A Close Reading on Flannery O’Connor’s Criticism in “Good Country People”

Flannery O’Connor, a devout Roman Catholic of southern roots, writes in a radically different fashion than her counterparts of the time, focusing on issues of morality rather than racial relations or discrimination.  “Good Country People,” published in her 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, explores the moral ambiguity of every character presented within the story, and in doing so, demonstrates the moral ambiguity of all human beings. O’Connor seems to say that every human being is a composition of both good and evil parts. However, she does not attempt to preach any messages related to her faith or sermonize about how to ultimately achieve pure good or perfection. In fact, she criticizes every character from the bible-lovers to the highfalutin intellectual atheists throughout her story without offering any clear message at all. But how are readers supposed to enjoy a story that doesn’t allow likeability of any of its characters or that offers no positive resolution?

Before O’Conner was a writer, she desired to become a political cartoonist, a person who emphasizes a character flaw of a politician or the stupidity of a political event by drawing it larger. But this mockery of politicians and events is not without purpose; it draws attention, literally, to areas of politics where change is required or might be made. In “Good Country People,” O’Conner emphasizes stereotypical human clichés or the flaws of her characters in the same way that she would expose those of a politician. Likability isn’t the intention and in realizing that nothing and no one is perfect, she does not seek to offer resolutions in her story where resolutions do not exist. Her criticism is meant to expose the reality of her character’s conceptions of good, whether it be religion, philosophy, etc., in hopes of improving those conceptions as well as any conceptions held by the reader. Once perceived, this ultimate goal of O’Connor’s short story transcends her surface-level cynicism.

The one-dimensional names O’Connor gives to her characters are immediately significant in that they assign a stereotypical function to each character, serving to distinguish them from one another but also to criticize them all straightforwardly. Mrs. Hopewell literally “hopes well,” when she spews out clichés like “Nothing is perfect… that is life! And… other people have their opinions too” (1341). She has faith in God and in all humans to an almost comical degree, but while she oversimplifies, she also shuts her eyes to any form of pessimism: “Mrs. Hopewell could not understand deliberate rudeness, although she lived with it…” (1346). Mrs. Freeman, whom she hires to take care of things around the house, is the foil to Mrs. Hopewell because she sees to everything. Her “steel-pointed eyes” look down on Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter as they eat their breakfast every morning (1343). She does not close her eyes to the world around her like Mrs. Hopewell because not all “free men” can be simplified as do-gooders with so many existing options to do evil. Yet, Mrs. Freeman is not a “free man” because her degree of interest in everyone’s affairs but her own leaves her little freedom to do anything for herself. Mrs. Hopewell labels Mrs. Freeman “good country people” (1341), rather than trash, but the phrase “good country people” is later repeated throughout the story to refer ironically to Manly Pointer. Manly Pointer appears as a bible salesman to Mrs. Hopewell at the beginning of the story, but turns out to be a thief of “interesting things” by the end (1353). In Mrs. Hopewell’s last dialogue of the story, she preaches the words, “He was so simple… but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple,” not knowing that he is actually this evil con artist (1353). Manly Pointer “points” to her faith in God and the good of humanity that leads to her oversimplified impressions of people as a flaw. While the interesting thing he stole was in fact the prosthetic leg belonging to Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, he also “points” to the flaws of Joy, later turned Hulga.

The divergence between different conceptions of what is right or good for society, between faith and philosophy, is introduced to the story through the comparison of Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter. Although Hulga is thirty-two in the story and has already a Ph.D., Mrs. Hopewell still sees her as a child: “Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it… She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense” (1343). The childlike clothing choice and occasional mannerisms of Hulga throughout the story shows that one can have great intellect but be void altogether of sense. It also demonstrates Hulga’s naivety or lack of real world experience. Mrs. Hopewell finds her reading books that denounce science on the basis that science is concerned only with “what-is” (1344), and since no phenomenon can ever fully be proved, science becomes the study of nothing. If one’s world consists only of reading books with statements such as these and no confrontation with true hardship, it is very normal that faith would be seen as unnecessary. On the other had, it is very normal that if one is not a student fresh out of college or has never attended college but has experienced much over their lifetime, that faith would be dominant in their life. Imagine the mixing of the two and they won’t see eye to eye. For example, Hulga once said to her mother, “Woman! Do you every look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!… Malebranche was right: we are not our own light!” (1344). While Hulga might have exclaimed “God!” out of frustration, it also seems that she is telling her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, that she is not God or his preacher. Yet, in citing Malebranche, the philosopher, Hulga makes a mistake. He believed “we are not our own light” because God is our light, where as Hulga is trying to make the point that there is no light at all because there is no God in which to believe. Malebranche was at once a philosopher and a man of faith. It seems that O’Connor purposely employs this misquote so as to criticize both Mrs. Hopewell for her full reliance on God and Hulga for her full reliance on intellect at one time, leaving no character in the story without criticism.

However, Hulga’s full criticism is not realized until the end of the story. Hulga wears a prosthetic leg as her real leg was shot off in a hunting accident when she was young, and this artificiality or deformity so to speak, exiles her from the rest of society (at least she believes it to). She obsesses over the grotesqueness of the leg and projects that obsession onto others like Mrs. Freeman because she believes herself to be devoid of all feeling. Yet, “she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” (1351). Her name too is significant like those of the other character’s, having “arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound” (1342), a mirror image of her ugly leg, and secondly, because she would no longer be attached to her mother. No longer “Joy,” she would deny Mrs. Hopewell any “joy” from her person. Thus, she changes her name to something stronger and removes everything from her life in the same way she did her mother so as to become less vulnerable, except of course for the leg. She is deeply afraid of vulnerability. But in reality, she can’t remove herself from society entirely like she can her leg because all people seek some sort of attention, acceptance, or companionship. Hulga’s interaction with Manly Pointer becomes proof of her desire for something of the sort as she believes she is seducing a childlike bible salesman, when really, he is seducing her naïve self. “She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence… it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (1352). This seduction scene mirrors the image of Christ as someone decides to put all faith in him, which is ironic because Hulga is a self-proclaimed atheist and also because the word “innocence” is not normally associated with any form of seduction. Once Manly Pointer pulls out alcohol and playing cards from the inside of one of his Bibles, Hulga finally realizes his deception; he is not a “perfect Christian” (1353). The third and final irony is that Hulga attaches herself to the only thing in her life that is literally fully detachable, her prosthetic leg, and Manly Pointer takes that leg upon leaving her. In conclusion, the reader is left not knowing which character to like or even to relate wholly to while Pointer affirms at once that there exists both the idea of believing in absolutely nothing, as he is a nihilistic atheist himself, and having faith to contradict the evils of the world like his own.

With this quote, “…The good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969), Flannery O’Connor directs readers to her ultimate goal. All of her characters from the faithful to the non-believers are criticized because none are fully developed in their conceptions of what is good and what is meaningful. Their character development is a forever-ongoing process as is the relationship between religion, philosophy, science, etc., in the real world. While Malebranche and Manly Pointer’s roles in the story seem to “point” to a form of coexistence between faith and philosophy as well as good and evil, we will never know the perfect combination; and while evil is easily recognizable, good requires the unmasking of clichés and evils to be realized. O’Connor’s use of criticism simply allows the reader to come closer to what is meaningful and good by unmasking what is not.