In O'Connor's "Good Country People," why are the characters' names significant?
As in all of her writings, O’Connor intentionally imbues the characters’ names with thematic or symbolic meaning in “Good Country People.”
Mrs. Hopewell is a trusting woman who believes she is an excellent judge of character. Specifically, she mostly thinks people are guileless and good, a trait that allows her to be easily duped. Therefore, one could argue that her name is ironic because she is an endless well of hope for humanity (who also happens to be tricked many times).
This trend of ironic names continues throughout the text. Joy is likely the most unhappy character throughout the story, constantly condescending to those around her, despite her relative lack of personal success outside her educational attainment. Likewise, the Freemans are tenants on Mrs. Hopewell’s farm, therefore not "free" at all.
Manley Pointer is most likely a pseudonym for the real man lurking underneath the fictitious Bible salesman he presents himself as. While the other Educator suggests the phallic symbolism of this name, another interpretation is that he points a finger at Joy/Hulga, calling her out as being just as gullible as her mother—albeit for a different reason.
Finally, you might even examine Mrs. Freeman’s daughters' names, Glynese and Carramae. Both of these names are seemingly made-up, Southern bastardizations of other common names. Perhaps O’Connor chooses these names to poke fun of this Southern trend, or perhaps she is using it as further evidence of Joy’s condescending attitude toward those whom she perceives to be beneath her.
Concerning names in "Good Country People":
- Mrs. Freeman's name is ironic because she isn't free--she's a tenant farmer. Mentally, she is anything but free--she's a simpleton who quotes platitudes and is dangerous because she's so simplistic in her thinking.
- Mrs. Hopewell's name suggests she sees only good in others, as she sometimes suggests. Yet, she's actually simplistic and judgmental, focusing on the difference between "good country people" and trash, which, of course, she can't really tell the difference between.
- Joy/Hulga changes her name to the ugliest name she can find. The name fits her grotesque appearance and state of mind, but also is a rejection of her mother's way of life.
- Manley Pointer uses his manly pointer as bait to seduce and trick Hulga. His name is phallic, of course. He is the source of evil that ultimately leads to Hulga's awakening. Hulga goes to the barn with him because she, too, assumes he is "good country people," demonstrating that she does share her mother's belief. When Manley tricks her and humiliates her, and points out that is doesn't take a Ph.D to be nihilistic and believe in nothing, her feelings of intellectual superiority are savagely rebuked.
Many of the names in this story can be interpreted ironically: for example, Mrs. Hopewell wants to see the good in people, such as Manley, but she tends to allow her sense of her own superiority to blur her vision, dashing her hopes. Her daughter, also a Hopewell, suffers from the same problem.
Mrs. Freeman, on the surface, is not free, as she farms Mrs. Hopewell's land. However, because she has a clearer vision of the world than Mrs. Hopewell she may, ironically, be more free.
Manley Pointer's name is most interesting because it is open to multiple interpretations. Given O'Connor's Catholic theology, the name Manley, which includes the word "man," can be seen as alluding to his fallen nature. He is connected to the worldly and divorced from the spiritual. One interpretation of Pointer is that this evil, fallen young man points out to Hulga her own naivete and limitations.
The name Hulga may come from the old, disused Swedish word huld that means lovable and sweet. This would be ironic as Hulga chooses this name for its harsh sound and to reject her name of "Joy."