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Good Country People | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Good Country People | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Daily Routine

Each morning, Mrs. Hopewell gets up at seven o'clock and lights first her gas heater, then her 32-year-old daughter Hulga's. She eats her breakfast, and her tenant Mrs. Freeman, who works for her, arrives. They discuss in clichéd terms the "most important business," which typically includes the weather report and the personal lives of Mrs. Freeman's daughters, Glynese and Carramae. Mrs. Hopewell often notes such things as "Nothing is perfect," "That is life!" or "Well, other people have their opinions too." Mrs. Freeman often replies "I always said so myself" or some similar phrase indicating her assumed superior understanding of other people.

Mrs. Hopewell hired Mrs. Freeman four years ago despite being warned by a reference that she was terribly nosy. Mrs. Hopewell prides herself on being able to make other people's faults productive and had determined to put Mrs. Freeman's nosiness to work for her. In addition, she believes Mrs. Freeman is what she believes to be "good country people" rather than the "trash" she has had to hire in the past.

Typically during this breakfast conversation, Hulga gets up and makes her way to the bathroom. Afterward, she joins her mother and Mrs. Freeman in the kitchen. Hulga was wounded in a hunting accident when she was 10 years old and has an artificial leg as a result. She earned a PhD in philosophy but due to a weak heart must live with her mother. She spends her days reading philosophy, believing in "nothing," and disliking other people generally. Named "Joy" by her mother, she changed her name to Hulga when she turned 21 because it was the ugliest name she could think of. Her mother refuses to use her new name and is grieved and perplexed by Hulga's unpleasant attitude. But Mrs. Freeman seems to relish calling her Hulga, being strangely fascinated by the story of the hunting accident and the loss of the leg.

A Visitor

On this particular day, Mrs. Hopewell sips her coffee and wonders what her daughter said to the Bible salesman who stopped by yesterday. He had carried a large black case that was, he said, filled with Bibles. He'd been friendly as he greeted Mrs. Hopewell, then suddenly very serious and earnest as he made his pitch. Mrs. Hopewell had not been inclined to buy a Bible but allowed him to stay and talk a while. In the course of conversation, he shared that his name was Manley Pointer and that due to a heart condition, he was not likely to live long. At this, she invited him to eat dinner with them. During dinner, he told them more of his life story. He also seemed very interested in Hulga, and she in him. Pointer stayed two more hours, talking with Mrs. Hopewell. As he left, he had a brief conversation with Hulga, and the two walked along the road for a little while.

As Mrs. Freeman tries to capture Mrs. Hopewell's attention with a story about Glynese's love life, Mrs. Hopewell is busy wondering what her daughter and Pointer said to one another. Hulga, making her own breakfast, is aware of her mother's curiosity.

Mrs. Hopewell turns the conversation to the Bible salesman, telling Mrs. Freeman he too is "good country people" and "the salt of the earth." Hulga, aware that her mother is trying to extract information from her, goes to her room. In fact she has a meeting with the Bible salesman at ten o'clock at the gate. She recalls their first conversation, in which she'd said she was 17. He noticed her wooden leg and then complimented her on being brave and sweet. He added that he likes girls with glasses, and she agreed to meet the following morning. During the night, she imagined seducing him, then using his remorse over their immoral act to teach him a "deeper understanding of life."

Secret Meeting

At ten o'clock Hulga leaves for the secret meeting. Manley Pointer joins her as she walks, carrying his black case as before, though now it seems lighter. The two walk across the pasture. He asks her where her wooden leg joins her real leg, and she becomes irritated. Apologetic, he again suggests she is brave and says that God takes care of her. She tells him she doesn't believe in God, which surprises him. Then he suddenly kisses her—an experience she finds "unexceptional."

She suggests they go to the barn, and then, once there, that they climb the ladder to the loft. He brings along his case. He begins kissing her, removing her glasses and placing them in his pocket. He asks her to tell him she loves him. She reluctantly says she does. She also tells him they are damned, but there is a kind of salvation in taking off the "blindfolds" and seeing—nothing.

He again asks her to show him where the wooden leg connects, suggesting this information will "prove" her love. He convinces her to tell, and then he takes it off. She demands he put it back on, but he refuses and begins kissing her again. When she pushes him off, he opens his case, then opens one of the two Bibles inside, revealing a box of condoms, a flask of whiskey, and a pack of pornographic playing cards. He offers her a drink and suggests they keep having a good time. But she becomes angry, accusing him of being a hypocritical Christian. He's scornful toward her and amazed, saying he hopes she doesn't think he really believes "that crap." Then he puts her leg in his case and leaves her there. As he leaves, he tells her disdainfully, "You ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"

Hulga watches him leave through the barn window, and Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman see him emerge from the woods and go toward the highway. Mrs. Hopewell says, "I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple." Mrs. Freeman replies, "Some can't be that simple ... I know I never could."

