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Exploring Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People"

Summary:

Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" explores themes of deception, identity, and the complexity of human nature through the interactions between a nihilistic young woman and a seemingly simple Bible salesman. The story highlights the contrast between outward appearances and inner realities, ultimately revealing unexpected depths in its characters.

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What is the actual meaning of Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People"?

"Good Country People" is one of O'Connor's most famous stories and different readers will find different meanings in this work.

The story certainly seems to have a lot to say about appearances. The work's central character is named Joy, but she certainly does not seem to be a very joyful person. In fact, she has changed her name to Hulga, which sounds a lot like the words "hulk" or "ugly."

Manley Pointer is a Bible salesman, but he knows very little about the Bible and in reality behaves more like an incarnation of the Devil than one would expect a Bible salesman to behave. Indeed, he cannot even pronounce the word "Christian" correctly.

Whereas Manley Pointer does not appear to be very intelligent, Joy-Hulga (like O'Connor herself) is a highly educated woman. Joy-Hulga assumes that her intelligence will easily defeat that of Manley Pointer, whom she regards as a simpleton.

Ultimately, though, Joy-Hulga learns that she should not judge a book salesman by his "cover." Manley Pointer tricks Joy-Hulga and steals her wooden leg.

Even as Pointer flees the farm with the wooden leg, Joy's mother does not realize what a wicked fellow he is:

“Why, that looks like that nice dull young man that tried to sell me a Bible yesterday,” Mrs. Hopewell said, squinting. “He must have been selling them to the Negroes back in there. He was so simple,” she said, “but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.”

Thus, while O'Connor's story will have a variety of interpretations, one of the central themes of the work appears to be about the need to look at people in a way that goes beyond just the superficial.

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Summarize "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor.

Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” embraces the theme of innocence versus evil.  In this instance, the innocent does not defeat the bad character.

The narration of the story is third person point of view with the narrator a reliable observer.  The setting is rural Georgia on “The Cedars” farm. 

The story is loosely divided into four sections.  Typical of O’Connor’s stories, the story involves contrasting one character against another:

  • Mrs. Hopewell versus Mrs. Freeman
  • Joy/Hulga versus Mrs. Freeman’s daughter
  • Mrs. Hopewell versus Joy
  • Joy versus Manly Pointer

O’Connor will tell part of the story through one character’s perspectives and then turn sharply to another of the contrasting characters.

The first section

Mrs. Hopewell hires some temporary help for the farm. Mrs. Freeman, a busybody, and her two daughters have worked on the farm now for four years; they are reliable and hard workers.  The two daughters are nice and well-mannered. Joy/Hulga, although better educated, to her mother does not compare to the normalcy of the Freeman girls.

The second section

Hulga Hopewell changes her name to Joy.  She is thirty-two years old, bitter, and unhappy.  Her problems started when she was ten and her leg was shot off in a hunting accident.  She now wears an artificial limb.  Joy has spent most of her life going to school.  Her highest degree is a Ph.D. in philosophy. She has no purpose in life and mostly sits around reading and using sarcasm at every turn.

The third section

Manly Pointer, a Bible salesman, comes to the door.  He implies that he has a heart problem. Mrs. Hopewell asks him to dinner because he is "good country people."  Joy and Manly are attracted to each other, which pleases the mother. Joy and Manly meet outside and set up a date for the next day.

The fourth section

The two meet the next day and hurry to the barn with Joy thinking that she will seduce the boy. They go up into the loft. As soon as they are there, Manly takes control.  Manly takes off Hulga’ glasses because they interfere with their kissing. He places the glasses in his pocket.  

Pointer kisses her passionately and insists that she tell him that she loves him. Finally, Hulga utters, "Yes, yes," and Pointer then demands that she prove it. Pointer wants her to  take off her artificial leg.  Despite her inner urge not to do so, she decides that for the first time in her life, she would surrender to someone. “All right."

Since she has surrendered her leg to Pointer, Hulga feels entirely dependent on him. Pointer sets her leg out of her reach. When she asks that he return it, he refuses, and from a hollowed-out Bible he produces whiskey, condoms, and playing cards with pornographic pictures on them.

Disillusioned, Hulga tries to reach her wooden leg only to have Pointer easily push her down.

