Good Country People

Author Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964)
Classification Comic realism
Fiction F
First Published 1955
Locale A small Southern town
Time of Plot The late 1950’s

Principal characters:

MRS. HOPEWELL, a farm owner and the scandalized mother of Hulga
HULGA HOPEWELL, a lonely, sullen young woman with a Ph.D. in philosophy
MANLEY POINTER, an itinerant Bible salesman who calls on the Hopewells
MRS. FREEMAN, a tenant farmer hired by Mrs. Hopewell

The Story

Mrs. Hopewell, a widowed farm owner, is in the practice of hiring tenant farm families to assist her in maintaining the farm. Her current helpers, the Freemans, are busybodies and quite nosy, but they are reliable and serve her better than the previous tenants. Mrs. Hopewell regards Mrs. Freeman and her family as "good country people" and is fond of uttering homespun maxims such as "Nothing is perfect" or "That is life!" and being reassured by Mrs. Freeman’s frequent rejoinder, "I always said so myself."

The backward, unsophisticated ways of the Freemans, however, only perturb Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, Hulga, who changed her name from Joy when she left home to attend college. Having earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, Hulga is a troubled, introverted young woman; she lost her leg in a childhood hunting accident and has not been "normal" since. She is a source of embarrassment to her mother, who "was at a complete loss" in explaining her daughter’s ambitions. One could say "my daughter is a nurse or a school teacher or a chemical engineer," but she could not say "my daughter is a philosopher." That was something that "ended with the Greeks and Romans." With an artificial leg and a heart condition, Hulga seems destined for a quiet life spent in irritating her mother and the workers surrounding her.

One afternoon, however, something upsets the ecology of the household. Manley Pointer, who announces himself as an itinerant Bible salesman interested in "Chrustian" (sic) service, arrives at the door and engages Mrs. Hopewell in a discussion of salvation and Bible truth. At first merely polite to the young man, Mrs. Hopewell is quickly charmed by his "salt of the earth," simple country ways, and invites him for supper. Hulga is appalled by Pointer, but sees his visit as an opportunity to enlighten a woefully naive country boy about the ways of the world. After supper he walks her to the front gate and convinces her to meet him for a walk at ten o’clock the next morning.

Hulga lies awake the night before imagining that she will seduce this innocent, redeeming him from both his religious convictions and his moral inhibitions. When she sneaks off to meet him the next day, she is startled by his unusually aggressive temperament when he asks how her wooden leg is joined to the rest of her torso. Initially disturbed but strangely attracted to Pointer’s naivete, she allows him to kiss her. She suggests that they head toward the barn, imagining herself as the aggressor and seducer. Here she turns their conversation to her philosophical opinions about life and eternal destinies, announcing that she is one of those people who have "taken off their blindfolds and see that there is nothing to see."

After a series of passionate kisses, Pointer begs Hulga to tell him that she loves him. At first she balks, with an elaborate discussion of what she means by the word "love," but finally relents. He asks her to prove her love by letting him remove her wooden leg. Suddenly aware that she is not with the naive, unsophisticated rube she imagined, she is fearful, crying out "aren’t you just good country people?" Opening the briefcase that he had been carrying through their escapade, he reveals an assortment of odd objects, including a flask of whiskey, a deck of cards with pornographic pictures, and a prophylactic. Placing her wooden leg in the briefcase, Pointer declares to Hulga, "One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.... You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"

The story ends with the helpless Hulga watching the serpentine figure of Pointer "struggling over the green speckled lake"; Mrs. Hopewell, watching the same scene with Mrs. Freeman and remarking on the sincerity of the young man, muses "I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple." "Some can’t be that simple," Mrs. Freeman replies, "I know I never could."

Themes and Meanings

O’Connor clearly designed "Good Country People" as a shockingly ironic story. Hulga is the prototypical O’Connor character whose pride and selfishness come to her only in the midst of a violent or shocking revelation. Hulga regards herself as aloof from the "good country people" among whom she lives; imbibing of philosophy and its contemplation of "deeper questions," Hulga sees herself as liberating people from their illusions, believing she has none of her own.

Manley Pointer serves as the agent for her self-discovery. Pointer at first appears to be a crude, otherworldly Fundamentalist and Hulga’s mission is to strip away his Christian principles by seducing him in the hayloft. She is, however, completely fooled by his impersonation; it is she who is "taken in" and in the end, it is she who wants to be reassured that Pointer is "just good country people." Instead, Pointer reveals himself as a country existentialist, living for the moment, unaffected by the pretensions which govern Hulga’s private illusions.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Freeman stands out as the only character in the story who "sees through" the illusions of the Hopewell household. She knows her place in the economy of the household and hers is the final comment in the story. When she says "some can’t be as simple" as Pointer, she means that she herself could never fall prey to the flimflam antics to which Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga have succumbed.

