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Good Country People | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Course Hero. "Good Country People Study Guide." November 22, 2019. Accessed February 3, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Good-Country-People/.

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Good Country People | Themes

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"Good" Country People

The first time the reader encounters the titular phrase, it is within the thoughts of Mrs. Hopewell, who is describing her tenant farmers, the Freemans. She notes they are "good country people," not like the "trash" she'd hired in previous years. To Mrs. Hopewell, the poorer class—those who do not own land and have to work as tenant farmers—are either "trash" or "good country people." Those considered "trash" are "not the kind you would want to be around you for very long." In contrast, "if ... you get good country people, you had better hang onto them." So while good country people are, to Mrs. Hopewell, of a lower class than she, they are better than trash. In this context, it seems clear that a good country person is a type of poor person who allows Mrs. Hopewell to maintain the belief that she is a benevolent employer and nice person (and good judge of character).

Mrs. Freeman is, objectively, not without flaws. Her previous employer said she was nosy and unbearable. She shows up while the Hopewells are eating and hovers until they are finished. She is strangely fascinated with violence and illness. Somehow, though, Mrs. Hopewell maintains her belief that Mrs. Freeman is a member of that quaint class of country folk who are simple and innocent.

The first point to be made from this idea of "good country people" is that it is an imaginary, stereotypical idea. Mrs. Hopewell believes in good country people because it makes her feel good about herself and about the world. And she had no one else she could have hired. She talks about them with nostalgia, as if they are leftovers from a simpler, more innocent time. Furthermore, if Mrs. Freeman is an example, there's nothing fundamentally good about good country people. She seems just as petty and controlling as anyone—not morally superior because of her lack of sophistication. Indeed, though Mrs. Hopewell believes she is controlling Mrs. Freeman by allowing her to be "in charge," it is clearly an arrangement Mrs. Freeman takes advantage of.

As the story progresses, two other important aspects of good country people emerge. First, Hulga sees good country people as ignorant and uncultured and dislikes them. The narrator states that if Hulga did not have a heart condition, she thinks "she would be far from these red hills and good country people." Instead she'd be lecturing on philosophy to people who had some level of higher education. In some ways Hulga is just like her mother—both look down on good country people because they are lower-class and less educated. Second, Manley Pointer relies on the stereotype of good country people as the foundation of his con. When Mrs. Hopewell doesn't want to buy a Bible, he claims he is "real simple" and a "country boy." He claims she doesn't like country people like him. This, as intended, causes her to soften toward him. He wins her over by appealing to her belief that country people are "real honest" and "genuine." And though Hulga looks down on good country people, she too is taken in by his country-boy persona. Of course, he may be a country boy, but he is far from good, simple, and honest, as she learns later.

Ultimately, the story suggests that there are no purely good people to classify in such wrongheaded ways. Both Hopewells use the idea of good country people to bolster their own sense of superiority. The other characters are not very good either. This is an important message in much of Flannery O'Connor's writing and is deeply influenced by her Catholic worldview of human equality of situation.

Deceit

The characters in "Good Country People" are full of lies and deceit. The most obvious example is Manley Pointer. His name is an alias, his Bible salesman persona is a sham, and his motive for meeting Hulga in secret is nefarious. Like his Bible, which has been hollowed out to make room for cards, condoms, and whiskey, he is Christian only on the outside. He keeps his real character secret until he has Hulga entirely under his control.

Though not nearly as sinister, Hulga is not a wholly truthful person either. She lies about her age not once, but twice. First she tells Pointer she is 17. Later she says she wants to be honest and "corrects" her age to 30. Neither of these is the truth. She also leads Pointer on so she can shame him and undermine the way she believes he sees the world. While not exactly sinister, it is a downright mean agenda born from her bitterness and supposed nihilism.

The older women, Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell, also engage in deceit. Mrs. Freeman calls Hulga "Hulga," even though she knows the ugly self-given name makes Hulga feel uncomfortable regarding her poor health and disability. She does this only when Mrs. Hopewell is not around. Though not an outright lie, this behavior suggests Mrs. Freeman knows she's crossing a line and so chooses to keep her meanness hidden. People who victimize others, in both large and small ways, prefer to do it in situations where they are alone with their victim. Mrs. Hopewell, who by her own estimation is without flaws, easily tells a lie. She tells Manley Pointer she keeps her Bible on her bedside table when it is really somewhere in the attic. And she clearly deceives herself about her daughter's emotional and physical well-being.

The point of all these lies and deceptions is to present others with a false image of the character. They conceal the real, more broken and flawed, person beneath the outer image. Mrs. Hopewell wants to appear more religious than she is, so she lies about where her Bible is. Mrs. Freeman wants to appear nicer than she is to her employer, so she hides her behavior. Hulga wants to entrap Manley Pointer, so she lies about her age to gain his sympathy and interest. Pointer wants the women to think he is a good country boy with a heart condition to gain access to their homes and confidence.

Perception

To balance the theme of deceit, the theme of actual perception is developed throughout the story. With so many lies and false images, paying attention to who can see clearly and who cannot is important. The least perceptive person in the story is Mrs. Hopewell. Her perception of others' true natures is severely impeded by her expectations of them. She believes Mrs. Freeman is good country people, and so she interprets her behaviors in accord with this expectation. When Mrs. Freeman consistently arrives during supper and stands there, watching the Hopewells eat, Mrs. Hopewell interprets this as simply an annoyance. But Mrs. Freeman is infringing on their privacy and being a nuisance, and she knows it. She is canny enough to keep her meaner digs at Hulga out of Mrs. Hopewell's sight, for these might be more difficult to dismiss. Mrs. Hopewell extends this same benefit of the doubt to Manley Pointer, who plays her for a fool. Worse, Mrs. Hopewell's blindness to others' true nature causes great harm to her daughter. By refusing to see and accept Hulga as she is, Mrs. Hopewell exacerbates her daughter's resentment and anger over her situation in life.

Hulga is similar to her mother in that her expectations of others cloud her ability to see them clearly. She, too, is taken in by Manley Pointer's country-boy persona. It serves her sense of superiority to see him as an ignorant, simple person who can be taken advantage of. To her surprise, she is quite wrong. "I'm one of those people who see through to nothing," she tells Pointer, trying to explain her lack of faith. The statement is full of verbal irony, as she can't see through Pointer's charade, but he, without her PhD, sees right through hers.

In contrast, Mrs. Freeman and Manley Pointer seem to see through the false images of others. Both of these characters are described often in terms of their "gaze" or their eyes. This implies that they have more vision, or perception, than the other characters. In the opening paragraph Mrs. Freeman's eyes are said to never swerve to either side but look straight ahead. Her gaze is also mentioned in the final paragraph of the story, as she sees Manley Pointer leaving and suggests "some can't be that simple." In addition, when she uses Hulga's name, she looks at her with "beady steel-pointed eyes." Hulga feels as though Mrs. Freeman's gaze "penetrated far enough behind her face to reach some secret fact." In a similar incident, Manley Pointer looks at Hulga with a "long penetrating look" and tells her that her leg makes her different—not like anybody else. She feels cut to the heart by this, as if he "had touched the truth about her." In this story, though the "good country people" may not be more honest or good, they certainly seem less blinded by their own preconceived ideas.

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