By Dominic Asan, Christendom College
But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.Revelation 3:16
Flannery O’Connor’s short story, The Enduring Chill, introduces the reader to Asbury Fox, a lethargic, young failed artist searching for an evasive sense of purpose. At twenty-five, Asbury returns home sick, convinced he is a failure, robbed of meaning and determined to accept death. Seeing death as a final gift from his god, Art, Asbury turns a deaf ear to his mother’s pleas to take him to the hospital or to see a doctor. Languishing in his illness, Asbury finally tells his mother he wants to see a priest, not for any religious conviction, but more as a means of driving home the “fact” of his impending death to his mother. Although he is shocked by the priest’s words, Asbury is still determined to die but now longs for a final meaningful experience before he does. The doctor returns unexpectedly to announce that Asbury’s blood has revealed the cause of his illness and he is, in fact, not dying. Faced with the revelation that he will go on living, Asbury, in terror and consternation, must make a choice for or against meaning. O’Connor presents the character of Asbury as a study in the product of a modern world which has, as a fundamental characteristic, forgotten God. Without an all-powerful God directing the universe, the human person is left adrift and empty, endlessly searching for some purpose in the finite world to fill an infinite vacancy. A recognition of the created world’s inability to provide purpose necessitates a choice between nihilism and theism, particularly Catholicism. Flannery O’Connor’s portrayal of Asbury’s spiritual journey, occasioned by his illness, indicates that he is inescapably confronted with this fundamental human choice for or against meaning and ultimately chooses a perception of reality conforming to a Christian life of grace.
A main theme Flannery O’Connor addresses in her many stories is the state of the world as affected by modern, atheistic ideologies and the results these philosophies lead to. While an in-depth exploration of the origins of modernism is beyond the scope of this paper, it will be sufficient to understand modernism as a movement emerging from a world of turmoil which, having rejected traditional conceptions of reality, has also had its trust in humanity broken. In the aftermath of the destruction and catastrophe of the early twentieth century, marked by two world wars, the people of the modern world struggle to make sense of the fragmented pieces that remain of their conception of reality. A conception which has not only rejected God, but has also been failed by trust in human ingenuity. Modernism, amorphous and adrift, tends towards moral relativism, where, in the absence of any objective meaning or truth, the individual puts together his own view of reality. However, at the slightest probing of intellectual honesty, it becomes clear that a subjective construction of reality is unsustainable. This inability of modern relativism to supply meaning naturally leads to nihilism, an absolute rejection of any meaning. Nihilism, which “regards religious belief and moral virtue as mere social conventions and psychological delusions,” results in a detached, despairing view of the world. In her stories, Flannery O’Connor, who, according to scholar Ralph Wood, believed that “the outward carnage of the modern world…is the direct consequence of a massive inward nihilism,” often endeavored both to elucidate the monumental moral dilemmas that follow on modernism and to point towards another, better way.
At the beginning of the story, Asbury, a paradigm product of the modern world, lost without God, tries to define himself through art. Asbury encapsulates man who, having divorced himself from his intended purpose in the created order, seeks to generate his own purpose. In this state, man assumes a god-like role as it falls to him to decide the object of his devotion and source of meaning. Asbury chooses to pursue literary art, which he calls his “god,” as his source of purpose. However, his idol crumbles when he realizes the ceiling of his own artistic ability and the limited fulfillment it can bring to him. In a letter to his mother, he laments his failure, claiming, “I can’t create. I have nothing but the desire for these things [talent/the ability to create].” His failure to create, which Asbury sees as him having “failed his god, Art,” is in a fuller sense his subconscious recognition that neither he nor any created thing can offer lasting meaning. Through the finite limits of his creative powers, Asbury reaches the inevitable conclusion of a godless world: that the material world cannot satisfy the emptiness he feels so keenly.
As a result of his failure to find purpose in art, Asbury begins to see life as meaningless and attempts to embrace death as the only possible answer. Asbury seems to try to accept and even welcome his coming death, refusing to seek medical attention, as he repeatedly tells his mother and doctor it is hopeless and his ailment “is way beyond” them. While he does sink to the “pit of despair,” Asbury is unable to fully embrace nihilism. Unable to reject all meaning, Asbury continues, almost in spite of himself, to seek it, growing anxious “for fear he would die without making some last meaningful experience for himself.” Asbury, despairing of life, attempts to see meaning in his death, perceiving it as a final gift from his god Art. By artistically dramatizing his approaching death as the moving end of a tragically undermined hero, he attempts to find some sense of meaning. This dramatization and victim-playing leads him to write a melodramatic, pathetic letter to his mother blaming her for stripping him of imagination, dooming him to fail art, but in the end “heroically” forgiving her, leaving her with “an enduring chill.” Asbury also continues desperately to look for purpose in an experience of communion with other people, particularly the negroes his mother employs. Asbury attempts to smoke and converse with the hired hands, but the interaction proves fruitless as he is unable to spark meaningful conversation. Asbury is frustrated by the negroes who tell him he looks well, refusing to accept the “reality” of his approaching end. As Asbury’s last grasps at meaning fail to fulfill him, he draws ever closer to the edge of the the abyss of nihilism, concluding in his darkest moment that “he knew now that there would be no significant moment before he died.” Asbury’s search for meaning in the material world impels him, however reluctantly, towards despair and death, as the final end and a bittersweet release.
