Flannery O’Connor’s stories don’t lend themselves to simplistic interpretations. There is good and there is evil but the edges are frayed and the colors are often indistinct. The ambiguity in her stories often rattles us because we like our morals sharp-edged and uncamoflaged. But in Flannery’s stories it is not so. Each one demands reflection and care and leaves itself open to various interpretations. This was intentional. Even when others asked about the particular meaning, she was hesitant to say much. She preferred to leave the mystery rather than have it all explained.
Her stories are strewn with symbols, but the symbolism is not merely ornamental. She knew that symbols were pointless if they were not first meaningful in themselves. In “Good Country People” one of the lead characters (Hulga Joy) has a wooden leg. O’Connor comments, “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place in the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short.”
She often protested that her stories were not “deep” but straightforward. One of her correspondents asked about the symbolism of the bull in “Greenleaf.” Flannery’s response is interesting:
“The story with the bull also has the sun in a very prominent place in it, but I think the reason I use such is just because it is obvious. I am not one of the subtle sensitive writers . . . . I see only what is outside and what sticks out a mile, such things as the sun that nobody has to uncover or be bright to see. When I first started to write, I was much worried over not being subtle but it don’t worry me any more.” (Habit of Being, 141)
She was not a fan of literary criticism. A professor once wrote her to say that he and three other professors along with 90 students had all come to the conclusion that the Misfit [in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”] was an invention of a dream had by Bailey [the father of the family in the story]. In other words nothing of what is recorded after the accident actually happened; rather, it was what Bailey would have liked to have happened (and thus, it happened in his dream). Flannery replied that this was “fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be . . . . If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable as along 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.” (A Proper Scaring, 21).
In spite of these objections, there’s certainly much more than meets in the eye in her stories. She was so steeped in biblical symbolism that her writing is filled with it — and if she is to be believed, this happened, for the most part, subconsciously. She writes to her friend, “A”, about “Greenleaf,”
“My preoccupations [in writing a story] are technical. My preoccupation is how am I going to get this bull’s horns into this woman’s ribs. Of course why his horns belong in her ribs is something more fundamental but I can’t say I give it much thought. Perhaps you are able to see things in these stories that I can’t see because if I did see I would be too frightened to write them. I have always insisted that there is a fine grain of stupidity required in the fiction writer.” (Habit of Being, 149)
A fine grain of stupidity indeed.