The story is told from the perspective of Julian, a recent college graduate who appears to be waiting for employment commensurate with his education; he lives at home with his solicitous widowed mother. The setting is the recently integrated South of the 1960’s. Events unfold during a ride on an integrated bus, in which all of the story’s complex relationships are played out: the vindictive, self-deluding dependency of Julian on his mother; the insightless yet well-intentioned doting of his mother, who is tied to the societal conventions in which she was raised; the condescension of "enlightened" whites toward blacks; the resentment of blacks toward well-meaning whites- all depicted with great skill and humor.

The crisis occurs in a confrontation between Julian’s mother and a black woman wearing the same hat, when the mother tries to give a penny to her counterpart’s child. In the incident, Julian’s mother suffers a stroke to which Julian is at first oblivious, being so consumed with fury at his mother’s (to him inappropriate) gesture to the child. When he realizes how disabled his mother is, Julian is overwhelmed with grief and fear; the extent of his self-deception is fully confirmed.


This story provides fertile ground for discussion. The last line is particularly memorable and merits contemplation of its psychological, religious, and moral significance: "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." Also worth particular consideration is the meaning(s) of the story’s title.

An interesting analysis of the tension between authorial and narrative stance in this story may be found in Robert H. Brinkmeyer’s critical work, The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1989, pp. 67-73). In Brinkmeyer’s view, the surprising ending of the story reveals O’Connor’s position that the narrator is just as judgmental as Julian; the narrative stance collapses at the end, just as Julian’s does.

O’Connor’s own life story is of interest in that she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus at age 25, and suffered the debilitating effects of the disease and its treatment for the rest of her short life. Her description of the symptoms of stroke in Julian’s mother are clinically accurate and may reflect her unusual exposure to the world of illness in addition to her keen powers of observation.



First published: 1964. The collection in which this story appears, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was first published in 1965.

Primary Source

Three by Flannery O'Connor


Penguin: Signet

Place Published

New York



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