In “Good Country People”, Flannery O’Connor paints a very flawed protagonist, Hulga, whose societal perceptions are thwarted by an odd and sullying experience involving a devious Bible salesman. In so doing, she provokes the reader to question the vitality of religion, social stereotypes and human self-defense mechanisms.
Several story elements serve as the pretext for this experience. One of them is the description of Hulga and Mrs. Hopewell. Mrs. Hopewell is zealously accepting and appreciative of good country people, the moniker by which she refers to help that she’s hired for field work over time: “in the Freemans [Mrs. Hopewell] had good country people and … in this day and age, [if] you get good country people, you had better hold on to them.” The divide between Mrs. Hopewell’s and Mrs. Freeman’s socioeconomic status, which is never explicitly defined but restlessly hinted at by the use of this stereotyping term, suggests that Mrs. Hopewell seeks solace in applauding good country people as if it were a way of compensating for her life’s shortcomings, such as how her daughter Joy has turned out.
Hulga, whose leg was shot off at a young age in a hunting accident and who suffers from a heart condition that doctors say might allow her to “see forty-five [years of age]”, is an Ph.D.-educated individual who spends much time reading and little time in the company of others. She has a crass and impolite manner that makes her appear uglier than her “bloated, rude, and squint-eyed” exterior already does: “Mrs. Hopewell would look at her … and would think that if she would only keep herself up a little, she wouldn’t be so bad looking”. Though she can walk without making a noise from her prosthetic, wooden leg, “she made it – Mrs. Hopewell was certain – because it was ugly-sounding”. Her own legal change of name, from Joy to Hulga, was motivated “purely on the basis of its ugly sound” and is considered by Hulga to be “her highest creative act”. All these displays of intentional repulsion suggest that a cognitive dissonance is going on within Hulga: she just can’t look past her physical shortcomings and attempt to redeem herself. She’s stuck in a self-destructive rut. The clothes she wears – “a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it” – even point to a degree of mental regression. “She was brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense.”
Mrs. Freeman’s character serves the purpose of testing Hulga’s intentionally repugnant resolve. When she first began calling Joy “Hulga”, “[Mrs. Freeman’s] relish for using the name only irritated [Hulga]”. Hulga “would scowl and redden as if her privacy had been intruded upon.” Someone who legally changes their name would expectedly be happy with their new name, but Hulga’s flustered response towards Mrs. Freeman addressing her by it suggests that the name change was done to as a cause of her self-destructive rut, one that she doesn’t admit to herself: “It was as if Mrs. Freeman’s beady steel-pointed eyes had penetrated far enough behind [Hulga’s] face to reach some secret fact.” It’s no secret; rather, it’s a truth that Hulga tries to repel.
Atop Hulga’s rut is a relationship with rational philosophy that ends up throwing her for a loop in the end. “She said such strange things”, writes O’Connor. In one instance, at the dinner table, Hulga makes a reference to the French rational philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, whose theory of occasionalism suggested that every creature in this world was likely an occasion for divine activity. Hulga proclaims that Malebranche was right in saying, “we are not our own light”. In one of his texts, Malebranche argues that the nature of human minds being is unclear and can’t be looked into by human beings themselves. The movement of an arm, for example, is not a cooperation between the mind and the body. Rather, it occurs purely by the occasion of moving the arm, wherein the agent that causes the occasion is God. In the real world, the concept of cause and effect does not exist. Rather, God causes one event and then causes another, independently. Mrs. Hopewell labels Hulga as “an atheist [that] wouldn’t let me keep the Bible in the parlor”. Interestingly, through her reference to Malebranche, it’s suggested that she believes in and agrees with Malebranche’s philosophy, whose objective was to demonstrate the ubiquity of God in the human world. This juxtaposition serves O’Connor’s later perversion of religion as well as her provocation of the reader to question it.
Through the Malebranche lens, the Bible salesman becomes an agent of God. His ability to woo Hulga into accompanying him for a “picnic” and into her having thoughts of seducing him in a barn does not, on a logical level, make sense given Hulga’s outward rudeness and general displeasure. After all, “she looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”
When seen through the lens of Malebranche, though, Hulga’s surrender to the advances of the effervescent Bible salesman – and in fact his very appearance in Hulga’s life – is her surrender to God. When the salesman asks for her age, a degree of Hulga’s femininity and psychological irresolution – one that, given her track record, could have only been brought on by God himself – is exposed when she replies, “seventeen”. She even dolls up prior to their meeting by putting on Vapex. These acts, which don’t fit with her personality, are too rash to be explained by mere logic. Therefore, it must be the influence of God acting upon her.
On the surface, as the Bible salesman kisses her and then exacts a confession of her love for him, forces such as Hulga’s lack of sexual experience and her desire to feel superior and in control can be said to be at work. She quietly revels in his “look of admiration … as if the fantastic animal at the zoo had put its paw through the bars and given him a loving poke.” When he’s pleading for her to say she loves him, Hulga looks at him “almost tenderly” and says “You poor baby … It’s just as well you don’t understand.” Prior to this, she describes herself as “one of those people who see through to nothing”, in an attempt to vitiate the significance and very purpose of the salesman’s request and therefore appear mysteriously as the wiser of the two. Towards the end, “[she’d] seduced him without even making up her mind to try.”
All this is an act of God that’s caused Hulga to think about God and about her physical and emotional weakness. Of course, O’Connor makes the Christian salesman a farce, one that only pretends to be engaged in spreading the word of God in order to feed his sick or his capitalistic desire to collect prosthetic body parts. O’Connor, through her plot twist, makes perverse Hulga’s expectation that the boy is nothing but “good country people” and that Christians are supposed to be good people. The salesman one-ups Hulga’s obnoxious atheism and disbelief in everything, telling her that he’s been believing in nothing since the day he was born. He mimics Mrs. Freeman in this regard, because she’s seen through to Hulga’s irresolute soul. She only acts the way she does because she wants to either rationalize or mask the ills in her life, namely her amputated leg. It’s ironic, sad and darkly comedic when the salesman, prior to their exchange in the barn, tells Hulga that God must really take care of her. If the salesman is God, then God doesn’t take care of Hulga at all – he just steals her wooden leg and leaves her alone, immobile and in despair.
O’Connor’s purpose in writing the story, then, is to describe different viewpoints about religion, intellect and society; intersect the viewpoints, and get the reader to question them all. What really are “good country people”? Is being atheist a sound idea? Does education really help someone realize their full potential? Why do some people seem to be stuck in their childhood years in some way? In the broadest terms, O’Connor’s story is a wide-reaching exposé about human nature.