The OF Blog: Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"

In February 1955, just as she was readying the order of stories for A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, “Good Country People,” over the course of four days that she later gushed about in letters to publisher Robert Giroux (Feb. 26) and Thomas Mabry (March 1).  In her letter to Mabry, she outlines the story’s connections with her other fictions and and how her faith informs her writing:
I am glad you see the belief in mine because it is there.  The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma.  I am a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist.  If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment.  I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery…
I have delayed my collection a little by writing a story two weeks ago called “Good Country People.”  It is the best thing I have done and they will include it if doing so doesn’t cost them too much money.  If they don’t include it, I am going to send you a copy of it because it is one of those examples of the will and the imagination fusing and it is so rare an experience for me that I am a little unhinged by it. (pp. 930-931, Library of America edition)
In many aspects, “Good Country People” lives up to O’Connor’s self-appraisal.  In it can be found the echo of themes that she explored in her earlier fictions, as well as a conclusion that might be, along with those of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” one of her best.  It, like several other tales in the 1955 collection, is an exploration of pride and the forms in which it manifest itself.  “Good Country People” also relies heavily on irony, as seemingly innocuous events early in the story are inverted by story’s end and recast as something darker, more significant than what otherwise might be expected.

The story opens with the reflections of a landlady, Mrs. Hopewell.  Although Mrs. Hopewell is not the central character in “Good Country People,” her meditations on people, particularly her tenants, the Freemans, and her daughter Joy, establish the dissonance between how the characters see themselves and how the situation actually is:
Since she [Mrs. Freeman] 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 giver 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 never felt the lack.  She had hired the Freemans and she had kept them four years.
Nothing is perfect.  This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings.  Another was:  that is life!  And still another, the most important, was:  well, other people have their opinions too.  She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it. (pp. 264-265)
There is more than just a faint echo of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”‘s grandmother or the child from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” in Mrs. Hopewell and her miserable, bitter daughter.  The mother’s false sense of propriety finds its twisted mirror image in the daughter’s sneering, self-loathing self.  Joy, the victim of some childhood hunting accident that led to the amputation of a leg, is the object of her mother’s pity, which infuriates Joy (or rather, Hulga, as she legally changed her name to that when she reached adulthood) to no end.  If Mrs. Hopewell can be seen as a representation of the vacuous, self-blinding “good” member of society, Joy/Hulga in turn represents the frustrated, bitter pride of those who feel as though they have been denied fairness in life.  Further burdened with a “weak heart” that might curtail her life, Joy/Hulga has built up high walls of resentment and bitterness.  Possessing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and yet unable to find even a modicum of happiness or joy in her life, the now thirty-two year-old Hulga believes that by embracing nihilism (or what she understands to be nihilism) that she will gain a sense of superiority over others that her body has failed to allow her to do.  It is an ugly portrait of an character and yet that ugliness fascinates O’Connor.  She easily could have merely set Hulga up for a dashing of this false sense of herself, but she goes beyond Hulga’s petty self and delves into a deeper, societal-wide hypocrisy that presumes to know “good country people” (and by implication, its opposite) when they see it.

“Good Country People” turns from internal character analyses toward a metaphorical discussion of pride and self-blindness when an apparently naive, bumbling Bible salesman, Manly Pointer, makes his appearance, futilely trying to sell a Bible to Mrs. Hopewell:
He didn’t get up.  He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said softly, “Well, lady, I’ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple.  I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it.  I’m just a country boy.”  He glanced up into her unfriendly face.  “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”
“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth!  Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round.  That’s life!” (pp. 270-271)
Embarrassed enough to ask him to stay for dinner, Mrs. Hopewell finds herself beguiled by Pointer’s seemingly simple earnestness, so unlike her own jaundiced view of people.  Yet somehow, he manages to catch Joy/Hulga’s attention enough to surprise Mrs. Hopewell.  However, for Hulga, this is little more to her than an opportunity to defraud a simpleton, a way to prove to herself that her belief that she can see through everything will be confirmed.  The two plan to walk together in the countryside the following Saturday.  Hulga makes vague plans on how to seduce this simple-minded salesman, but as the two walk and eventually climb into a barn loft, this apparent fool is nobody’s fool at all, as he casually crushes each of Hulga’s cherished beliefs in her superiority, leaving her forlornly to recognize the depths to which she has been duped, not just by “Pointer,” but also by her own self-pride in “knowing” that there was ultimately nothingness around which people constructed their fantasies.

O’Connor does an outstanding job in developing events leading up to Pointer’s unmasking of his true self.  The little self-deceptions that Hulga, her mother, and even the relatively worldly Mrs. Freeman engage in see their fruitions in the story’s final three pages.  Yet there is more to “Good Country People” than the revelation of the deficiencies of Hulga’s view of herself and the world.  There is the sense of multiple self-deceptions and self-blinding behaviors that can be seen in people from all walks of life.  O’Connor not only makes a statement regarding the limitations of “nihilistic” worldviews, she also presents in an unflattering light the self-importance that people attach to themselves.  Beyond Hulga’s prideful belief that nothing matters lurks the mother’s milder yet ultimately no better view of others around her or Mrs. Freeman’s more cynical view of society.  Even “good country people” is little more than the imagined prosperous lauding an equally imagined group of poor souls whose “goodness” is merely a cover for their inability to manipulate the deceit-ridden world around them.  O’Connor turns a bright light on this view, revealing its core of benign contemptuousness.  In this can be seen a greater sense of inflated pride, in that “we won’t be taken in like that!” while time and time again, this assumption is proven to be false.  “Good Country People” succeeds as a tale because it operates on more than just the plot level.  The irony of seeing Joy/Hulga’s preconceptions turned against her is only the surface level of a story that has deeper thematic levels, each of which reinforce each other and create a deceptively complex tale that reveals new layers upon successive re-readings.  Out of the ten stories that appear in A Good Man is Hard to Find, “Good Country People” is the equal to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the last story in the collection, “The Displaced Person,” for its prose, characterization, and thematic treatments.  Simply put, it is an outstanding short story, one that can be approached from multiple perspectives and still possess a vitality to it even after it has been dissected and its components probed extensively.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.

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