Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Over-Interpreting Stories and Killing the Joy

Letters of Note published a wonderful letter last week--Flannery O'Connor responding to a teacher who had interpreted her story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," entirely wrong. At the end of the letter, O'Connor wrote:
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.
This is a view of literature that is neither shallow nor abstruse. O'Connor considers her stories worth pondering to find deeper meaning--so long as that pondering does not lead you down a rabbit hole until you invent allegories as preposterous as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

I love it how one of O'Connor's main concerns here is enjoyment, the enjoyment of fiction. She warns teachers that they can kill the enjoyment of their students by denigrating the obvious point of the story in favor of studying subtleties that may or may not really be there. By over-interpreting a story, you can kill the joy of reading it.

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