Physically defeated, she hisses, "You're a fine Christian! You're just like them all — say one thing and do another..."

Hulga, then, hears Pointer tell her that he is not a Christian.

As Pointer leaves the barn loft with Hulga's wooden leg, he further disillusions Hulga by telling her that he has obtained a number of interesting things from other people, including a glass eye, in the same way that he took Hulga's leg.

Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman observe Pointer leaving and think that he has been selling Bibles to the black people. Mrs. Hopewell states that she thinks the world would be better off if everyone were like Manly Pointer.

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What is the conclusion of "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor?

Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People" examines human nature and blind acceptance (based upon one's similarities with another's ideology).

Short stories are broken down into five distinct parts: Introduction/Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action/Denoument, and Conclusion/Resolution. The conclusion is the part of the story which, typically, wraps of the story and offers closure for the characters and the readers.

The conclusion of "Good Country People" does offer a wrap up of the story, but it may fail to offer closure to some readers. At the end of the story, Joy-Hulga is left, high in a loft, without her leg and without her dignity. Manley Pointer has seduced her, even though it was her intent to seduce him. Critical readers come to find that Joy-Hulga should have "stuck to her guns" in regards to her trust in nothing.

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What is the conclusion of "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor?

Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” features an examination of religious views and interesting characters.  O’Connor approaches her writing knowing that she will shock her readers. Her strong religious views offer her characters “a moment of grace.” She also writes for those who have "something" in their lives that hold them back from being full participants in society.

Summary

Joy-Hulga, a 32 year old atheist with a PhD, finds herself seduced by a Bible salesman Manly Pointer. Hulga’s sexual vulnerability [she has never been kissed] takes her to the loft in the barn.  Pointer’s ability to impersonate the “country bumpkin” fellow, who is just trying to make it in the world, allows Hulga to feel superior yet open to this sexual encounter.

At first, Hulga willingly displays her false leg and stump to her “innocent” partner.  Mistakenly thinking that he could loosen her up with alcohol, Pointer’s true character comes through as he displays his perversions to an unsuspecting Hulga.  Hidden in a cut away Bible are his pornography, whiskey, condoms.

When Hulga realizes that this man has fooled her, her attitude and actions pull her back to reality.  Pointer is not the sweet, innocent Christian boy to whom Hulga exposed her weaknesses.  This startling revelation about Manley simultaneously exposes Joy-Hulga's naivety and sets her up to receive grace.

Pointer’s perversion is to collect some oddity from his lovers, so he moves her prosthetic leg away from her and puts her glasses in his pocket.  She screams for him to give back her leg.  Pointer shows his true despicable character:

The boy’s mouth was set angrily. “I hope you don’t think that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going.”

Now her plan to make a fool of the salesman has a back fired.  When he steals her leg and leaves her stranded in the barn, symbolically Hulga has been fooled by the con artist who is a greater cynic than she is. The irony comes when the reader realizes that this harden girl is left alone literally without a leg to stand on.

O'Connor writes: 

"the girl was left, sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight. When she turned her churning face toward the opening, she saw his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake..."

It is in this moment that things will never be the same for Joy-Hulga. One way or another, she is affected by the moment of grace.

The rest of the story shows the two older ladies working in the fields. Hulga’s mother sees Pointer leaving and comments about his innocence and simplicity.  The other lady’s response surprises Hulga’s mother:

“Some can’t be that simple…I know I never could.” 

When Hulga is found and her mother has to face what has happened, the mother’s confidence in her ability to see into people’s hearts will be destroyed.  The final analysis of the story shows the atheist being tricked by the “supposed Christian.”

O’Connor makes it obvious that no one can tell what a person believes from the outside. The story's ironic ending confirms the author’s idea that one is not able to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians based on their appearance and actions. Only God can see into the hearts of men.

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What is the climax of the story "Good Country People" by Flannery O' Connor?

The climax or high point of the story comes when, in the hay loft where they have gone to make love, Hulga realizes that Manley is smart and evil. Up until this point, she had accepted him as he presented himself: as a poor, innocent rube of a traveling Bible salesman. Hulga, with her PhD., assumes she is superior to him and much more sophisticated.

