I remember 2 scenes from Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School – Oingo Boingo playing at a party and Kurt Vonnegut writing a critical theory paper about one of his own works for Rodney. No, the teacher says, this is all wrong. Vonnegut’s paper gets an F.
Art imitates life, as they say (and I should say, I don’t consider Back to School art). In 1961 a literature professor wrote to Flannery O’Connor. His class had been reading her now classic story A Good Man Is Hard to Find in which a grandmotherly figure and a criminal tangle over intentions and beliefs. The professor and students had difficulty “interpreting” the meaning of the story. They felt that the second half must be a dream that occurred only in the mind of the driver but to what end? They asked Ms. O’Connor for clarification. She in turn sent them the following letter:
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.
It’s really the final sentence that makes me smile. I do enjoy a woman who doesn’t mince words.
- via Letters of Note