Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that the most effective writing about literature takes the form of a conversation, whether it’s a dialogue with a published literary critic, a classmate, a hypothetical reader, or the literary text, itself. Graff and Birkenstein observe that what distinguishes literary analysis from other types of academic writing–which are also forms of conversation–are the subject’s lack of an explicit thesis (poems and stories show rather than tell) and the central role of conflict (problems move stories forward).
A close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” offers a case in point for Graff and Birkenstein’s guide for literary analysis, which itself–intentionally or not–may raise questions in readers’ minds about what happens to Julian’s mother.
The title story of O’Connor’s posthumous collection Everything that Rises Must Converge chronicles the conflict between Julian, a recent college graduate who embraces the changes brought on by the Civil Rights movement and his mother, who clings to the racial hierarchy of the old South and refuses to travel alone on desegregated buses.
One evening as Julian accompanies his mother en route to her reducing class at the Y, he takes a seat beside a black man–an act that Julian perceives as a lesson for his mother–and witnesses her annoyance increase when she realizes that the large black woman who has boarded the bus with her young son, Carver, is wearing the same purple and green hat that she wears, as Julian sees it, “like a banner of her imaginary dignity” (277).
Later, as the two mothers and sons exit the bus, Julian’s mother rummages in her purse for a coin to give to Carver, an act that Julian anticipates will fuel the ire of Carver’s mother, believing that she will see the gesture as yet-more-condescension-by-the-bigoted-white-woman. When Julian’s mother offers the little boy a penny, Carver’s mother’s frustration and anger escalate, prompting her to swing her purse at Julian’s mother and knock her to the sidewalk. Julian helps his mother to her feet, but she remains mobile only briefly. Delusional, she asks Julian to tell her grandfather and her childhood nurse–both long dead–to come get her, and she collapses on the sidewalk.
Reading O’Connor’s story closely reveals that Julian, though on the right side of history, doesn’t place himself there through compassion but instead through “an evil urge to break [his mother’s] spirit” (277).
After reading Graff and Birkenstein in conjunction with O’Connor, what lingers in this reader’s mind aren’t the interpretive possibilities that the story invites but rather the one that Graff and Birkenstein seemingly ignore or dismiss. When they write that the “mother’s death [. . .] could be seen as evidence that we are supposed to disapprove of her” (195), they acknowledge the open-endedness of her character but not of the story’s conclusion, itself. The underlying assumption that Julian’s mother is dead precludes the ambiguity that Graff and Birkenstein illustrate with the duck-rabbit drawing. Is Julian’s mother (a) dead (duck), or has she suffered (and survived) a massive debilitating stroke?
O’Connor writes that one of Julian’s mother’s eyes came “unmoored” and the other “closed” (291), but she doesn’t state that she died. The fact that Graff and Birkenstein refer to her death serves as a reminder–apparently an unwitting one–that we as readers need to keep our own eyes open.
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. “‘On Closer Examination’: Entering Conversations about Literature.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 184-201. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 272-91. Print.