Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
In addition to representing the Christian and Southern American identities seen in most of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, “Good Country People” touches on the roles of the intellect and intellectualism, as well as physical challenges in developing the individual identity. The central character is emotionally scarred by a hunting accident that has left her with one leg. This disfigurement causes her to retreat from the physical world into the world of the intellect. She was named Joy by her appropriately named mother, Mrs. Hopewell, a rather simplistic optimist who confronts adversity simply by hoping for the best. This philosophy of cheer irritates Joy, who retaliates by legally changing her name to the ugliest one she can think of: Hulga.
While the story does hint at the way various people react to the physically challenged, O’Connor’s interest in Hulga/Joy’s identity seems to lie in a different direction. The deliberate ugliness in her choice of a name mirrors the deliberate ugliness of her personality. Hulga is deliberately as rude as possible to her mother because of Hulga’s disgust for her mother’s sweetness-and-light simplicity. O’Connor reveals Mrs. Hopewell’s insensitivity to Hulga’s bitterness at her maiming, but greater thematic importance is placed on the disfigurement as an analogue for a spiritual leglessness. Moral ugliness, O’Connor’s Catholic belief instructs, is always the result of the brokenness of human...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
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, 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 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 salesperson 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,...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In “Good Country People,” Mrs. Hopewell’s perennial optimism is balanced by what seems to be her daughter Joy’s self-chosen misery. It is characteristic of Joy’s attitude that she has changed her name to Hulga, evidently because it is the ugliest name she can think of. In that way, her name matches her faded sweatshirt, her scowl, and her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident long before). While her mother is frustrated by her daughter’s bad temper, she is equally frustrated by her daughter’s Ph.D. in philosophy, a degree which makes her unable easily to identify her daughter’s achievement to others. She worries that Hulga never seems to enjoy anything, not even young men.
That makes her concerned when Hulga, an atheist who refuses to let her mother keep a Bible in the parlor, confronts Manley Pointer, a fresh-faced and earnest-seeming Bible salesman who wins Mrs. Hopewell’s trusting heart with his brave stories of childhood hardships and religious devotion. Partly as a joke, Hulga agrees to meet Pointer on a picnic. The falsity of their relationship is marked by the thirty-two-year-old Hulga telling Pointer that she is seventeen, while he calls her both brave and sweet. It has occurred to Hulga that she might be able to seduce Pointer.
At the picnic it becomes clear that Pointer has similar ideas and that, in fact, he is far more cynical than Hulga. His hollow Bible contains playing cards, whiskey, and condoms. He is hardly one of the “good country people” of the title. Perhaps that cynicism is what wins enough of Hulga’s confidence that she lets him see her wooden leg and even remove it from her, although she feels helpless without it. That is when Pointer announces that he collects things such as glass eyes and wooden legs, marks of his own complete nihilism. “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” he exclaims. Hulga is left in the hayloft to think about the real meaning of unbelief.
One of Flannery O’Connor’s most successful and frequently anthologized stories, “Good Country People” was published in her first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in 1955. As with many of her works, “Good Country People” addresses themes of good versus evil, the possibility of redemption achieved through an encounter with violence, and the foolishness of intellectual pretensions. The protagonist, Joy, has changed her name to Hulga because that is the ugliest name she could think of. Maimed as a child in a hunting accident, Hulga has a wooden leg—her most valuable possession because it is a mark of her difference. She prizes this because she considers herself more intellectual than all of the “good country people” around her—especially her mother, their neighbors, and finally Manley Pointer, a Bible salesman. Manley steals her leg after seducing her in the loft of a barn, although it is Joy/Hulga who intends to seduce Manley. In losing her leg, she learns about evil, which undermines her previous conviction that “Nothing” is the only meaning in the universe. The story hinges on this powerful irony: in the long run, what Joy loses is her faith but it is a faith in Nothing, which means that she finally gains a knowledge of evil.
The story opens in Mrs. Hopewell’s kitchen, which Mrs. Freeman visits every morning to talk about her daughters or other common topics. The women think of themselves as “good country people,” valuing what they consider honest, Christian sincerity in others. Joy, Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, is an atheist, nihilist, and intellectual snob and considers the two women banal to the extreme. She demonstrates her contempt with their chatter and their lives by making more noise with her wooden leg than necessary as she walks around the kitchen.
One day, a salesman carrying a heavy suitcase of Bibles comes to Mrs. Hopewell’s door. His name is Manley Pointer. Although she has no intention of buying a Bible because Joy will not allow one in the house, Mrs. Hopewell invites him into her living room anyway. As they talk, Manley identifies himself as a simple “country boy” and tells her he has a “heart condition.” Moved by his simplicity, Mrs. Hopewell asks him to stay for dinner, during which he “dart[s] a keen appraising glance” at Joy as if “to attract her attention.” Joy just happens to be outside the house when he finally leaves, and as she walks him to the gate, she makes arrangements to meet him at ten o’clock the following morning. She introduces herself to him as Hulga, the name she prefers.
Manley is as fascinated with Hulga as she is with him but for different reasons: he looks at her “like a child watching a new fantastic animal at the zoo” while she views him as a simpleton she intends to seduce and by doing so give him “a deeper understanding of life.” Noticing he has his suitcase, she asks, “Why did you bring your Bibles?” His response, “You can never tell when you’ll need the word of God,” encourages her arrogantly to declare that she has no faith. He, however, is more interested in her wooden leg than in her religious beliefs; as they walk across the pasture to the barn he directly asks her, “Where does your wooden leg join on?” She is annoyed, but moments later they kiss, he pants, and they continue to walk until they reach...
(The entire section is 857 words.)