by A. T. Miller
Study of “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor
| Hulga’s adaptability to the adversities of her life, as “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor illustrates them, demonstrates her strength of character to defy her own destruction. Kathleen Feeley, in her critical analysis of O’Connor’s work, dubs the short story a “Comic Perversion” wherein the characters ardently profess their beliefs, but inevitably twist their assertions into the worst possible manifestations. Looking at Hulga/Joy through Mrs. Hopewell’s unreliable perspective, if Feeley’s outlook is accurate, gives the reader a nobler alternative spin to the protagonist than her more obvious desultory nature. Hulga proves through acts of determination that she has the will to persevere from childhood to adulthood. Manley Pointer manipulates Hulga with the very thing that has kept her from failing against degradation and misery, her courage. He is just good country folk, but he is also the token of her life’s antithesis. It is not her strength that is in question, but her direction in life. She must and will make it out of that loft if only to regain the sense of self that he stole from her. What she does after she gets down will help shape the woman she becomes thereafter.
Mrs. Hopewell thinks of her daughter as a childish dependant at thirty-two, but her denial of anything that does not measure up to her own set of values translates Hulga’s unique and assertive beliefs into blasphemy. Hulga’s protest, “If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM.” (392) competes against her mother’s incessant need to replace the malcontented philosopher with a happy girl. Hulga uses her own name, “working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace…” (393) as a weapon to keep from adopting a punctilious demeanor. Mrs. Hopewell thinks that the childhood accident that rid Hulga of a leg forever weakened her, but acknowledges that she never lost consciousness. In fact, something more immediate tethers Hulga to her mother’s home than fear of the outside world, making “it plain that if it had not been for [her heart] condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people.” Hulga is a woman who chooses a path, and though it may not be the right one for her considerable aptitude, follows it.
Hulga as a little girl remains conscious while partially dismembered. As an adult, Hulga stands up for her beliefs in the face of her mother’s attempts to reshape her into something more aesthetically pleasing. Though Mrs. Hopewell refuses to call her daughter anything but Joy, Hulga asserts herself in a number of ways. At the dinner table, Manley tries to engage Hulga in conversation, and her mother “[feels] she [has] always to overflow with hospitality to make up for Joy’s lack of courtesy.” (396) when her daughter ignores him. Outside, away from her expectant presence, she “saw the two of them walk off together, toward the gate.” (397) while peering from an upstairs window. Hulga and Manley agree to meet the next day, a proposition that her mother would least expect and severely frown upon. Hulga’s personality overcomes her mother’s prodding, proving the tenacity of her resolve.
Mutated beyond bravery into arrogance, Hulga’s aggressive intelligence blinds her to Manley’s crafty intentions. He stares at her, “His gaze somehow familiar,” (398) with the same sick fascination as Mrs. Freeman, who she “had learned to tolerate…” (392) dismissing it without prejudice. When Hulga contemplates her budding relationship with Manley, she feels that “True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind.” (399) and plans to shape their relationship as she sees fit. When she realizes that he is not the simple country boy he claims to be, “she scream[s] and trie[s] to lunge for [her leg]” (403) despite her invalid status. He pushes her aside, but he still feels the need to justify himself, stating that he has believed in nothing since the day he was born. Hulga brought herself to this impasse because she had an exaggerated sense of her own prowess, and it will be her fate to get back home.
O’Connor’s story brings a character without any certain path in life to a crossroad built in part by her own lack of faith. Her ability to change and grow has allowed her thus far to rise above the challenges she has had to face. This same attribute, in one sense a distinct advantage, has caused a sort of haze that leaves her vulnerable to the guile of Manley Pointer. As a matter of plot, it was essential for him to lure Hulga into the loft so that she will undergo a necessary shift in perspective toward a view more substantial than nothingness. Symbolically, the leg is the embodiment of the theory of nothingness to which she adheres, a crutch in which she puts too much faith. Manley’s existence illuminates her fundamental character flaw, and provides a catalyst to her downfall, the consequence for her failure to recognize and correct her petty struggle for identity. She uses the classic concept of nothingness to define her reality. In truth, nothingness is a symbol of her unwillingness to assume a decisive role in her life. What it ultimately yields is nothing at all. Hulga has great potential, she is intelligent and full of conviction, but her purpose in life is unfocused and at present, meaningless. Her escape from the loft is not only a likely probability, but also essential to the story’s success in bringing the protagonist to a higher understanding of herself and the world around her.