Throughout “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the story contrasts the reality of the world with the characters’ perception of that reality. This contrast makes clear how biases, by warping a person’s understanding of reality, create fraught social conditions like those in the mid-twentieth century American South.
The story’s fundamental contrast between reality and perception comes in its very narration. The story is told by a “close” third person narrator that only has access to Julian’s internal world, and whose tone of narration mirrors Julian’s own way of thinking and speaking. When the narrator discusses Julian, then, it seems reasonable that the narrator is expressing Julian’s own sense of himself. For instance, when the narrator says that Julian spends most of his time in the “inner compartment of his mind,” which distances him from the “general idiocy of his fellows” and allows him to judge in a way that’s “safe from any kind of penetration from without,” this seems to express Julian’s own view of himself. Yet, even as this description seems to show how Julian thinks of himself, it reveals more, as well. While Julian sees being in the “inner compartment of his mind” as something that makes him superior, it’s also evident that this means that Julian—and the story the narrator is telling—are somewhat insulated from reality. In other words, the complexity of the world depicted by the story is deeper than the literal words of the story, or the perceptions of the characters. For instance, the narrator also claims that Julian’s remove has allowed him to “cut himself emotionally free of [his mother] and [he] could see her with complete objectivity.” Yet the story ends with Julian completely not understanding that Julian’s Mother is suffering a breakdown. His sense of his mother and his sense of himself are revealed as being actually highly subjective. As a result, the story suggests that claims to objectivity are arrogant and delusional.
In fact, over and over again the story shows the conflict between the perceptions that different characters view to be objective, proving those perceptions to be subjective. This is notable in the realm of conflicting moral frameworks that differently define generosity or kindness. Julian’s attempt to accept and interact with the black passengers on the bus is, in some sense, morally noble, but at the same time its presumptuousness, self-righteousness, and shallow execution increases tension and helps escalate to the fight between his mother and Carver’s Mother. Meanwhile, Julian’s Mother considers giving a penny to Carver to be a kind and generous action towards a cute child, but Carver’s Mother finds it to be intensely condescending. This divergence in the two women’s perceptions of reality leads to a physical confrontation.
Even as both Julian and his mother seem to believe that their own view of the world is objective, they are also constantly worried about how other people see them. They see their own view of themselves as being objective, and want to make sure that other people see that same objective view. Of course, their own views of themselves are subjective—even warped—but that’s something neither Julian nor his mother can admit to themselves. Consequently, both Julian and his mother are obsessed with appearances. If they can project the proper appearance, they seem to believe, then others will see them as they want to be seen. Therefore, Julian’s Mother, who is haunted by her family’s fall from wealth and power in previous generations, wants to project that she raised a boy with the right appearances. She takes pride in the fact that Julian went to college, is good looking, and has straight teeth. Julian, meanwhile, believes that appearing to have relationships with black people will make clear his moral values. He fantasizes about getting married to a black woman and takes a seat next to a black man on the bus, all in order to make a point to his mother—and the world—about his open mindedness and moral superiority.
By creating this dynamic in two characters who are connected to the past and current history of the South, the story also more generally presents a vision of white Southern society in the midst of an identity crisis. The white South imagines for itself a coherent and objective history that, on closer examination, is in fact subjective and confusing. Further, the story suggests the white South is heavily invested in surface image as a way to insist (to itself and to the world) that the history it wants to be objective is, in fact, objective, even as the underlying reality of the situation suggests otherwise.
Reality vs. Perception ThemeTracker
Reality vs. Perception Quotes in Everything That Rises Must Converge
“… and she said, ‘If you ask me, that hat does something for you and you do something for that hat, and besides,’ she said, ‘with that hat, you won’t meet yourself coming and going.’”
“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.
She kept her eyes on the woman and an amused smile came over her face as if the woman were a monkey that had stolen her hat.
“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.