing to be ethical than to actually treating people ethically.
While the women talk around him, Julian begins to retreat into his own mind in an attempt to relieve his frustrations. The narrator says he spends most of his time in the inner compartment of his mind, protecting him from his hated surroundings and allowing him to see his mother with “absolute clarity.” His Mother on the other hand, lives “according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot. Julian takes her to task for trying too hard to live up to their family legacy, for rewarding herself too heavily for making sacrifices for him, and for putting too much stock in the importance of appearances. He proclaims that he has “cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity.” He wishes she could do the same to him.
Julian, like his Mother and the other women, also has trouble dealing with the reality of his surroundings. Instead of directly confronting the white racists who anger him, Julian retreats into his thoughts, where he convinces himself that he understands objective realities more clearly than his Mother does. This also affords him the opportunity to morally grandstand over the other Southern whites instead of actively assessing the ways that he too might be contributing to misunderstanding between the races. The irony is that Julian looks down on his mother without recognizing the ways in which he, in his passivity, is complicit in her bigotry.
The bus makes another stop and a smartly-dressed black man boards. Julian watches his arrival with excitement, hoping to see this Well-Dressed Black Man faced with an injustice of some sort, as this would justify Julian’s thoroughly negative opinion of white Southern culture. The Well-Dressed Black Man takes an open seat across the aisle from Julian and Julian’s Mother, and as he sits down, the Woman with the Red and White Sandals leaves her seat next to him to move to the back of the bus. Julian’s Mother shoots her an approving look.
This passage underscores the inconsistencies in Julian’s image of himself. If he were the true progressive thinker he claims to be, Julian would not take satisfaction in The Well-Dressed Black Man’s poor treatment. The fact that he morbidly enjoys it suggest that he maybe cares more about winning his argument with his Mother and feeling superior to other Southern whites than he may care about equality. In this way, his character is proof that well-meaning people can still be harmful to progressive causes and the people they think they are helping.
Julian can no longer handle the situation around him and he decides that he needs to prove a point to his mother. Julian crosses the aisle and watches his mother’s face fill with rage as he takes the seat next to the Well-Dressed Black Man. The Well-Dressed Black Man, meanwhile, is unfazed by the gesture and continues to read his newspaper.
In his interaction with The Well-Dressed Black Man, Julian further indicates that he, in a different way than his Mother, treats black people as something other than completely human. Julian treats the Well-Dressed Black Man as a symbol, or a prop, in his ongoing moral argument with his mother.
Julian fantasizes about having a highbrow conversation with the Well-Dressed Black Man to teach everyone a lesson, but when he attempts to start such a conversation, the Well-Dressed Black Man becomes annoyed. Despite Julian’s failure to engage the man, he succeeds in further angering his mother, whom he sees as childlike in her seat across the aisle. His spirits briefly drop as he remembers, “he had never been successful at making any Negro friends.” Undeterred, however, Julian continues to dream of all the ways he could enrage his mother by consorting with black people—he could befriend a distinguished black professor or lawyer and bring them home, participate in a sit-in, secure a black doctor for her while she was ill, or even marry a black woman.
Here, it becomes evident that Julian’s treatment of black people as symbols makes it difficult for him to make real connections. In fact, this impulse has prevented him from ever making friends with black people. As Julian admits these failures, his fantasies about connecting with black people only become more elaborate and untethered from reality. This demonstrates again that Julian might be more interested in the appearance of a liberal value system than he is in acting in a sincerely progressive manner. In this way, O’Connor suggests that Julian may not be so different from his mother after all, despite the different values they espouse.
Again, the bus stops and two more black passengers board: a large, colorfully-dressed woman with a look on her face that suggests “don’t tamper with me,” and her dapper little boy, Carver. Carver takes the seat next to Julian’s Mother and Carver’s Mother takes the seat next to Julian, a circumstance which appears to annoy both Julian’s Mother and Carver’s Mother. As he studies both women stewing in anger, Julian notices something about Carver’s Mother: she’s wearing the exact same hat as Julian’s Mother. Julian is overcome with joy, thinking that the hat might be what finally teaches his mother the lesson he desires for her to receive. Julian’s Mother stares at Carver’s Mother as if “the woman were a monkey that had stolen her hat.”
Carver’s Mother’s appearance on the bus presents Julian’s Mother with an opportunity to recognize evidence of a basic equality between races. Carver’s Mother wears an identical hat, travels alone with her son, and is also annoyed by having to sit with someone else’s son. However, it does not occur to Julian’s Mother that she and Carver’s Mother might be more similar than different. Rather, she sees Carver’s Mother as something far less than equal: an animal who stole her hat. Such a reaction shows that racism is such a strong and dark force that it leads people to dehumanize and alienate each other in even the most banal circumstances.
Carver’s Mother orders Carver to leave his seat next to Julian’s Mother to come stand by her. Despite her racist leanings, Julian’s Mother finds children of all races incredibly cute, and, in fact, even finds black children to be cuter than white children. Carver runs back across the aisle to the seat next to Julian’s Mother. Julian’s Mother then says to Carver’s Mother, “I think he likes me,” and smiles at her with “the smile she used when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior.” Carver’s Mother snatches Carver back across the aisle and slaps him. Nevertheless, Carver begins to peek-a-boo with Julian’s Mother, infuriating Carver’s Mother even further.
