By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Good Country People’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied short stories by Flannery O’Connor (1925-64).
The story, which focuses on a woman with a wooden leg who is befriended by a young and innocent-seeming bible salesman, takes in many themes, including innocence versus knowledge and our perceptions of others: perceptions which are often quite false.
The main characters in the story are Mrs Hopewell, her 32-year-old daughter Joy, Mrs Freeman (the wife of a farmer who works on Mrs Hopewell’s farm), and Manley Pointer, a bible salesman. Mrs Hopewell divorced Joy’s father some years ago and Joy is her only daughter.
Every morning, Mrs Hopewell gets up and lights a gas heater for herself and for Joy. Joy has an artificial leg as a result of a hunting accident when she was ten years old. Every morning, Mrs Freeman comes in and talks and gossips with Mrs Hopewell, who hired the Freemans to work for her because she considered them ‘good country people’ rather than ‘trash’. All the same, she sometimes finds her patience tested by Mrs Freeman’s constant visits and her generally nosy attitude.
Perhaps as a result of her childhood accident robbing her of many formative experiences, Joy legally changed her name from Joy to ‘Hulga’ (which her mother believes was chosen because it was the ugliest name Joy could think of) when she was twenty-one. Mrs Hopewell refuses to call her by this name. Joy/Hulga also tolerates Mrs Freeman’s continual presence at the house because she saves Hulga from having to take walks with her mother.
Unlike Mrs Hopewell, Mrs Freeman actually calls Hulga by her preferred name, but this irritates Hulga because the younger woman connects Mrs Freeman’s use of it with her general fascination with Joy-Hulga’s artificial leg. Although Joy has got a PhD in philosophy, her mother isn’t proud of her daughter’s chosen vocation, and wishes she’d been a teacher or an engineer.
A young bible salesman named Manley Pointer, who had already popped round once the day before, returns to the house and tries to interest Mrs Hopewell in buying a bible for her parlour. Although she has no interest in purchasing one, she warms to him when she discovers that he’s one of the ‘good country people’ she likes, and that he has the same heart condition her daughter has.
That night, Hulga recollects her conversation with Pointer, during which she lied about her age, telling him she was seventeen. She has agreed to go for a picnic with him the following day. She imagines seducing him and curing him of his ensuing remorse and shame. She views him as a simpler person than herself.
The following morning, while they walk to the pasture near the woods, she tells him that she doesn’t believe in God, and he enquires how her wooden leg is attached. This line of questioning makes her angry, but when he kisses her – the first time she has ever been kissed – she ignores the excitement she feels, hiding this from Pointer and acting unimpressed.
When they arrive at a barn, Hulga suggests they go and lie down at the top storey of the barn, ignoring Pointer’s objection that she won’t be able to climb up because of her wooden leg. Once they are up, they kiss, Pointer taking her glasses from her face and pocketing them.
He professes his love to her, demanding that she say that she loves him back. She equivocates, but confesses that she is older than seventeen and that she has numerous college degrees. He tells her his doesn’t care about her past and that if she wants to prove to him that she loves him, she will show him where her wooden leg joins on.
She is shocked by this suggestion and refuses. He persists, telling her that her leg is what makes her different from other people. Believing she is dealing with someone who is completely innocent, she reluctantly agrees, and he takes her leg off and puts it out of her reach.
Although she repeatedly asks him to give it back to her, he refuses, taking out some whisky and a pack of cards and insisting they have some fun first. She reminds him that he is a Christian and so should be kind, but he tells her he doesn’t believe in that ‘crap’, and she realises he is not ‘good country people’, as she had been led to believe.
He then packs her leg into his suitcase and leaves, telling her that he travels around taking things from people in this way and she will never catch him. The story ends with Mrs Freeman and Mrs Hopewell observing him – believing he is still a ‘dull’ and ‘simple’ lad – as he leaves the area.
Published in Harper’s Bazaar in June 1955, the same month that it appeared in her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, ‘Good Country People’ might be regarded first and foremost as a story about innocence of various kinds. Mrs Hopewell prizes a kind of unsophisticated and straightforward simplicity in others, which is both a desire for innocence in other people and a form of innocence herself. As Mrs Freeman notes at the end of the story, some people can’t be all that innocent or simple.
Similarly, her daughter believes she is among the less deceived, but she possesses an innocence about the world which Manley Pointer both exposes and exploits. She goes from believing she is the one in control of his innocence to realising that she has herself been controlled and tricked by someone far less innocent than herself.
Joy-Hulga believes she has more control over her own life than she does. Her wooden leg allows her independence of sorts, even though she is in reality still at home with her mother aged thirty-two. The fact that she lies twice to Pointer about her age gives her the illusion of being in control over her own narrative.
Even the second age she gives him is a lie: she is thirty-two rather than ‘thirty years old’, which is what she gives her age as when she appears to come clean to Pointer about not being seventeen. Little does she know that he has lied about being ‘Pointer’ and is spinning his own fanciful narrative.
Indeed, Joy and Pointer have much more in common than she realises. As well as both being liars – she lies about her age, and he lies about his motives – they are also both atheists, although his trade as a bible salesman leads Joy and her mother to believe he is a ‘good’ Christian man, the sort of homespun young man who could be found all over the Deep South in the first half of the twentieth century.
What’s more, both ‘Manley Pointer’ and ‘Hulga’ have adopted assumed names: Pointer tells Joy-Hulga that he uses a different name in every place he visits in order to render him untraceable, while Joy has legally altered her name as a response to the loss of her leg when she was younger. Both, of course, are also intimately attached to Joy’s wooden leg: Joy in a literal sense, but also because she never lets anyone else touch it; and Pointer because he seems to get a strange kick out of ‘collecting’ prosthetic body parts from the women he meets.
Indeed, the theft of Joy’s wooden leg might be regarded as a form of symbolic violation of her body: ‘Manley’ – his assumed name emphasising his virile masculine power despite his ostensible boyish innocence – persists in trying to seduce her into letting him get his hands on her prosthesis, and when he finally is allowed to touch it, he steals it, rendering Joy-Hulga ‘dependent’ on him in an instant.
It is worth bearing in mind that many young women living in the South at the time the story is set would have felt similarly dependent on a man who robbed them of their virginity, especially in a deeply Christian society.
And in many ways, that is what Manley Pointer has done. He has robbed Joy-Hulga not of her virginity but another kind of innocence, showing her that she, and her mother, have drastically misread him and that he is not the simple, innocent young man they took him for. Of course, Joy has also been brought down a peg or two, and her condescending rational view of this supposedly Christian boy – what we might call her unholier-than-thou attitude – has been destroyed.
Significance of Character Names
Names in ‘Good Country People’ are laden with meaning: Joy’s birth name is rendered ironic by her miserable childhood accident, while the surname Hopewell seems oddly ironic given the strained relationship between mother and daughter. On the other hand, Mrs Hopewell is someone who endeavours to see the best in the ‘good country people’ she finds, so she continues to think well and hope well of them.
And Manley Pointer’s assumed name deftly combines masculine toughness with the name of a well-known breed of dog used to help hunters in finding game; the name ‘Pointer’ also possesses a phallic quality. Pointer himself is a kind of hunter, looking for vulnerable women to divest of the body parts on which they are most dependent.
‘Freeman’, meanwhile, suggests someone who is ‘free’ of such illusions or blind spots: at the end of the story, Mrs Freeman shows that she possesses a deeper knowledge than the Hopewells, when she observes that ‘Some [people] can’t be that simple’ and that she isn’t herself. Self-knowledge can lead to a greater knowledge of other people and their motivations.