Good Country People

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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2012
Short Stories for Students
From: Short Stories for Students(Vol. 34. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 26
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Good Country People

FLANNERY O'CONNOR 1955

Flannery O'Connor's “Good Country People” is one of the most widely anthologized short stories in the American canon, even after more than fifty years since its first publication. Initially included in the 1955 collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the story was republished in 1971 in the posthumously published The Complete Stories. The latter compilation won the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction.

O'Connor herself considered “Good Country People” to be one of her finest short stories. Richard Giannone, in Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love, reports that in a letter to Robert Giroux, her editor, she wrote that “Good Country People” would anchor the rest of the stories included in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, as it was a “very hot story” that would “set the whole collection on its feet.”

The story contains all the hallmarks of classic O'Connor fiction. Set in the American South, “Good Country People” explores themes of faith, good and evil, and grace through irony and symbolism using a gothic style that O'Connor preferred to think of as grotesqueness. Her stories, including “Good Country People,” were typically humorous, although hers was a dark humor commonly lost on the average reader, who could not always see through the violence wrought by corrupt characters to O'Connor's moral messages. As quoted by J. B. Cheaney in “Radical Orthodoxy: The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor,” Page 63  |  Top of ArticleGiroux once explained that her critics often “recognized her power but missed her point.”


Flannery OConnor Flannery O'Connor AP Images

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Born on March 25, 1925, Mary Flannery O'Connor was the only child of Edward O'Connor, Jr., and his wife, Regina Cline. The couple doted on their daughter and raised her in a devoutly Catholic home in Georgia. When she was twelve years old, O'Connor and her family moved to Atlanta, but within months, she and her mother returned to their home in Milledgeville. Edward was diagnosed with lupus, a disorder that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues, and died just weeks before his daughter's sixteenth birthday in 1941.

That same year, O'Connor graduated from high school and enrolled at Georgia State College for Women, where she served as art editor for her school's newspaper and edited the campus literary magazine. O'Connor graduated with a degree in social science in 1945. That was the year she dropped her first name and applied to the University of Iowa's graduate journalism program, where she was accepted into the Writers' Workshop master of fine arts program.

O'Connor sold her first short story, “The Geranium,” to Accent magazine and subsequently won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award. She left Iowa in 1947 with her degree and headed to Sarasota Springs, New York, where she worked on her first novel, Wise Blood. During this time, she met Robert Giroux, who would one day become her editor, and the translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally. The Fitzgeralds would remain lifelong friends.

O'Connor moved in with the Fitzgeralds in their apartment in Ridgefield, Connecticut, after a brief stay in New York City. While living with the Fitzgeralds, O'Connor wrote and published three more short stories and made great progress on her novel. In late 1950, the writer's health began to decline, and she became critically ill on a trip home to Milledgeville. At the young age of twenty-five, O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus, the same disease that killed her father. She spent most of the following year in Atlanta, undergoing blood transfusions and experimental treatments with the drug ACTH to combat her illness. In 1951, she returned home to live with her mother. The women moved onto a dairy farm that O'Connor's mother had inherited in 1947. O'Connor would live out the rest of her life on the farm, which she renamed Andalusia.

In 1952, O'Connor completed and published Wise Blood. Her life at Andalusia was not an unhappy one; she and her mother ate regularly in town and had scores of visitors to the farm. The ACTH made O'Connor's lupus symptoms bearable but left her bones in such fragile condition that she was forced to walk with crutches beginning in 1953. Although travel was difficult, she did manage to range the lecture circuit among regional colleges, and she even made the journey overseas to France and Rome. O'Connor published her first short-story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in 1955. “Good Country People” was included in that compilation. In 1960, she published a second novel, Page 64  |  Top of ArticleThe Violent Bear It Away. The author published her final work, an introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, a book which she also edited, in 1961. On August 3, 1964, at thirty nine years old, O'Connor died from complications of lupus. She was buried next to her father in the Milledgeville Memory Hill Cemetery.

Several other works of O'Connor's have been published posthumously, the most significant one being The Complete Stories (1971). She was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972 for that title. Regina Cline O'Connor donated the bulk of her daughter's manuscripts and letters to Georgia College & State University, which now acts as the principal repository for her works.

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • “Good Country People,” adapted as a film by Jeff Jackson and distributed by Taos Land and Film Company, was released in 1976. Shot in 16 mm film, this brief movie (32 minutes) stars Shirley Slater, a friend of O'Connor's, as Hulga.

PLOT SUMMARY

“Good Country People” opens with a vivid description of Mrs. Freeman and her inability to see any character flaws in herself. A woman who can never be brought to admit she is wrong, she instead will change the subject or become distracted with something else. This opening scene also introduces Mrs. Hopewell, the owner of the Georgia tenant farm. Although Mrs. Freeman and her husband are tenants on the farm, the two women have developed a mutual appreciation of each other's company, at least, if not a true friendship.

Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell spend an inordinate amount of time talking about Mrs. Freeman's two teenage daughters, Glynese and Carramae. When they are not talking about those girls, they are exchanging cliché s. Mrs. Hopewell, who had had many tenants on her farm in bygone years, had chosen the Freemans carefully. Despite a warning from another farmer who had hired them that Mrs. Freeman was extremely nosy, Mrs. Hopewell hired them because she felt that, deep down, they were good country people, much like herself. That was four years before, and the two women have spent their mornings together ever since.

More than anything, the ladies boost each other's egos with gentle compliments and by being in general agreement on their barely developed philosophies on life, embodied in platitudes such as “everybody is different” and “it takes all kinds to make the world.” These inane conversations drive Mrs. Hopewell's daughter, Joy, crazy. Joy is a thirty-two-year-old woman who holds a doctorate in philosophy but lives on the farm with her mother. She had her leg blown off in a hunting accident when she was ten and has walked with an artificial leg ever since. In addition to the prosthesis, she has poor eyesight, for which she wears corrective lenses, and a heart condition that has set her life expectancy at a maximum of forty-five years. Despite her age, Joy dresses in shabby clothes that make her look like a child.

Years ago, Joy changed her name legally to Hulga. Her mother is certain she chose the name for being the ugliest in any language. Mrs. Hopewell refuses to use the new name and continues to call her daughter Joy. Determined to overcome her disfigurement, Hulga has earned her doctorate, but to her mother's dismay, she does not use her degree for any practical profession; it does not sound impressive to Mrs. Hopewell to simply tell people her daughter is a philosopher. Despite the fact that Hulga worked hard to achieve a high level of education, in an era when girls primarily went to college to have a good time and find a husband, Mrs. Hopewell takes no pride in her daughter's accomplishment.

Hulga embraces the philosophy of nihilism, which holds that all beliefs and values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated; life is without purpose, and nothing matters because in the end, there will only be nothing. This idea mortifies Mrs. Hopewell, and she is sure her daughter's unhappiness could be remedied if only she would smile and act pleasant. Hulga barely tolerates her mother on most days.

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Enter Manley Pointer, a nineteen-year-old traveling Bible salesman. Because the boy is hatless and disheveled, Mrs. Hopewell concludes that he comes from poverty. He seems eager to please, however, and that wins Mrs. Hopewell over, as does his ability to make her feel infinitely superior to him in terms of intelligence and common sense. She can see his admiration as he looks around her parlor and notices the shining silverware displayed in the sideboards, and it is then that she decides he has never seen so grand a place.

Though doing his best to sell Mrs. Hopewell a Bible, Manley does not have much hope of getting her to part with her money. He confesses, “Not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I'm real simple…. I'm just a country boy. People like you don't like to fool with country people like me!” Much of Manley's dialogue ends with an exclamation point; he is eager to appear gullible and humble. His approach works because Mrs. Hopewell cannot spew out clichés fast enough in response: “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!” Manley understands that he has managed to worm his way into his host's good graces, and soon he is accepting her invitation to dinner. Hulga, who has been standing behind the kitchen door, groans and instructs her mother to get rid of the boy and serve dinner. She cannot believe that her mother is so foolish as to take in this stranger and allow him to sit at the table.

As the meal progresses, Hulga steals an initial glance at the strange dinner guest but then completely ignores him as he provides detailed accounts of his childhood as well as his future plans to conduct missions overseas, where he can bring Christianity to the damned. After two hours, even Mrs. Hopewell has had enough, and she instructs Manley to go. He obeys and sets off down the road, where he finds and speaks with Hulga. They make plans to meet the next morning.

In the morning, Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell are talking in the kitchen. Mrs. Hopewell tells Mrs. Freeman about Manley Pointer: “Lord… he bored me to death but he was so sincere and genuine and I couldn't be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know.” Mrs. Hopewell believes she is good at reading people and judging their character.

Hulga thinks over her conversation with the salesman from the day before, when he had asked if they could meet for a date at 10 a.m. Hulga had lain in bed half the night imagining the date and how it would progress. For now, she stands in the kitchen, lost in her thoughts of yesterday when Manley stopped in front of her and turned to stare directly at her. Nearly a minute passed before he said anything, and when he did, it was a bizarre question: “You ever ate a chicken that was two days old?” Hulga quickly answered yes.

Manley and Hulga begin walking, and he mentions her wooden leg. Although Hulga is taken aback by his boldness, he assures her that he finds her sweet. When he tells her he finds her glasses attractive and likes girls who wear them, Hulga begins to loosen up a bit. It is then that he asks her to meet him on Saturday at 10 a.m. for a picnic. Hulga lies in bed the whole night, imagining various seduction scenes. She thinks that he would be ashamed if he allowed himself to be seduced but that she would be able to use her superior intelligence to teach him something from the experience.

