Charles Baxter Answers Questions About "Gryphon" a short story he wrote in 1985

Charles Baxter is often asked questions about his short story "Gryphon". In order to help readers everywhere better understand his story Mr. Baxter answered some of the most common questions for this site.

Question: What does the title of the story mean? The gryphon doesn't seem very important—what does the idea of a gryphon bring to the story?

Baxter: Ms. Ferenczi mentions the gryphon as an animal she's actually seen in Egypt. A gryphon, however, is an entirely imaginary creature, half eagle and half lion. In other words, a gryphon is made up of parts from the world, but these parts are combined in order to create a new, imaginary thing that does not exist in the world until someone thinks of it. She seems to feel that young people should be exposed to exotic facts and possibility of this sort. And of course it's possible to read the story with Ms. Ferenczi as something of a gryphon herself—half in this world, a world of concrete objects, and half out-of-this-world.

Question: At one point in the story, Ms. Ferenczi suggests to the class that they consider the notion that "six times eleven equals sixty-eight as a substitute fact." Does the idea of the "substitute fact" have a broader importance in the story?

Baxter: Sometimes "substitute facts" are simply wrong or incorrect, but sometimes they are products of myth or of the imagination. Ms. Ferenczi likes to expose the members of the class to amazing facts (some of which are true, some of which are mythic, and some of which are simply untrue) as a way of expanding their sense of wonder.

Question: Do you think Ms. Ferenczi thinks she's lying to her students?

Baxter: There doesn't seem to be any indication in the story that Ms. Ferenczi believes that she's lying to the students. She seems to live, at least part of the time, in the world that generates the "facts" that she tells her students.

Question: The story is told from the point-of-view of a child in Ms. Ferenczi's class, but it's told in recollection. How do you think the story might have changed if it was told in the present tense? Do you think that the teller of the story might have a different view of Five Oaks than he might have when the story takes place.

Baxter: When I wrote the story, I was very careful not to make Tommy's views as an adult concerning Ms. Ferenczi particularly obvious. (Note that Ms. Ferenczi tells Tommy his fortune—his future—and he does not tell the reader whether her predictions came true or not.) The story needed, I thought, to have a sense of looking-back. I felt that a student could not tell the story as a student. When a reader comes to the story, s/he has to make up his/her own mind about how good or bad, truthful or dangerous, exciting or incorrect Ms. Ferenczi is. Tommy shouldn't press all his opinions on the reader.

Question: Clearly everyone in Mr. Hibler's class thinks Ms. Ferenczi is rather strange-- but she seems rather strange to me, too. How come she has "marionette lines" on her face? And why does she talk so differently?

Baxter: When he first sees Ms. Ferenczi, Tommy sees those marionette lines and thinks of Pinocchio. Pinocchio, of course, was famous for two things: he was not a real boy (though he wanted to be one), and he was a liar. There is something not-quite-human about Ms. Ferenczi, as if her strings were being pulled by others. Also, the truth is that I once had a teacher with lines that went straight down from the sides of her mouth, and she always reminded me of a marionette, for that reason.

Question: Why is the last paragraph so full of small details? And why does the story end there?

Baxter: Because of Ms. Ferenczi's influence, every fact from the world starts to take on an element of strangeness—even the most ordinary facts, like the ones the story concludes with, about insects. The story ends with the line that Mr. Hibler will return to "test us on our knowledge"—but of course the story starts to raise questions about what the children actually do know, once Ms. Ferenczi has gotten through with them.

A gryphon statue outside of a library

In 1990 "Gryphon" was made into a movie for PBS Wonderworks