Asbury arrives home from school by train; his mother and sister, Mary George, are there in the car to pick him up at the station. He looks horribly ill, and his mother is taken aback, but he refuses to talk about it. He is very rude to his mother and to his sister, and considers how he has been dying for about four months. When his mother suggests that he see Doctor Block, he refuses, expressing disdain for this country doctor. Instead, he thinks about his friend Goetz, who doesn’t believe in life after death, and who took him to a lecture on Vedanta. At the end of the lecture, Goetz challenged a priest by expressing his disbelief in salvation.
Mrs. Fox interprets her son’s refusal to see Doctor Block as indication that he is about to have a nervous breakdown. She disapproves of his devotion to education and thinks he would be much better off working outside in the sunshine; but when she tells him so, he dismisses her suggestion and again refuses to see Doctor Block. Mary George, who has been sleeping in the backseat of the car, wakes up and derides her brother’s obvious disdain for their home. She makes fun of him for being so pretentious, and in the past she has claimed that he cannot be an artist since he has never published anything.
When they reach the house, Asbury walks upstairs and promptly falls into bed. He remembers the letter he had written to his mother when he was still at school in New York, blaming her for his lack of creativity and for “pinioning” him. The letter takes up several notebooks, which he has sealed in a manila envelope and hidden in his drawer. His mother and sister arrive with his luggage, and he tells them to leave him alone and let him sleep. When they are gone, he stares at the stain on his ceiling that resembles a bird with its wings spread and an icicle held in its beak. It has “always irritated him and sometimes frightened him.”
Asbury awakens in the afternoon to find Doctor Block examining him. He is extremely rude to the doctor, who takes his blood for tests. Over the next few days, Asbury’s health declines even though his mother is able to convince him to sit out on the porch. He remembers his interactions with Randall and Morgan, the two black farmhands. Last year when he was writing a play about black characters, he had spent time with them on the job, and they had bonded over breaking one of his mother’s rules by smoking in the barn. However, when he tried to convince them to go even further by drinking some of the milk from the farm, they had refused.
After deciding that his mother is insufficient company, Asbury surprises her by requesting a visit from a priest. He believes that he will be able to have an intellectual conversation with a Jesuit priest, even though he is not that religion. His mother finally obliges and makes a phone call to arrange for one to visit the next day. That evening, Asbury overhears his mother and sister talking about him; Mary George insists that he is making himself sick because he is failing as an artist. He knows she is right in a sense, but does truly believe himself to be ill, and that night he dreams about his own death.
The next day, Father Finn arrives. He is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, so Asbury must shout to have a conversation with him. Asbury is disappointed because the priest is clearly not as intellectual as he had hoped; instead, Father Finn encourages him to speak to Jesus. He aggressively instructs Asbury to pray and discover the Holy Ghost, and though Asbury thinks he is an “old fool,” nevertheless he is paralyzed by the priest’s words. Finally, Mrs. Fox bursts in and tells Father Finn to leave because he is upsetting Asbury.
The next morning, Asbury is surer than ever that he is on the brink of death, and he asks to see the two black farmhands, Morgan and Randall, with the hope of recreating their special moment when they smoked a cigarette together the year before. He gives them cigarettes, but their visit doesn’t satisfy him because they just keep assuring him that he looks fine, which is obviously a lie. They end up bickering, and Asbury’s mother asks them to leave. Asbury is extremely disappointed, having realized that “there would be no significant experience before he died.”
That evening, Doctor Block arrives and Asbury’s mother cheerfully reports that he is not, in fact, dying: he has undulant fever. This illness will keep coming back, and will likely ruin his life, but it won’t relieve him with death. Asbury realizes that his life will drag on in illness, and that he won’t be able to achieve a tragic artist’s death.
As is common in many of O’Connor’s stories, the sky and sun play an important role in reflecting the mood of the characters. When Asbury arrives at the train station as the story begins, “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.” His mood is like the sky, since he believes he is about to die. When he has discovered that he will not die, but will instead suffer his entire life from undulant fever, “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 treeline represent’s Asbury’s determination to culminate his life as a suffering artist in an early death; however, the sky, which represents his chance at life, overwhelms that opportunity.
The stain on Asbury’s bedroom ceiling can be interpreted as representing the Holy Ghost. It appears to him as a “fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak.” Since he has closed himself off to faith, he finds it irritating and sometimes frightening. After Father Finn leaves, having instructed him about the Holy Ghost, Asbury “looked at the fierce bird with the icicle in its beak and felt that it was there for some purpose that he could not divine.” When he realizes that he is doomed to a long life suffering from undulant fever, “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 to be in motion.” It descends toward him, since he is doomed to suffer for his refusal to open his mind to Grace.
Rather than accepting Grace, Asbury has been worshiping Art as a god instead. He realizes this when he overhears Mary George say that he has decided to be an invalid because he cannot be an artist, thinking, “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death.” When Father Finn instructs him to pray, he responds, “The artist prays by creating.”
Eyes are a common symbol in O’Connor’s stories, and here they are often violent. When Mary George tells Asbury that if she looked as bad as he does she would go to the hospital, “Her mother cut her eyes sharply at her and she left.” As Doctor Block examines Asbury for the first time, his “drill-like gaze swung over [his mouth] and bore down.” When Father Finn chastises him for being ignorant of the Holy Ghost, Asbury “moved his arms and legs helplessly as if he were pinned to the bed by the terrible eye” through which the priest sees. Similarly, when Doctor Block has reported that he is suffering from undulant fever and will not die, “Block’s gaze seemed to reach down like a steel pin and hold whatever it was until the life was out of it.”
Language is similarly represented as a tool of violence in this story. When Asbury asks for a Jesuit priest to visit and insists to his mother that he is going to die, “he tried to make each word like a hammer blow on top of her head.” When his mother eventually contradicts this statement with proof from Doctor Block that he in fact only has undulant fever and is not going to die, “Her voice broke in on him with the force of a gunshot.”
A level of racism is apparent in Asbury’s interactions with Randall and Morgan, although he doesn’t believe himself to be racist. The very idea that he would be writing a play about “The Negro” is, of course, racist. Last year when he was writing the play, he had spent time with them on the job, and they had bonded over breaking one of his mother’s rules by smoking in the barn. He saw this moment as “one of those moments of communion when the difference between black and white is absorbed into nothing.” However, he is dissatisfied with their visit because they simply insist that he looks well, which is obviously a lie, and end up bickering with each other.