Style and Technique

O’Connor was well-known for her use of the grotesque and the bizarre to rivet a reader to her tales. Here the sudden revelation of Manley Pointer’s malevolence is both dramatic and shocking, but a fitting climax to a story whose protagonist, Hulga, made a profession of dispelling illusions. The reader expects the confrontation between Hulga and Pointer to occur but is surprised by the role each ends up playing.

O’Connor had an unmatched ability to capture the cadences of country speech and the banalities of everyday conversation. Her depiction of Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman’s frequent kitchen conversations helps to underscore the role-playing and insincerity lurking behind the Southern landscapes that served as the setting of most of her stories. In like manner, O’Connor uses two minor characters in the story, Mrs. Freeman’s daughters, Glynese and Carramae, as effective foils for the character of Hulga. Neither Glynese nor Carramae has any illusions about her lot in life, and the homey details of their lives which O’Connor presents—Carramae’s bout with morning sickness, for example—serve as a vivid contrast to the airy, philosophical notions with which Hulga has insulated herself.

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The Stories of O’Connor

Author Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964)


Criticism of Flannery O’Connor’s two novels and two original collections of short stories notes the dramatic power of the nineteen stories in her two collections but is repelled by their shocking conclusions. If readers could narrow their application to the South from whence they come, as they can with TOBACCO ROAD, for example, they would be much happier; but since her stories deal wholly with universals and are pervaded by an irony that seems both to involve and to mock, readers are forced to recognize that her vision encompasses the human condition, the naked spectacle of mortal man. O’Connor is not claiming so much as she is reminding that the human condition is fourfold: people are sinners, people shall die, people are equal in the sight of God, and people cannot expect to understand God’s mercy but must recognize it in whatever outrageous form it appears, which is the beginning of salvation. Her term for that recognition is the "revelation" of sin, or death, or equality, and the beginning of "redemption." She does not follow the process of redemption, only its initiation through whatever unlikely instrument God chooses. Both O’Connor and her God are ironists, and readers and all her heroes are willful characters who must be humbled in learning that the will of God must prevail. This is the guiding vision in all her work.

Most of the titles in A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND are ironically intended and provide a key to the author’s meaning. Three of the shortest stories show her intention most clearly: "A Stroke of Good Fortune," "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost." The first describes the progress up four flights of stairs of Ruby Hill, who is terrified of having a baby and gradually realizes, as she climbs, that she is four months pregnant. This is the "stroke of good fortune" her palmist foretold; from the most unlikely sources comes the truth about Ruby’s "condition." The second story shows how death and truth come to "General" Sash of the Confederacy at the late age of one hundred and four; he is no general but he is surrounded by false memories of the Confederacy, especially at the Atlanta premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND, and he joins in the pretense. Death, the enemy, did not get him during the Civil War, but eventually he catches up, even with a Confederate general. In the last of the three stories, both a hermaphrodite and a platitudinous nun are shown to be "a temple of the Holy Ghost"; the outrageous and the comic are also clear signs of the truth for those who can both appreciate the ridiculous and get its message.

The other stories in the first collection fall into two groups: four independent stories that are related by theme; and three stories that use the same setting and similar cast. The latter group contains "A Circle in the Fire," "Good Country People," and the longest story O’Connor wrote, "The Displaced Person," which is the culmination of the volume. The common situation is an independent widow running a farm with the help of a succession of tenant farmers and some blacks. In the first two stories, the tenant farmer’s wife acts as cool observer, like the black in THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY, who offers a practical but unacceptable solution to the awkward situation which arises when an intruder arrives at the farm; in the last story, the tenant farmer’s wife dies and becomes the motive for the "accidental" death of the "Displaced Person." The meaning of the stories seems to be that if one embarks on an act of charity one must be very sure of one’s motives. Mrs. Hopewell, in "Good Country People," may be mistaken in her notions of country folk; certainly her ideas led her educated daughter astray and thus to a realization of the truth about herself, that she is in no way superior to what her mother calls "good country people." The play of ambiguity in these two stories is resolved in the last by identifying Christ as a person displaced from Mrs. McIntyre’s heart; when He comes to her in the guise of a Displaced Person, she allows Him to be crucified again. It is not sufficient to be "nice"—a theme that recurs whenever this farm setting is used—one must be saved even at the cost of one’s life. Mrs. McIntyre, like many of O’Connor’s characters, is dying as the result of her revelation, the late reconciliation of word and deed.