A jarring encounter with a Jesuit priest, Father Finn, forces a despairing Asbury to hear about and ultimately acknowledge Christianity, an alternate, viable solution to the problem of purpose, which runs contrary to his nihilistic approach. As part of his effort to further dramatize his impending death, Asbury had coerced his reluctant mother to call a priest to visit him. Asbury is taken by surprise when the priest roughly turns his perception of reality on its head, presenting him with an entirely different answer to humanity’s search for meaning. The Jesuit lays out the Catholic understanding of purpose found in a properly ordered subservience of the created to the will of the Creator. Father Finn explains that God made us “to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him,” and that this service allows us to hope for a life beyond the material world. Because Asbury is not a Catholic and understands little of the faith, he does not immediately see, but his “pale and drawn and ravaged appearance” betrays the profound impact of the priest’s blunt honesty. At first Asbury tries to put aside this shock but he will ultimately have to reckon with this fork that suddenly appeared in what had seemed to him a road with one inevitable terminus. Asbury will be confronted with the dilemma of the intellectually honest: the recognition of and necessity to choose between the only two logically consistent, comprehensive views of reality. This dichotomy consists either in an embrace of absolute nihilism or a conformity of one’s life to a Catholic understanding of God and the human person’s relationship to Him.
Asbury’s existential struggle reaches a breaking point when he learns that he is not dying, which brings to the fore his choice between nihilism and Christianity. The doctor Asbury had angrily sent away had managed to draw blood to run tests, from which he triumphantly returns with a non-lethal diagnosis. As he is not now imminently dying, Asbury realizes that he must confront the dilemma between two opposing visions of reality which he had formerly perceived but attempted to ignore. The absence of impending death actually heightens the necessity for the choice to be made as he can no longer “escape” through an unavoidable death. Now that “the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes,” Asbury cannot go on living somewhere in between the two options, not choosing and living a lie. Asbury must either embrace nihilism and seek out death on his own terms, or choose to amend his life to conform with the meaning provided by the Catholic Faith, a life with no less suffering and pain, but which, seen through the eyes of faith, is redemptive, a meaningful “purifying terror.” Asbury, totally spent, seems to accept the inescapable reality of the choice to be made with a “feeble cry, a last impossible protest.” By means of Asbury’s jolting encounter with the Faith and the sudden reversal of his “inevitable” death, O’Connor, who understood that “the violence of rejection in the modern world demands an equal violence of redemption,” has primed him for the reception of grace.
From the text, it is clear that Asbury encounters and eventually accepts that he has to make a choice, while what he chooses is left sufficiently ambiguous as to provoke debate, it seems implicit that he accepts grace. While there is room for an interpretation of Asbury’s experience of the Holy Ghost as an icy chill as indicating that he is choosing to harden his heart to the life of faith, a more hopeful reading seems more plausible. Before he acknowledges the choice, Asbury, unable to fully embrace nihilism, seems to have been living somewhere in between, in an untenable position . This unsustainable “old life in him was exhausted,” precipitating his choice. The next line in the text, “He awaited the coming of new [life],” heavily implies that he is not going to choose to embrace death as nihilism would require. The interpretation favoring a choice of nihilism might argue that the peculiar characterization of Asbury’s experience of the Holy Ghost as something cold indicates that Asbury recognizes the ramifications of accepting Catholicism and turns a deaf ear to it. On the other hand, if Asbury is accepting the reality that he will have to shoulder the cross, his reluctance might be attributed to his lack of understanding, and newness to the life of grace, not necessarily to a rejection of the Holy Ghost. While he is terrified at the prospect of a life of redemptive suffering, Asbury ultimately seems to accept it. The “chill” of the Holy Ghost, as experienced by Asbury, is also described as “a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold.” Asbury, a vast sea of cold, may not yet be ready to receive a full understanding of the life he is being called to, but the ever-active grace of the Holy Ghost seems to have made a beginning, likely to be furthered, as the Holy Ghost, “continued, implacable to descend” upon him. One can begin a meaningful conversion of life based on an intellectual choice, prior to experiencing the emotional fire of a heart turned towards God.
Through the character of Asbury Fox, Flannery O’Connor portrays the necessary process of disillusionment from the lies of modern relativism and the crucial confrontation and resolution of the fundamental human problem of purpose. At the beginning, Asbury is found on the brink of despair, as it becomes progressively clearer that his hope to self-generate meaning is a mere illusion. As his view of reality becomes darker and he attempts to embrace death as the final end, Asbury is unexpectedly, providentially, offered an alternate understanding in which his life and choices matter greatly. Through his interaction with Father Finn, Asbury’s mind is exposed to a perception to which he had previously been blind, setting the stage for the Holy Ghost to act. Finally, death, Asbury’s final means of avoiding the fateful choice between nihilism and Christianity, is stripped from him, leaving him with the necessity of making a decision that will inform the rest of his newly restored life. While she does not make it explicit, Flannery O’Connor, by tracing the work of grace in Asbury and his final seeming surrender to it, leaves the door open to the hope of Asbury’s ultimate conversion. The blindness of ignorance cannot last and sooner or later all of humanity is faced with this crucial choice: meaninglessness and death or Christ and hope in a life to come.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Enduring Chill.” In The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, 357-382. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
Shinn, Thelma J. “Flannery O’Connor and the Violence of Grace.” In Contemporary Literature, vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter 1968): 58-73. University of Wisconsin Press. JSTOR (accessed May 4, 2022).
Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.