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Good Country People | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Good Country People | Context

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Southern Gothic

Like many of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, "Good Country People" is an example of what can be called Southern gothic literature, although the author preferred to label her fiction as Christian realism influenced by her firm Catholic faith. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was the founder of Christian realism, a branch of political theology focused on humanity's inherently sinful nature and simultaneously great potential. Christian realism holds that a rational approach is inadequate to unlocking human potential and combating sinfulness. Rather, religious contrition and Christian love play a key role in reducing selfishness and thus improving social problems.

The Southern gothic genre is a subgenre of gothic, and specifically American gothic, literature. In addition to O'Connor, some authors often associated with this genre are William Faulkner (1897–1962), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), Tennessee Williams (1911–83), and Carson McCullers (1917–67). Southern gothic literature, like its parent genre, is characterized by an undercurrent of suspense, often foreshadowing violence. Southern gothic writers explore cultural issues unique to southern society.

Key elements of the Southern gothic genre include the following:

  • Strong sense of place: Southern gothic literature features settings with a definite southern flavor, whether they be a rural middle-of-nowhere location, a small town, or an urban neighborhood. The details emphatically indicate the setting's southernness. This detailed locale helps establish the narrative's mood. The farm setting, conversational phrases, and traveling Bible salesman are elements of the southern setting that add to its sense of place in O'Connor's "Good Country People."
  • Element of the grotesque: This is an element of the narrative that is abnormal, macabre, or deformed, generally eliciting either empathy or disgust (or both). It may be a gruesome situation, but it usually manifests in characters' mental or physical disfigurement. In "Good Country People," Manley Pointer steals Hulga's artificial leg, hinting at predatory behavior and a sexual fetish that is decidedly irregular.
  • Imprisonment: Characters are often literally or figuratively in jail. O'Connor's Hulga is imprisoned by her health, which mandates she live at home with her mother rather than pursue a career. She is also trapped in the loft of a barn when she loses her artificial leg and glasses, making escape difficult.
  • Social differences: Southern gothic stories address racial, social, and class differences. These story elements lead to tensions that may culminate in outbursts of violence. "Good Country People" involves a landowner and tenant farmer, introducing class concerns to the story. It also shows that a social divide can occur between members of a family when one becomes highly educated and has more experience in the wider world.
  • Uncommon characters: Characters in Southern gothic literature are often damaged in some way, whether emotionally, mentally, or physically. In "Good Country People," the main character is both physically and emotionally damaged by a hunting accident that causes her to lose her leg. But she is not the only flawed or idiosyncratic character. The other characters include a con man Bible salesman with a penchant for artificial body parts, a mother who can't see her daughter as an adult, and a woman ignorantly obsessed with sickness and disease.

Tenant Farmers in the South

After the Civil War (1861–65), Southern landowners faced the issue of replacing the labor of enslaved persons with other types of labor. Many newly freed African Americans were in need of work. Although former slaves had been promised 40 acres of land, one of the first acts of post–Civil War Reconstruction (1865–77) returned all land to its prewar owners. Many African Americans had few options but to resume working the fields as tenant farmers. This arrangement meant that the landowner would allow workers to farm an area of land and provide the supplies and equipment needed. The landowner deducted the cost of the supplies from the money made and split the profit with the tenant. Although slavery had ended, this system perpetuated entrenched inequalities. Tenant farmers had very little opportunity to get ahead, as landowners often found ways to keep more of the profit. Although ostensibly tenant farmers could rise, over time, to a greater share of the profit, this accomplishment was easier said than done. Crop failures, poor farming techniques, bad weather, bad health, exploitative share agreements, dishonest landlords, and other complications could easily erase any gains the tenant farmers made.

While the majority of tenant farmers in the 19th century were recently freed African American sharecroppers, white farmers became increasingly embroiled in the tenant farming system. The Southern economy had been built around slavery. Following the Civil War, many white landowners had lost their land. Environmental and property destruction had caused further upheaval. Declining cotton prices made crops less lucrative, and between 1880 and 1900, the total number of tenant farmers nearly doubled. Later, the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression (1929–39) put stress on the economic system, forcing more landowners to sell. By 1935 about half of white farmers and three-quarters of African American farmers did not own the land they farmed.

Initially, New Deal programs (1933–39, domestic infrastructure project intended for economic relief) designed to lift the economy out of the Great Depression did not benefit tenant farmers. African American and white farmers worked together to form the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in 1934 and demanded better wages, which they received. Nonetheless, these gains were short-lived, as the number of tenant farmers was shrinking. This wasn't because these farmers became landowners or secured better jobs. Rather, it was because the New Deal offered landowners money to let some of their cropland go uncultivated. Meant to push prices of crops up, this plan had the side effect of putting many tenant farmers out of work. With additional changes to the national economy brought about by the world wars and new agricultural technology, tenant farming sharply declined in the 1940s and 1950s, when "Good Country People" was written, making it seem an antique description of a past way of life.

Philosophical Issues

Broadly understood, nihilism is collection of philosophical viewpoints that nothing can be known, nothing can be communicated, value systems are based on nothing, and human existence is without purpose. The term itself can be traced back to at least the Middle Ages, and the philosophy draws on classical Greek skepticism. Modern nihilism, however, rose to prominence in the late 1800s, when it was associated with political groups that rejected religion along with other institutional authorities. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) is famously associated with nihilism. He wrote that "every belief ... is necessarily false because there is simply no true world" (The Will to Power, 1901). Although Nietzsche did not believe in universal truths or value systems, and even claimed that normative Western value systems were harmful, he also saw nihilism as dangerously destructive. He argued that it must be combated so that humanity could create new truths and values. Flannery O'Connor, too, believed that nihilism was like a poison gas that all modern people, religious or not, breathe daily. She made a distinction between atheism and nihilism. While atheists do not believe in God, they can still have a moral sense or code. Nihilists believe moral codes are either delusional or simply the product of culture and custom. O'Connor believed this lack of moral sense was evident in the violence of the war-torn modern world and noted that both Christians and non-Christians could be, functionally, nihilists if they acted as if God did not exist.

In "Good Country People," O'Connor creates two characters to explore her critique of nihilism. First she creates Hulga, a self-professed nihilist who ultimately finds she does believe some level of moral behavior should be expected of people. Then she creates Manley Pointer, who gives the appearance of being a Christian but in private clearly has no moral compass whatsoever—the embodiment of what O'Connor believed nihilism would look like and lead to in its extreme manifestation.

Beside the influence of Nietzsche's nihilism, two other philosophers help round out, and somewhat complicate, Hulga's worldview. German Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was an influential philosopher whose work focused on ontology—the study of being. In an essay titled "What Is Metaphysics?" (1929), he writes, "Science ... has to ... declare that it is concerned solely with what-is. Nothing—how can it be for science anything but a horror?" Far from espousing nihilism, Heidegger was quite critical of it, as can be seen in this essay—which Hulga reads in the story. Hulga also quotes French Cartesian (rationalist) philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), who is known for his use of the phrase (originally from St. Augustine) "We are not our own light." Malebranche uses this expression to convey his idea that people see not by their own perception, but in God, who is the source of all ideas and knowing. Hulga as a professed atheist and nihilist who embraces the contrasting influences of Heidegger and Malebranche becomes a complex character.

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