Irony is a common fixture in literary works and its use is as old as literature itself. Irony enriches literary texts and enhances the reader’s experience. Several works of literature employ irony as a major stylistic device. “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is a short story by Flannery O’Connor that addresses life in post-Civil War South. This short story outlines the experiences of assimilation, integration, and racial prejudices in the 1960s’ Southern America.
The story’s main character is Julian, a recent university graduate who is forced to confront the realities the post-integration South and his racist mother. Julian’s family has connections to slavery, with his great grandfather having been a slave-owning land baron. The differences in opinion between Julian and his aging and ailing mother form the basis of this short story. “A Rose for Emily” is a short story by the famed early 1900s writer, William Faulkner. The story revolves around the eccentric lifestyle of Emily Grierson, a respected resident of Jefferson Town. Emily’s life changes when she is left in charge of her father’s estate. She lives a life of isolation that is subject to the town residents’ gossip and speculations. Both Faulkner and O’Connor’s short stories employ irony as a central stylistic device. This essay analyzes the similarities and differences of the functions played by irony in both “A Rose for Emily” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.
The plots of both stories are set on an ironic path right from the beginning. O’Connor’s story is set around the delusions and misconceptions of the middle class Americans when it comes to perceptions of other races. Julian’s mother is a beneficiary of slavery having lived an affluent life as a child courtesy of her slave-owning grandfather. However, she currently lives a life of poverty and she cannot even afford personalized means of transport or her monthly gas payments (O’Connor 434).
All the events that unfold in this story are modeled around the irony of a former slavery beneficiary whose welfare has changed but her point of view remains the same. On the other hand, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” revolves around the ironic twist of a former socialite’s life whose envious existence quickly turns into a pitiful one. Emily’s father was a respected resident of Jefferson town. When Emily’s father dies, the mayor exempts her from payment of taxes because of her father’s previous generosity. When another administration comes into power and demands taxes from Emily, she instructs the tax collectors to talk to Colonel Sartoris who has been dead for ten years. The ironies of Emily’s life form the basis of Faulkner’s dark story. Without irony, the institution of these two stories would be completely different.
Both Faulkner and O’Connor use irony to highlight the strained and odd relationships between the main characters. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, the author uses irony to explore the adversarial relationship between Julian and his mother. Julian assumes a sense of superiority over his mother because he believes he is not as racist as she is. However, Julian’s views on racial relations are rooted in his spite towards his mother. Therefore, Julian’s claims against racism are just a representation of his feelings of superiority towards his mother. Julian is convinced that because he is able to accept African Americans, he is a better person than her mother is.
However, the truth is Julian’s situation is quite similar to his mother’s if not worse. For instance, Julian’s mother believes that she dedicated her life towards raising her son. On the other hand, Julian does not consider his mother’s effort a sacrifice and believes that he is too intelligent to garner success in life. While Julian’s mother considers her son an average American who can achieve success through hard work, Julian believes that his level of intelligence is too high to allow this to happen.
The hypocrisy behind this line of thought is revealed through Julian’s fantasies about living in a luxurious mansion such as the one her mother used to live in. The irony is that this mansion was built through slave labor, a worse form of racism. Julian is worse than his mother is when it comes to racism but he just happens to take an opposing position against his mother. Julian’s hypocrisy is further revealed when he remarks that he had turned out so well even though he was raised by a racist mother (O’Connor 439). The hallmark of Julian’s deception is revealed through the fact that he is unable to connect with members of the African American community whom he claims to understand better than his mother does.
The narrator in “A Rose for Emily” points out the irony in Griersons’ relationships when he remarks that they “held themselves a little too high for what they really were” (Faulkner 528). What follows after the death of the family patriarch Colonel Grierson, highlights the extent of this irony. For instance, it is clear that Emily would have a hard time going through life without the help of his father. Furthermore, the town dwellers are surprised by Emily’s state of mind when she declines to release Colonel Sartoris’ body for the funeral.
The author uses the irony of the Griersons’ stature in the society to explore the unusual dynamics in their relationships. For example, the narrator reveals that the old man Grierson had intimidated many of his daughter’s suitors, as he did not consider them ‘good enough’ for his daughter. Consequently, Emily descended into a life of loneliness when her father died. The relationship between the Griersons and the rest of the community is also highlighted by this irony. Colonel Grierson used to be a revered member of the community but after his death, his prominence becomes obsolete. The town’s leadership forgets about Colonel Grierson’s alleged grants to the town and the rest of the population forgets about his daughter’s welfare. In the beginning of the story, it is also noted that the Grierson estate was largely isolated from the rest of the community and only tragedy opens it up to public scrutiny.
