O’Connor places the broader societal conflict of race relations within the context of the volatile relationship Julian has with his mother to connect the two issues that transformed the South in the 1960s. In many ways, Julian’s mother still lives in the South of her ancestors, with strict social codes of conduct that determined the behavior of both whites and blacks. Even though these norms no longer apply, she still adheres to the old customs to resist the startling changes that the new desegregation and antidiscrimination laws have brought. Julian, meanwhile, eagerly seeks to embrace the new, integrated South and the promises of greater prosperity and racial equality. He rejects the older social order and espouses the liberal ideas of a younger generation, condemning older whites’ attitudes regarding race. Like most young, idealistic Southerners, however, he has trouble acting on his convictions and fully treating blacks as equals or even people. Julian’s clashes with his mother over dress, race, and appearances in general mimic the greater conflict in society and ultimately result in violence.
Both Julian and his mother rely heavily on appearances to separate and elevate themselves from the rest of society. Julian’s mother, for example, hopes that her public demeanor and clothing will hide the fact that she no longer has any of her family’s former wealth. In turn, she judges others on their appearance, including blacks, whom she automatically considers inferior. She looks down on the African American man on the bus who wears a suit, even though he is better dressed than Julian, and still places herself above the large black woman on board, even though she realizes that they wear the same hideous hat. Ironically, Julian relies on appearances to quickly judge others around him too, even though he criticizes his mother for this same shortcoming. He despises his own neighborhood with its rundown houses and evident poverty and resents the fact that his family no longer has any of its former wealth. Julian uses his education to distinguish himself from those around him, repeatedly claiming that true culture comes from the mind in a weak attempt to justify his apparent failure as a writer. Julian’s and his mother’s delusions illustrate the unreliability of appearances.
Julian’s and his mother’s longing for the grandeur of the past suggests that neither character has fully come to terms with their lives as poor whites in an integrated South. For both characters, the past serves as safety net—a place filled with prosperity and sunshine, untroubled by poverty and social upheaval, and recalling the past allows them to continue living in a changing world they don’t understand. For Julian’s mother, the family heritage gives her an immutable social standing despite the fact that she lacks the money or prestige that her family once had. As a result, she has a distorted perception of her place in the world. Julian feels tormented by his family history and agonizes over the family connection to slavery, yet he still dreams of the past to escape his dreary life as an educated typewriter salesman.
Julian’s mother believes that social conduct reflects a person’s true nature, whereas Julian believes that social conduct reveals an unwillingness to adapt to social change. Julian’s mother pays slavish attention to her manners and behavior, believing that the way a person does things reflects who they truly are. She emphasizes dressing well and behaving graciously, especially when in public. Although her family is no longer wealthy, she still conducts herself as though she is a woman of importance. Julian has an altogether different view of social conduct, believing that the content of a person’s mind reveals who they are. He believes that his intellectual views, not his dress or manners, dictate who he is. Julian’s mother’s strict adherence to social conduct infuriates Julian, who believes that her actions demonstrate her ignorance and unwillingness to accept her lower social standing in a rapidly changing society.
The same hat that Julian’s mother and the large black woman wear symbolizes the transforming cultural landscape of the 1960s South, which has put the two women on equal social footing. Historically, racial differences would have automatically placed Julian’s mother on a higher social plane than the black woman, regardless of similarities or differences in wealth, education, and appearance. Desegregation, however, elevated African Americans and simultaneously stripped pretenses of superiority from poorer whites. The hat visually demonstrates that both women are now essentially the same: they both ride the same public transportation, shop in the same stores, and even have the same taste in clothing. It also highlights the absurdity of segregation and racial inequality, suggesting that people are more alike than different.
The penny that Julian’s mother gives to Carver represents her patronizing attitude toward all African Americans. Even though she wants to give the penny out of kindness, Julian’s mother fails to recognize the offer’s condescending and patronizing overtones. White Americans had denied blacks opportunity and access to material goods and wealth for hundreds of years, providing them only the necessities for basic living and expecting them to work happily as slaves. Giving money to Carver, therefore, is a symbolic continuation of blacks’ dependence on whites. Fueled by centuries of anger and the promises of the growing civil rights movement, Carver’s mother lashes out to establish her status as an independent being and reject historical subservience to white patronage.