Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is best known for her short stories set in the South. Often about religious theme ,her stories are often humorous, but with a disturbing quality underneath that leaves the reader faintly puzzled and uneasy.
As a child she grew up in Savanna, Georgia, went to Catholic school, drew cartoons, and wrote stories. Later when she had to return home because of illness and live with her mother on her farm “Andalusia” she raised peacocks who liked to snatch cigarettes from people and eat them. She wrote lovingly of the experience in the essay “Living with a Peacock”. She was reticent and prickly according to her biographers, but a careful deliberate writer.
She developed lupus when she was 25, a serious debilitating illness that had killed her father and that eventually took her life at age 40. During that time she wrote three hours daily as she had done since she first studied writing no matter the pain. According to biographer Brad Gooch “[Near the end of her life] she was editing her final stories and hiding them under the pillow in the hospital from the doctors so that she could go on. She was still working on her last story after she had last rites. … All of that is a sort of [a] level of commitment that is startling and unmatched.”
The following is Flannery O’Connor’s response to an English professor’s letter to her concerning the meaning of her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as interpreted by his students.
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.
This letter is excerpted from Letters of Note.