Analysis

Perspective and Characterization

The story is written in a limited omniscient third-person point of view. In a third-person omniscient narrative, each character's thoughts and feelings are revealed, while a third-person limited omniscient narrative typically reveals just one person's inner life. In this story, the perspective mainly moves between Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter, Hulga, and readers are privilege to their thoughts and feelings.

Mrs. Hopewell's perspective surfaces in the first paragraph as her frustration with Mrs. Freeman's stubbornness infuses the narration. Mrs. Hopewell has given up trying to reason with Mrs. Freeman when she refuses to retract a statement. "She might talk her head off," but it would do no good. Mrs. Hopewell's thoughts reveal information about Mrs. Freeman, into whose mind the narrative does not shift. For example, they reveal the fact that Mrs. Freeman was thought to be nosy and "into everything" by a past employer. They also reveal Mrs. Hopewell's assessment of herself: she has "no bad qualities of her own" but is able to use the bad qualities of others in "a constructive way." And most importantly, Mrs. Hopewell's thoughts reveal her feelings toward her daughter. She pities her for the loss of her leg, but she is unwilling to come to terms with the effects of this loss on her adult daughter's life. Instead, she thinks of her daughter as a child so she can avoid thinking about all Hulga has missed because of her missing leg. Of course, this refusal to think of her daughter as an adult is invalidating of Hulga's actual educational and intellectual accomplishments. In addition, it is clear that Mrs. Hopewell sees her daughter as ugly and damaged, which in turn affects Hulga's self-esteem and creates resentment back toward her mother.

Hulga's perspective filters though in places that are otherwise dominated by Mrs. Hopewell's thoughts, such as the discussion of her name change. Readers learn that Hulga sees her name change as her "highest creative act" and is triumphant that she took control of her name away from her mother. Further into the story, though, the perspective shifts more noticeably and completely into Hulga's mind as she plans her secret meeting with Manley Pointer. At this point Mrs. Hopewell's perspective recedes into the background, and Hulga's is the main focus of the narrative until the final two paragraphs.

While the narrative's perspective shifts between two main characters, the narrative voice—especially its tone and humor—belongs wholly to the omniscient narrator. This voice is apparent in the opening line as the narrator describes Mrs. Freeman's three expressions as gears on a truck. The tone of the narrative voice is insightful, observant, and darkly humorous. It describes characters' faults and idiosyncrasies precisely and without much mercy, but still with a light touch that brings out the humor in their human frailties. The narration manages to make fun of the characters while still allowing them to have somewhat sympathetic characteristics. No character is completely likable, but they are not completely villainous either, with the exception of the salesman.

The narrative voice is also deeply ironic. For example, Mrs. Hopewell relies on platitudes such as "Nothing is perfect" and "Everybody's different." Yet these statements are in contrast with her obvious failure to accept the differences and imperfections of her own child. The narrator—and thus readers—can see what Mrs. Hopewell herself cannot.

Flannery O'Connor also uses diction and dialogue to develop her characters. For example, Mrs. Hopewell's dialogue is more formal and makes less use of contractions and idioms than that of the other characters, marking her as something of an upper-class woman. Well-educated Hulga's dialogue is peppered with academic-sounding phrases and references such as "Malebranche was right," "if you use the word loosely," and "in my economy." Mrs. Freeman's dialogue, on the other hand, is a sharp contrast with its nonstandard grammar and informal dialect: "Been had it two days," "acrost," and "She ain't got no sty," for example. This reflects less formal education. But what Mrs. Freeman says often implies more than it expresses overtly, showing her canny ability to balance what is said or revealed with what is hidden. She describes Manley Pointer's arrival and departure with restraint: "I seen him walk up ... and then later – I seen him walk off." But this minimalist description is filled with the implication that "he had not walked off alone," and Hulga knows Mrs. Freeman saw them together.

Manley Pointer uses diction to craft his country-boy persona and con the Hopewells. In dialogue with Mrs. Hopewell, he begins with a bit of innocent humor, making a lighthearted pun on her name: "I hope you are well." Then he proceeds to speak politely and sanctimoniously, as befits a young man trying to perform the "Chrustian" service of bringing God's word into people's lives. He repeatedly calls her "lady" and notes that "the word of God ought to be in every room in the house." He uses the diction and manner of the good country boy to gain her trust and sympathy, saying things like "I know I'm real simple ... I'm just a country boy" and adding southern drawl to words like "intraduce" and "sher." The charade continues in the barn, where his language seems to emphasize his lack of schooling as he convinces Hulga to show him where her artificial leg attaches: "don'tcher" and "I known it."

Pointer's language may make him seem simple and uneducated, but like Mrs. Freeman, he is far wiser about people than the formally educated Hopewells, and far craftier. After he takes Hulga's leg, he drops his Christian facade and tells her he doesn't believe in "all that crap." As he leaves he tells Hulga insultingly, "You ain't so smart"—educated, perhaps, but not smart, and it's an important distinction in the story. Pointer may be a country boy, but he is most definitely not "simple."

