Why did Flannery O'Connor choose an onion as the closing image in the story "Good Country People"?

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Flannery O’Connor was a formalist by training and inclination, which means that she cared about every single detail of her works, even details as small as a single word.  Few words O’Connor uses are used by accident, and thus the final image of the onion at the end of her story “Good Country People” almost certainly has some symbolic significance. Mrs. Hopewell has just said Manley Pointer looks "simple."

Mrs. Freeman’s gaze drove forward and just touched him before he disappeared under the hill. Then she returned her attention to the evil-smelling onion shoot she was lifting from the ground. “Some can’t be that simple,” she said. “I know I never could.”

Their discussion seems significant in the following ways:

  • The reference to the onion is perfectly plausible because Mrs. Hopewell owns the farm on which Mrs. Freeman works. The fact that they are picking onions, then, is entirely realistic and believable, which helps make the onion an effective symbol. If they were picking lemons, symbolism might also be implied, but it would not be nearly as convincing.
  • The onion is an effective symbol partly because it is described as “evil-smelling.” The reference to evil seems perfectly appropriate since Manley is strutting off into the distance after having figuratively (and almost literally) raping Hulga. His final words as he leaves her abandoned in the second floor of the barn – literally without a leg to stand on – make it plain that he is a nihilist (someone who believes in nothing). O’Connor often connected nihilism with evil, and Pointer is a perfect illustration of that idea.
  • An onion has one layer after another and thus is far more complex, say, than a cherry or an apple. Given the fact that Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman assume that Manley is an extremely simple character, the irony is obvious: he is anything but. He is far more complex than either of them suspects. Indeed, because they do not suspect or realize his complexity, they are the ones who seem “simple” here.  Thus the very last sentence of the story is a splendid illustration of the kind of irony O’Connor enjoys creating.
  • It does not seem an accident that it is Mrs. Freeman who is left holding the “evil-smelling onion” at the very end of the story.  O’Connor had earlier suggested a perverse, even evil side to Mrs. Freeman’s personality:

Mrs. Freeman had a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden deformities, assaults upon children. Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or incurable.

Mrs. Freeman is too proud to consider the possibility that she herself may be tinged with evil, but the sentence just quoted certainly implies that likelihood, and the fact that she holds the evil-smelling onion as the story concludes only strengthens that impression.

  • Finally, it seems worth noting that the word “evil” is used only once earlier in the story, when Mrs. Hopewell notices some sentences about nihilism in one of Hulga's books -- sentences that Hulga has underlined:

These words had been underlined with a blue pencil and they worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish.

Earlier Hulga had merely read about nihilism; now she has actually encountered a nihilist and been victimized by him. Thus Mrs. Hopewell’s insight that nihilism and evil are somehow connected seems less “simple” than Hulga, at least, might assume.

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