The webboard postings referencing the Flannery O'Connor short story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" bear a strong relationship to the above mentioned mini-debate between the characters Julian and his mother. Utilizing the devices of setting, point of view, and round characterization to propel her plot forward, O'Connor elicits strong responses from readers regarding what they believe the theme of the story to be and once identified, how they interpret it. These reactions reflect the students' own "themes of the self" (David Mial, Empowering the Reader) and demonstrate "the limitations of [their] habitual concepts and ways of thinking" (Mial-Kuiken: Overview) of the readers. The students in their assessment of the text; both address whether true culture lies in the mind or in the heart as it applies to the characters and to themselves as readers. The mind shapes and rationalizes beliefs and ideologies, while the heart emotes them and is their acting embodiment. Overall, the webboard reader-response to "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is dominated by the respondents' assessment of the two main characters Julian and his mother, both as individuals and in relationship to one another, triggered by an emotional reaction steeped in personal empathy and moralism.
Evidence of empathy, whether positive or negative, shows that the readers credit O'Connor with having developed strong, rounded characters which so engross them that the majority of their postings are actually a response focused on Julian and his mother specifically rather than on the narrative as a whole. Many of the readers used the word sympathy to describe how they related to the characters. Either explicitly or implicitly, some respondents "felt sympathy * for Julian's mother" (Janice Lonia); others had "no sympathy of Julian or his mother" (Lizette Gill); still others "found it hard to decide who [they] sympathized with" (Heather Caputo). Attempting to humanize these literary characters in order to relate to them seemed to be a large part of the contributions to the webboard discussions. None of the responses were discussed or showed an interest in the language usage or in tone and style analysis; and little direct commentary is offered on what possible symbolism might be contained within the narrative. Rather the emphasis is on describing the characters, judging them on the basis of what was liked or disliked about them (as opposed to what made them rounded, well-developed characters) and then drawing conclusions about the theme of the story.
O'Connor presents a character driven story in which many "gaps" and "indeterminacies" (Sven Birkerts, Literature: The Evolving Canon) are filled in by the readers, combining with the actual text to form the character in the reader's mind. Readers took certain descriptions, comments, and statements by or about Julian and his mother to be prototypical personality traits, which defined their very essence. The basic structure of the character-theme debate took fell into three categories and their ensuing examples: 1) Racism -"The story is enveloped in racism. And that's how I see the story." (Ali Kelly); 2) Class structure - "The essence of this story is a family's * coming to terms with losing its hold on southern aristocracy." (Garry Chandler); and 3) Familial relationships - "Julian treats his mother like a small child because he has no love for her and no respect." (Devon Connell). Each of these categories is elucidated by a character analysis, which goes beyond the text and into the imaginations of the commentators.
The topic of racism overshadows almost every analysis
issued forth by contributors to the "Everything That Rises*" webboard postings
and it is approached with both subtle nuances and overt statements.
Overt statements regarding racism involve the respondent taking a stand
in strong opposition to the characters based on the racist tendencies he
or she places upon them. Examples of these are as follows:
"These two characters were racist, close-minded people who both thought they were better than they were." (Ali Kelly)
"I see that they are both very ignorant and closed minded." (Tina Triscari)
"I could relate to Julian's twisted thoughts of revenge on his mother for being a bigot." (Jennifer Bonazzo)
"Quite surprising in this time of "political correctness" that the character most people prefer happens to be the racist." (Dan Fowler)
These statements not only point out the believed racism but also view it as a negative feature which outweighs whatever other personality traits Julian and his mother may have. Value judgement is interpolated with the narrative as a consequence of the story being about these two "confused, fake hypocrites" (Devon Connell). The more subtle inferences to racism are analogued in the following comments:
"Since the mother character is seen through the tint of Julian's view, her prejudice is blatantly highlighted." (Marisol Lalut)
"Using these people to aggravate his racist mom puts
him in her category." (Leigh Stewart)
"Although I agree that the mother was a racist, it was expected of that time and place." (Janice Lonia)
Implicit in these quotations is that while racism swirls in, around, and through Julian's mother, reasons which partially "excuse" her behavior exist but more importantly what is ascertained here is that the sheer mention of the mother conjures up an immediate association with abhorrent racial views.