Hulga and Manley meet as planned, and she notices he is carrying his valise of Bibles. When she asks why he has brought it, he tells her one can never know when one will have use for a Bible. Almost immediately, Manley becomes preoccupied with Hulga's leg and wants to know where it joins with her actual flesh. Although Hulga is offended by the question, Manley quickly recovers and explains that he just thinks she is brave. During their stroll to the barn, Manley and Hulga share a kiss that is far from earthshattering for Hulga, and eventually they discuss topics she finds interesting. When he asks if she has been saved (by accepting Jesus Christ as her savior), she replies that she does not believe in God, and Manley is clearly impressed. They continue to talk until they reach the barn, where they climb into the hayloft.

Once settled against a hay bale in the loft, Manley kisses Hulga. At first she does not respond, but then she returns his kisses with affectionate ones of her own. Within minutes, Manley insists that Hulga tell him she loves him. This is another opportunity for her to flaunt her knowledge, and she claims she can see through people rather than just into them.

While kissing on the hayloft floor, the two converse breathlessly. Manley seems determined to hear Hulga say she loves him, and after telling Page 66  |  Top of Articlehim that all people are damned, she admits that, in a way, she does love him. At that point, he lets her go and tells her to prove it by showing him how her wooden leg attaches to her real leg. He whispers this into her ear, like a lover whispers secrets. Hulga, though she believes that her shame about her leg has been removed by years of education, is aghast at his request. No one but she ever touches the artificial limb. It is, for the physically and emotionally crippled Hulga, her life source.

When she refuses his request, Manley acts hurt and angry. He explains that the leg is what sets her apart and makes her special. Hulga, naively believing Manley to be truly innocent, surrenders to his request and shows him how to take off and reattach the leg. He does it once himself, then removes it again and takes it from her. Already he had removed her glasses, leaving her with little sight. By placing her leg out of her reach, Manley also takes away her mobility. Hulga panics as he forcefully pushes her down into the hay and begins to kiss her more passionately. She finally pushes him off of her and demands that he give her the leg.

Instead, Manley pulls the valise toward him and opens it to reveal its contents: a deck of pornographic playing cards, a flask of whiskey, and a box of condoms. Also inside are two Bibles. He offers Hulga a drink from the flask but she refuses. When Hulga again requests that he give her back the wooden leg, Manley loses his temper and mocks her. In a rage as she realizes how easily she was misled, Hulga screams that Manley is a hypocrite who professes to be a Christian but whose behavior betrays that faith. Manley righteously informs his victim that he does not have to believe in Christianity just because he sells Bibles.

At that point, he places the wooden leg inside the valise. He slams the lid shut and descends through the hole to the barn floor below. No longer giving any pretense of admiration or awe, the salesman informs Hulga that he once got a woman's glass eye the same way he got her leg. Right before he disappears completely through the hole, Manley sneers at Hulga and tells her that he does not believe she is special or exceptionally smart, because he has believed in nothing his entire life. With that, he is gone.

Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman see Manley in the distance walking toward the highway and decide he must have been selling Bibles to the Negroes who live in the backwoods. Mrs. Hopewell remarks on the salesman's simplicity while Mrs. Freeman decides that not everyone can be so simple-minded.

CHARACTERS

Carramae Freeman

Carramae is one of Mrs. Freeman's two daughters. Just fifteen years old, she is married and pregnant. One of the highlights of her mother's day is reporting to Mrs. Hopewell how many times Carramae has vomited from morning sickness that day. She does not appear in the story but instead is shown only through the gossip exchanged by Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell.

Glynese Freeman

Glynese is Mrs. Freeman's eighteen-year-old daughter. A redhead, she has many admirers. One night on a date, the boy she was with gave her a chiropractic adjustment, claiming it would get rid of the sty in her eye. The next morning, the sty had vanished. Like her sister, Glynese is introduced into the story only in the conversations between Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell.

Mrs. Freeman

Mrs. Freeman is the tenant wife on Mrs. Hopewell's farm. Although her husband is a hard worker, Mrs. Freeman does little more than chatter and gossip. A former employer tells Mrs. Hopewell, “She's got to be into everything…. If she don't get there before the dust settles, you can bet she's dead, that's all.” Although Mrs. Freeman thinks highly of herself in terms of her morals and intelligence, she is in reality a simple country woman who cannot see beyond the nose on her face.

Mrs. Hopewell

Mrs. Hopewell is the divorced mother of Hulga and the employer of Mrs. Freeman and her husband. Like Mrs. Freeman, Mrs. Hopewell is full of herself, yet in reality she is merely a simple country woman whose knowledge extends barely beyond trite clichés and local gossip. Mrs. Hopewell has many favorite sayings, each more banal than the last. She prides herself on her solid common sense and ability to read people, yet she lacks both of these assets. To Mrs. Hopewell, Page 67  |  Top of ArticleMrs. Freeman was “good country people” and much more reputable than the “trash” who had previously lived on her farm.

The greatest hope—and disappointment—of Mrs. Hopewell's life is her thirty-two-year-old daughter, Joy. Joy had her leg blown off in a hunting accident at the age of ten, and the event changed her outlook on life forever. Mrs. Hopewell had dreamed of a fulfilling life for her daughter, and “it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times.” Although she wants to love her daughter, the reader is made aware that doing so is almost beyond her abilities. She abhors the sound Joy makes when clumping into the kitchen each morning and hates her refusal to be decent to others—especially her own mother—even more. Mrs. Hopewell does not understand her daughter, believing that “there was nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn't help. Mrs. Hopewell said that people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not.”

The irony in Mrs. Hopewell's character lies in the fact that she is so focused on finding faults in others that she completely fails to see any in herself. Therefore, while she admits to lacking patience, she fulfills what she perceives as her Christian duty to sit with Manley Pointer for hours and listen to him drone on and on about his sorrowful (and, unbeknownst to her, completely fabricated) life story. She is a woman sure of who she is and completely unaware of what she is not.

Hulga Hopewell

Born with the name Joy Hopewell, Hulga legally changed her first name when she turned twenty-one. The name, she felt, suited her and the physical disfigurement that had come to define, in her subconscious, who and what she was. She chose the ugliest name she could think of and claimed it as her own.

Hulga lost her leg in a hunting accident when she was ten years old, and her life was forever altered by the resulting damage to her self-image. Despite the fact that she is a learned woman with a doctorate in philosophy, Hulga lives at home with her mother and goes “about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it.” With bad eyesight and a heart condition as well as a wooden leg, Hulga turns her back on her own physical condition and instead focuses on developing her mind; yet the life she leads is one of bitterness, for she considers herself far superior intellectually to everyone she knows and deems them unworthy of her time or attention.

As Hulga studied philosophy, she came to embrace nihilism, which holds that all beliefs and values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is not a lack of faith but a faith in the lack of anything. Hulga uses this philosophy to protect herself from further pain and humiliation. Her wooden leg, the heart condition that will surely shorten her lifespan, the loneliness of her cloistered life—none of these things matter if she believes there is no purpose to life, that nothingness is the ultimate goal.

So armed with a faith born of intellect rather than the heart, Hulga approaches life with a narcissistic attitude and a deep-seated desire to be seen and accepted for who she really is. When her mother asks her to join her on a walk, but only if she can behave pleasantly, Hulga replies, “If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM.” The ironic aspect of Hulga is that although she cannot tolerate not being accepted for who she is, she herself has never fully accepted herself for who she is either. Instead, she has hidden behind her intellect and neglected every other aspect of her personal development.

Hulga meets her match in Manley Pointer. Hulga judges him to be an unsophisticated country boy, and her mistake costs her dearly. Manley's own nihilistic tendencies are far more deeply ingrained than Hulga's, and when he steals her leg as well as her dignity, she realizes that she has been duped by someone far more clever than she. She shares her first kiss with a man so insensitive and contemptuous that what should have been a special moment in her life becomes part of a terrible memory. He even tricks her into saying that she loves him, and she has the haughtiness to behave as if such emotion did not matter: “We are all damned … but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see. It's a kind of salvation.” As she watches him walk away from the scene of her debasement, Hulga realizes that it had taken someone with a genuine lack of faith to make her understand that when one believes in nothing, nothing is what one has.

Joy Hopewell

See Hulga Hopewell

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Manley Pointer

Manley Pointer is a traveling Bible salesman who tricks all of the women on the farm into believing he is nothing more than a simple, devout Christian boy who has dedicated his young life to sharing the gospel of Christ. In fact, Manley is exactly the opposite of what he appears to be. Everything about him, right down to his name, is false, created for the purpose of trickery and manipulation.

Manley chooses his victims carefully and depends on their trusting and simple ways to allow him into their homes and lives. When he first appears on the scene, it is apparent that he is poor, because he has no hat. Men of class in those days wore hats. Manley is gaunt, and his dirty hair hangs down across his face. With his first words, it is apparent he is manipulating Mrs. Hopewell into thinking she is smarter than he. He calls her Mrs. Cedars, and when she corrects him, he pretends to be puzzled. Manley's lack of sincerity is hinted at by the way that everything he says ends with an exclamation point. He wants badly to appear jovial and cheerful. By acting like a country bumpkin, he makes his way into Mrs. Hopewell's home—literally falling through the door, valise first—without even being asked. As he looks around the room, he lets Mrs. Hopewell believe he is admiring her silver place settings when in reality he is playing to her vanity by acting intimidated and dumb.

Manley continues this behavior with Hulga as he plays on her low self-esteem and insecurities. While she believes in her superiority, he is one step ahead of her, figuring how to best encourage her feelings. When she admits her atheism, he whistles in apparent admiration and amazement. When she gets upset at a comment he makes about her wooden leg, he quickly reassures her that he likes it because it is what sets her apart from others. Manley clearly sees what Hulga needs—ego strokes, compliments, the appearance of being impressed—and he gives her all of it.

