Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In “Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to Joy Hopewell, whose leg was blasted off in a childhood accident. Joy sees herself as being completely ugly, and now, as an adult, she has had her name legally changed to Hulga because it sounds ugly too. Having neither joy nor hope, she specializes in moving around noisily on her wooden leg because it sounds ugly; she wears ugly clothes, makes ugly faces and ugly, rude remarks, and in general tries to be as ugly as possible.
The greatest achievement in Hulga’s life has been the acquisition of a Ph.D. in philosophy, and her wide readings in secular philosophy confirm her intrinsic convictions, which fall somewhere between atheism, existentialism, and nihilism. “I don’t have illusions,” she says at one point. “I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.”
It is clear that O’Connor sees Hulga’s belief system, not her missing leg, as her greatest handicap. Hulga is shut off from a proper communion with God, not because she is knowingly evil, but because she is morally smug; she thinks she has within herself everything she needs to be a functionally complete person. Essentially this boils down to an argument between Protestantism and Catholicism—Protestantism holding that each person ultimately determines his own belief, and that salvation comes wholly from a personal relationship with God, and Catholicism maintaining that salvation comes through a right relationship to God through the traditions and sacraments of His Church.
Throughout the story it is clear that Hulga wants to have total control over her life and belief system, and thinks she’s doing very well with it, thank you very much. Manley, a traveling Bible salesman, hits on the “trigger” of Hulga’s vulnerability when he asks for the leg because he is really asking her to submit herself to him body and soul. She does, which causes her to become “entirely dependent on him.” His theft of the leg and betrayal of her leaves her open to the action of God’s real grace in her life, thus making Manley an agent of grace himself. O’Connor leaves Hulga in the barn, but we know it will be a considerably different Hulga who emerges.
Thus for O’Connor the most important thing is to shock her smug characters out of their complacency and bring them sharply into an awareness of their inadequacy in the eyes of God. Frequently this happens in a way that seems gratuitously violent, or, as in the case of “Good Country People,” emotionally cruel, but to O’Connor that did not matter. Anything that knocked sense into unbelievers’ heads was, to Flannery O’Connor, completely justifiable.
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