Flannery O’Connor commented a good deal on her own work, explaining that she belongs “to that literary generation whose education was in the hands of the New Critics” who valued showing over telling. This, says Susanne Morrow Paulson (1988), might account for the difficulty in interpreting her work, for in general it lacks a narrator to reflect on or explain the ideas or characters in the story.
Early reception of O’Connor’s work shows this difficulty; A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which includes “Good Country People,” faced a rather hostile audience. For example, Time magazine labeled O’Connor “Ferocious Flannery” while another critic “placed her in a cult of Gratuitous Grotesque.” The violence and grotesque humor in her stories made many readers uncomfortable, and rather than understand her as a Christian writer, an interpretation generally accepted today, they understood her as a nihilist.
Many critics now place “Good Country People,” along with many of O’Connor’s stories, in the tradition of the Southern Gothic. Thelma Shinn (1968) is one of the earliest critics to read O’Connor in this way. According to Leroy Letterman, the Southern Gothic tradition stems from “a sense of Being” achieved through suffering “a redemptive catastrophe.” Shinn takes her understanding of the grotesque one step further by referring to O’Connor’s own comments on her work. According to Shinn, O’Connor explicitly said that she was “a novelist with Christian concerns” and that “the most reliable path to reality...is by way of the grotesque.” With this information, she analyzes O’Connor’s stories as a blending of the Roman Catholic with the Southern Gothic, which together account for their humor.
Because O’Connor wrote so much about her fiction, many critics draw on her comments to understand these stories. In 1958, just a few years after the publication of the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor said that the major themes of her writing are conversion and grace. Using this statement as his point of departure, A. R. Courtland (1983) politely disagrees with the author, arguing that while most stories are “about grace and redemption, not all of them depict the action of grace on a character. ‘Good Country People’,” he says, “is one story that leaves the question of salvation unanswered.”
Some more recent critical response to “Good Country People” addresses issues of gender in the story. Lisa Babinec (1990) argues that the story shows the damaging aspects of failed mother–daughter relationships, including “patterns of maternal domination, failed expectations, the effects of manipulation, and the ready acceptance of the masculine work ethic.” She then uses theories of maternal thinking by Marianne Hirsch and Sara Ruddick to interrogate the relationship between Mrs. Hopewell and Joy/Hulga.