However, at the story's climax, Manley opens a fake Bible and shows her a flask of whiskey and obscene playing cards inside it. At this point, Hulga starts to realize that Manley is not "good country people." He also has taken her wooden leg, putting her at his mercy. He tells her is not the good Christian she thought:

“I hope you don’t think,” he said in a lofty indignant tone, “that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going!”

The point of climax occurs when Hulga and the reader realize Manley has tricked them into thinking he is what he is not. He takes her leg as the trophy he wanted, stranding her in the hay loft.

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What is the climax of the story "Good Country People" by Flannery O' Connor?

The climax comes during the scene where the wandering salesman, Manley Pointer, steals Hulga's leg. The irony in his evil, and her reflective innocence, reveals that Hulga has been trapped by her physical incapacity, as well as her spiritual.

This is the moment when Hulga's carefully built defense of nihilism breaks down. Instead of being the temptress, soiling a God-fearing man as she supposed, she finds herself the victim of an act of violence and cruelty. All of her supposed intellect and crafted belief in nothing is revealed to be just that: nothing. She finds that someone else has essentially come to the same conclusions, with none of the advantages. Instead of rejecting her roots, and transforming herself into something ugly, she should have kept the spirituality of the "good country folk."

There is a chance at redemption, however. Having lost her leg, she has lost her outward symbol of defiance and denial. She can now explore the possibility of returning to a relationship with those around her, including the spirituality needed to be whole. 

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Why is Flannery O'Connor's short story titled "Good Country People"?

Flannery O'Connor's choice of the title "Good Country People" for her short story about religious small-town people in rural Georgia is considered entirely ironic.  As the eNotes biography of O'Connor, the link to which is below, notes, the author's brief life was characterized by both deep religious conviction and the knowledge that she would likely die young from the inherited disorder Lupus.  As she would, in fact, succumb to that disease at the age of 39, her brief life was torn between the belief in a just God and the awareness of her impending doom.  Her inability to reconcile that conflict provides the basis of "Good Country People."

"Good Country People," of course, is about a widowed farmer, Mrs. Hopewell, and her 32-year old physically disabled daughter, Joy (again, note the irony in O'Connor's choice of names: "Hopewell"; "Joy"), an overeducated atheist.  Mrs. Hopewell is religious, and welcomes into her home a Bible salesman named Manley Pointer, who turns out to be anything but a paragon of virtue.  O'Connor portrays Mrs. Hopewell as both the most fundamentally religious person in the story, and the most delusional.  Her relationship with Mrs. Freeman is a case in point.  Mrs. Hopewell willingly blinds herself to the probably facts regarding Mrs. Freeman's teenage daughters, Glynese and Carramae:

"Joy called them Glycerin and Caramel.  Glynese, a redhead, was eighteen and had many admirers; Carramae, a blonde, was only fifteen but already married and pregnant . . . Mrs. Hopewell like to tell people that Glynese and Carramae were two of the finest girls she knew . . ."

The reader can make any assumptions or judgements regarding Mrs. Freeman's daughters he or she wishes, but, within the context of O'Connor's life and the role of irony in her writing, the implication is clear: Glynese and Carramae are anything but virtuous.  Mrs. Hopewell, however, remains certain in her beliefs:

"She realized that nothing is perfect and that in the Freemans she had good country people and that if, in this day and age, you get good country people, you had better hang onto them."

The irony in O'Connor's choice of theme and title reaches its climax in the revelation that the traveling Bible salesman, Manley Pointer, is a fraud intent on engaging Joy in sexual intercourse.  Early in their encounter, Pointer states that "I want to devote my life to Chrustian (sic) service . . . I got this heart condition.  I may not live long.  When you know it's something wrong with you and you may not live long, well then, lady . . ."  Again, O'Connor's knowledge that she may die young from Lupus despite her religious upbringing is reflected in the irony of her story.  

To Mrs. Hopewell, Pointer is the embodiment of the "good country people" she so admires and with whom she seeks to associate.  Pointer's revelation, while seducing Joy, that his personal "Bible" is actually a hollowed-out devise for transporting whisky, pornographic playing cards and condoms is the final nail in O'Connor's depiction of good country people.  His theft of Joy's prosthetic leg is just icing on a very bitter cake.  

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