What makes the title of the story, "Good Country People", ironic?
In Flannery O'Connor's short story entitled "Good Country People," the title is ironic for a few reasons.
Mrs. Hopewell is the character that uses the phrase most often. She first uses it to speak of Mrs. Freeman, who is a tenant on her farm. She uses the phrase in a demeaning way, to show that Mrs. Freeman is inferior to her. She talks about them almost as her property, certainly as her underlings. Mrs. Hopewell judges people as either "good country people" or as "trash." She is willing to put up with many annoyances in order to have the good country people around her because she's had enough experiences with trash. O'Connor never addresses it directly but gives the reader many clues that Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter Joy are the ones who are the problem, rather than the folks that never stayed in her employment for more than a year—the ones she refers to as trash. When Mrs. Hopewell was checking references before she hired the Freemans, this is what she found out about them:
. . . Mr. Freeman was a good farmer but that his wife was the nosiest woman ever to walk the earth. "She's got to be into everything," the man said. "If she don't get there before the dust settles, you can bet she‖s dead, that's all. She'll want to know all your business. I can stand him real good," he had said, "but me nor my wife neither could have stood that woman one more minute on this place." That had put Mrs. Hopewell off for a few days. She had hired them in the end because there were no other applicants but she had made up her mind beforehand exactly how she would handle the woman. Since she was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything—she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge. Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people's in such a constructive way that she had kept them four years.
Take note of a couple of things in this quote. First, there were no other applicants for the job. That could indicate that the Hopewells had earned such a reputation that no one wanted to work for them. Mrs. Hopewell really had no choice but to hire them. Secondly, the text explicitly states that Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own. How likely is that? It's my opinion that O'Connor is using irony here. She's using the third person omniscient narrator's voice to give us a peek inside Mrs. Hopewell to show us how she views herself.
Joy, who legally changed her name to Hulga, muses (through the omniscient narrator voice) that if it weren't for her heart condition, she would be far away from these 'good country people." When Joy-Hulga uses the phrase, it means simple, uneducated folks. She also believes that the good country people are beneath her.
Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about.
Hulga has a PhD, and she believes she is going to trick the traveling Bible salesman into having sex with her; after all, he's just a good country person, and therefore nowhere near her intellectual abilities. The irony is that it is Manly who ends up tricking Hulga.
Another interesting point is that when Mrs. Freeman comes to the Hopewells' kitchen she is often standing with her arm against the refrigerator, looking down on the Hopewells. This is clearly intentional. The irony, again, is that the Hopewells look down on Manly and the Freemans as just being simple folk who are inferior to their own manners and intelligence, when in actuality, the others in the story look down on them.
The title is ironic because the characters who feature in the story might be country people but they don't appear particularly good, in any sense. The four main characters, Mrs Hopewell, her one-legged daughter Joy, their tenant Mrs Freeman and the young salesman Manley Pointer, are an ill-assorted group and none of them come across as very likeable.
In fact, the very names of these characters are ironic: the Hopewells don’t really hope for anything, Mrs Freeman is not free, but a tenant on someone else’s farm; Joy is anything but joyful, and has changed her name to the grim-sounding Hulga, alarming her mother:
When Mrs Hopewell thought the name, Hulga, she thought of the broad blank hull of a battleship.
Manley’s behaviour turns out not to be manly but more like that of a crude, immature boy. He pretends to care for Joy only to run off in triumph with her artificial leg leaving her stranded in a barn. Joy is therefore made the victim of a sick joke, but she in turn has always treated the people around her with contempt which perhaps qualifies the reader's sympathy for her at the end.
As in other of her stories, O'Connor gives us a somewhat depressing and squalid picture of characters who are limited mentally, and also physically; they have no opportunities to better themselves or to expand their minds. Joy longs to be away from her restricted home, to ‘be far from these red hills and good country people,' to pursue an academic career, but it does not seem likely that she, or any of the others, will ever actually escape. However O'Connor also laces the story with a characteristic dose of sardonic humour, rendering these somewhat hopeless characters more memorable.