Epiphany in Astronomer’s Wife, When I consider how my light is spent and Everything That Rises Must

Epiphany in Astronomer’s Wife, When I consider how my light is spent and Everything That Rises Must

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Epiphany in Astronomer’s Wife, When I consider how my light is spent and Everything That Rises Must Converge

The short story, “Astronomer’s Wife,” by Kay Boyle is one of perseverance and change. Mrs. Ames, because of neglect from her husband, becomes an emotionless and almost childlike woman. As a result, Mrs. Ames, much like John Milton in his poem, “When I consider how my light is spent” (974), is in darkness, unaware of the reality and truth of the outside world. However, the plumber who is trying to repair leaking pipes in her house, starts by repairing the leaking pipes in her heart. He helps her realize that the life she is living is not a fulfilling one. In short, to Mrs. Ames, “[…] life is an open sea, she sought to explain in sorrow, and to survive women cling to the floating debris on the tide” (Boyle 59). Similarly, in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the mother is also “cling[ing] to floating debris” (Boyle 59). She is trying to hold on to her old life, the one in which she is socially better than blacks and other women. But, like Milton and Mrs. Ames, she is soon forced to see the world in a new perspective. Thus, a new life is created for Mrs. Ames and the mother after their epiphanies, with the realization of a new world, one in which hard work and understanding can lead to change in one’s life and of one’s identity.

Before Mrs. Ames and the mother realize the restrictions of their old lives, their worlds have been full of disillusionment and ignorance. Mrs. Ames, for example, is oppressed by her husband’s silence and the search for love and tenderness from anyone, because she lives each day alone, ignored by her scornful husband. And, as a result of being left companionless, she does not mature, rather she longs for tenderness. In other words, Boyle explains her dysfunctional relationship with her husband, “The mystery and silence of her husband’s mind lay like a chiding finger of her lips. Her eyes were gray for the light had been extinguished in them” (57). That is, Mrs. Ames’ spirit remains oppressed by her husband who treats her as a child, and, in doing so, isolates her from his world.

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As a result, she does not experience anything new, causing her spirit to be “extinguished” (57) and this, therefore, leads her to a life of disillusionment.

While Mrs. Ames is ignorant of the world because of inexperience, the mother in O’Connor’s story is ignorant by choice. That is, she knows that the world around her is changing but deliberately decides to ignore this change because she does not know how to live in this non-racial world. So, she continues to express her flawed character by making racist remarks, such as when she enters a bus and, seeing that everyone is white, says, “I see we have the bus to ourselves” (O’Connor 209). Despite her son, Julian, repeatedly pointing out her racist remarks, such as when he sternly asks her, “Will you look around you […] and see where you are now?” (207), she still maintains her old views of the world. In fact, she still chooses not to change her racist views, and by ignoring major world changes, she chooses to carry the burden of her own ignorance. In contrast, Milton could have chosen to complain about his “mild yoke” (line 11) caused by his blindness, but instead decides to change himself in order to adapt to his new, dark world. While this change is one that he may not like, it is inevitable, just as change is necessary for Mrs. Ames and the mother.

Furthermore, through their different epiphanies these characters realize that maturity and comprehension of the world’s truths are achieved through understanding of their abilities and their willingness to change. For instance, as Boyle observes, Mrs. Ames has “a young and strange delight” (60) but finds, as the plumber points out, “There’s nothing that can’t be done over for the caring” (60). With this insight from the plumber, Mrs. Ames is no longer ignorant because she realizes that her husband represents “the mind,” the intellectual world of the astronomer, while the plumber represents “the meat” (59), the practical easy-going man who specializes in repairing broken pipes, including broken hearts. She also discovers that she is able to do anything with perseverance. She is finally given the chance to mature with a companion, the tender plumber, and in growing with the plumber, she is able to find herself and see the many things that she is capable of accomplishing with caring and hard work, such as the jobs she has previously thought only men could do. Also, as the plumber speaks to Mrs. Ames, “his eyes were fastened on her face in insolence, or gentleness, or love” (Boyle 60). Thus, Mrs. Ames is able to rediscover herself as a loving woman, because she is finally receiving love from another man. In short, she accepts the love of the plumber, and, in doing so, embraces the opportunity to create a more fulfilling life for herself.