In return, he takes what he wants—first, her glasses, leaving her nearly sightless. This loss of sight is ironic, given that she already cannot see things clearly for all her knowledge. He also takes her wooden leg. The artificial leg is Hulga's life preserver; it defines who she is and sets limits on who she can potentially be. For all her professed atheism and lack of faith, Manley's own nihilism makes Hulga realize that her faith in nothing is a facade.

THEMES

Faith

O'Connor exhaustively explored the theme of faith in everything she wrote. She was nearly consumed with the idea of maintaining faith toward the goal of redemption—a concept she called “Christian realism”—and in her mind, redemption could be achieved only through suffering. This led the author to create and develop what she referred to as Christ-haunted characters. In “Good Country People,” the Christ-haunted character is Hulga, and it is through her choices and behavior that the theme of faith is explored.

Hulga lacks faith in anything. Unlike her mother or the other “good country people” in the story, she does not believe in God. She does not believe in herself, for that matter. She has studied existentialism and nihilism, schools of philosophy that deny the existence of unified, objective truths and do not coincide with the teachings of Christianity. In an extremely simplified explanation, nihilism is the belief that nothing has meaning and nothing can be known. Hulga very clearly states that this is where her faith lies: “I don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to nothing.” However, she believes in the power of science to prove or at least confirm all meaningful statements and concepts, and so while Hulga believes she has faith in nothing, she is actually a logical positivist. This is in keeping with the fact that she has a doctorate in philosophy. Hulga replaced any faith she may have once had in God or a higher power with a faith in empirical (measurable and provable) knowledge, and she did so the moment her leg was shot off at age ten.

Manley Pointer, on the other hand, is most definitely a nihilist. His belief in the purposelessness of life and the power of nothingness has turned him into a corrupt, empty human being. Whereas Hulga eventually arrived at her positivism (which, really, is not what she embraces at her core but rather a philosophy she uses to help her deal with her crippling disfigurement), Pointer claims to have been a nihilist all along. Right before he climbs down the ladder of the hayloft with Hulga's leg, he tells her, “You ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

O'Connor made both of her main characters flawed in the sense that they have no spiritual, specifically Christian, faith. Hulga's faith only in what she can prove or confirm through science Page 69  |  Top of Articleturns out to leave her in a desperate situation. She can neither see (as Manley took her glasses and put them out of reach) or move (as she is stuck in the hayloft without her leg). As soon as Hulga chose to value education of the mind over the inherent belief in her heart, she doomed herself. Manley Pointer was a lost soul from birth because his life lacked meaning. At the end of the story, only Hulga is redeemed, through her suffering and loss. The reader is given no hope that Manley Pointer will ever shed his nihilism.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Research music genres popular in the Deep South during the 1950s. Divide “Good Country People” into scenes of your choice and set each scene to music using music-writing software such as Garage Band that allows you to record and/or burn music onto a CD. Write a brief description of each song selection, making sure to include the song title and why you chose it. Bring your soundtrack to class and be prepared to present your selections.
  • Every character in a story comes into the plot with a personal history of experience that makes one the way one is. Manley Pointer is a pivotal character and one with obvious and deep-seated personality traits. How did he become so deceptive and corrupt? What happened to him in his past to cause his personality to develop as it has? Write a short story that gives a glimpse into his past and helps readers understand his motivations in “Good Country People.” Read your story to the class, or post it on your blog site and invite classmates to review it.
  • Using computer-aided design or other graphics software, design and create a book cover for “Good Country People.” Another option is to illustrate a favorite scene from the story.
  • Using the Internet, research southern literature, a genre that exhibits specific traits. Apply this template to “Good Country People,” and using Gliffy or another computer software program accessible to you, create a visual aid to help explain exactly what makes this short story an ideal example of southern literature. Be sure to provide evidence from the story to support your claims.
  • Research O'Connor's life on Andalusia, her family farm. Compare your findings to the circumstances depicted in “Good Country People.” Write an essay in which you cite specific instances of descriptions or activities from the story that may have been inspired or influenced by O'Connor's actual life.
  • Read Vera and Bill Cleaver's award-winning young-adult novel Where the Lilies Bloom, another well-known example of southern fiction. Compare and contrast the novel with “Good Country People.” What similarities exist in terms of setting, characters, and literary style? How do these elements differ between the two pieces of literature? Develop a multimedia presentation that illustrates your findings.

Knowledge

The theme of knowledge—specifically, its nature and value—is explored primarily using the same two characters as with the theme of faith. Early in the story, it is clear that Mrs. Hopewell is not proud of her daughter's quest for knowledge: “The girl had taken the Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss.” The mother considers this study of philosophy confusing, perhaps even frightening. When she comes upon a book Hulga has been reading and in which she underlined a passage, the words “worked on Mrs Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish. She shut the book quickly and went out of the room as if she were having a chill.”

Hulga herself uses her knowledge like a shroud to hide behind. In her own estimation, Page 70  |  Top of Articleher degree and continuous study of philosophy makes her superior to the “good country people” among whom she lives. Her contempt for them is evident in nearly everything she says. Having grown up with poor eyesight, a physical disfigurement, and a weak heart, Hulga feels inferior to everyone else. The one thing she could do to boost her own sense of self-esteem was to nurture her mind and lord it over others, the people she considers simple and stupid.


Hulgas faith is at the crux of her problems. Hulga's faith is at the crux of her problems. alphaspirit/Shutterstock.com

Even in the hayloft scene, Hulga's smugness is evident, as she believes herself to be smarter and more worldly than the manipulative Manley Pointer. He soon rids her of that notion, and she is left in the loft helpless and empty. For all her vast and deep knowledge, she was outwitted by a country bumpkin and thus left to feel inferior once again. O'Connor uses Hulga to subtly suggest to the reader that knowledge for the sake of itself is useless, but when combined with faith, it may allow for an enriching life.

Both Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman also contribute to the theme of knowledge. Both are simple country women, yet each believes herself to be supremely wise. Within the opening paragraph, the reader learns that Mrs. Freeman has just two expressions, forward and reverse. She never veers sideways because she so seldom needs to retract a statement. Mrs. Hopewell does not fare any better, because it seems most of her conversation is riddled with idioms like “it takes all kinds to make the world.”

Both women, nonetheless, judge themselves to be of noteworthy intelligence and quick-witted. Mrs. Freeman says of herself, “I've always been quick. It's some that are quicker than others.” Mrs. Hopewell's bloated self-image drives her daughter crazy as the women sit at Page 71  |  Top of Articlethe kitchen table exchanging idle banter. When Hulga can take it no longer, she jumps up in a rage and exclaims, “Woman! do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not ? God!” While O'Connor clearly wants the reader to question the value of too much knowledge untempered by faith, she also seems to criticize the concept of going through life without enough knowledge.

STYLE

Southern Gothic Literature

Although O'Connor preferred her work to be labeled “southern grotesque,” the grotesque is actually a feature of the southern gothic subgenre. Southern gothic typically involves stories featuring deeply flawed characters, so much so that readers may find them simultaneously revolting and riveting. In the case of “Good Country People,” Manley Pointer fits that description. He is a cruel sort of man, inclined to act aroused by physical deformities resulting in prostheses such as wooden legs and glass eyeballs. Masquerading as a devout Christian whose only goal is to spread the gospel, he is in reality a deceitful, despicable man. Southern gothic fiction also usually includes stereotypical figures like the falsely self-righteous, such as Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman.

The grotesque also shows itself in the form of graphic violence or physical disfigurement, as in the case of Hulga. O'Connor's fiction tends to make the grotesque even more obvious because she often involves it in some sort of shocking twist of events. In “Good Country People,” Hulga has a wooden leg. That in itself is not grotesque but merely unfortunate. What makes the scene grotesque is the seductive way in which Manley Pointer removes the artificial limb and then reattaches it, his “face and his voice … entirely reverent.” As Hulga removes and replaces the wooden leg and then Manley follows suit, it is almost as if the two are engaged in sexual intercourse. While Hulga is imagining running away with the salesman and letting him take the leg off nightly, he is murmuring and becoming more forceful with her physically. Then he pulls out his valise, which once housed another woman's glass eye—a souvenir of a previous seduction—and now has a flask of whiskey, a deck of pornographic playing cards, and a box of condoms. It suddenly dawns on Hulga that this warped scene was something he created regularly, or at least whenever he could find a willing victim.

Irony

Most readers familiar with O'Connor's writing associate her name with irony, the technique of indicating—through plot development or character—an attitude or intention that is the exact opposite of what is actually stated or implied. “Good Country People” abounds with examples of irony. Characters' names, for instance, are ironic. Mrs. Freeman is not free at all, but a worker on a tenant farm. Nor is Mrs. Hopewell hopeful; she is distraught over her daughter's choices, behavior, and attitude. Joy is not joyful, and so she becomes Hulga. And Manley Pointer? The name Manley suggests he possesses the qualities of a man—virulent, chivalrous, virtuous—yet he is none of these.

O'Connor employs irony in her development of Hulga, upon whom she bestows a wealth of esoteric knowledge but virtually no real wisdom. She is by far the most intelligent character in the story, and yet she is the one who is the most severely manipulated and deceived. It is she who suffers and must ultimately find redemption.

Irony is also at play in the final scene with Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell. Both women are digging up onions in the back pasture when they see Manley Pointer emerge from the woods in the direction of the highway. Mrs. Hopewell remarks that he is the “nice dull young man” who tried to sell her a Bible. “He was so simple,” she says. “But I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.” Mrs. Freeman gives her friend's comment a moment's thought and replies, “Some can't be that simple. I know I never could.” However, there they are, two women who hold themselves in such high esteem, completely ignorant of what went on right under their noses.

Humor

Upon first reading “Good Country People,” it is easy to miss O'Connor's dark humor. There is so much going on under the surface of this seemingly simple story, but the humor is there. O'Connor herself has been quoted as believing that the comic and the terrible may well be two sides of the same coin; to her mind, they are forever linked. The astute reader recognizes the author's humorous style in the first page of the story, as the two simple country women idly chat and gossip back and forth. So completely full of Page 72  |  Top of Articletheir own sense of morality and good Christian values—not to mention their belief in the superiority of their wisdom—the two cannot possibly be taken seriously by the reader.

Joy, who is much easier to relate to when thought of as the uglier-sounding Hulga because of her bleak and negative outlook on life, is treated with humor of a sarcastic nature. When she overhears her mother talking with Manley Pointer and the discussion turns to country people, who are the salt of the earth, Hulga cannot be bothered to be polite: “Get rid of the salt of the earth … and let's eat,” she tells her mother. O'Connor again relies on a sense of the absurd when she has Manley ask Hulga if she has ever eaten a two-day-old chick. Without hesitation, Hulga answers in the affirmative. Regardless of the era or the region or the circumstances, no one is likely to eat a two-day-old chicken. It is an absurd question, and one the salesman perhaps asks solely to gauge just how full of herself Hulga is.

Manley himself is treated with humor, foreshadowing that he is not who he seems to be. When he is first invited into Mrs. Hopewell's home, he is literally jerked forward into the parlor by the weight of his valise. This is a scene of slapstick comedy. Add to that the humor found in the fact that even though Mrs. Hopewell never likes to be made to look foolish, she is tricked into inviting Manley to stay for dinner. Already one can clearly see how manipulative he is, and Mrs. Hopewell “was sorry the instant she heard herself” offer the invitation.

Even the final scene, in the hayloft, is treated with dark humor despite the seriousness of its redemptive outcome. This is the scene where irony and gothicism meet head on to tackle the themes of faith and knowledge. Manley Pointer becomes forceful physically with Hulga, and it is evident that he is somehow aroused by her disfigurement. As the scene plays out, one can imagine it visually, and there is a comic effect to it, but with a very dark kind of humor that complements O'Connor's southern gothic style.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The South as the Bible Belt

Even in the twenty-first century, America's southern states (and, less commonly, a handful of mid-western states) are collectively known as the Bible Belt because of the region's fervently religious inhabitants. According to Joseph M. Flora in his article in The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genre, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs, the term was first used by journalist and social commentator H. L. Mencken in the 1920s. Mencken used the term negatively, comparing the Bible Belt to forms of discomfort and “lynching” (execution without due process of law, a common crime committed against African Americans in the South through the 1960s). It is a term still being used in the twenty-first century.

This is not to say that everyone who lives in the South is devoutly religious, but some of the more fundamentalist denominations of Christianity, such as Baptist and Pentecostal, have their roots in the South. In the South of the 1950s, church was the primary place of fellowship and community, especially in rural regions. There were no recreation centers, and schools were not nearly the social hubs they are today. To make friends or even to build business contacts, one had to belong to a congregation. In short, belonging to a church implied a person was trustworthy.

Even today, religion is a cornerstone of southern society. According to the Insider's Guide to Memphis, that city alone is home to an estimated five thousand houses of worship. When talking about Memphians, the guide's author, Rebecca Finlayson, writes that “their religion is such a fundamental part of their lives they have difficulty imagining someone who's not religious at all or who embraces another form of worship.”

The Rise of Consumerism

Until World War II, America was largely an agrarian society. That is, the economy relied heavily on agricultural production. Rural America was the country's heartland, a label still used in the twenty-first century. The 1950s saw the rise of consumerism, and seemingly overnight, the dynamics of the economy allowed for more income and more leisure time in which to spend it. Technological advances allowed average American families to own washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other conveniences that freed up one's time. Material possessions took on new importance as mass marketing became the rage and advertising reached new levels. What was once a want became a need, as consumers were convinced they had to have the latest and best in order to maintain their quality of life. This economic prosperity created a Page 73  |  Top of Articlesocietal and cultural attitude in the more metropolitan areas that was not easily or readily accepted by those living in rural areas whose way of life was now being questioned and even threatened. This chasm helped fuel the rustic notion that people who lived outside the rural regions were not genuine or morally respectable. From a 1950s farmer's perspective, life was being turned upside down, and one was wise to trust only one's own kind.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1950s: According to the Lupus Foundation of America, half of all patients die within five years of a lupus diagnosis because there is no treatment available.
    Today: Ninety-five percent of lupus patients live more than ten years after their diagnosis, and the vast majority live normal life spans.
  • 1950s: Door-to-door selling has a rich history in rural America, and traveling salesmen are a common sight in the South. Nicknamed “Yankee peddlers,” these men travel from town to town—selling everything from perfume to hardware to sewing supplies. This is the first form of direct marketing.
    Today: Door-to-door selling is no longer a common practice and has even been outlawed in many areas. Amore acceptable form of this sort of direct selling is the home party, such as those hosted by cosmetic and kitchen-supply companies. Alternative methods of shopping such as the Internet and mail order have eclipsed door-to-door selling.
  • 1950s: Atheism (the denial of the existence of any god) is nearly synonymous in the American mind with communism. Communism is perceived as a major threat to America's social and cultural foundation. Paranoia reaches a new height when Senator Joseph McCarthy begins conducting veritable witch hunts in an effort to weed out communists living in the United States. In fact, according to Stephen Bates in a Society magazine article, McCarthy warns in 1950 that the “final, all out battle” will be between “communistic atheism and Christianity.” Atheism, therefore, is often viewed as responsible for much of the evil and ills of the world, right alongside communism.
    Today: Although there are more self-proclaimed atheists in America than there were in the 1950s, a 2006 poll conducted by the University of Minnesota reveals that atheists are the most distrusted of all minorities. Atheism is perceived to be associated with immorality, elitism, and criminal behavior. Interestingly, the poll also indicates that respondents with higher levels of education and those living on the east and west coasts are more tolerant and accepting of atheism. Despite progress in attaining rights for gays and lesbians, immigrants, and other minorities, atheists continue to be identified as a threat to the American way of life.

Women and Higher Education

In the 1950s, society's attitude toward women in college was sexist: college was a great place for a girl to find a husband. According to an American Experience program titled “The Pill” on PBS.org, “the dominant theme promoted in the culture and media at the time was that a husband was far more important for a young woman than a college degree.” Women were expected to get married right out of high school or at least during college, and if they failed to do so by their mid-twenties, they were considered old maids.

Although exact numbers and statistics on women's enrollment in college in the 1950s are difficult at best to come by, the Digest of Education Statistics indicates that 31.6 percent of all students enrolled in college in 1950 were women. Page 74  |  Top of ArticleCompare that with 57.2 percent in 2007. Experts noticed the upward trend in the 1990s, and it has not changed through the first decade of the twenty-first century. A 2010 USA Today article written by Scott Jaschik announced that for the first time in history, more women than men (50.4 percent) earned doctoral degrees in the 2008–2009 school year.


Hulga is abandoned in the hayloft. Hulga is abandoned in the hayloft. Losevsky Pavel/Shutterstock.com

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

“Good Country People” was originally published as one of a collection of short stories in 1955. Although criticism about specific aspects of the story has been written, most of the criticism of O'Connor's work is focused on her output as a whole rather than on individual stories or novels. This is the case because O'Connor was a specific type of writer. She did not write with varying styles and on different topics but rather infused the same techniques and themes into everything she wrote. The surprise was not in what she was going to write about but in how she would present it.

Indeed, the author considered it her duty to shock readers. In his critical essay “Grace and the Grotesque: Flannery O'Connor on the Page and on the Screen,” writer Jon M. Sweeney quotes O'Connor as remarking,

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Often compared to such great writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fyodor Dostoevsky, O'Connor possessed a unique voice and remarkable talent with which to present it. She was a Catholic writer whose worldview was developed through a fervent religious doctrine, one that, it seems, was not always understood, much less appreciated, by critics (hence, her need to make her vision apparent via shock). However, her story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find was published to much acclaim. It was this collection that cemented her reputation as a Page 75  |  Top of Articlesouthern gothic writer, although the author herself preferred the term 'southern grotesque.”

Her stories rarely revolve around likable characters, and each is almost without exception what O'Connor, quoted by Brad Gooch in a New York Times article, called a “freak,” either physically or emotionally, sometimes both. Despite the author's fervent Catholicism, the majority of her characters are Protestant, and the American South she depicts in her fiction is much more than local color. Her respect for the mystery of life, rooted in her religious beliefs, informed everything she ever wrote. “The writer's gaze has to extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems until it touches that realm of mystery that is the concern of prophets,” O'Connor once said, as quoted in a 1966 essay that originally appeared in Atlanta magazine.

It has been widely speculated that much of what is explored and revealed in “Good Country People” is a reflection of O'Connor's own life. The story's main female character, Hulga, is disfigured and in ill health, much like O'Connor was for most of her adult life. Hulga has a brief yet torrid affair with a traveling Bible salesman, and the author herself experienced a similar relationship with a traveling textbook salesman named Erik Langkjaer.

In letters to friends and Langkjaer himself, which are made available by Sally Fitzgerald in her book The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor and are explored by Mark Bosco in the Southern Review, it becomes apparent that there are indeed similarities between O'Connor's fictional plot and her actual life experience. Those letters, especially the ones written to Langkjaer, reveal a more passionate and emotional O'Connor than one might imagine from her fictional writing. When Langkjaer returned to his native Denmark in 1954 because he felt he did not fit into American society, O'Connor became lonesome and wrote to him:

You wonder how anybody can be happy in his home as long as there is one person without one. I never thought of this so much until I began to know you and your situation and I will never quite have a home again on account of it.