Some of the "gaps" of the text filled in by the students are quite interesting in that they offer insight into why there is such an aversion to any hint of racism. For example, Dan Fowler thinks that the mother views giving the "black child a penny as * [giving] an animal a bit of food". Lizette Gill states, "Julian's mother hated minorities". And Jennifer Bonazzo makes an even wider interpretation by stating, "Julian's mother actually believed that the sickening prejudice that blinded her whole sense of humanity was for God." None of the preceding quotations are supported explicitly in the text and seem to be coming from a prior conventional mode of thinking regarding racism, which pre-existed in the minds of the readers and was triggered by the characters in the story. Few specific examples were given to validate the racism of Julian and his mother, which seems to indicate that the racism was blatantly obvious. What was not so obvious to most of the respondents were the class structure issues that a few felt the story was really about.
Garry Chandler claims that while racism is a part of the story, the main theme is actually about the loss of status. Robert Karchnyak refers to Julian as a "classist" and Jane Elliott sees a similar "ignorance and prejudice" in Julian's "accepting the friendship of professional, successful black people". While other readers' recognized some degree of the class struggle issues, Mr. Chandler is this viewpoints strongest advocate. "It's not about color; it is about being superior to everyone else who is not in the same class." Furthermore, he challenges those who think the story is about racism to "pay attention" and "read it again and see if you can detect the southern aristocracy in Julian and mother." Another reader who was also able to pick up somewhat on the class struggle theme was Marisol Lalut. She points out that rather than dividing along color lines as does his mother, "he separates by class". This observation shows two things; one is the connection between racism and "classism" and the other is the connection between Julian and his mother.
The relationship between Julian and his mother is the focal point of the action in the narrative and this was addressed by some of the readers as having been what got the strongest reaction out of them. Leigh Stewart "had a strong reaction to * a grown man driven close to madness by hi overbearing mother" which to her seemed to "imply a dependent and somewhat pathetic individual." Ali Kelly saw Julian's relationship with his mother as "a little twisted" as did Devon Connell who stated that Julian treated his mother "like a small child because he has no love for her and no respect." Julian did not fool Janice Ionia "for a second" but saw that "the truth is that he was still completely dependent upon his mother and hated to admit it." A connection can be seen between the subtle approach to racism discussed earlier and the mother-son relationship in the following quote from Robert Karchnyak: Treating his mother (even though her ideas are backward) like trash isn't exactly right no matter what."
The strong statement by Mr. Karchnyak is backed up
by the personalization, "one thing I don't like are phonies". This
personal approach to analysis is also found in the other two categories
previously discussed. In defense of his class warfare interpretation
of the text, Mr. Chandler offers, "I know this firsthand, because I used
to teach middle school in Raleigh, North Carolina *and the character with
whom I best identify is the little boy who is given the penny". It
is also evident in the racial approach, note Jennifer Bonazzo's dream of
marrying a black man and thus killing her mother. All of the approaches
to the story mark a personalization of sorts and are inherently connected
to the heart vs. mind issue raised by Julian and his mother. Are
the respondents reacting due to the "culture of [their] mind[s]"
or is their reaction an outcropping of a deeper formation within their
being? Are the characters or the story limited by a culture of the
mind? Are they fleshed out by a culture of the heart, by the readers'
knowledge of who they are? I believe the preceding analysis demonstrates
that it is a combination of the two which forms the readers' interpretation.
The combination is found in the preconceived notions of the readers (the
culture of the mind) which are not innate but rather accepted and then
moralized joining forces with the innate tendency to empathize with what
makes "who you are" with humanity.