Writing of explicitly named Good Country People, short story author Flannery O’Connor ironically molds a depiction of the contradictory nature of a cliche-ridden Southern society. The “good country people” O’Connor speaks of are Mrs. Hopewell, her daughter Hulga Hopewell, servant Mrs. Freeman, and bible salesman Manly Pointer, each character representative of a unique means for trying to reconcile the conflicting expectations of life in the American South. Crafting an overall tone of irony and sarcasm through the use a third-person omniscient point of view, the author demands the reader consider the prevalence of false appearances even in the most supposedly pure parts of society. O’Connor especially focuses on the false praise society bestows upon intelligence: Hulga, a woman with a Ph.D. in philosophy, is ridiculed for her intelligence and ultimately led to question it. Indeed, O’Connor’s use of repetition in the idea of “good country people” causes one to both consider why “good” people are so consistently valued across a wide range of communities and what qualities determine “good.”
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O’Connor’s exposition of a society which values a good, moral person yet struggles to identify such begins with her literal naming of each character’s intent. By naming the characters with names which practically expose their approach to and meaning in society at large, the author denotes that their motives are as obvious as if they were written into their being. Essentially she seems to be arguing that the facades which each person has constructed should be more easily dissolved, if only society was more perceptive. Hulga and her mother possess the last name “Hopewell,” a word signatory of the way in which they each “hope” that their approach to the world will guide them “well.” Each of these two women believe that they possess the secret to living in such a way that is most moral and will prevent them from subsuming to the deceit of others. In a unique form of character foil, mother and daughter act as their own opposites. Hulga’s method of self protection is her insistence on the “enlightenment” idea that all which really exists is the surface world. Her mother contrastingly indulges in the allure of cliches, allowing them to function as an “expression” of her truth. The extreme viewpoints of the women are exaggerated by the fact that they exist in such close relationship to each other and are birthed of a similar background.
Symbolism further exists in the choice of names for the bible salesman and Mrs. Hopewell’s servant. Offering the name Manley Pointer as a false identity, the bible salesman personifies a “manly,” sexually and selfishly driven human being, one literally willing to take parts from others. This socially unacceptable behavior “points” to what the author thinks would be the ruin of society if prototypical “manly” instincts were to prevail. The dishonesty portrayed by Pointer also directs one towards the clear reality instinctually understood by the aptly named Mrs. Freeman. Seemingly “free” of the cliches and stereotypes which so weigh down the other characters, the author establishes Mrs. Freeman as a reliable source of truth. And this apparent truth is, in O’Connor’s Southern society, the ability to accept diseased and grotesque aspects of life.
The author’s use of symbolism is most apparent in her physical characterization of Hulga Hopewell. Born Joy, the girl changed her name about the same time she alienated herself from the way of life which so defined in mother. In blatant opposition to her mother’s ideals, Hulga pursues an education, one that is advanced in comparison to the education of most women even by today’s standards. A philosophy major, Hulga clings to her intelligence as a shield against the world which has always been overly harsh to her. Unlike the mother before her, who enshrines herself in a self-serving world of illusion, Hulga believes her philosophical approach to life is well-founded or at the very least the result of a strong education. Hulga’s singularity in society is accentuated by the existence of those around her: a weak-minded mother and a shrewd hired women represent two qualities opposite her and in doing so expose her fallibilities.
The literal symbol of Hulga’s intelligence is the wooden leg which supports her, both physically and mentally. Hulga has always felt that is was her wooden leg which “makes her different.” Towards the end of the short story, as bible salesman Manley Pointer asks to remove her leg, a move which would be highly emotional for most crippled people. Instead, for Hulga, the decision is one of intellectual implications: she reasons as to why she should remove her leg, eventually decideing to “surrender” it to him. In this sense, Hulga seemingly knowingly sacrifices her intelligence for a yet unknown realm of emotional experiences. By removing her wooden leg, Hulga is removing the part of her soul and self that is equally as wooden, stiff, and contingent upon her education. In this way, the Ph.D. degree Hulga hoped would remove her from the circumstances surrounding her mother also represents the fact that she is spiritually as well as psychically crippled.
Hulga’s emotional crippling is subsequently revealed to her own self by a most deceptive of sources, the bible salesman himself. After the bible salesman removes her wooden leg, it becomes clear he does not intend to return it to her and instead plans to steal it, as he claims he has done with other body parts such as a women’s “glass eye.” Angered at the idea of being left without her wooden leg and her symbolic “intelligence,” Hulga then yells at Pointer, accusing, “You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all- say one thing and do another.” In this commentary, Hulga supposes an air of confidence, asserting that she has exposed Pointer and all his fellow Christians for the true frauds they are. Pointer’s comment in response, however, destroys any remnant of intelligence Hulga believed she had: he reveals that he is not even a Christian nor does he even barely believe in the message the bibles he sold espoused. The realization that she has been fooled by a lesser man, a supposed “country folk,” strips Hulga of her last remaining shred of resourcefulness. Lacking her intelligence, a leg just as important to her personality as her actual prosthetic is to her physical self, Hulga is unable to continue in life with the simplified, philosophical “belief in nothing” that has thus far sustained her.
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Parallely, Hulga’s mother Mrs. Hopewell seems on the verge of a realization, as evidenced by the author’s choice of diction and character contrast. Seeing the bible salesman walking away from her property, unknowing that he has with him her daughter’s wooden leg, Mrs. Hopewell remarks to her hired help how “simple” Pointer is. She goes so far as to surmise that the world would indeed be a better place if “we were all that simple.” The reality of Pointer’s character has already been revealed to the reader by the use of a third person point of view. Therefore, Mrs. Hopewell’s analysis of Pointer is similarly incorrect, as was her daughter’s analysis of him as a deceptive Christian. Further illustrating the inability of either of the Hopewells to produce an accurate understanding of Pointer is Mrs. Freeman’s adept ability to do so. Realizing that “some can’t be” the type of “simple” Mrs. Hopewell has eluded to, Mrs. Freeman serves as the author’s voice of reason. Southern society generally prizes wealth and status as most important values. In this traditional sense, Mrs. Hopewell would certainly be considered Mrs. Freeman’s superior. However, Mrs. Freeman is a symbol for the upset of the typical class system, revealing her own intellectual prowess. It appears Mrs. Hopewell will have to reconcile the confidence she has in her ability to reduce life to a set of cliche pronouncements and her ability to control Mrs. Freeman in light of these revelations. Like her own daughter, she will have to face up to the reality of her life process’ shortcomings and, in doing so, disavow her current system of beliefs.
The author’s own religious allusions throughout the text themselves disavow the typical Southern belief in religion as a guiding light. Indeed, the very fact that the bibles are sold by man who admittedly doesn’t believe in them calls the reader to question the veracity of religious affiliation as a source of ethos. Pointer’s bible was literally filled with alcohol, contraceptives, and other items which are banned by the bible itself. This contradictory situation reveals the author’s apparent belief that the writings of the bible are incongruous and contain more common respites than the clergy would like one to think.
By exposing the religious shortcomings of Southern society, O’Connor has illustrated a larger point: beliefs are only as strong as the person who holds them and only as real as the person willing to face them. Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga each independently, yet paralleled, struggle to face the reality that their strategies for dealing with life are inadequate because they are self-deceptive. O’Connor allows the reader to experience this cognitive dissonance by use of the third person point of view, showing that what is clear to the reader should be, but is not, clear to the person. In comparison, the flaws and contradictions are so apparent in Southern society that O’Connor feels they should be easily seen yet struggles to understand why they are currently not.
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