In “Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor depicted one of her most memorable characters: Joy/Hulga, the surly, bitter, arrogant young woman who feels contempt for almost everyone around her. Hulga (as I’ll call her for the sake of convenience) resembles other characters in other O’Connor stories (especially Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”) because she is full of intellectual pride, one of the worst kinds of sins. Her “advanced” education has left her with little common sense, and although she has a degree in philosophy (literally: “the love of wisdom”), she lacks any real love or any real wisdom at all. Her pretensions are funny, and her nihilism (literally: belief in nothing) proves second-rate when she comes up against a real, practicing nihilism like the wonderfully named Manley Pointer. Of course, the supposedly brilliant Hulga never considers the possibility that “Manley Pointer” may be a splendidly funny pseudonym, and in general Hulga (who can’t see too well with or without her glasses) is the kind of imperceptive but arrogant intellectual O’Connor loved to mock, partly as a way of mocking herself and the pride she knew that she (like everyone) possessed.
One of Hulga’s most memorable features, of course, is her wooden leg – a splendid symbol of her lack of feeling, her incompleteness, her pretentious artificiality, her real weakness beneath fake, pretended strength, and even her similarity to another famous one-legged character in American literature, Melville’s proud and arrogant Captain Ahab. Hulga suffers from a physical handicap, but her intellectual, emotional, and spiritual shortcomings are far more significant. By mocking Hulga’s wooden leg (as when she says that Hulga “lumber[ed] into the bathroom” and that she “stumped into the kitchen”), O’Connor reminds us that the body is inherently weak, impermanent, and often literally laughable. What mattered to O’Connor was not physical beauty or physical health but spiritual strength and the final transcendence of the soul. By mocking Hulga’s physical disability, O’Connor was even more significantly calling attention to her defects of spirit. O’Connor was, as well, calling attention to her own crippled body and her own use of crutches, thereby reminding herself of what was – and was not – truly important.
As is typical of O’Connor’s writing, practically every word counts. Her phrasing seems, on the surface, clean and economical, but her word choices always reverberate, often with stinging irony. Thus, at one point, Hulga exclaims to her mother,
“Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!”
The ironies here are multiple. It is Hulga, of course, who never looks inside. It is Hulga who truly lacks self-perception. It is Hulga, despite her nihilism, who is incapable of seeing what she is “not.” Yet the final irony – that the professed atheist exclaims, “God!” – may not be the final irony in these sentences after all. Perhaps O’Connor’s phrasing also reminds us of what Hulga herself is not (God), although she often seems to act as if she were perfect and omniscient. And perhaps Hulga’s exclamation is also O’Connor’s sly reminder of what Hulga truly needs in her life (God) if she is ever to have any hope of overcoming the pride that has truly crippled her.