The tragedy of the relationship between Emily and Homer is also ironical because it ends the public’s interest in Emily’s affairs and later on re-inspires it. Once Emily becomes involved with lowly placed Homer, her stature in the society diminishes and she eventually becomes obscure to the town dwellers. The importance and respect that is attached to Emily is ironically lost through her relationship with Homer.
Both short stories use situational irony to highlight delusions of grandeur in their main characters. Emily and Julian are both experiencing delusions of grandeur in relation to their positions in the society. Julian feels that his perceived understanding of African Americans puts him in a superior position as compared to his mother and other white Americans with racist tendencies. In addition, Julian feels that he is “too intelligent to be a success” and this is the reason he does not fit in with the rest of the population (O’Connor 440).
All these delusions of grandeur are ironically placed by the author to show Julian’s inability to deal with his own inadequacies. O’Connor uses situational irony when she reveals the mental picture of Julian, where he is living in his great grandfather’s old slavery mansion. This is a clear indication that all his feelings of supremacy over the people around him are misplaced and false. For one, Julian has ambitions of living a good life but he is unable to find away to achieve it. Therefore, Julian tries to elevate himself from the rest of the people to avoid confronting his inability to achieve success. It is also ironic that someone like Julian who does not have any money, has minimal college education, depends on his mother for financial support, and lives with his mother can think so highly of himself. The same situation applies to Emily who is a respected member of the society and cannot find a suitor who is good enough for her.
The author of “A Rose for Emily” uses similar situational irony to show how Emily and her family’s delusions of grandeur fail. Emily’s family is so prominent such that the mayor of Jefferson exempts them from payment of taxes. Furthermore, the family’s sense of grandeur makes the Griersons an isolated lot who do not mix with the common citizens. The narrator notes that the Griersons’ estate was only opened to public scrutiny as a result of its patriarch’s death (Faulkner 526).
Emily’s father constantly feels that no man is good enough for her daughter and consequently drives away all of her daughter’s potential suitors. The delusions of grandeur are responsible for Emily being unmarried at thirty years old. When Emily’s father dies, she finds herself falling for a second class Yankee whom her father could have never approved of. The Griersons who had earlier assumed superiority are also made to pay taxes like the rest of the town’s citizens. While Emily is still suffering from this sense of superiority, she tells the tax collectors that she does not pay taxes in Jefferson (Faulkner 527).
Consequently, the tax collectors are informed to go and confirm that claim with Colonel Sartoris Grierson who has been dead for ten years. The ultimate situational irony depicts the actual state of the Griersons when Emily becomes forgotten by the townsfolk who do not even care to check on her. The narrator claims that people only catch glimpses of Emily through the windows of her house and only her servant can be seen outside of her house’s vicinity. The use of situational irony to highlight the main characters’ sense of grandeur is a tool that both authors effectively employ to the readers’ benefit.
While O’Connor uses dramatically ironic incidents to contrast Julian’s claims, Faulkner uses them to highlight Emily’s deterioration. Several incidences of dramatic irony are evident throughout “Everything That Rises Must Converge”. The first of such incidences unfolds when Julian attempts to acquaint himself with an African American man in the bus. Instead, Julian ends up making the man uncomfortable and failing miserably. Julian claims to be both a professional and someone who can interact with people of any race.
The incident with Julian and the African American man proves that Julian can connect with neither a ‘fellow’ professional nor a member of another race. Furthermore, Julian claims to have a first rate education but he does not have a job or a stable source of income. Julian’s tendency to consider everybody who is nicely dressed a professional highlights his inexperience in life and lack of perception. On the other hand, Faulkner uses dramatic irony to highlight the drastic changes in Emily’s life. For instance, when city officials come to collect taxes, they are immediately referred to Colonel Sartoris who has been dead for quite some time.
This incident immediately draws the readers’ attention to the possibility of Emily being in a frail state of mind. Dramatic irony is also used by the author in the final stages of the story where the townsfolk discover Homer’s remains laid in a bed in Emily’s bedroom. At this point, the townsfolk realize that Emily had for a long time slept next to a dead body. However, no one had suspected that Emily was capable of murder or necrophilia. This dramatic irony reveals that Emily’s existence was misleading and a sham.
Both “A Rose for Emily” and “What Rises Must Converge” are timeless pieces of literature. The authors of these stories rely on irony as a prominent stylistic device especially in relation to their stories’ main characters. The two authors use irony to highlight similar defects in the main characters. Moreover, the authors use dramatic irony to point towards the obvious inconsistencies in the lives of their characters. Both of these stories interestingly use irony to entice and inform their readers.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Literature The Human Experience. Ed. Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 526-532. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Perrine’s Story and Structure: An Introduction to Fiction. Ed. Thomas R Arp and Greg Johnson. Boston: Wadsworth Pub Co, 2012. Print. 434-447. Print.