The story begins with an account of Julian’s mother’s health: she has been directed by her doctor to lose weight, so she has started attending a “reducing class” at the Y. Because she is wary of black people (and since the bus system has just been integrated), she insists that Julian accompany her on the bus each Wednesday night. This evening, Julian waits for her to get ready as she puts on her new hat, which is hideous and green.
As they walk to the bus stop, Julian stews about how much he resents his mother. She makes things worse by insisting on discussing the integration of black people, a topic about which she and Julian have differing viewpoints. He is not racist and cannot stand talking about the subject with her. She begins to reminisce about the old mansion where she used to visit her grandfather as a little girl, and about the slaves he kept. Julian pretends to hate the place, but he has dreams about it and wishes that he had been able to experience the house for which his mother is so nostalgic.
They board the bus, and noticing that there are no black people aboard, his mother says aloud, “I see we have the bus to ourselves.” She makes small talk about Julian and how he has finished college with the woman who is sitting across the aisle. Julian thinks about how she has struggled to bring him up properly and give him all that he needed; instead of feeling love and thankfulness, he resents her for trying to live up to their blue-blood family standards. He is proud of himself for having not been too influenced by her ignorance and racism.
A black man boards the bus, and Julian’s mother (like the other white women on the bus) becomes visibly uncomfortable. In order to make his mother even more upset, Julian asks the black man if he has a light before realizing that he doesn’t even have any cigarettes to smoke. He daydreams about the old mansion where his grandfather used to live, then starts thinking up ways to make his mother uncomfortable, including bringing home a black woman as his girlfriend.
Soon, a tough-looking black woman and her son get on the bus. Her son, whose name turns out to be Carver, sits on the seat next to Julian’s mother. Julian is disappointed because his mother’s racism does not extend to children. The black mother sits down next to Julian, and he realizes that she is wearing the exact same hideous hat as his mother. He hopes it will teach his mother a lesson, but instead she seems to find it amusing, and compliments the woman’s son using “the smile she used when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior.”
Both pairs of mothers and sons get off the bus at the next stop, and Julian predicts that his mother is going to give Carver a nickel. He is horrified at the idea, because it would be so insulting; but he was right, and she tells him her intention. He hisses at her not to do it, but she ignores him and calls after Carver to come back (his mother has been dragging him away down the street). When Julian’s mother holds out the coin for him, Carver’s mother knocks her onto the sidewalk and runs away with her son. Julian’s first reaction is annoyance, and he tells his mother, “You got exactly what you deserved. Now get up.”
When she does get up off the sidewalk, she sets off in the direction of home instead of going to the Y. As she walks along, paying no attention to him, he continues to scold her. She is walking quickly and won’t stop when he demands that they take the bus home. When Julian grabs his arm, her face is unrecognizable and she says, “Tell Grandpa to come get me.” She has had a stroke, and Julian is horrified when he realizes it. He immediately changes his attitude toward her, crying, “Mamma, Mamma!” and running down the street to get help. But it is too late, and his “entry into the world of guilt and sorrow” is impending.
Julian’s mother is clearly racist. She is afraid of the black people who board the bus, and of black people in general. The fact that the black woman on the bus is wearing the same hideous green hat as Julian’s mother links the two women. Julian hopes it will teach his mother a lesson that she and the black woman are not so different, but instead she finds it amusing, as if the woman is a “monkey that had stolen her hat.” What Julian finds most infuriating about her is that she is not hatefully and openly racist, but rather racist in a pitying way, which is more insulting to the black woman who hits her. She thinks that black people were better off as slaves, and that, “They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”
As in many of O’Connor’s stories, eyes are an important indicator of the characters’ moods. As Julian’s mother puts on her hat to leave the house, “her eyes, sky-blue, were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten.” In contrast, when she is about to have a stroke after being pushed by the woman, “her eyes raked his face.” In contrast, Julian’s eyes are “glazed” as they walk to the bus stop, and after a black man boards the bus, Julian does not look at his mother and makes “his eyes the eyes of a stranger.”
Disgust with the world in general is a common theme in O’Connor’s stories, and here Julian’s mother complains about the state of the world. Out of nowhere, while they are discussing her hat, she says, “With the world in the mess it’s in, it’s a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell you, the bottom rail is on the top.” This is a reference to racial integration, which she sees as disempowering to white families like theirs. Aboard the bus, before any black people are on it, she says to another white woman about integration, “The world is in a mess everywhere. I don’t know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”
Julian’s mother’s disgust with the world is closely linked to her nostalgia for the past. As they walk to the bus stop, she reminisces about the huge mansion where her grandfather lived, and “the old darky” who was her nurse. The mansion rotted and fell apart, and it has since been sold. But Julian remembers visiting it once as a child, and he still dreams about it; although he pretends to hate it, he resents his mother for having been able to experience it.
Julian fancies himself a saint, and this pride leads to his intense guilt after his mother has a stroke. Similes throughout the story indicate that he views himself as saint-like: as he waits for his mother to get ready before they leave the house, “he, his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him.” As they walk to the bus stop, he is “saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith.