A comparison of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”

“She considered the name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her… She saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn herself into Hulga” (O’Connor 1342).

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself” (Ellison 1211).

Both stories feature a character focused on his or her education. The narrator of Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is motivated to attend the town gathering to give a praised speech and is ultimately awarded a scholarship to attend college. Joy, or Hulga as she comes to be named, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and spends much of her time reading. One of the major differences between the characterization of the two is that  Ellison’s narrator seeks praise from other people, while Hulga acts only to please herself. Ellison develops a narrator who “asks everyone” how he should live his life. Throughout the battle royal, he cannot stop thinking about ultimately giving his speech and being praised by the white men gathered there. Constantly seeking recognition and approval from other people prevents one from living a life true to oneself. Being burdened by others’ opinions only serves as a detriment to self-improvement. Hulga realizes this when she can no longer put up with her mother smothering her. Though Mrs. Hopewell expresses dissatisfaction toward Hulga’s studies, Hulga proceeds to earn her Ph.D. and changes her name to further rebel against her mother’s control over her. A name is the fundamental way to define a person. By taking control of her life and changing her name to something she likes better, Hulga exhibits a character trait much different from Ellison’s narrator: self-awareness.

A similarity between the two stories is the objectification of the woman in “Battle Royal” when compared to Hulga being taken advantage of by Manley Pointer. The woman in “Battle Royal” is used to elicit desire in the young men. She is dehumanized when aspects of her are referred to as “the face,” “the hair,” and “the eyes” and when she herself is called simply “the blonde” (1213). She is defined by a sum of her parts, rather than respected as a woman. Meanwhile, Hulga is largely characterized by her artificial leg. Pointer has come to her under the pretense of loving her, but he really only wants to take advantage of her and then steal her leg. While the woman in “Battle Royal” feels disgust toward being characterized in such a way, the same cannot necessarily be said of Hulga (1214). Hulga, on the other hand, feels lost “without the leg” (1352). It is undeniably a part of her and makes her unique. She embraces the presence of her artificial limb and is “as sensitive about [it] as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Both women, however, are used by men who mean to take advantage of such aspects of their persons, and they are thus forced to face the reality that some people do not share their true intentions.

2 thoughts on “A comparison of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal””

  1. –I agree with the differences you noticed between Hulga and the narrator in Battle Royal, both in who/whom they seek to please and the objectification of women. It was clear that Hulga sought to please herself mainly, which she often found through direct rejection of things her mother did or said; and we are given the reminder throughout the narration in Battle Royal that the narrator’s main goal is to give his speech and gain acknowledgement from others. However, I would like to bring up the possibility that the narrator does reject those he seeks acceptance from as well but forces himself to act a certain way and not think of this rejection (as a form of sacrifice). This can be seen by his various actions like him trying to pull the man on the electric floor or his “slip of the tongue”

    1. I very much liked how you connected the two stories through the objectification of women by the “sum of their parts.” It was also interesting to notice how the different contexts of the stories related in this way, but diverged in the fact that Hulga defined herself by her leg unlike the “blonde” woman by her hair. This being said, while I agree that Hulga demonstrated more self-awareness than the narrator of Ellison’s “Battle Royale,” I think some of it might have been superficial. A lot of what she says and does seems to be a cover for her insecurities and her obsession with her leg. While she is incredibly intelligent, her actions with Manley Pointer at the end of the story point towards her inner desire for companionship. She does not wish to be vulnerable in any way so she changes her name to something strong and removes herself from society. In this way, I believe Hulga is actually quite like the narrator of Ellison’s story, who sought approval from the white men. In some respect, I think all people seek a form of acceptance.

Leave a Reply