To that letter she added a postscript: “I feel like if you were here we could talk about a million years without stopping.”

Whatever the influence, “Good Country People” exemplified O'Connor's writing at its finest, and it was part of the 1971 posthumously published collection that won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972.

CRITICISM

Rebecca Valentine

Valentine is an award-winning writer specializing in literature and history. In the following essay, she examines the role of nonverbal traits in understanding the depth of characters in Flannery O'Connor's “Good Country People.”

Much has been written about Flannery O'Connor's literary style. Her name is associated with irony and the southern gothic subgenre, and critics have had a wonderful time dissecting her literary body from a religious—Catholic—perspective. She is famous for her exploration of a handful of themes, which she returns to repeatedly, somehow without repeating herself. Loyal O'Connor fans glory in the idea that the author develops characters with deep and penetrating flaws. Beautiful people have no place in the O'Connor canon. Because there is so much of the obvious to praise and admire in her writing, O'Connor's deft usage of nonverbal traits in her character development is often overshadowed, yet it is the very thing that gives her extraordinary characters believability.

O'Connor recognized the importance of nonverbal traits and clues in good literature. One of her most oft-cited quotes refers to her attitude toward her reading audience. If it could not be assumed that the audience was in agreement with the writers' personal perspective, it was essential to draw them in by making things clear. In her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” published in the 1969 collection Mystery and Manners and referred to by Stephen R. Portch in his book Literature's Silent Language: Nonverbal Communication, O'Connor states, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

To do this effectively, O'Connor understood there have to be both obvious and subtle clues to understanding characters, at least the memorable, three-dimensional characters. Some of her stock characters, such as Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell, could be fully understood through their dialogue alone. Shallow and superficial, there is no deeper meaning or life of the mind for these characters, and so they did not need further treatment. The personalities they embody as the story opens Page 76  |  Top of Articlewill remain unchanged throughout; their fate includes no evolution or epiphany. They come to us as mindless supporting characters, and we leave them mumbling in the onion field, oblivious to their own blinding personal limitations.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood (1952), is a dark comedy, a satire of America's secular (nonreligious) culture and values. With its graphic violence and unlikable characters, the novel shocked many readers of the era. Its serious religious overtones may prove challenging for the average reader to wade through to find the true meaning of the message behind the madness.
  • Zora Neale Hurston wrote southern fiction of a different flavor, and in 1937 she gave the world Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel set in Florida with main characters who are primarily African American. The novel was controversial in its day because it did not depict these characters in relation to white characters, though neither did the author ignore race relations. Instead, she gave her characters a home and dared to give them lives of their own.
  • Kate Chopin was a southern writer who preceded O'Connor. Chopin's stories, of which “The Awakening” is the most widely known and anthologized, were scandalous in part because of their overt sexuality. Published beginning in 1899, Chopin was a woman writer ahead of her time. The Awakening, and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin was republished in 2004 in a volume that includes contemporary criticism of these classic texts.
  • Patricia Yeager's 2000 book Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930–1990 reinterprets classical texts written by southern women to reveal that, regardless of race, southern women were preoccupied with the grotesque, gender politics, and the world of physical labor. The writers included span from O'Connor to Eudora Welty to Harper Lee to Zora Neale Hurston, with several more in between.
  • Historian James C. Cobb's treatise on southern identity charts the tumultuous waters of American southern culture. Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2007) provides insight as to how southerners see themselves and their region. This volume would be valuable to both the student and the casual reader.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 to the highest praises, and author Harper Lee never published another novel. Set in Georgia, the story challenges notions of race, family, and common decency as it portrays a South where justice is not always served. This novel remains one of the most widely read books in high schools across America.

O'Connor herself valued the nonverbal. Portch points out that in one of her Mystery and Manners essays, the writer criticizes stories lacking in nonverbal traits: “Characters have no distinctive speech to reveal themselves with; and sometimes they have no really distinctive features.” O'Connor took to heart the idea that characters needed distinctive features, and she gave the readers as much in “Good Country People” via Hulga and Manley Pointer. To be certain, both characters reveal themselves through their dialogue, but O'Connor so subtly crafted their nonverbal traits that one must almost read the story specifically in search of them to appreciate both their abundance and their effectiveness.

O'Connor's skill with this kind of nonverbal characterization is exemplified by Hulga. Her speech reveals her to be sarcastic, quick-witted, educated. Unlike the other characters in the story, Hulga uses correct grammar and is obviously well educated. Based solely on these observations, a reader might judge her to be worldly Page 77  |  Top of Articleand confident, but her nonverbal traits provide clues as to the true personality of Hulga.

“BECAUSE THERE IS SO MUCH OF THE OBVIOUS TO PRAISE AND ADMIRE IN HER WRITING, O'CONNOR'S DEFT USAGE OF NONVERBAL TRAITS IN HER CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IS OFTEN OVERSHADOWED, YET IT IS THE VERY THING THAT GIVES HER EXTRAORDINARY CHARACTERS BELIEVABILITY.”

When first we meet Hulga, we are told that she has learned to “tolerate Mrs. Freeman” and that she finds the sisters Glynese and Carramae “useful” when they are able to keep her mother's attention occupied and thus not focused on Hulga. When Mrs. Freeman dares to call Hulga by her legal name rather than her given name of Joy, Hulga “scowl[s]” and her face “redden[s]” with contempt. Each of these cues tells the reader that Hulga values other people only in the way that they can serve her. She is quick to anger whenever she feels her personal space has been invaded.

O'Connor lets us know that Hulga needs to feel superior to others even if those others are unaware of her elevated intelligence. Hulga considers her choice of ugly name as her “highest creative act,” and “one of her major triumphs” is that her choice has kept her mother from finding any satisfaction or fulfillment in the fact that she had named her only daughter “Joy.” Hulga's “greater” triumph, however, was that she was actually able to transform herself—her looks, attitude, outlook, behavior, and mannerisms—into “Hulga.”

Every morning, Hulga “stumped” into the kitchen, even though she was perfectly capable of walking without making noise. What victory would there be in that, when she could start her mother's day with an “ugly-sounding” gait and thus remind her that though a new day had dawned, there was no hope in it? Mrs. Hopewell saw in her daughter the sad reality that every day, she grew more and more to fit her chosen name. She was “bloated, rude, and squint-eyed,” characteristics of someone for whom the world holds no happiness.

When Manley Pointer enters the story and sits at the table with Hulga and Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga expresses her disinterest not with words but by glancing at him upon introduction and then pointedly ignoring him for the rest of the meal. When he addresses her, she pretends not to hear him, and when dinner is over, she further spurns him by clearing the table and leaving altogether. When finally the two do converse, Hulga looks at him “stonily.” She answers his questions in a “flat voice” and stands “blank and solid and silent.” Whether or not she is speaking to Manley, she makes it absolutely clear that she is barely allowing him to be in her presence.

Later, as she lies in bed fantasizing about seducing the salesman, she considers herself in possession of “true genius” so powerful that it can communicate even with Manley's “inferior mind.” Hulga thinks so highly of herself that she believes she can actually transform Manley's expected remorse at having surrendered to her intoxicating sexuality “into a deeper understanding of life.” She imagines she can erase his shame and give it back as “something useful.” This entire scene is verbally silent, yet it screams of Hulga's grandiose self-image and bloated sense of power and influence.

Hulga's slovenliness is illuminated when she chooses to wear a dirty white shirt to her picnic with Manley. “As an afterthought,” she rubs Vapex on the collar of the shirt in lieu of applying perfume. Vapex was the 1950s version of Vicks VapoRub and emitted a strong eucalyptus smell associated with illness. These are not the choices of a woman who takes pride in her appearance or who deems herself worthy of even the most basic steps of hygiene. For all of Hulga's caustic verbal emphasis on her superiority over others, her silent behaviors speak much more loudly as to how she truly views herself.

As things heat up between Manley and Hulga and they share a kiss, her reaction is one of “amusement” and “pity.” Whereas a woman's first kiss is commonly believed to be a milestone event, Hulga was “pleased to discover that it was an unexceptional experience and all a matter of the mind's control.” So guarded and cerebral is our heroine that she is completely unable to experience true connection with another human being. While the two are embracing in the hayloft and Hulga begins to return Manley's kisses, Page 78  |  Top of Articleher mind “never stopped or lost itself for a second to her feelings.” Rather than lament this fact, Hulga holds onto it like a child clings to his security blanket. It comforts and soothes her.


A Georgia chicken farm A Georgia chicken farm Paul Brennan/Shutterstock.com

Hulga is “as sensitive [of her leg] as a peacock about his tail.” She cares for it “as someone else would his soul.” This tells the reader that Hulga has projected onto that wooden leg every last ounce of her self-identity. It has become for her, symbolically, her soul, her faith, her self. When Manley steals it from her and leaves her prostrate on the hayloft floor, he in essence destroys the Hulga that Joy gave herself to all those years ago. It is up to Hulga to decide what to do from there—whether to let the maudlin event define her or to seek in it a sense of redemption and a chance to begin anew.

O'Connor suffused Manley Pointer, the story's other main character, with similar telltale nonverbal traits. Before he even utters a single word, we know that Manley is a “gaunt hatless youth,” which is to say he is poor and underfed. He has to brace himself against the weight of his Bible-filled valise, and though cheerful of voice, he seems “on the point of collapse.” Although not ugly, he is dressed in bright blue and yellow, a color combination that invokes amusement more than respect. Surely this is not a man of whom to be suspicious, but one who is unassuming and perhaps even simple.

