When Flannery O’Connor started writing in the middle of the 20th century, short stories — or at least fashionable short stories that were published in The New Yorker –unfolded delicately revealing gossamer-like layers of experience. O’Connor’s stories, in contrast, were pungent, grotesque, often violent moral tales dealing with unabashedly Christian themes. They definitely weren’t fashionable at the time. Yet since her untimely death at age 39 in 1964, O’Connor’s reputation has only increased. Even for readers who aren’t immersed in Catholic theology, her stories — which pair outlandish, often comic characters with harrowing, existential situations — have a way of burrowing into your consciousness and staying there. For O’Connor, the gothic tales were a means to an end: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
In 1961, an English professor wrote to O’Connor hoping to help his students understand “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The story, perhaps the author’s most famous, is a slippery, troubling work about a family of six casually murdered by an escaped convict called the Misfit in the backwoods of Georgia. The story’s main character is clearly the Grandmother. The story is seen through her eyes, and she is the one who ultimately dooms the family. Yet the professor didn’t quite see it that way:
We have debated at length several possible interpretations, none of which fully satisfies us. In general we believe that the appearance of the Misfit is not ‘real’ in the same sense that the incidents of the first half of the story are real. Bailey, we believe, imagines the appearance of the Misfit, whose activities have been called to his attention on the night before the trip and again during the stopover at the roadside restaurant. Bailey, we further believe, identifies himself with the Misfit and so plays two roles in the imaginary last half of the story. But we cannot, after great effort, determine the point at which reality fades into illusion or reverie. Does the accident literally occur, or is it part of Bailey’s dream? Please believe me when I say we are not seeking an easy way out of our difficulty. We admire your story and have examined it with great care, but we are not convinced that we are missing something important which you intended us to grasp. We will all be very grateful if you comment on the interpretation which I have outlined above and if you will give us further comments about your intention in writing ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’
O’Connor was understandably baffled by this reading. Her response:
28 March 1961
The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology.
There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality. This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia. It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious.
Bailey’s only importance is as the Grandmother’s boy and the driver of the car. It is the Grandmother who first recognized the Misfit and who is most concerned with him throughout. The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.
You can hear O’Connor read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” below. We have more information on the 1959 reading here:
Via Letters of Note
Flannery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)
Flannery O’Connor Reads ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction’ (c. 1960)
Flannery O’Connor’s Satirical Cartoons: 1942-1945
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.
A ‘spoiler alert’ (right after the link to the story) would have been nice.
“The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it…”
Ah, Ms. O’Connor. Welcome to the Humanities and the world of literary criticism. We will now revisit (reinterpret) all of your stories through the lens of Climate Change.
Your participation is neither needed nor wanted.
I do not tend toward the fantastical in interpretation. Though obscure treatments of various topics have always fascinated me. For a long period I was quite taken with Talmudic and halakhic arguments, especially when they dipped into the metaphysical. The strength of human imagination is quite a wonder to observe and partake in, even if just at a distance.
As for the legitimacy of interpretations it is the power of great stories to lend themselves to our need to make sense of the world. (The Christian scriptures and Moby Dick come to mind.) Should that interpretation cross the intention of the creator then that should certainly be acknowledged where it is known.
But rereading a great work and finding a new application of it to one’s life or the larger human condition, not only shouldn’t be discouraged, I am certain that it cannot.
There are very few happy endings in her stories, and I have read them all.