“My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnoxious. I Am in a State of Shock” — Flannery O’Connor Responds to an English Professor

From a 1961 letter by Flannery O’Connor to an English professor, who wrote her asking for an interpretation of her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In his letter, the professor concludes that the second half of the story is imaginary, an interpretation that seems to give Ms. O’Connor the vapors:

   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.