While the physical confrontation between Carver’s Mother and Julian’s Mother is explosive, it is not the central conflict of Everything That Rises Must Converge. Instead, the conflict between Julian and Julian’s Mother animates the action of the story, giving readers a lens through which to understand the complexity of generational differences between white Southerners.
The conflict between Julian and Julian’s Mother can be seen as a microcosm of white Southern history. The trajectory of Julian’s family – from state governors and prosperous slave owners to Julian’s relatively difficult childhood in a crummy neighborhood – encapsulates the destruction of Southern aristocratic white society. After Julian’s Mother lectures him about his noble family roots, he swings his arm around their neighborhood and implores her to “see where you are now.” In this action, Julian is telling his mother that the past in which she still believes is no more—she is living a lie because her situation, and the South more broadly, has changed. Julian defines their interpersonal conflict, then, as one between his mother’s inability to see the value of social change and his own progressive ideas, as well as between his mother’s inability to recognize the sins of slavery and his own clear-eyed view of that history.
The fights between Julian and his mother suggest that the changes among Southern whites might be the inevitable result of generational difference, as Julian argues that, “knowing who you are is good for one generation only.” Julian repeats this view after the confrontation with Carver’s Mother, stating that “the old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” This comment suggests that Julian sees generational change less as the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, and more as an inevitable shifting of customs.
Though Julian posits his generational theory of change, O’Connor undermines the neatness of his explanation, suggesting that the changes happening in the white South cannot be reduced to moral young people and immoral old people, since the generations aren’t as distinct as Julian would like to believe. For example, Julian’s viciousness towards his mother seems at odds with his generational theory, as it indicates his insecurity at having inherited the mantle of white racism from his mother’s generation, undermining the notion that racism could generationally disappear. If he truly believed that the beliefs of the older generation would naturally disappear, then he might merely dismiss her beliefs rather than actively despising her and trying to change her mind. Even as he recognizes how much his mother sacrificed for him to be able to go to college, Julian is cruel to her, all the while wishing that instead of sacrificing for him, his mother had been cruel to him so he would be more justified in his hatred of her. Julian doesn’t just hate his mother, he wants to hate her. And in wanting to hate her, the story indicates how Julian feels the need to separate himself from the past—the racist past founded on slaveholding—that he and all white Southerners of his generation have inherited from their parents and ancestors.
And yet, at the same time, the family’s old regal plantation house, which Julian only saw as a child, “appear[s] in his dreams regularly.” One might argue that this piece of the family history is lodged into his subconscious. In light of his politics, it’s surprising that when Julian thinks of that past, his bitterness is not only about the slaveholding legacy of his family—it’s also about his own meager present situation. He seems to resent both the immoral foundations of his family’s former wealth and the fact that his family lost that wealth—in fact, he concludes that it’s he, not his mother, who could have actually appreciated the elegance of the old estate. The story, then, presents family legacy as something that Julian both wants to escape and, at the same time, can’t ever escape. He simultaneously hates it and yearns for it, and his cruelty toward his mother seems to be the product of the dissonance between his hatred for his legacy and his inescapable connection to it.
The siren song of the past becomes most visible at the very end of the story, after he browbeats his mother for her behavior toward Carver and Carver’s Mother and she suffers what seems to be a stroke. At first Julian feels himself separated from her, but then he finds himself almost paralyzed as a “tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her.” The past and family history, O’Conner seems to suggest, infect even those who earnestly try to start anew, casting doubt on the notion that the passage of generations alone can combat racism.
Family Conflict and Generational Struggle ThemeTracker
Family Conflict and Generational Struggle Quotes in Everything That Rises Must Converge
“You remain what you are,” she said. “Your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves.”
“There are no more slaves,” he said irritably.
“They were better off when they were,” she said…“It’s ridiculous. It’s simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”
It appeared in his dreams regularly. He would stand on the wide porch, listening to the rustle of oak leaves, then wander through the high-ceilinged hall in to the parlor that opened onto it and gaze at the worn rugs and faded draperies. It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated it. He preferred its threadbare elegance to anything he could name and it was because of it that all the neighborhoods they had lived in had been a torment to him – whereas she had hardly known the difference.
He thrust his face toward her and hissed, “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.”
“It’s in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.”
Behind the newspaper Julian was withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spend most of his time. This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him. From it he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without. It was the only place where he felt free of the general idiocy of is fellows. His mother had never entered it but from it he could see her with absolute clarity.
“What all this means,” he said, “is that the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” He thought bitterly of the house that had been lost for him. “You aren’t who you think you are,” he said.
The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.