Flannery O’Connor to Lit Professor: “My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnoxious. I’m in a State of Shock”


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.

Flan­nery O’Con­nor

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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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.

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Comments (5)
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  • Alan Cooper says:

    A ‘spoil­er alert’ (right after the link to the sto­ry) would have been nice.

  • AB says:


    “The mean­ing of a sto­ry should go on expand­ing for the read­er the more he thinks about it…”

  • Don Kenner says:

    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.

  • c.badgley says:

    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.

  • Inyo55 says:

    There are very few hap­py end­ings in her sto­ries, and I have read them all.

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