O'Connor describes Manley alternately as “sparkling,” “pleasant,” “jerking,” and “earnest” as he enters Mrs. Hopewell's parlor. When he wants to convince her to buy a Bible, Manley “twists his hands” and speaks “softly.” He makes all the right moves, displays all the necessary convincing mannerisms to manipulate Mrs. Hopewell. Even if he had never spoken, she would have judged him to be nothing more than good country people.

When Manley first meets up with Hulga on the road outside the Hopewell house, he gazes at her with a curious fascination, “like a child watching a new fantastic animal at the zoo.” He giggles nervously and feels triumphant when he manages to engage her in conversation. Hulga notices how Page 79  |  Top of Articlehis face reddens with embarrassment and how his gaze becomes one of admiration, while “his smiles came in succession like waves breaking on the surface of a little lake.” Manley has his moves down pat. By the end of the story, we know he has done this before, and he is incredibly suave in how he communicates with Hulga not through words but with body language and mannerisms.

These early nonverbal traits of his are in direct contrast with those he exhibits in the hayloft, once he has tricked Hulga. What was just moments earlier a look of admiration becomes a look that was “irritated but dogged.” As he rolls up Hulga's pant leg to reveal the wooden prosthesis, his face and voice are “reverent,” and as he removes and attaches the leg himself, he takes on a “delighted child's face.” But once Manley has successfully relieved Hulga of her leg and claimed it as his own prize, he takes on a “lofty indignant tone.” He “slam[s] the lid shut and snatche[s] up the valise.” The last image—blurry though it must be without her glasses—Hulga has of her pseudolover is one of “his blue figure struggling successfully” away from her. Manley is the victor, and Hulga is the victim.

Flannery O'Connor was considered by many critics to be the master of the short story of her generation. It is the hallmark of someone who does her job well that it is made to look easy. Only upon close reading of “Good Country People” are we made fully aware of just how subtly O'Connor crafted and breathed life into her characters, not only through obvious dialogue but in simply making them all too human.

Source: Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on “Good Country People,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2012.

Rachel Pietka

In the following essay, Pietka analyzes how O'Connor illustrates both nihilism and humanism in the characters of “Good Country People.”

Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga, the bickering mother and daughter in Flannery O'Connor's “Good Country People,” are united by their interest in the legendary category of people for which the story is named. Mrs. Hopewell tells a Bible salesman that “good country people are the salt of the earth!” and Hulga responds to this sentiment with “Get rid of the salt of the earth” (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories [Orlando: Harcourt, 1955]). While the simplicity of good country people keeps Mrs. Hopewell optimistic about the world, Hulga, the nihilist, bases her identity on her self-aggrandized superiority to them. However, when she finds herself deceived by Manley in the dramatic role reversal of her final scene, she learns, traumatically, that belief in good country people is an illusion, as is nihilism. Manley shatters both Mrs. Hopewell's and Hulga's belief systems, and by doing so he becomes a vehicle of grace through which Hulga is prepared for salvation.

While O'Connor responds emphatically to the destructiveness of nihilism through Manley's humiliation of Hulga, the humanist beliefs that Mrs. Hopewell demonstrates are disputed in a more subtle manner. Mrs. Hopewell's religion is an ambiguous moral code that she feels good country people abide by. She says “people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not” and she lives by her sayings, “Nothing is perfect,” “that is life!” and “well, other people have their opinions too.” What ultimately exposes Mrs. Hopewell's profane belief in the goodness of humanity is her statement that equates good country people to “the salt of the earth,” a biblical reference to early followers of Christ. Commentator Donald A. Hagner writes that the metaphor refers to “something that is vitally important to the world in the religious sense” (Matthew 1–13 [Dallas: World Books, 1993]: 99). Mrs. Hopewell's usage of this phrase maintains that good country people are indispensable, though her need of them is not based on a religious deficiency, but a desire for morality. Her lack of interest in the specifics of Christianity is revealed in the same scene, as the narrator tells us that Mrs. Hopewell lies to Manley when she tells him her Bible is beside her bed: “It was not the truth. It was in the attic somewhere.”

Hulga, however, is the only character “privileged” by enlightenment, which occurs as a result of her victimization at the hands of Manley. Her experience with him in the barn opens her to redemption, for O'Connor points Hulga to God and away from nihilism by causing her to experience a kind of conversion with the ideals bound to betray her. Though she had determined to maintain her superiority over Manley, she promptly forgets about her nihilistic beliefs and is captivated by the illusion of intimacy she experiences with him. She makes herself completely vulnerable to Manley by allowing him to see her wooden leg, the most private part of her: “No one Page 80  |  Top of Articleever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul.” When she concedes to let him take it on and off, the language recalls a typical Christian conversion experience. She feels that Manley “had touched the truth about her” and when she gives him permission, “it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.” She has the correct experience with the wrong entity, as is made clear in the exchange between Manley and Mrs. Hopewell when he echoes the words of Jesus: “whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Mt. 16:25 KJV). Having already discarded nihilism in order to fall in love with Manley, Hulga retreats to the safety of good country people when his guile becomes evident. But this belief that Hulga appeals to is also shattered. When Manley leaves Hulga speechless in the barn, she is in a fractured state, which is absolutely necessary in order for her to be prepared for a “true” conversion that she should find in God.

It is significant that Mrs. Hopewell, for all the scrutiny of her beliefs, is not brought to a moment of redemption as Hulga is. The values she taught Hulga are challenged in this story, though she remains oblivious while Hulga is confronted with their falsity. The story is framed by the presence of Mrs. Freeman, the original example of a good country person. Though Mrs. Hopewell accepts Mrs. Freeman's flaws, such as her officiousness, her belief is grounded in an innate sense of morality that accounts for her trust in Manley and others she considers to be like him. This perspective contradicts the doctrine of original sin, which Hulga learns as she stammers, “Aren't you […] aren't you just good country people?” in her final scene.

Country people may exist, but not as Mrs. Hopewell believes. Manley's perfidy speaks to the hollowness of belief in the goodness of humanity and so the ending lines reinforce the idea of original sin as Mrs. Freeman admits her own inability to be good: “Some can't be that simple […]! I know I never could.” These lines are nevertheless ironic, as O'Connor intimates the complicated task of challenging this belief system. Though Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are aware of their own shortcomings, they both watch Manley leave the woods and admire his simplicity directly after he has violated Hulga. The nihilist in disguise as good country people acts as the unlikely catalyst for Hulga's enlightenment, but Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are left in the dark. At the end of this story, the belief in nihilism has been eliminated, though Mrs. Hopewell's brand of humanism remains. “Good Country People” therefore closes with two unfortunately deceived women whose situation proclaims the perpetual infection of the world with false ideals.

Source: Rachel Pietka, “‘Good Country People’ Unmasked: Hulga's Journey to Salvation,” in Notes on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 39, No. 4, September 2009, p. 2.

THAT O'CONNOR DID IN FACT INTENTIONALLY WITHHOLD THE STORY FROM HIM—WHILE SHE HAD SENT NUMEROUS OTHERS FOR HIM TO READ—POINTS TO HER PERHAPS UNEASY AWARENESS OF THE EXTENT TO WHICH IT WAS ROOTED IN HER FEELINGS FOR HIM.”

Mark Bosco

In the following excerpt, Bosco draws autobiographical parallels between O'Connor and the character of Hulga in “Good Country People,” based on the suggestion that the character Manley Pointer represents Erik Langkjaer, a man O'Connor dated prior to writing the story.

What would you make out about me just from reading “Good Country People”? Plenty, but not the whole story.

—Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being

The year 2004 marked the fortieth anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's death from kidney failure brought on from her years of fighting the effects of lupus, in midcentury a debilitating disease and difficult to survive. The intervening time since her death has seen an explosion of critical and popular enthusiasm for her work, so much so that in 1988 she achieved canonical status in American arts and letters with the publication of her Collected Works by the Library of America. In the fall of 2003 an international symposium, the fifth of its kind, was held in O'Connor's hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. It brought together over two hundred scholars and enthusiasts, including novelists, poets, and other artists who have acknowledged O'Connor's influence on their work.

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Readers have been fascinated by this very private woman's stories, as well as by her life. Much of what is known about O'Connor's personal life is revealed in Sally Fitzgerald's award-winning edition of the writer's letters to friends and admirers, The Habit of Being (1979). These letters reveal the intelligence, wit, and religious sensibility of a writer proud of both her southern heritage and her Roman Catholic faith. Arranged chronologically, the letters give a sense of O'Connor's personal development as an artist and offer insight into her personality. What they do not provide, however, is an account of romantic interest in her life. Many critics have assumed that her physical condition, compromised after the onset of lupus in her twenties, precluded her forming—even hoping to form—deep attachments with men.

“Good Country People” (1955), one of O'Connor's most successful and most anthologized stories, centers on the maimed Joy Hopewell, fitted with a wooden leg as the result of a childhood accident. She has officially changed her name to Hulga to reflect the ugliness she feels about life and to spite her mother. Hulga, who has a doctorate in philosophy and displays a disdain for her mother's southern, Christian manners, lives as an aloof recluse on the family farm. One day she has an encounter with a disarming Bible salesman named Manley Pointer, a rustic Lothario who is attracted to this lonely intellectual, in part because he senses an unspoken kinship between her exotic beliefs and his own charlatanism. Surprised by Hulga's declaration of her atheism, he reckons that she is a woman who has thrown off the Bible-belt conventions of the South. They share a brief kiss on a walk in the country, a walk that ends in a secluded loft in a barn. Once there, Manley Pointer continues his amorous maneuvers and seems chagrined when Hulga resists. He asks her to take off her artificial leg to prove that she loves him, and she guardedly agrees. But when Hulga quickly discovers that Manley professed a naïve Christian faith just to get his way with her, he malevolently grabs her wooden leg, stuffs it into his suitcase, and leaves her stranded in the loft. With a sense of brutal revelation, she watches from the window the charlatan's “blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake.”

