Compare and contrast the characters and personalities of Joy (Hulga) and the Bible salesman in "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Two of the primary characters in Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People" are Joy Hopewell and Manley Pointer.

Joy has renamed herself Hulga, the ugliest name she can think of, and considers herself to be anything but what her mother is so proud of being--good country people. Hulga has no joy, so the name change is apt. What Hulga does have is a doctorate degree, which she thinks makes her superior to everyone else in her life. She also has "a heart condition," which is a physical problem but also, we learn, a spiritual and emotional reflection of her life. Her primary visible flaw is having a wooden leg; however, she is proud of it. Her true defect is her arrogant and nihilistic personality, of course, but she does not recognize that--at least not at first. 

Hulga does not believe in anything and is proud of that, too. Unfortunately, this leaves her particularly vulnerable to the Bible salesman who comes into the Hopewells' lives. In her pride and arrogance in thinking she has all the answers, she is eager to teach him that life literally has no meaning by seducing him in the barn. She would love nothing more than corrupting a man of God and making him lose his faith. 

Her plan might have worked except for one thing--Manley Pointer is not really a man of God. In fact, he is not even "good country people: as he claims to be. Everyone believed him, and all of them pay for that, especially Hulga. The seducer (Hulga) becomes the victim of a cruel seduction, and the shame she hoped to impose on him settles heavily on her. 

Manley Pointer is not a nice man; in fact, he consistently does evil, deceptive things throughout the story. He worms his way into the good graces of the Hopewells by claiming to be one of them, and they believe him. He claims to be a man of God, a simple Bible salesman trying to do something for the Lord, and they believe. He tells Hulga's mother that he

wanted to become a missionary because he thought that was the way you could do most for people.

It is all a lie, of course, as we learn when he seduces and shames Hulga. He is a manipulator and a huckster, doing what he can to not only make a living but to hurt other people along the way.

Ironically, it is this evil-intentioned missionary who "saves" Hulga from her own arrogance and lack of belief. She proudly hands Pointer her leg and says that doing so 

is like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.

She is exactly right, but not for the reasons she thinks. Pointer keeps her leg, leaving Hulga lying helplessly in the barn. Her pride is gone, but that is the beginning, at least, of her possible salvation. A man who says he is here to save but has nothing but evil intentions actually manages to "save" the woman he wronged. A woman who says she wants to "save" a supposed man of God by seducing him manages to save only herself. That leaves the evil man, Pointer, to continue his life of evil.

This statement is spoken or paraphrased by both Hulga and Pointer:

“He who loseth his life shall find it.”

For Pointer this is a sham and a lie he tells to "good country people." For Hulga this is a truth she hoped to teach Pointer but in fact ends up learning for herself. Pointer is the static character; Hulga undergoes a change.

The relationship between them is teacher and student, though Hulga is unaware of her true role in this relationship. She thinks she is the teacher. In truth, the teacher becomes the student, and we assume she has learned her lesson. 

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