Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | The Enduring Chill | Summary

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Summary

When Mrs. Fox meets Asbury's train, he is glad "she sees death in his face at once." Asbury believes his mother needs "to be introduced to reality," which might "assist her in the process of growing up." He has come from New York City, where he has been sick for about four months with fever, lethargy, aches, and headaches. Believing he is dying, and having run through his savings, he is returning to his hated hometown in the South.

Mrs. Fox is a widow who runs a successful dairy farm and has put her children through college. Asbury's sister, Mary George, is an elementary school principal, Asbury an unsuccessful writer. When Mrs. Fox sees how sick her son is, she urges him to see the family physician, Dr. Block, but Asbury refuses. "What's wrong with me is way beyond Block," he says in a self-pitying voice. In a flashback, he recalls his friend in New York, Goetz, who recently returned from studying Buddhism during a six-month sojourn in Japan. Counseling his sick friend Asbury to see reality as an illusion, Goetz takes Asbury to a lecture on Vedanta, an Indian philosophy based on this premise. Goetz asks a Roman Catholic priest who happens to be at the lecture what he thinks about the idea that salvation does not exist, since there is no one to be saved. The priest answers there is the probability of a "New Man" emerging, "assisted, of course ... by the Third Person of the Trinity," and he gives Asbury his card.

Returning to the present time, Mrs. Fox assumes her son is about to have a nervous breakdown and thinks manual labor might be a good prescription for avoiding it. The previous year she had allowed him to work in the dairy when he was "writing a play about Negroes." Unbeknownst to her, he tried to become pals with the two black dairymen, Randall and Morgan, telling them "the world is changing." He succeeded in getting them to share a cigarette with him, even though smoking was not allowed in the dairy, but they refused to share a glass of milk, which was also forbidden. Nonetheless, he continued to drink the milk himself over the next several days until he finally returned to New York.

Before leaving New York this time, Asbury destroyed everything he had ever written—novels, plays, poems, and stories. However, he still has the letter he wrote to his mother, which fills two notebooks. He means for her to read it after his death, in which he forgives her "for all she had done to him." He left home to escape its slavish atmosphere, he says, and find freedom. He blames his mother for killing his creativity from an early age. Now he tells his mother he is home for good.

There are water stains on the walls and ceiling of Asbury's bedroom, and the one above his head looks like "a fierce bird with spread wings." The bird appears to have an icicle in its beak and some more icicles hanging from its wings. The stain has been there since he was a child and had frightened him then, for it "had the illusion that it was in motion and about to descend mysteriously and set the icicle on his head." Asbury comforts himself with the thought that soon he won't have to look at it.

Despite her son's protests, Mrs. Fox calls in Dr. Block. Although Asbury is rude to the doctor, he submits to the examination and even allows Dr. Block to take blood. As Asbury gets worse over the next few days, Mrs. Fox decides he needs some intellectual conversation and offers to invite the Methodist minister. Asbury refuses and instead asks for a Jesuit priest, remembering the one he met in New York. He thinks a Jesuit will be a man of culture, and a visit from a priest will also annoy his Methodist mother. One day after the doctor leaves, Asbury overhears his sister say he got sick because he can't write. He agrees: "He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death."

When the priest arrives, he advises Asbury to pray to Jesus, ignoring his attempt to initiate an intellectual dialogue. The priest begins catechizing Asbury, with questions like "Who is God," to which Asbury provides secular answers. Speaking at cross purposes, the two barely hear each other. The priest scolds Asbury, admonishing him to ask God to send him the Holy Ghost so he will not suffer eternal damnation. Mrs. Fox finally asks the priest to leave when she overhears their conversation.

The next day Asbury feels an urgent need to have "some last meaningful experience for himself" before dying and asks for the two black dairymen. He plans to smoke a last cigarette with them. However, when they get there, Randall misunderstands his offer of the open pack of cigarettes, thinking he is simply giving it to him. Asbury perceives the mistake and gives an unopened pack to Morgan. The two men leave, and Asbury, disappointed, gives his mother the key to his desk drawer where he has stashed the notebooks in an envelope. He instructs her to open the package when he dies.

Asbury dozes and is awakened by a visit from Dr. Block, who triumphantly tells him and Mrs. Fox he has found the cause of Asbury's problem: undulant fever—a recurring, chronic, but not life-threatening, illness caused by drinking unpasteurized milk. Afterward, when he is alone, Asbury pockets the key his mother has left on the bedside table. He feels his old life is over, and he awaits his new life. Just then he feels a strange chill, and "the fierce bird which through the years of childhood and the days of his illness has been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion." The narrator says, "the last film of illusion was torn," and Asbury sees he will live from now on "in the face of a purifying terror." He lets out a feeble cry of protest, but the Holy Ghost, "emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend."

Analysis

This story is written from an omniscient, third-person perspective, although the narrator stays primarily in the consciousness of Asbury and Mrs. Fox.

In "The Enduring Chill," the white liberal and intellectual protagonist is punished for his hubris and moral posturing, when he insists on drinking unpasteurized milk in defiance of his mother. This story ends relatively happily, in comparison with the other stories in the collection, which is partially why its sardonic humor is so successful.

Asbury shares literary DNA with Julian of "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Both men have benefited from the hard work and competence of a widowed mother. Mrs. Fox is shocked by Asbury's illness when she meets him at the train station, but when the doctor cannot immediately discern what is wrong with him, she thinks her son might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She managed to get her two children through college after her husband died, although she "observed that the more education they got, the less they could do." While her daughter, Mary George, is successful enough, her son has shaped up to be a failed writer.

