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 nature. Humanity was crippled in the Fall, Adam and Eve’s first sin.
This Christian orthodoxy is not Hulga’s belief at all. Her self-made identity is of an elite intellectual, rising above such superstition. Christian morality, in the story, seems at first to be represented in the story by a travelling Bible salesman named Manley Pointer. To some extent, the plot he engenders is an old joke: He is a traveling salesman trying to seduce the daughter. Seduce her he does, but not by appealing to her emotions—Hulga denies that she has any. Rather, he sees her true weakness: intellectual pride. Hulga’s self-created identity is that of the great intellect (she holds a Ph.D. in philosophy) among country bumpkins, and by pretending to succumb to Manley’s bumbling professions of love, she can prove that there is no such thing. She intends to demonstrate that what is called “love” is simply a hypocritical disguise for lust. Love, she thinks, is as illusory as Christianity, the other myth in which Manley seems to believe.
Yet the joke is on her. Manley, it turns out, is not the Christian he claims to be: He is a con artist who uses Hulga’s pride to attempt to win from her not only sexual favors but also her prosthetic leg. Her reactions to his attentions reveal her hypocrisy: She is outraged, like a traditional belle whom Hulga would hold in contempt, at his frank sexual proposition. She also is mentally bested by the young man. The story ends with Manley disappearing in the distance with Hulga’s prosthetic leg, leaving her to question her presuppositions about her own identity while she awaits an embarrassing rescue in a hay loft.