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Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” seems to reflect, in certain respects, O’Connor’s own relationship with her mother, Regina. In particular, the relationship between Joy/Hulga and her mother contains some elements that seem relevant to O’Connor’s relationship to her own mother. Here are some possible connections:
- Joy adopted a name (“Hulga”) deliberately different from her birth name. O’Connor adopted a nom de plume (“Flannery”), somewhat different from the name (“Mary Flannery”) her parents gave her.
- Hulga has a wooden leg and is said at one point (in a splendidly bad pun) to “lumber” into the bathroom. O’Connor, as she grew older, became increasingly dependent on crutches. It’s possible that O’Connor, in giving Hulga a wooden leg, was mocking her own physical disability.
- O’Connor (unlike Hulga) had the ability to enjoy jokes at her own expense. Indeed, this personality trait made her quite endearing. In any case, Hulga is the handicapped daughter of a mother who runs a farm – exactly the same situation in which O’Connor and Regina found themselves.
- Mrs. Hopewell is a practical, efficient, commonsensical woman who has divorced her husband and who runs a farm with the help of hired hands. Regina O’Connor, of course, was a widow, but in every other respect she resembles Mrs. Hopewell.
- Regina O’Connor was intelligent and resourceful, but she was not the intellectual equal of her daughter (few people were). Flannery O’Connor was widely read and deeply thoughtful, and there was often an element of tension in her relationship with her mother (whom she nevertheless loved and respected, and to whom she felt great gratitude). Flannery O’Connor was an “intellectual” in some of the same ways that Hulga is, although Hulga, with her extreme pride and extremely negative view of the world and other people, is in many ways the precise opposite of O’Connor. Hulga is humorless; O’Connor had one of the best senses of humor in history. Hulga’s narcissism and nihilism make her significantly different from O’Connor. It was largely O’Connor’s sense of humor and her deep religious faith that allowed her to get along with her mother (and others) so well.
- Like Hulga, O’Connor was a well-educated young woman living at home, in her thirties, with her mother. A disability helped keep both young women living with their mothers, but O’Connor coped with her disability far better than Hulga does (to say the least).
- Hulga’s mother cannot quite comprehend her daughter’s decision to become a philosopher (a highly ironic decision, since Hulga is anything but a true “lover of knowledge” in the deepest sense of the term). Similarly, Regina O’Connor was a bit puzzled by Flannery’s decision to write stories and novels, and indeed O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, caused a certain amount of embarrassment within the extended family. Eventually, of course, Regina took pride in Flannery’s accomplishments and in her increasingly distinguished career, but her own interests were far more practical and hard-headed than those of her daughter. They had to be.
- In short, O’Connor presented, in the relationship between Hulga and Mrs. Hopewell, a comical version of her own relationship with Regina. Hulga can be seen as O’Connor’s admonition to herself that she should never take herself too seriously – a temptation she was usually very successful at avoiding.
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