Blindness by an Act of Will

The narrator describes Hulga as having the expression "of someone who had achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it." In many ways, this is a story about people who are blind to the true nature of others. They may be blind by an act of will, such as Mrs. Hopewell's refusal to see Hulga's true self because she can't bear to think about the lost leg and its effects. More often, people are blind to others because they see what they want or expect to see. Mrs. Hopewell is blind to the sleazy, con-man antics of Manley Pointer because she classifies him as a simple country boy—"good country people." Hulga, who is proud of her intellectual ability, is even more taken in by Pointer and his false sincerity. She envisions him as someone so simple he would be easily victimized. She intends to take advantage of him, deriving satisfaction from the thought of making him act immorally. But she is blind to the fact that he intends to victimize her, because she believes, like her mother, that he is a simple, moral country boy, if such people exist.

The climactic scene of the story highlights Hulga's inability to see Pointer's true nature while contrasting his relative perceptiveness. As Pointer kisses her, he removes her glasses and puts them in his pocket. She is so nearsighted that this makes the hilly landscape outside the window look like lakes. Her imperfect vision symbolizes her blindness to Pointer's con. In contrast, Pointer is described as giving her a "long penetrating look," suggesting that he is the one with clear sight, seeing her as she really is. This echoes the description of Mrs. Freeman's eyes as having "penetrated far enough behind her face to reach some secret fact." Both Mrs. Freeman and Pointer can see Hulga more clearly than she can see them.

The irony of Hulga's utter lack of perception is that she claims to be more perceptive than others. She insists that her intellectual ability gives her greater sight. "Some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there is nothing to see," she tells Pointer. In the end she is the one with the figurative blindfold, and Pointer is the one who has truly seen and accepted the nothingness of reality. "I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" he tells her as he makes off with her leg. O'Connor uses this contrast to show that despite Hulga's claim of belief in "nothing," she still acts as if something about life matters. Pointer, however, is an example of how people act if they truly believe in nothing. This functions as a critique of Hulga's imperfect nihilism and conveys how Flannery O'Connor believes a true nihilist might behave. Hulga needs to learn to see herself, and the world, for what they are if she will ever live truly outside herself.

Names

As is often the case in O'Connor's work, names have meaning, often reflecting character traits. Thus Mrs. Hopewell has a hopeful outlook on life. In the story, however, this is also a case of verbal irony. Mrs. Hopewell is so determined to see the positive that she fails to account for life's darker side. In addition, her hope translates to expectations of the world that are not realistic, and she's unable to reconcile herself to reality as a result. She hopes and wishes her daughter would smile more, wear pretty clothes, meet a nice boy. This hope becomes a barrier between her and her daughter, preventing her from acknowledging Hulga's real feelings and experiences.

Hulga's name is explained in the story as her own choice—chosen simply because it was the ugliest-sounding name she could think of. The name left behind, Joy, reflects Hulga's utter lack of joy in life. Her last name, Hopewell, is also ironic and a reminder that she is just as blinded by her expectations and hopes as her mother. She expects and hopes to seduce Manley Pointer, believing the immoral act of sex outside marriage will make him feel terribly guilty. She wants to take his remorse and use it to convince him of her point of view on the "deeper meaning of life."

In contrast, Mrs. Freeman's name indicates that she is free of something. As a tenant farmer's wife, she certainly doesn't enjoy much economic freedom, so there is a similar verbal irony in the name choice. But Mrs. Freeman does seem to be free of the hopes and expectations that blind both Hopewells. She seems to relish the nasty details of life—her daughter's vomiting, the accident that took Hulga's leg, diseases, assaults. At one point in the story, Hulga feels as though Mrs. Freeman's "steel-pointed eyes had penetrated far enough behind her face to reach some secret fact." Her perceptiveness is emphasized in the opening and closing paragraphs, both of which refer to her forward-moving gaze, never swerving right or left. Her reaction to Manley Pointer is less warm than Mrs. Hopewell's. Her remarks insinuate there is something between Pointer and Hulga, and she gives Hulga a look as if they share a secret. She also makes the vaguely suspicious remark regarding Pointer that "some people are more alike than others."

As for Manley Pointer, he's a man who hides his true identity, so his name is a temporary alias. The name he chose emphasizes the masculine or manly, and includes a phallic image, "pointer." This suggests he imagines himself as particularly masculine and virile and hints at his preoccupation with sex, as revealed by the contents of his briefcase.

Good Country People Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Hulga has an artificial leg and a heart condition.

Rising Action

2 Manley Pointer comes to sell Mrs. Hopewell a Bible.

3 Manley Pointer stays for dinner.

4 Hulga meets Manley Pointer in secret the next day.

5 Hulga and Manley Pointer go into a barn.

6 Manley Pointer asks to unfasten Hulga's leg.

Climax

7 Manley Pointer reveals his true intentions.

Falling Action

8 Manley Pointer runs off with Hulga's artificial leg.

Resolution

9 Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman watch Manley Pointer leave.

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