However, while Mrs. Ames is just realizing that the most important thing to know is oneself, the mother in O’Connor’s story has always felt that way: “[…] if you know who you are, you can go anywhere” (207). In short, she thinks that she knows who she is and, therefore, does not need to change. However, after being punched by a black woman for giving a “condescending” penny to her son, her own son, Julian forces her to realize that, “[…] the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete […]. You aren’t who you think you are” (214). With Julian’s words, she finally realizes the truth that she has been hiding from, which is that she does not fit into this newly integrated world and she cannot survive in it for fear of losing her identity. Thus, Julian says, “From now on you’ve got to live in a new world and face a few realities for a change. Buck up […] it won’t kill you” (O’Connor 215). Ironically, the mother’s realization that change is inevitable with the knowledge that she does not want to change with it, leads to her death, in which she is able to remain who she has always been. In fact, she would rather die than live in this racially integrated world. Furthermore, as, “[a] tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping her” (O’Connor 215), so Milton feels that a “tide of darkness” seems to literally take away his old life from him as well. Without his sight, he fears that he is useless and powerless. However, he is able to carry his “mild yoke” after his epiphany with “Patience,” which helps him realize that he will still be able to write his indelible poems (lines 8-10), and that ‘”They also serve who only stand and wait’” (line 14). Whether blindness or ignorance of these characters is intentional or not, it is clear that Milton and Mrs. Ames’ moments of realization have changed them into more enduring, powerful characters.

After the women have encountered their epiphanies in which they learn that change is not only inevitable, but absolutely necessary, they take steps into their new lives. For example, Mrs. Ames, “[…] knowing what he said was true […] fixed a pin in her hair [and] stepped into the heart of the earth” (Boyle 60). Thus, she is no longer powerless once she realizes that she is able to do as much as a man, and she follows the plumber underground to fix the pipe, showing her husband that she is capable of doing both the work of a woman and a man. Also, when the plumber “[…] put out his hand to help her down,” she readily accepts this sign of affection and this invitation to a life full of opportunities, which she is not receiving from her marriage to Mr. Ames. As the plumber helps Mrs. Ames by extending his arm to her, so Julian tries to help his mother up from where she has fallen after being punched by the angry black woman, but she remains “immobile” (O’Connor 214). Eventually, she accepts his help but “[…] seemed trying to determine his identity. Then, as if she found nothing familiar about him, she started off with a headlong movement in the wrong direction” (O’Connor 214). Because the mother is unable to recognize her son or herself in this unfamiliar world, “[h]er hair had come down on one side” (O’Connor 214), showing that, unlike Mrs. Ames whose life is changing for the better after fixing her own hair, the mother’s life is crumbling with her hair on one side. Instead of accepting the fact that she must change, and embrace this racially integrated world, she dies of fear of losing her identity in such a society. Moreover, because both the mother and Mrs. Ames are no longer living their lives in a disillusioned state, they are able to actively transform their lives through acceptance of reality or death.

Finally, before their epiphanies, both the mother and Mrs. Ames are unable to see the disillusioned way in which they are living their lives. However, their epiphanies help them to realize they must change themselves or leave the world by death. So, Mrs. Ames, the mother, and Milton, through their transformations, demonstrate how literature can be “equipment for living” (Burke qtd. in Schilb and Clifford 8), but each responds to this knowledge in different ways. For example, Milton uses “Patience” to help him bear his “mild yoke” of blindness, and Mrs. Ames uses the plumber’s kindness to help her bear her own “mild yoke” of silence and neglect from her husband. On the other hand, the mother chooses death over transformation, because she is too proud and afraid to change her identity to fit into the racially integrated world in which she suddenly finds herself. Thus, while Mrs. Ames, the mother, and Milton are all given chances to recreate their lives, Mrs. Ames and Milton decide to embrace this opportunity for a new fulfilling life, while the mother rejects this chance, and dies with her prejudice. So, literature offers us opportunities to make life-altering choices, but how we exercise such rights is entirely our responsibility.

Works Cited

Boyle, Kay. “Astronomer’s Wife.” Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Robert Di Yanni. New York. McGraw-

Hill, 2002. 57-60.

Milton, John. “When I consider how my light is spent.” Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Robert Di Yanni.

New York. McGraw-Hill, 2002. 974.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Literature.5th ed. Ed. Robert Di

Yanni. New York. McGraw-Hill, 2002. 205-215.

Schilb, John and John Clifford, eds.  Making Literature Matter.  2nd ed.  New York: Bedford/St. 

Martin's, 2003.

Benson 1
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