Julian’s Mother’s interactions with Carver reveal the twisted brand of kindness exhibited by someone who is racist but who also believes in manners. Because Julian’s Mother finds black people to be inferior, she goes out of her way to show, especially to children, a kind of condescending tenderness. This sort of tenderness is a product of a paradoxical Southern etiquette, in which cruelty is often disguised as gentility. Carver’s Mother, surely accustomed to such condescension, see through the charade and scolds Carver for engaging with it.
Realizing that the four of them are all getting off the bus at the same time, Julian has a terrible premonition that, after they depart the bus together, his Mother will try to give Carver a nickel. As they exit the bus, Julian’s Mother does, in fact, start to fish through her pocketbook for a nickel. However, she can’t find anything but a new penny. Julian warns her not to gift the penny, but she doesn’t heed his warning.
Like Carver’s Mother, Julian knows the condescending tenderness all too well. He warns his Mother against giving Carver’s Mother a penny because he knows that this will only further amplify her already condescending attitude. Here, Julian’s premonition and subsequent warning to his mother demonstrate that he is painfully aware of how such a gesture would be perceived, again emphasizing his own preoccupation with appearances. The irony of this moment, of course, is that Julian implores his mother to treat the black bus-riders differently than she might treat others.
As Carver and his Mother are walking away, Julian’s Mother calls out to Carver, runs after him, and offers him the penny, which shines bronze in the dim light. Carver’s Mother’s rage finally boils over at this gesture. She balls her fist and strikes Julian’s Mother with her pocketbook while yelling, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!” Carver’s Mother walks away and Julian comes to his mother’s side. He stands over her as she’s splayed out on the ground and stares at her, gritting his teeth.
All the tension that has been building within Carver’s Mother releases when she strikes Julian’s Mother. The physical confrontation symbolizes the explosion of a much larger and deeper racial tension in the South, which has been building for more than a century. Carver’s Mother violently asserts that her son won’t take any pennies because she can’t accept Julian’s Mother’s condescension any longer. She makes her indignation felt in the most direct way possible.
Julian’s Mother lays motionless on the ground, a blank expression on her face. Julian manages to help her to her feet and notices that it seems as if she’s unable to determine his identity. She decides to not carry on to the exercise class and begins walking home, a moment Julian decides to seize to teach her the lesson he’s been eagerly waiting to teach. “That was the whole colored race,” Julian tells her, “which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black double…the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” While Julian beats his moral message into her, Julian’s Mother continues to walk towards home, not paying him any attention. Julian decries this reaction, claiming that he hates to see her acting like such a child.
In trying to teach his Mother a lesson after she has been hit, Julian also comes off as condescending. His lecture is an example of how well-meaning Southern whites can alienate racist white people by being opportunistic in their displays of moral superiority. He doesn’t drive his Mother closer to understanding, but further from it. Julian’s lesson to his mother also hinges upon a symbolic reading of the confrontation, against which O’Connor arguably takes a stance. O’Connor once famously said, “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Perhaps reading life too symbolically also blurs people’s perception of reality.
Julian goes to grab his Mother’s arm, hoping to redirect her to a homebound bus, but as he does so, she turns to him and he sees “a face he had never seen before.” Now, Julian’s Mother does actually appear to fully descend into a delirious, childlike state, and she asks Julian to have her dead, slave-owning grandpa come get her. Then, she asks to have her black childhood nurse, Caroline, come get her.
After Julian’s Mother’s shocking experience, which is reflective of a new social order, she descends into a fantasy of the past. The reality of the present South, in which black people demand her respect—to the point of violently rebuking her for her lack of respect—traumatizes Julian’s Mother so intensely that it’s as if she can no longer live in the present. Thus, she begins to look unrecognizable and to insensibly call out for people from her past.
Julian begins to feel a “tide of darkness to be sweeping her from him.” At once, his desire to break her spirit shifts to tenderness and he cries out “Mother! Darling, sweetheart, wait!” Julian’s Mother crumples to the pavement and Julian runs to her side. He turns her over and her face has become grossly distorted, eyes moving in different directions, suffering apparently from a stroke. Julian begins to run towards lights he sees in the distance, calling out for help, but to no avail. At this point, he feels the same tide of darkness, but this time sweeping him back towards her, “postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
Ultimately, Julian fails in his attempts to distance himself from his racist Mother and the monstrous cultural legacy she represents. As she begins to suffer a stroke, he feels drawn closer to her. In fact, it’s as if he has no control over the dark tide that sweeps him back towards her. In being drawn back to his Mother, Julian is drawn back to a symbol of the old South—his mother, who is also literally the source of his life. His rough demeanor changes and he becomes almost infantilized. The story ends with both Julian and his Mother altered: he has regressed to a childlike state [BB1]and she has broken down completely in a classically Southern Gothic fashion.