How art mediates life is a question of general interest in postmodern culture, and “Good Country People” has often made O'Connor fans wonder whether there is any connection between the author's own life and the creation of this story. Parallels abound between O'Connor's history and Hulga's: O'Connor was incapacitated by lupus, which forced her to leave the intellectual and cultural reaches of New York City and return to the South; there she was cared for by her mother on their family farm. A close reading of O'Connor's collected letters reveals in the writer's personality a bit of Hulga's ornery side. O'Connor comes through as a very complex woman who, with great intelligence, is aware of her own vices and virtues. Given these connections between O'Connor and Hulga, it's reasonable to wonder if someone in O'Connor's life served as the basis for the character of Manley Pointer in “Good Country People.”

Several letters in The Habit of Being provide hints of O'Connor's emotional involvement with at least one man in her life. The most striking is her assertion in 1955 to Elizabeth Hester (known simply as “A” in the published correspondence) that she “used to go with” the nephew of Helene Iswolsky, a Dane named Erik Langkjaer. Another strong statement about experience with love is found in another letter to Hester dated August 24, 1956, and concerns the motivation for “Good Country People.” O'Connor's letter responded to Hester's declaration that the character of Joy/Hulga seems very autobiographical, as if there were indeed an ugly, “Hulga” part of the author exposed in the story. O'Connor was most insistent in her response:

Where do you get the idea that Hulga's need to worship comes to flower in “GCP” [“Good Country People”]? Or that she never had any faith at any time, or never loved anybody before? … Nothing comes to flower here except her realization in the end that she ain't so smart. It's not said that she had never had any faith, but it is implied that her fine education has got rid of it for her, that purity has been overridden by pride of intellect through her fine education. Further, it's not said that she has never loved anybody, only that she's never been kissed by anybody, a very different thing. And of course I've thrown you off myself by informing you that Hulga is like me … but you cannot read a story from what you get from a letter…. That my stories scream to you that I have never consented to be in love with anyone is merely to prove that they are screaming an historical inaccuracy. I have God help me consented to this frequently.

With all due respect to O'Connor's own caveat against “reading a story from what you Page 82  |  Top of Articleget from a letter,” O'Connor's unpublished correspondence with Erik Langkjaer shows that the creation of “Good Country People” follows on the heels of her last, powerful experience of romance. Her letters, in particular, reveal that this unrequited love was a likely source of inspiration for this story.

What is already known publicly of Erik Langkjaer in connection with Flannery O'Connor was derived first from four obscure references in The Habit of Being. Additionally, O'Connor's biographers, Sally Fitzgerald and more recently Jean Cash, have brought to light further information about the relationship. Langkjaer worked as a college textbook salesman for Harcourt, Brace and traveled throughout the South during the 1952–1954 academic school terms. Danish on his father's side and Russian on his mother's, Langkjaer had graduated from Princeton and finished two years of graduate studies in philosophy at Fordham University before he decided to begin a career in publishing. Cash quotes Helen Greene, O'Connor's former history professor at Georgia College in Milledgeville, who is said to have introduced Mr. Langkjaer to O'Connor: “Flannery took him all over the county. I think she really liked him a lot … [but] he wasn't Roman Catholic.” He visited her frequently, driving one hundred miles or so out of his way on weekends in order to spend time with O'Connor at Andalusia, the family's farm. To her consternation, however, he decided to return to Denmark, and in the course of the next year she began corresponding with him. In April 1955 he wrote O'Connor announcing his engagement to a Danish woman. Though it was a painful revelation for O'Connor, she continued corresponding with him. Her last letter to him is dated February 26, 1958.

In a 1997 article in the Georgia Review, Sally Fitzgerald focused on the significance of this friendship in the development of O'Connor's vocation as a writer. She mentions the importance of the Langkjaer relationship to O'Connor's emotional life, “the last, and most seriously painful, instance in which the old pattern of unrequited love was to reappear.” Having located Langkjaer in Denmark, Fitzgerald interviewed him for her biography of O'Connor; Langkjaer, in turn, shared with her the twelve letters that O'Connor had sent him after he departed from the South. Fitzgerald noted a qualitative difference in these letters, which reveal a depth of feeling seen nowhere else in O'Connor's correspondence. She quotes a handwritten postscript in one such letter to Langkjaer as indicative of O'Connor's feelings for the young Dane: “I think that if you were here, we could talk for about a million years.” The poignancy of this revelation lies in its timing, for her letter to Langkjaer was sent shortly before the arrival of his own letter to her announcing his engagement to marry. O'Connor, Fitzgerald notes, instantly withdrew into her customary reserve, and the letters sent to Langkjaer thenceforward were warm but very correct in their southern manners.

… “Good Country People” was written by O'Connor while the fateful letters were still in transit, and she quickly had it added to her forthcoming volume of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). On February 26, 1955, a few months before the book was published, O'Connor wrote to her editor, Robert Giroux: “I have just written a story called ‘Good Country People’ that Allen [Tate] and Caroline [Gordon] both say is the best thing I have written and should be in this collection.” She also informed Sally and Robert Fitzgerald on April 1, “I wrote a very hot story at the last minute called ‘Good Country People.”’ And she told Elizabeth Hester a year later, “I wrote ‘GCP’ in about four days, the shortest I have ever written anything in, just sat down and wrote it.”

Just how “hot” this story was in the aftermath of her bitter disappointment with Langkjaer is evident in the many significant parallels between the O'Connor-Langkjaer relationship, on one hand, and the imaginative portrayal of Joy/Hulga Hopewell and Manley Pointer, on the other. Though Langkjaer admits that the tone of the story strays far from that of his relationship with O'Connor, there is a level of correspondence that suggests that O'Connor may have drawn on her own recent experience in imagining this story. Like Manley Pointer, Langkjaer was at that time a traveling salesman, in his own way a “displaced” person with no fixed abode. In the story, Manley tells Mrs. Hopewell that he is from “out in the country around Willohobie, not even from a place, just from near a place.” And in the O'Hare interview Langkjaer discloses that O'Connor had often thought of him in the same terms: “she felt that I was very much like a displaced person, a displaced person as a character in one of her short stories, that I was the child of divorced parents, that I had come to the U.S., that I was now traveling somewhat rootlessly in the South, and that I had all these religious concerns and problems.”

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More interestingly, Langkjaer carried around what he called his “bible,” a term that Harcourt, Brace used to describe the folder containing the tables of contents that would be presented to professors whom he visited throughout the South. On his sojourns to the O'Connor farm the two of them would often joke about his being a Bible salesman. Langkjaer remarks, “It amused her very much that something that was not a bible should have been called a bible.” Manley Pointer's “profession” is a clear instance of O'Connor's creatively deploying a memory, though turning it to a darkly ironic use. Manley's “bible” is definitely something else: merely a covered box containing his pornographic playing cards, flask of whiskey, and his blue box of condoms.

A final obvious comparison between O'Connor's experience with Langkjaer and Hulga's with the Bible salesman that can be drawn concerns the manner by which each was courted and then suddenly dropped: just as Langkjaer initiated the car outings with O'Connor in order to spend some time out from under the watchful eye of Mrs. O'Connor, so Manley takes the same initiative in the story, inviting Joy/Hulga to take a picnic with him the following day. And with similar suddenness, Langkjaer departs from O'Connor's life quite dramatically across the ocean for Denmark, while Manley is seen departing “over the green speckled lake.”

Yet by far the most striking revelation of O'Connor's artistic use of her own recent experience comes during the moment in the story when Manley Pointer kisses Joy/Hulga at the edge of the wood. O'Connor describes Hulga's reaction in a famous passage from the story:

The kiss, which had more pressure than feeling behind it, produced that extra surge of adrenalin in the girl that enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house, but in her, the power went at once to her brain. Even before he released her, her mind, clear and detached and ironic anyway, was regarding him from a great distance, with amusement but with pity. She had never been kissed before and she was pleased to discover that it was an unexceptional experience and all a matter of the mind's control. Some people might enjoy drain water if they were told it was vodka. When the boy, looking expectant but uncertain, pushed her gently away, she turned and walked on, saying nothing as if such business, for her, were common enough.

It is a brilliant piece of descriptive writing that has the feel of genuine experience, revealing a complex and clumsy reaction to a kiss.

Though O'Connor the artist was quick to deny an autobiographical basis for the kissing scene in her letter to Elizabeth Hester, it is fair to question if this kiss represents anything other than O'Connor's own experience. For his part, Langkjaer provides a frankly detailed and deeply moving account of a similar kiss with O'Connor. It occurred on his last visit to Andalusia, fifty years ago, not long before his decision to leave for Denmark. Langkjaer recalls that he had invited O'Connor for a ride in the countryside and she accepted. He describes what ensued as if it took place yesterday.

As we drove along I parked the car and I may not have been in love, but I was very much aware that she was a woman, and so I felt that I'd like to kiss her, which I did, and I mean it wasn't as if I caught her by surprise. She had been surprised that I suggested the kiss, but she was certainly prepared to accept it. Now as it happened, as our lips touched I had a feeling that her mouth lacked a resilience, it was as if she had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than her lips, and this I must admit gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped. And shortly after that two people turned up from a parked car nearby, poked their heads in as, you know, probably someone is apt to do to find out what's going on in another parked car where they see a man and a woman, and I don't know that there was much of an exchange of any sort, but they withdrew hastily, and Flannery found this rather enjoyable…. I was not by any means a Don Juan, but in my late twenties I had of course kissed other girls, and there had been this firm response, which was totally lacking in Flannery. So it's true that I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton, and in that sense it was a shocking, a shocking experience, and it was something that reminded me of her being gravely ill.

