The Enduring Chill by Flannery O’Connor
In The Enduring Chill by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of grace, self-pity, connection, failure and change. Taken from her Everything That Rises Must Converge collection, the story is narrated in the third person and begins with the main protagonist Asbury Fox getting off a train in his home town of Timberboro. Asbury, believing that he is dying, has returned home to his mother’s farm and O’Connor uses the symbolism of the sky and the sun to reflect Asbury’s mood. ‘The sky was a chill gray and a startling white gold sun, like some strange potentate from the east, was rising beyond the black woods that surrounded Timberboro.’ The reader also learns very early on in the story that Asbury tends to feel sorry for himself (self-pity). He blames his failures as a writer on his mother, rather than on his own lack of abilities. As a punishment to her he has written her a letter that he has brought home with him and which he wants her to open when he dies. In the letter he has outlined his mother’s faults and the reason why he is a failure. More importantly the reader learns that this is the only piece of writing that Asbury has, he has burnt everything else that he has written (idea of having failed).
There are several instances in the story where Asbury tries to make some sort of connection with others. When he last visited his mother’s farm he spent some time in the dairy, researching a play and trying to make a connection with Randall and Morgan (who work in the dairy). But Asbury found that they were not as interesting as he wished them to be. He also attempts to make a connection, on an intellectual level, with a Jesuit priest, though Father Finn has the ability to see through Asbury, calling him ‘a lazy ignorant conceited youth.’ Asbury’s interaction with Father Finn is important because it becomes clear to the reader that Asbury asked for a Jesuit priest to come to the house not for spiritual reasons but for his own intellectual satisfaction (rejecting the opportunity of grace). In essence Asbury has rejected God in favour of his art (in which he has failed), as can be seen when he tells Father Finn that ‘the artist prays by creating.’ This is important because to some, the most important connection you can make is the connection you make with God and Asbury despite trying to connect with others, to inflate his own ego, makes no attempt to connect with God. Ironically the half blind, half deaf, Father Finn realises that the path to God is through prayer (connection) yet Asbury refuses to see or listen to this.
Asbury is desperate (considering he thinks he’s dying) to have a last meaningful experience. His attempts to intellectualize life with Father Finn failed, so he asks his mother to bring Randall and Morgan into his room. He remembers when he worked in the dairy and had a cigarette with them (experience of communion) and wants to have one last cigarette with them, thinking that he can recreate the moment again. But when Asbury hands Randall the cigarettes Randall thanks him, not realising that Asbury meant for him to take a cigarette and not the whole pack. Also both Randall and Morgan tell Asbury that he looks well, despite Asbury telling them that he is dying. This disappoints Asbury and he realises that there is to be no significant moment before he dies. The idea of a significant moment for Asbury is important because it highlights to the reader the fact that Asbury is full of his own self-importance (again rejecting grace) and again he has failed to achieve what he wants (just like with his writing).
When it becomes clear to Asbury that he is not going to die, he becomes even more disappointed. He is now aware that he is to live his life suffering with undulant fever, caused by his drinking of unpasteurized milk. Again O’Connor utilizes the sky and sun to describe to the reader that Asbury is no longer in control of his future. ‘A blinding red-gold sun moved serenely from under a purple cloud. Below it the treeline was black against the crimson sky. It formed a brittle wall, standing as if it were the frail defense he had set up in his mind to protect him from what was coming.’ The tree line that Asbury had used to define his death is now no longer protecting him. The sky and sun (symbol for living) are coming through, again Asbury has failed, this time in his goal to die.
There is also some symbolism at the end of the story which may be important. O’Connor uses the stain on the ceiling in Asbury’s room, which Asbury thinks looks like ‘a fierce bird with spread wings’ as symbolism for the Holy Ghost. As Asbury is lying back in bed he senses the ‘fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once in motion.’ And as he lies there motionless ‘the Holy Ghost emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.’ This line is significant as it suggests that Asbury is finally becoming aware that there is a God (other than his art). There is every possibility that Asbury has realised that his pettiness (towards his mother) and his devotion to his art may have been the wrong path to take and by ending the story as she does (with the Holy Ghost descending towards Asbury) O’Connor may be affording Asbury the opportunity to change.