“my tone is not meant to be obnoxious”

I love Flannery O’Connor and I love letters, so imagine my delight when I learned that she had penned a missive to a professor and his students about A Good Man is Hard to Find, one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read, an absolute favorite of mine. Apparently the professor had written O’Connor a letter about “several possible interpretations” concerning the unreality of the Misfit, unreal in the sense that he’s imagined by Bailey, the grandmother’s son and driver of the doomed vehicle. The Misfit, then, is a figment of Bailey’s imagination. But a problem vexes this interpretation: when does “reality fade into illusion or reverie,” and does “the accident literally occur” or not? Ever the polite southerner, O’Connor responds graciously enough. She thinks the interpretation “fantastic” in the unreal sense. A nice touch, that. She goes on to add that the ” story is … 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.” But my favorite part of her letter is the penultimate paragraph, which serves notice to would-be interpretation hunters. “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.” To see the last sentence of her letter, I encourage you to read it here.

2 Responses to “my tone is not meant to be obnoxious”

  1. PJ says:

    Ha! This is quite nice. Thanks for sharing.

    There is one “not” in the professor’s letter that renders it somewhat impertinent: “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.” Remove that negation, and he is confessing a legitimate confusion; as it stands, he accuses her of presenting them, on his premises, with a flawed work.

    O’Connor is certainly right, as well, that it is fatal to approach literature as a research problem, and that this happens far too often in the academic setting. This latter, I suspect, usually owing at least as much to student attitudes and expectations as to failings on behalf of their instructors, particularly at the secondary and introductory undergrad levels. (Though, as reductive psychoanalytic, historical materialist, etc., readings attest, academics are by no means immune to the temptation.)

    I don’t know, just off-hand, where I stand on the role of “feeling” vis-a-vis interpretation, or exactly how to best interpret her remark on this. Likely she meant nothing more than the uncontroversial: “don’t get so caught up in your own theories that you lose sight of what’s interesting about the story,” but the remark does raise deeper issues for someone interested in the philosophy of literature. After all, you need to grasp something “as” something in order to respond to it with feeling. All appreciation, I would venture, is relative to an interpretation, a stance that the work is about this or that. Isn’t much of the pleasure of literature, then, reflecting on one’s responses, returning to the text to understand what triggered them, to see what else is there, what other kinds of response the work invites, and so developing a more refined appreciation? At least with literary art (perhaps with art in general? perhaps with human cognition in general?), there is no sustainable opposition between feeling and thinking: they come always together intertwined.

    Cheers, PJ

  2. Welcome. Yes, very good. Noticed the “not” too and had a good chuckle over it. I’ll think some more on the contrast between interpretation and feeling. Tend to think that feeling is rather important. Hope you’ve had a good summer. Take good care. Cheers.

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