Flannery O’Connor on Too Much Interpretation

Flannery1Flannery 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.

Flannery O’Connor

This letter is excerpted from Letters of Note.


6 Replies to “Flannery O’Connor on Too Much Interpretation”


    Ms O’Connor was a classic authoritarian personalty. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that
    she successfully fended off inquiries that might lead to an examination of this. It is also unusual
    that almost every dimension, element, perspective of her violent stories and their authorial
    source has been examined…AND rationalized… but not her personality.

    Cleverly, she erected a wall around her own personality…and gave very few access… by early
    denying that psychology…this cannot be OVERSTATED… had much to do with anything. Her life was tragic.
    But her devotees…now a cottage industry…have been relentless in glossing her work and image.

    For the most part they neither examine her nor her religious claims…in any depth. These were what was
    important about Flannery O’Connor. Her persona was that of a Catholic theologian and severe
    apologist…with violent twists. Thus, evangelicals rush past these troublesome considerations.
    The superficial path is most often taken as in these considerations.

    Especially interesting is her pronouncement of orthodoxy regarding her creations as though the
    Church… with rigorous examination… allowed her to place an imprimatur on her own work.

    She was snarky as a little girl of nine and she grew into a snarky defensive adult who rarely deigned
    to “suffer fools gladly”. But so what? So what if she did not receive others openly and joyfully? So
    what if she created no characters at all with loving, open and optimistic outlooks? Neither Ms O’Connor
    nor her characters reflected love of any kind, leastwise the love of God. This should not surprise!

    The question is why is Ms O’Connor given a ‘cultural’ pass on so much that is relevant while piling
    analysis and commentary on top of analysis and commentary of her stories that express her self-justifying
    therapy and her violent view of God’s will while rationalizing her dark 13th century Thomistic views intoÂ
    some sort of ‘gospel’ homilies? This should not surprise!

    To explain her life and work in any terms of exceptional righteousness or superior cultural perspectives
    of her environment, borders on being the theater of the absurd.

    Lupus is the key. This too, should not surprise….’the wolf within’ that might begin tearing things apart
    at any moment. One cannot begin to imagine living with an illness wherein episodic attacks of one’s own
    tissues can arise at any moment to attack one’s own tissues. One wants to shout: it is the ‘wolf”, stupid!
    Now sit down and shut up. Stop glorifying and deifying her suffering and making it fit one’s own slightly
    askance or twisted comfort zones!

    One might conclude that Ms O’Connor’s intellectual/emotional frame of reference was her Roman Catholicism.
    Her biological frame of reference was her illness, lupus erthyematosus. Both…and their interplay… created
    much tension and stress in her life not to mention the extreme pain. She vented these stresses in her writing.
    Her life was so restricted and limited, she dared share with only a few.

    One also has to suspect that her dogmatic religious assertions were under-girded with some doubts. She in
    fact did some ‘cherry-picking’ of religious concepts while throwing some observers off balance with those
    proclamations of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

    Still questions remain. The purpose here is to raise those questions. Why is she not seen as a
    desperately lonely and awkward young woman delivering “God’s hammer” to an unhearing and unyielding
    world of fundamentalist ignoramuses and uncaring secularists? Is this not evident? If not, read more…not
    here, elsewhere! (attention Wheaton profs: is this the manner in which to provide ‘hearing for the deaf’…even
    their children?)

    She was viewed as strictly devout, brilliant as a writer, moderately troubled by an obscure illness, a bit quirky.
    But was she really seen? Really known? Is it time? Only one asserted she was on the “side of Devil,” John Hawkes.

    Did she throw an ink well at ole “Beelzebulb” as did Martin Luther? We shall never know. Sad that she is
    misunderstood…seen essentially as a button-down Catholic whose work must be plumbed and plumbed
    again for profound spiritual insights… from material that more likely were her exercises to purge her own
    soul from the daemons lurking so close. Only Lupus need be considered! Her life was one of violence. It was
    redeemed by violence…the attempts to work through it… NOT those oohing and aahing over it.

    1. You have obviously done much study of this very interesting woman. The fact that she had Lupus definitely would have affected her view of life. Thank you for pointing this out.

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