In a memorable contribution to her stories that use the grotesque, Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” ironically reverses the old saying that country people are good and its corollary, simple. Set in Georgia, the story features three women and a Bible salesman.
As in most of O’Connor’s stories, the unselfconscious third-person narrator injects comic overtones or, more accurately, those of black humor, to entertain readers as they become acquainted with these markedly peculiar characters. Mrs. Hopewell, the initiator of the “good country people” idea, speaks in clichés equivalent to “Have a good day.” Her foil is her maid, Mrs. Freeman, who, in her fascination with all forms of sickness, disease, and abnormality, tells revolting tales about her daughters (Glynese and Carramae) and exhibits a perverse fascination with Mrs. Hopewell’s large, hulking, 32-yearold daughter, Joy. Joy had lost her leg at age 10; she lumbers and stumps around on a wooden one and has changed her name to Hulga. Joy-Hulga brags to the two older women about her doctorate in philosophy, boasting that she believes in nothing at all.
When Manley Pointer arrives on the scene with his Bibles and his humorously phallic name, the reader expects that Hulga will exert her strong will on him and seduce him. But he has only been playing the part of a simple, good country person, and his briefcase contains a false bottom under which he keeps liquor, condoms, and items he steals from women with deformities. He has, he informs Hulga as he runs off with her wooden leg, believed in nothing since birth. Hulga, for all her degrees and pride in her intellectual power, has been played for a fool, losing not her virginity but her carefully cultivated outward sense of superiority to others less educated. As Ann Charters points out, “However dastardly Pointer’s actions, he forces Hulga to feel and acknowledge her emotions for the first time,” and our final impression is that Hulga may learn from this humbling experience, becoming “less presumptuous and closer to psychic wholeness” (136). Hulga and her mother must correct and surmount their complacency and naïveté, for the story suggests that without a strong philosophy and spiritual beliefs, they remain at the mercy of the Manley Pointers and Mrs. Freemans, significantly connected through their similar names, who also believe in nothing but have less difficulty surviving.
Charters, Ann. Resources for Teaching: Major Writers of Short Fiction. Boston: Bedford Books/St. Martin’s, 1993.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” In Contemporary American Literature, edited by George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. New York: Random House, 1988.
Categories: Literature, Short Story
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