Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
"Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor is one of her better known short stories. This puts it in impressive company. There's a Flannery O'Connor story in a lot of anthologies, and this is one that turns up over and over.
If you've read it, you probably understand why. If the story wasn't to your taste, I hope this article helps you appreciate it more.
It starts with a summary and then looks at theme, irony and other relevant things.
Summary of "Good Country People"
The Freeman's are tenant farmers working for Mrs. Hopewell, who lives with her daughter, Joy. Mrs. Freeman won't ever admit to being wrong. She visits Mrs. Hopewell every morning at breakfast. They talk about the weather and Mrs. Freeman's daughters.
Joy Hopewell is thirty-two, large and blonde, has a PhD in philosophy, and has an artificial leg. Her mother views her as a child.
Mrs. Hopewell talks up her tenants and their daughters because they're good country people. Mr. Freeman does his work and keeps to himself. Mrs. Freeman is a busybody. Mrs. Hopewell counters this by putting her in charge of everything.
Mrs. Hopewell likes using the same simplistic sayings, to the annoyance of her daughter. Mrs. Freeman joins her in this platitudinous dialogue. Some variation of it is repeated at breakfast, lunch and sometimes supper. Mrs. Freeman would show up during the meal and linger. It tries Mrs. Hopewell's patience, but she wants to hang on to good country people. She's had plenty of tenants who were trash.
She wants Joy to be more pleasant, but she won't change, even for a short time. Her mother excuses her attitude because of her missing leg, which she lost at ten in a hunting accident. When she was away at college at twenty-one, she legally changed her name to Hulga. Mrs. Hopewell continues to call her Joy.
Hulga is rude to Mrs. Freeman, but she doesn't respond to it. She even calls Hulga by her proper name when her mother isn't present. This irritates Hulga. Mrs. Freeman is fascinated by her artificial leg, as she is by other abnormalities and misfortunes.
Mrs. Hopewell would like Joy to smile more and to dress better. She doesn't think college helped her at all. To make matters worse, her degree is in philosophy, which isn't practical. She can't describe her to other people as a philosopher.
Joy also has a bad heart and isn't expected to live past forty-five. She spends her days sitting and reading. She takes an occasional walk, but doesn't really like nature. She finds young men stupid.
On this morning, Mrs. Freeman talks about one of her daughters, while Joy cooks her breakfast at the stove. Mrs. Hopewell wonders what Joy said to the young man.
Yesterday, a young Bible salesman had called at the Hopewell's house. He carried a big, heavy valise. Mrs. Hopewell wasn't interested but invited him in out of politeness. He made a sales pitch based on an appeal to her Christian nature. She turned him down. He said he's too much of a simple country boy for Mrs. Hopewell. She assured him that she loves good country people.
He opens up to her. He wants to devote himself to Christian service. He has a heart condition which has affected his outlook. Mrs. Hopewell is moved by his similarity to Joy. She rashly invites him to stay for supper.
His name is Manley Pointer. Through supper, he talks about his family history and intention to help people. Hulga ignores him after the greeting. He stays until Mrs. Hopewell makes an excuse to get him to leave. Outside, he talks to Hulga. They exchange a few words. She walks to the gate with him. Mrs. Hopewell sees but hasn't asked about it yet.
In the present, Mrs. Freeman continues talking about her daughters. Hulga takes her breakfast to the table. She knows her mother wants to ask about the salesman. She plans on keeping Mrs. Freeman talking so the opportunity won't arise. The conversation eventually turns to the salesman. Hulga noisily goes to her room.
She has plans to meet him at the gate at ten. She thinks about the deep conversation they had yesterday. He made a silly joke, asked her age, and said she's brave and sweet because of her wooden leg.
He has serious thoughts because he might die. He asks her to go on a picnic with him tomorrow.
That night, Hulga imagines that she seduces him and opens his mind to a new, deeper understanding of life.
She slips out at ten. He's there with his big valise, but it's not heavy today. They walk toward the woods.
Manley asks her where her wooden leg joins on. She glares at him. He explains it away. He's surprised when she says she doesn't believe in God. When they reach the trees, he kisses her. She finds it unexceptional and keeps walking.
They reach the barn. He's surprised that Hulga can climb the ladder to the loft. They go up top, with Manley lugging his suitcase with him. They lie against the hay and kiss. He takes her glasses off. He says he loves her and wants her to say it too.
She gets philosophical about love and her worldview. She finally says she loves him.
He wants her to prove it by showing him where her wooden leg joins. She says no. He wants to see it because it's what makes her different. She's touched by this observation.
She lets him roll up her pant leg. She takes off her leg and puts it back on. She lets him take it off. He puts it aside and kisses her. She wants him to put it back on. He takes whiskey, obscene playing cards and prophylactics out of his suitcase. She demands he give her leg back. She tries to reach it, but he easily pushes her back.
She calls him a hypocrite and demands her leg again. He jumps up, grabbing her leg and his things, throwing them into his suitcase. He drops it down the hole. He's taken interesting things from other people, too. He uses different names everywhere he goes. He says she's not so smart. He runs off.
Back at the farm, Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are digging in the back. They see Manley emerge from the woods and head for the highway. They remark on how simple he is.
Theme: Illusion vs Reality
I'm only going to focus on this one broad theme. This might seem like an evasion, and it is. Reading this story is such a full, satisfying experience that it seems a pointless shame to distill it into themes. As O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." So, with this caveat, let's proceed with our look at the theme of illusion vs reality.
