7 December, 2022

The Hats Worn by the Hat in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

(O’Connor, Flannery.  “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”  The Complete Stories.  New York: Farrar, 1993.  405-420.
“Everything That Rises Must Converge,” p.405

That Hideous Hat Does a Lot of Work in the Story

Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, relies on the mother’s “hideous hat” not only to convey theme and character but to externalize the point of view character’s interior conflict. In its various guises—physical and descriptive, metaphorical and active—this hat renders the story’s fictional elements and also serves as a vehicle for the story’s construction and form.

In the following passage, the physical description of the hat serves as a receptacle for many of the story’s fictional elements: it renders a characterization of the mother who wears it; it externalizes the point of view character’s (Julian’s) interior conflict; and it illuminates the story’s themes of rising and convergence. Just as important, the mere fact that the description of the hat is the receptacle for these elements aids in establishing the parameters of the story’s “looping” construction, its form:

It was a hideous hat.  A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up
on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing
out.  He decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic. Everything that gave 
her pleasure was small and depressed him [405].


Themes of Rising and Convergence

The story’s themes of rising and convergence are woven into the language and the sentence structure of this descriptive passage. Put aside for a moment the passage’s obvious mechanisms—its description of appearance, its rendering of characters, exterior and interior, the viewer and the viewed—and consider the passage’s more subtle thematic machinations. The hat has risen to the top of the mother’s head; through the very act of describing it, the hat has risen into Julian’s (and the reader’s) consciousness. The hat’s own physical characteristics, its velvet flap that “came down on one side of it and stood up on the other,” suggest rising. The theme of convergence, too, is subtly evidenced in this passage. Consider the sentence wherein Julian weighs the comical against the jaunty and pathetic, and, for a more explicit example, consider the end of the passage, where the mother’s pleasure and Julian’s depression converge, existing together in one sentence. The “meeting of the minds” that occurs in this last sentence is a manifestation of the implied convergence in the passage’s opening statement, “It was a hideous hat.” This statement, “It was a hideous hat,” is declaratory and definitive; it implies the convergence of thought processes and the actions which preceded them. This descriptive passage of the hat is finely wrought: its content conveys character, theme, and conflict; its form lets ideas rise from its opening statement and then converge back in on itself. And who can fail to notice this descriptive passage’s last sentence whose first word is the same “Everything” contained in the story’s title?



Unity and Elements of Craft

Throughout, as in the passage above, this story achieves unity because O’Connor consistently focused its elements of craft upon one thing: the hat. This story exists in terms of the hat.

Consider other examples:

We first see Julian’s mother (that is, she is first described visually) in a sentence from the story’s second paragraph on p. 405:

She was almost ready to go, standing before the hall mirror, putting on her hat... [405]

From this sentence on, the hat, in one guise or another, is present in the story.  Physically, the hat is on the mother’s head from beginning to end and comes to represent the bane of Julian’s conflict with his mother: her intrusive nature, the prejudices and hypocrisy she’s inculcated into her life and wears like “a banner of her imaginary dignity [409].” When Julian’s mother buys the hat, the saleswoman says, “If you ask me, that hat does something for you and you do something for the hat, and besides . . . with that hat, you won’t meet yourself coming and going [407].” But the mother certainly does meet herself on pg. 415 when the “large, gaily dressed, sullen-looking colored woman,” whose “downward tilt of her lip was like a warning sign: Don’t tamper with me,” comes on the bus and turns out to be wearing the same hat as Julian’s mother. The hat now signifies that Julian’s mother has met her own wicked brand of hypocrisy and prejudice in this “colored woman’s” demeanor. But only Julian recognizes the woman under the hat as his mother; the mother, who falters at first, is ultimately unable to recognize herself under the black woman’s hat. She never takes her own hat off, her “imaginary dignity” remains intact. She refuses to let go of her interpretation of the world and suffers the consequences when, at the end, the hat is knocked off and she suffers a stroke.

Metaphorically, Julian wears his own hat, which he refuses to give up.  The metaphor of the hat is established on page 405. Continuing on with the above captioned sentence where we first see the mother in front of the mirror putting on her hat:

...while he [Julian], his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him. (Emphasis mine.) [405]

Here, O’Connor associates Julian with the hat by carrying the idea of mother putting on her hat (i.e. pinning her hat on) through to pinning Julian to the door frame. Through this metaphor, O’Connor establishes that Julian feels pinned down by his mother. This metaphorical hat is developed later on p.411 when Julian, on the bus, retreats into the “inner compartment of his mind . . . This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself.” Here, Julian retreats into his metaphorical hat, into a place where “he could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration from without.” 



Finishing the Hat

The metaphor of the hat then comes to fruition on p. 420 in the story’s final sentence when Julian can’t seem to get any closer to the lights ahead of him and he is overcome with the feeling of being swept into a place where he is vulnerable to the realities of his own imaginary dignity:

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. [420]

Author

  • John Zic

    John Zic's fiction has appeared in the museum of americana and the Fabulist Words and Art online literary sites. His poetry has appeared in Fierce Hunger, an anthology from Writing Ourselves Whole. John holds an MFA in creative writing from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. John also builds and authors websites, and as an associate with Partnerize, CJ, Amazon, and Google, earns from qualifying purchases. You can contact him through his website or on Facebook as johnzicwriter.