Good Country People by Flannery O'Connor, 1955

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by Flannery O'Connor, 1955

Perhaps there was a time when Flannery O'Connor was regarded chiefly as a cult author adored by Catholic readers on the basis of her unusual southern Catholic background, but those days are gone forever. To be sure, her fiction is distinguished by a religious ardor, but it is never tendentious or preachy. Rather, O'Connor is artist enough to let her characters hang their own moral selves, and they generally do so on the basis of the pride that goeth before a fall or that fails to anticipate its own shortcomings in the face of other forms of pride and other follies and vices.

An often anthologized story in this mode is "Good Country People." Though its title drips with O'Connor's usual caustic irony regarding folk sententiousness, it expands to expose as well those who think themselves superior to such simplistic usage. In her more public utterances O'Connor noted that we are inclined to accept the southern grotesque as the local norm when we might well refuse its applicability to our own lives. In O'Connor's work we are all, northern and southern, capable of grotesqueries in just the way Sherwood Anderson employed the term. In O'Connor's unremitting worldview we are all monsters in some sense or other.

Ironical, too, are the names of the two women whose conversations parenthesize O'Connor's story. At the beginning and the end of the story Mrs. Hopewell is heard talking to her employee Mrs. Freeman, whom she has hired because she and her husband were reputed to be "good country people." Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are quick to slip into the dialogue of maxims that apparently mark "good country people":

"I've always been quick. It's some that are quicker than others."

"Everybody is different," Mrs. Hopewell said.
"Yes, most people is," Mrs. Freeman said.
"It takes all kinds to make the world."
"I always said it myself."

These banal routines of bantering one-upmanship are overheard by Mrs. Hopewell's daughter, "large hulking Joy," as early as her morning bathroom visits, and O'Connor begins to shift the story's focus to this ungainly woman of 32 years. She has lost a leg, acquired a Ph.D. in philosophy—which in her mother's mind becomes redundantly useless—and changed her legal name to Hulga, a switch from a "beautiful name" to "the ugliest name in the language." This is apparently the former Joy's claim to having addressed her identity candidly.

It would hardly be surprising if the intellectual O'Connor had not intended to parody herself in the person of Joy/Hulga. O'Connor was killed early on by the disease lupus, while Hulga, maimed in a hunting accident, has a "weak heart" and "might see forty-five" at best. Hulga contents herself with a philosophy that abhors the contemplation of nothingness and an attitude that holds her above the "nice young men" of the region. At least this is the case until a Bible salesman comes calling.

Because he also is "good country people," Manley Pointer, who has a hilariously phallic name, ingratiates himself with Mrs. Hopewell even though she has no desire to buy one of his Bibles. Hulga, operating at a supposedly more sophisticated level of insight, perhaps finds him attractive because she feels her superiority as an unbeliever or because they share the same "heart condition." He admires her wooden leg and her glasses. She meets him by prior arrangement, having imagined seducing him and thus getting "an idea across even to an inferior mind," her "true genius" being the ability to deal with his expected remorse.

Only through the logic of threes does the reader note O'Connor's suggestion that Hulga's defects include not only defective vision and a missing leg but also her status as a conscious nonbeliever. Finding that she can endure his kisses with detachment, Hulga goes further in her pride and reveals her nonbelief, which the young boy accepts with "admiration," as though she were a "fantastic animal at the zoo." She even leads him to the barn loft, where he removes her glasses, after which she pities him with unwitting irony: "I don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to nothing." She claims to have achieved "a kind of salvation by having taken her blindfold off. Insisting on honesty between them, she tells him that she is "thirty years old"—shaving off a couple of years—and that "I have a number of degrees." He replies, "I don't care a thing about all what all you done," as though she had confessed to a sordid past, and he demands to be told that she loves him, which she does after a series of ardent kisses, congratulating herself on having "seduced him." The reader notes the sexual role reversal here, the boy asking for assurances of love and the woman seducing him, or thinking that she does.

As if to play up this aspect of the story, O'Connor has the young man request that she remove her artificial leg for him, something she "took care of … as someone else would his soul." It is what makes her different, he says. Faced with his innocence, she complies, and she finds in her quasi-sexual yielding that "It was like losing her own life and finding it again miraculously, in his." This parody of the Christian paradox makes the boy her false savior, and almost immediately the boy takes from his case of samples a Bible that contains a flask of whiskey, a box of condoms, and a pack of pornographic playing cards. He startles her by saying that, though he is "good country people," he is no "perfect Christian" but rather someone who has been believing in "nothing" since birth. In a grotesque ending worthy of Faulkner, the young man scrambles out of the barn loft with Hulga's artificial leg, her glasses, and, one hopes, her self-deception. But the narrator's camera pans back to Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, who reflect in their ignorance on how "simple" the good country boy is. In this masterful moral tale O'Connor shows us a character who, with her useless Ph.D., might instead have better studied the story about the farmer's daughter and the traveling salesman.

—John Ditsky