One of the first things we're told about Mrs. Freeman indicates her refusal to acknowledge things as they are. She "could never be brought to admit herself wrong to any point." By not admitting a mistake, she can maintain the illusion that she's right.
Mrs. Hopewell can view certain people as "trash" while viewing others as "good country people". The other farmer's wives she's had working for her were "not the kind you would want to be around you for very long."
She seems to make this distinction without any regard for character. Mrs. Freeman seems like someone you wouldn't want to be around very long, and Mrs. Hopewell's patience is tried by her visits. She makes the distinction between "good" and "trash" based on how much class someone seems to have, not on good or bad qualities.
She continues calling her daughter Joy even though her name's been legally changed. She favors her own "reality", the name she gave her daughter.
Hulga imagines improving Manley by taking "all his shame away and [turning] it into something useful." Manley, though, has no shame.
When they're in the hay loft, Manley asks her to prove her love. She thinks she has seduced him. The reality is that Manley has been seducing her in a different way. He's broken down her resistance to him with so much acceptance, admiration and simplicity that she's now willing to show where her wooden leg joins. She doesn't want to lose what he's offering her.
When Manley says her leg is what makes her different, Hulga believes that "for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence." This illusion is soon shattered when Manley reveals he's not "good country people" after all. He's actually the complete opposite—likely the most deceptive and irreverent person she's ever dealt with.
Manley's entire character up to him opening up his hollowed-out Bible is an example of illusion vs reality.
He's a con man who uses his abilities in line with his statement that he's "been believing in nothing ever since [he] was born." Of course, this one incident doesn't show the full range of his cons. No doubt he cons people for other purposes, as his playing cards and prophylactics indicate. But he's also willing to use his time to do things that are purely hurtful and profitless, like stealing a glass eye or an artificial leg. He illustrates the conclusion of Hulga's belief in nothing.
When Hulga refuses to show him where her leg joins, he says “You're just playing me for a sucker.” The reality is that Manley is playing Hulga. All his admiration and simple ways have been a manipulation to get her leg. His only motivation seems to be to show his superiority over another person.
1. What are some examples of irony?
Much of the irony in the story could be discussed under the theme of illusion vs reality. Here are some instances:
- Mrs. Hopewell is fond of saying "other people have their opinions too", and "Everybody is different". She also recognizes there's no point trying to get Mrs. Freeman to admit to a mistake. Despite these things, she doesn't accept her own daughter's differences, and continues to urge her to change.
- Manley is twice said to view Hulga as a zoo animal, that is, something that could be dangerous to him. But the bars of her cage, her uninviting manner, protect her, not him. He's the one who is dangerous.
- Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell "carried on their most important business in the kitchen at breakfast," which turns out to be talking about the weather and how often her daughter Carramae has thrown up since yesterday.
- Mrs. Hopewell views Joy as an embarrassment who lacks good sense. She views Glynese and Carramae as fine girls with common sense, despite the fact that they don't seem to have done anything or shown any good judgment.
- Mrs. Hopewell "had no bad qualities of her own" even though she views some people as trash and lies to Manley about her Bible.
- Mrs. Freeman sees herself as "quick" and not a simple person. There's no indication she has any special perception, and she seems only concerned with mundane daily life and abnormal conditions. She's also not quick enough to realize her daily visits are unwelcome.
- Manley says to Mrs. Hopewell, "People like you don't like to fool with country people like me!" Manley, though, is cunning, not a good or simple country boy.
- Hulga believes her conversation with Manley had great depth. It consisted of him making a silly joke, asking her age, calling her brave and sweet for having a wooden leg, saying they were meant to meet due to their serious thoughts, and that he might die. Hulga said she might die too, and very little else. She seems to be adding a lot of unearned meaning to their exchange.
- When Manley isn't immediately visible at their agreed meeting time, Hulga has "the furious feeling that she had been tricked." Of course, Manley is building to a much bigger "trick."
2. What is the meaning of Joy's outburst?
When her mother says "a smile never hurt anyone," Joy responds with great agitation, "Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God! Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We are not our own light!"
I'm not certain what she's referring to, but here's a guess. She asks if her mother sees what she is not. The catalyst for this outburst was her mother suggesting she smile. So, I think Joy is referring to happiness. A fake smile, which I assume she sees her mother use all the time, doesn't change how someone feels. Joy seems to be saying that for all her mother's smiles, she's not really happy. Thus, she's not in a position to tell someone else to be happy.
3. Does Manley really have a heart condition?
This seems unlikely. He's been in the area. My guess is that he gathers whatever information he can from the people he calls on. Other people would know of Hulga's health problems. He probably heard this beforehand and knew it would be a great way to build a rapport with the Hopewells.
It could be objected that Manley doesn't ask anything about anyone else during his visit, so why think he's been doing this? I think the Hopewell's is his last stop in this area. It makes sense to save a con like this for the end, when he's already made what money he can. Once a story like this gets around, people will be on the lookout for a stranger.
I love Flannery O'Connor's ability to describe a character. Here are two of the gems from "Good Country People".
Nothing had been arrived at by anyone that had not first been arrived at by her.
— On Mrs. Freeman
Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people's in such a constructive way that she had kept them four years.
— On Mrs. Hopewell's deft handling of the Freemans