Langkjaer is uncertain whether O'Connor realized that the kiss had not been a success, but his memory of it stresses how the reality of her illness overwhelmed his own attraction to her in that moment.

But it is O'Connor's experience that is artistically reworked in the story. The supposedly detached and ironic Hulga, whose “mind … never stopped or lost itself for a second to her feelings,” is at the same time passionately kissing Manley “as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him.” She is enraptured by the moment—certainly filled with more “Joy” than “Hulga” for the first time in the story. It moves Page 84  |  Top of Articleher to surrender her wooden limb to this amorous imposter. It is fair to wonder if such a rush of adrenaline was part of O'Connor's feelings for Langkjaer, and if the car rides, and this fateful kiss, were calculated risks that she too was taking. Joy/Hulga's illusion of herself as a seducing nihilist is undercut by Manley's deception and flight from her; so, too, is O'Connor's illusion of romance shaken by Langkjaer's departure for Denmark.

Langkjaer himself provides evidence to corroborate how closely drawn Joy/Hulga is to O'Connor. If he was not completely sure at the time that O'Connor had fallen in love with him, he nonetheless sensed the strong feelings she had for him and knew that they shared intimate conversations. Langkjaer reads the following line from Hulga's point of view as a very personal declaration by O'Connor about her feelings for him: “This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her…. It was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.” Hulga surrenders the emotionally cautious, reticent, perhaps “wooden” part of her that was so essential to her sense of identity, and in its place discovers in her feelings for him the “Joy” part of herself, a more complex and emotionally engaged person. Langkjaer sees O'Connor in the same light: proud of her intellectual and artistic sense of herself, but cautiously willing to surrender her emotions and cede to a passionate moment. O'Connor's letters to Langkjaer illustrate this same kind of emotional yielding; despite the young Dane's absence, they make it painfully clear how much hope O'Connor had placed in his return to her and the South.

Though it would be wrong to argue from the evidence that “Good Country People” is simply autobiography, writing the story clearly served as a creative channel for O'Connor to come to terms with these decisive movements in her inner life. But if one reads the trajectory of the story as an imaginative literary negotiation of the real-life association, then one has to contend with the imperfect congruence between Manley Pointer's spiteful final act toward Hulga and O'Connor's presumed judgment of her last rendezvous with Langkjaer. The story presents such disappointment as a devilish betrayal. When Hulga is first asked to show the Bible salesman her wooden leg, she utters a sharp cry because “no one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.” Yet, she does allow him to take off the leg, and in consequence, she feels exposed. As Manley places it out of her reach and kisses her again, Hulga vacillates between a romantic vision of running away with him and the acute fear of her now defenseless state. The story hinges on whether Manley will accept the leg with the right intention, the one that Joy/Hulga deeply hopes for and desires. Only after he divulges the tawdry items from his valise is it clear that her leg is to be yet another one of his sexual trophies, like the glass eye of a previous conquest about whom he boasts.

Langkjaer himself wonders whether O'Connor actually thought of herself as a trophy, another feather in a young man's cap. In the interview he ponders:

Flannery may have felt that I was, that she was, in a sense, another trophy, or to put it maybe even more starkly, a kind of another scalp. Of course this wasn't at all the way that I saw the relationship. But in the story he gets the leg from the Hulga part of Joy and she feels that in surrendering this leg voluntarily that in the end she has really given herself completely to the Bible salesman…. Nonetheless, she must have felt this, she must have felt not that I took advantage of her, but that in some sense, in some ultimate sense she was not being treated any differently than the girls I had met previously.

Langkjaer claims that the depth of her feeling for him—and the degree of exposure she felt—was not at all clear to him at that time because she was such a reticent person. Many years after her death, Langkjaer remembers being startled on first reading in The Habit of Being O'Connor's claim to Betty Hester that she had “gone with” him: “I must say, to my own surprise I read that she felt that she had gone steady with me, that she felt that strongly about our relationship.” He then began rereading O'Connor's twenty-five-year-old letters in this new light, and it became clear to him that when O'Connor started writing him shortly after his return to Denmark, she had, in effect, given herself to him:

I did recognize of course the fact that she wanted to see me and she encouraged me to visit her as often as possible, the fact that she wanted to go on these rides, the fact that she surrendered herself sufficiently enough to allow me to kiss her. I realized of course that she had become very fond of me, else she Page 85  |  Top of Articlewouldn't have done that otherwise, especially as she was “a good Catholic”; but still I didn't realize at the time how much it all meant to her, and I only discovered this through the subsequent correspondence.

Upon reading “Good Country People” after it was published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Langkjaer wrote O'Connor a letter, offering his own assessment of the story and the perceptible autobiographical references in it, asking specifically if she identified her Bible salesman with him. He expressed shock that she might have perceived his actions as deceptive in the way Manley Pointer is deceptive with Hulga. O'Connor's eighth letter to him is her reply, both an admonishment and a word of assurance:

April 29, 1956

I am highly taken with the thought of your seeing yourself as the Bible salesman. Dear boy, remove this delusion from your head at once. And if you think the story is also my spiritual autobiography, remove that one too. As a matter of fact, I wrote that one not too long after your departure and wanted to send you a copy but decided that the better part of tact would be to desist. Your contribution to it was largely in the matter of properties. Never let it be said that I don't make the most of experience and information, no matter how meager. But as to the main pattern of that story, it is one of deceit which is something I certainly never connect with you.

On this point, real life and art diverge, for O'Connor assured Langkjaer that if he was a source for the story, in no way did she feel that he had anything to do with deception. Langkjaer remembers discussing with Sally Fitzgerald the timing of the story's creation. Fitzgerald told him that when O'Connor claimed in her letter that she had composed the story “not too long after” his departure, it was to make sure that he understood that it was written long before she had learned of his engagement and was not in any way a settling of scores. However elastic the term “not too long after” might be, the story was actually written in February 1955, more than half a year after Langkjaer had left. That O'Connor did in fact intentionally withhold the story from him—while she had sent numerous others for him to read—points to her perhaps uneasy awareness of the extent to which it was rooted in her feelings for him.

Writing a story more autobiographical than autobiography, with “Good Country People” O'Connor wrestled her way out of an emotional, even artistic crisis. Fitzgerald claimed that the concluded liaison with Langkjaer “forced [O'Connor] to face the inescapable likelihood that her destiny was not to include any bond of human love closer than that of friendship.” Indeed, after Langkjaer moved out of the South and thus out of her life, it would seemO'Connor reconciled herself both to the physical restrictions caused by lupus and to the interpersonal limitations imposed by social perceptions of the disease—both burdens having been perhaps greater then than they would be today. She came likewise to see that her proper calling was to be single and single-mindedly focused on her craft. O'Connor took great pleasure in writing the story: a creative way to come to terms with the romantic upheavals she had felt and the ability to see beyond her own disappointment. Langkjaer concurs, for he thinks that O'Connor discovered that her unspoken and unrealized hope for romance was very much her own wooden leg: “her sense of rejection broke her heart but in hindsight she benefited from it. That was her own wooden leg … she had a sense that this was her final chance. And she accepted it as her destiny, as one has to when one has a limitation.” In consenting to love Langkjaer and seeing that love not returned, O'Connor hung onto this metaphorical “wooden leg” for the second and last time. But Langkjaer ends his interview noting, “Looking back I feel sorry that things did not work out the way she had wanted them to. That we might have had a meeting of minds, but not a meeting of hearts.”

Source: Mark Bosco, “Consenting to Love: Autobiographical Roots of ‘Good Country People,”’ in Southern Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, Spring 2005, pp. 283–95.

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FURTHER READING

Anderson, Jon W., and William B. Friend, eds., The Culture of Bible Belt Catholics, Paulist Press, 1995.

Anderson provides thoughtful insight into the similarities that link Bible Belt Catholics to their northern brethren as well as their differences.

Gooch, Brad, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, Back Bay Books, 2010.

Gooch's biography provides a detailed account of the eccentric writer's life, with information gleaned from family, friends, letters, and myriad other documents.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Hawthorne's Short Stories, Vintage, 2011.

Hawthorne is the writer with whom critics have most often compared O'Connor, and this collection of short stories contains some of his most powerful and timeless writing. Hawthorne deftly uses symbolism and allegory throughout his stories, much like O'Connor.

Ketchin, Susan, The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Ketchin explores how religion has affected twelve major southern fiction writers and their literary output.

Magee, Rosemary M., Conversations with Flannery O'Connor, University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

O'Connor had a lot to say about her own writing, and in this volume readers gain insight into intended messages as well as the author's interpretation of her stories and their characters.

McCullers, Carson, Collected Stories of Carson McCullers, Mariner Books, 1998.

McCullers was a contemporary of O'Connor's and another southern grotesque writer. It was no secret that the two authors had little respect for one another. This collection of short stories provides readers with another taste—with a different emphasis and literary style—of southern fiction of the 1950s.

Weaks, Mary Louise, and Carolyn Perry, eds., Southern Women's Writing, Colonial to Contemporary, University Press of Florida, 1995.

Weaks and Perry, both college English professors, have compiled a collection of short stories that provides a time line of the evolution of women's southern literature. Thirty-four white Page 87  |  Top of Articleand African American writers are showcased, and their stories illustrate how the women are bound and yet divided by race, social status, and even gender bias.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1999400015