Why does Joy change her name to Hulga in "Good Country People"?

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Interestingly, O'Connor's selection of names for her characters works to establish their significance in the story. Joy Hopewell has changed her name to the ugly name of Hulga because she perceives nothing of beauty that exists in the world. Unlike her mother, Hulga does not believe in "good country people" and she feels herself intellectually superior to others.

However, her experience with Manley Pointer forces Hulga, who thinks that she can seduce him, to realize that her convictions about being able to control her life are, indeed, faulty. She has planned on seducing Manley Pointer, the false bible salesman. However, contrary to her expectations, it is Manley who reduces Helga to a begging woman after he takes her artificial leg and descends the ladder from the hay loft.

Helga tries to appeal to Manley's goodness, but he demonstrates to Hulga that he is the one who believes in nothing:

"I hope you don't think that I believe. I may sell bibles, but I know which end is up."

Manley Pointer has gotten Hulga to show him her leg, and he locks it into a suitcase and takes off. By stealing her leg, Manley exposes her weakness to her, her loss of intellectual pride. Now Hulga finally gains knowledge of evil from her humiliation.

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In "Good Country People," the character known as Joy who changes her name to Hulga does so to reflect both her physical appearance and as a reflection of her soul.  Hulga has a wooden leg, she is very detached from life, feels ugly and believes in nothing.  She has no faith, not in God, not in man, and not in herself to be happy.

Hulga actually believes in viewing the world through negative eyes.  Outwardly hostile to her mother, Hulga has gotten a PHD to set herself apart from others with the belief that she knows about life from having read the great philosophers.   

Joy believes that by changing her name to Hulga, she is being more honest with herself.  The brutal truth, stripped bare is what Hulga wants, she does not want to sugarcoat her life.  It is what it is, she has a wooden leg and believes that her life will be limited and lonely.

"Indeed, she wants to make herself as unpleasant as possible, stomping about and being rude to everyone. She resents her mother not only because of her mother’s simplistic view of life but also because her mother does not accept her for who she is. “If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM,” Hulga defiantly tells her."  

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In "Good Country People," why does Joy feel that changing her name to Hulga is her highest creative act?

Joy's mother suspects that the name Hulga is selected because it is the ugliest name that Joy could find. According to Joy/Hulga this is exactly the case. 

Joy/Hulga is a somewhat bitter young woman and one of her passions is to clearly demonstrate that her mother's views on the world are innaccurate. She resents the views which her mother simplistically espouses as well as the expectations her mother holds for her, saying at one point, " “If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM.” Joy/Hulga refuses to become what her mother wants her to be.

In keeping with this aim, she changes her name. This does two things for Hulga. It erases her mother's creative act of naming her in the first place and it shows that her mother gave her the wrong name.

“One of her major triumphs,” the narrator says, “was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga.

Joy/Hulga is not joyous. She feels that she is ugly and has no place in her community.

Hulga’s wooden leg makes her grotesque...

She is not like other people and she does not want to be. She does not even want to be accepted. There is part of Hulga also that wants others to join in with her view of reality. She tells Manley at one point that “we are all damned.”

All of these tendencies and beliefs, on her part, are clearly communicated in the name she has chosen. The name, then, becomes a corrective act regarding her mother's erroneous views on the world and becomes a communicative act as well. 

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