But neither son nor daughter is a likable character, although the bickering between them is slyly funny: "If she were in any way attractive ... she wouldn't now be principal of a county elementary school, and Mary George had said that if Asbury had had any talent, he would by now have published something." When the siblings arrive at the house, Mary George, knowing of her brother's dislike of the South, says, "The artist arrives at the gas chamber." Later Mary George tells her mother to face reality: "Asbury can't write so he gets sick. He's going to be an invalid instead of an artist." She also opines that a few shock treatments might do him some good.

Mrs. Fox is wrong about the benefits of manual labor, however, because the last time Asbury helped out in the dairy, in his ignorance he drank unpasteurized milk, the cause of his current illness. Asbury sees himself as racially righteous, and his vision of himself as a liberal-minded intellectual is why he began "writing a play about the Negro" and wanted to observe them in their milieu and discover "how they really felt about their condition," as the narrator sarcastically observes. However, Asbury has no awareness of his own condescension in studying the black dairymen as if they were zoo animals. Neither does he seem conscious that, because of their history of segregation and oppression, the black farmhands would find it impossible to suddenly drop their masks before a white outsider and have an honest conversation with him.

In his attempt to cross the racial barrier, Asbury insists they have a moment of racial communion, first by sharing cigarettes and then by sharing glasses of milk. Asbury incorrectly assumes the dairymen refuse to join him in this ritual because they are intimidated by his mother, who forbids drinking the unpasteurized milk. Although defiant enough to smoke with Asbury, they were savvy enough not to drink the milk—and sly enough not to warn him about the dangers. In a private conversation between the two men, Morgan asks Randall, "How come you let him drink all that milk every day?" Randall answers, "What he do is him ... What I do is me." Then Morgan asks, "How come he talks so ugly about his ma?" Randall replies, "Because she ain't whup him enough when he was little." This honest exchange is comic in the light of Asbury's self-righteousness. The dairymen have played a wicked trick on him, simply by failing to challenge his erroneous assumptions and remaining impassive and noncommittal in their "Negro" masks when he urges them to drink the milk. Moreover, they side with his mother, the white oppressor in Asbury's view, against this disingenuous liberator who has come from the North to write about them.

Asbury unfairly blames his mother for his lack of talent. O'Connor deliberately draws a parallel between the secular Catholic novelist, James Joyce, who shed his Christianity to spread his literary wings, and Asbury, who attempts to replace Christian belief with the Indian philosophy of Vedanta. He convinces himself he has gained the detachment toward death advised by Eastern philosophers, who also teach the individual self is simply an illusion. In fact, Asbury refashions the Eastern notion of dissolving the ego in the service of a higher wisdom to shore up his own fragile ego. Asbury thinks he is having a moment of mystical clarity when he thinks Art is sending him death in exchange for his faithful service, but this is one more delusion. Moreover, this delusion foreshadows the final delusion at the end of the story. His sister, Mary George, correctly predicts "he's going to be around here for the next fifty years as a decoration."

Unlike James Joyce, however, Asbury becomes more bound by rejecting his Christian faith. When he summons the Jesuit country priest, who has never heard of James Joyce and is not about to engage in idle philosophical chatter, Asbury becomes even more mired in self-delusion. The exchange between the agnostic and the orthodox priest is O'Connor at a comedic height. The priest, who has never heard of James Joyce, advises Asbury to pray to the Holy Ghost so that "you can see yourself as you are—a lazy ignorant conceited youth!" Thinking he is on his deathbed, Asbury has another comic interchange with the black dairymen whom he calls to his room to share a last cigarette. The men keep telling him how good he looks and misunderstand his desire to share a smoke with them—thinking he is merely giving away free cigarettes. After Asbury tells the dairymen he is going to die, Randall says "You looks fine," and Morgan predicts, "You be up and around in a few days."

While some critics read the last part of the story as a spiritual epiphany, it may be more likely that Asbury is experiencing just one more delusion, triggered by undulant fever and fed by the conversation with the priest. At first Asbury looks at himself in the mirror, but he turns away in shock and stares out the window, seeing "a blinding red-gold sun" moving "serenely from under a purple cloud." In O'Connor's iconography the sun is associated with Jesus Christ, and this seems a moment filled with redemptive possibility. The tree line is black under the crimson sky, the narrator says, and forms "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." Just then he feels a chill, and a "fierce bird" metamorphoses from the water stain on the ceiling. The Holy Ghost descends in ice while Asbury sees "the last film of illusion ... torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror."

Critics who read the ending as an epiphany also fault O'Connor for the heavy-handedness of this revelation. But it is more likely that Asbury, when presented with the opportunity to see himself "in the mirror," simply turns away from painful self-examination. He is desperate for an epiphany or a transcendent moment, so he manufactures one from the priest's words and his fever. He sees the rest of his days as a kind of purgatory in which he will be forced to live. But a real epiphany likely would have involved abandoning his posturing and self-importance and taking responsibility for his failed life. The Holy Ghost coming as ice instead of fire is an important clue that Asbury's vision is false because the Holy Ghost always is associated with fire—fire melting the hearts of the recalcitrant, burning away impurity, enlightening the spiritual mind, and so forth. Therefore, Asbury's Holy Ghost is likely just another iteration of his self-delusion.

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