In Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People," what ironies does Joy/Hulga not realize about herself?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Joy “Hulga” Hopewell is one of the most ironic characters ever created by Flannery O’Connor, an author who loved irony of almost every kind. One of the most ironic aspects of Hulga (one of the main characters in “Good Country People”) is that she understands herself so little, even though she prides herself on her wide reading and deep knowledge.  Examples of such irony include the following:

  • Hulga realizes that she has a “weak heart” physically, but she has no idea just how weak her heart is spiritually and in terms of compassion and concern for other people.
  • 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 irony here is exceptional: of course, it is really Hulga who never looks inside and Hulga who has no idea what she is not. It is also Hulga who fails to realize that she isn't God -- a pun O'Connors' phrasing here permits.

  • Similarly, Hulga also quotes Malbranche as saying “We are not our own light,” never considering that from O’Connor’s perspective, one of Hulga’s biggest mistakes has been in trying to be her own light, spiritually and intellectually, rather than seeking the light of God.
  • Hulga looks at “nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity,” an attitude that is typical of her enormous pride. This pride that will prove ironic in the end when one of these “nice young men” (who is in fact not really a nice young man at all, although Hulga fails to perceive that fact) makes a fool out of Hulga herself, thus revealing that even Hulga is touched by stupidity.
  • Hulga considers herself a nihilist (someone who believes in nothing), but she has no idea what nihilism can really be like as a lived philosophy, at least until Manley Pointer gives her a lesson in the matter.
  • Hulga thinks (at least initially) that she is totally in control (of herself and of Manley) in her eventual meeting with Pointer. In fact, neither assumption is true.
  • Hulga thinks it is an important insight that she “may die.” From O’Connor’s perspective, everyone will die eventually, and so it is ironic for Hulga to make so much of her own physical mortality. Indeed, if Hulga truly took her mortality seriously, she would not behave as selfishly as she does.
  • Hulga assumes that Pointer will be easy to seduce, when in fact it is Pointer who seduces her.  She assumes that she is much more powerful and self-controlled than she really is.
  • Hulga prides herself on having no “illusions,” when in fact her whole personality is based on a series of illusions and self-deceptions.
  • Hulga assumes that Manley is a “poor baby” who fails to “understand” life as deeply as she does, when in fact he is a consummate cynic who quickly and easily shows up Hulga’s own shallow comprehension of existence.
  • Hulga likes to think of herself as totally honest, but she lies about her age – a lie so unoriginal that it is almost a cliché. (She even lies about her lie!)
  • Despite her contempt for Christians and Christianity, Hulga is ironically shocked when Manley fails to live up to standard Christian virtues.
  • Hulga considers herself a shrewd, unsentimental, realistic thinker and takes pride in believing in nothing, but Manley easily exceeds her in all these supposed accomplishments.  Ultimately, Hulga the Ph.D. in philosophy fails to live up to one of the oldest of all philosophical injunctions: “Know Thyself.”
Read the study guide:
Good Country People

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