Good Country People Themes
The main themes in "Good Country People" are social status, Christianity, and innocence versus experience.
- Social Status: Manley Pointer's description of himself as a "country boy" puts the Hopewells at ease and makes them vulnerable to his deception, emphasizing the unique social landscape of the rural South.
- Christianity: Ironically, Manley Pointer, the false Bible salesman, brings Hulga closer to God by abandoning her in the hay loft, forcing her to accept grace as her deliverance.
- Innocence versus experience: Despite her education, Hulga isn't smart enough to identify Manley Pointer as a con man. This suggests that philosophical understanding does not equate to lived experience.
Last Updated on May 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
Innocence and Experience
Hulga does not understand herself as innocent; indeed, she considers herself to be quite experienced because her education has given her access to philosophers such as Nietzsche, whose words she underlines with a blue pencil: “science wishes to know nothing of nothing.” Significantly, Manley Pointer wears a blue suit and lines his suitcase of Bibles with blue, thus linking her nihilism to his evil masquerading as innocence. In denying God and asserting the primacy of Nothing, Hulga lacks the ability to recognize Manley for who he is because, “in her economy,” evil has no more meaning than God has. This “innocent” view allows Manley to spiritually rape her, symbolized by him taking her wooden leg. When she pleads, “Aren’t you just good country people?” he replies, “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!” This last word is deeply ironic, for without a leg—and without a soul—Hulga can go nowhere. If at the beginning she considers herself an intellectual Eve about to seduce an innocent Adam, by the end of the story Adam reveals himself as evil incarnate—Satan himself, perhaps. Through him she falls into the world of experience, gaining the knowledge that evil does indeed exist, that there is meaning beyond the Nothing she embraced at the beginning of the story.
Grace, Redemption, and the Grotesque
As with many of O’Connor’s stories, in “Good Country People” the protagonist achieves the possibility of redemption through an act of violence perpetuated by evil, which in this story is embodied in Manley Pointer. Hulga’s wooden leg makes her grotesque, but more grotesque is what that symbolizes: her soul’s lacking faith. When Manley steals her leg, he contributes to the work of God because doing so provides Hulga with the opportunity to accept grace and spiritually grow from the humiliating position in which Manley leaves her. O’Connor suggests the possibilities offered by the presence of evil in the world when depicting Manley “disappearing down the hole” in the loft and then “struggling successfully over the green speckled lake” as he leaves Hulga “sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight.” In these images, Manley is both devil and Jesus, and Joy/Hulga is in a liminal space of possibility.
Having lost her leg in a hunting accident when she was ten, Joy is crippled emotionally as much as she is physically, her heart problem serving to symbolize this inner grief. To compensate, Joy becomes an intellectual, but this adds to her alienation because it enables her to imagine herself as better than others. 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. Changing her name shows this hostility and provides a way of reinventing herself. “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.” Unlike her mother, Hulga does not “hope well” because her accident, in taking away her leg, also took her faith and hope. Mrs. Hopewell’s inability to see life as anything but simple also prevents her from understanding her daughter for the complex person she is.