The other group of four stories may be distinguished by the death or salvation of the protagonists. The stories are remarkable for the creation of a totally independent universe for each; "The River" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," contain the contrast between the well-to-do and the poor and end in death. The gentle death in the former of the four-year-old child seeking some meaning to his empty life is violently contrasted with the deaths of father, mother, baby, two children, and grandmother in the latter. O’Connor liked to read this story to her audiences, almost as if she were daring her hearers to face the truth in its most hideous manifestation. Solicitude for the family and the niceness of the grandmother notwithstanding, they will all perish at the hands of "The Misfit." The nickname is highly ironic: he is a "misfit" because he cannot find salvation or meaning to life and he knows his fallen condition. He is not, however, a "misfit" in a society of misfits who do not know their fallen condition and in turn call him a "misfit." A "good man" is not merely "hard to find"; without God he does not exist, and with God he knows he is a sinner.

The other two stories in this last group from A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND are "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" and "The Artificial Nigger." In the former, the revelation is accomplished by a road sign Mr. Shiftlet sees when he abandons his idiot bride; both the sign and the idiot are common devices in O’Connor’s work to represent a truth beneath the surface. The latter story became the title of the English edition of this collection; O’Connor was displeased at the choice because of the inevitable and slipshod references to the South in her work and because, as in all her writing, the ironic meaning of the title belongs in the context of the story. In "The Artificial Nigger," the remark to that effect prompts the reconciliation between old Mr. Head and his estranged grandson, Nelson, whom he has denied. This is probably the happiest story O’Connor wrote, and it is important to her work in two ways: Nelson is the forerunner of the heroes of her two novels, and her guiding vision is most succinctly and clearly stated in the next to last paragraph where Mr. Head sees that God’s mercy is not a soothing balm but a burning flame that purifies the sinner.

The stories in the second collection, EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE, also fall into three groups. The first group comes early in the collection and in its material, corresponding roughly to the widow-farmer group in the first volume, seems to have come more directly from O’Connor’s own experience. This first group includes the title story, "Greenleaf," "The Enduring Chill," and "The Comforts of Home." Each contains a spinsterish youngish bachelor and his mother; the Angel of the Lord appears as a bull, a black mother, a delinquent girl, and blasts the complacency of the young man or the mother.

The second group of stories—"A View of the Woods," "Parker’s Back," and "Judgment Day"—corresponds roughly to the last group in the first volume. Each story has a world of its own which is vividly created, though all part of the same countryside, and the characters would seem remote from the writer’s experience if one did not know that, like John Millington Synge, she liked to stand behind the kitchen door and listen to "good country people" yarn with her mother. In two stories, the meaning is clear: The saved and fearless soul so profoundly affects the hero’s complacency in his way of life that, shaken, he tries to imitate the saved; his revelation is that he must seek his own way to God. In the last story in this group, "Judgment Day," the meaning is less clear; ambiguity plays around the central character and leaves the reader uncertain as to whether his way of life is that of salvation or not. One suspects the former because his antagonist is the city and a well-to-do daughter, and as far as O’Connor was concerned, both were passports to hell.

Two stories in the second collection complement each other in that their titles seem interchangeable. "The Lame Shall Enter First" is the best example of O’Connor’s reworking of a situation, for the story is a rewriting and expansion of the second part of THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY, omitting the preliminary farm and family history and the later return to the country. The infirmities of Rayber, the protagonist of the novel, are transferred to the protagonist of the story, Rufus Johnson, a boy with a clubfoot, a bad past, and not a trace of Southern charm. He remains a mystery to Sheppard, the welfare officer determined to rescue the boy’s I.Q. from his circumstances and his religion; the attention is on Sheppard, an indictment of the intellect, or false education, as the chief begetter of complacency and "niceness." Although this view sometimes betrays O’Connor into a glorification of corn pone as the simple true bread of life, this lapse does not occur in "Revelation," a story that draws together many of her materials and states her own vision in that afforded Mrs. Turpin in the sunset by the hog pen. The tenant farmer’s wife and the widow-farmer are brought together in Mrs. Turpin (though she is married), and the precocious or educated child becomes the messenger of her revelation in a typically clotted utterance which the protagonist must ponder until it is clarified in an awful moment of truth. Mrs. Turpin has to learn that in certain essentials she is a pig of a woman, less than the trash she so despises and that the "lame shall enter first" into Heaven, before the "nice" and capable. Mrs. Turpin thus brings up the procession of O’Connor’s characters which began in "A Stroke of Good Fortune." So unified is her vision that the title of the first story discussed could be that of the last.