Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor
In Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of nihilism, ignorance, betrayal, redemption (possibility) and grace. Taken from her A Good Man is Hard to Find collection the story is set on a tenant farm in Georgia and the first thing the reader notices is the symbolism in the characters names. Firstly there is Mrs Freeman (free man) who works for Mrs Hopewell. Mrs Freeman is not free; she works for Mrs Hopewell, though she does have a presence about her in the kitchen which suggests to the reader that she owns the place. Likewise Mrs Hopewell as her name suggests hopes well. She relies on three clichés to define her life or other people. One of her favourite sayings is ‘nothing is perfect.’ However she doesn’t live her life to this rule. An example of this is when her daughter Joy or Hulga tells her that she must accept her ‘LIKE I AM’; something Mrs Hopewell is unable to do. Joy lives with her mother and lost her leg when she was ten years old in a hunting accident. She has legally changed her name from Joy (happiness) to something she thinks is more appropriate for her, Hulga (or ugly, in essence killjoy). Then there is Manley Pointer, the travelling bible salesman who visits Mrs Hopewell and as his name suggests, he points out a valuable lesson to Joy.
O’Connor also uses colour as symbolism in the story. Firstly when Mrs Hopewell is reading one of Joy’s books the reader notices that the passage (on nihilism) is underlined in blue pencil. Likewise when Pointer arrives at the house he is dressed in a blue suit and when he opens his valise in the barn the lining is blue as is the box of contraceptives. O’Connor using the colour blue to highlight to the reader the idea of the lack of faith that both Joy and Pointer have. O’Connor also describes Joy’s eyes as being an icy blue ‘with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it’, again the idea of a lack of faith (or nihilism). The colour pink is also used to emphasis Joy losing control of the situation in the loft. When she is lying down in the hay she notices the ‘two pink-speckled hillsides lay back against a dark ridge of woods.’ Pink would traditionally be the colour of sensuality and emotions, something that Joy has never believed in. If anything Joy has always intellectualized things, she after all has a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
Both Mrs Hopewell and Joy’s perception of things are not necessarily correct. Mrs Hopewell believes in her clichés which in essence suggest a narrow (if not ignorant) viewpoint on life, life after all is not a cliché. Also she can’t accept Joy for who she is and considers her rebellion as no more than Joy being an immature child. Another interesting thing about Mrs Hopewell’s perception is that she judges Pointer to be a good man because he is from the country and like Joy has a heart condition. As for Joy her perception of things is definitely not as things are. There is the incident in the loft when ironically Pointer takes her glasses off and as they are kissing Joy believes that it is she who is seducing Pointer, rather than the other way around.
The scene in the loft between Joy and Pointer is significant for many reasons, one of which is that it highlights to the reader Joy’s vulnerabilities. When Pointer is putting her leg back on she imagines him doing it every morning for her. For the first time (since her accident) she has allowed herself to be vulnerable (or human). What is interesting at this point is that the reader realises that O’Connor is using the symbolism of Joy’s artificial leg to highlight her spiritual weakness. Also when Pointer opens his valise and the reader finds that he has a hollow bible with a flask of whisky, some contraceptives, and obscene playing cards inside it the reader becomes aware that it mirrors Pointer’s religious condition (lack of faith, hollow). A point further highlighted when he abandons Joy in the loft and tells her ‘I been believing in nothing ever since I was born’, again O’Connor highlighting the idea of nihilism.
The opportunity for Joy to achieve grace occurs when Pointer abandons her in the loft after putting her artificial leg in his valise (her spiritual weakness is gone). Again O’Connor uses colour as symbolism to highlight to the reader the opportunity of grace. Joy can see Pointer walking across the fields ‘struggling successfully over the green speckled lake.’ Green as many readers would be aware is associated with regeneration (rebirth or redemption). It is through Pointer’s act of betrayal (taking the leg and leaving Joy) that the reader senses a new possibility for Joy. Whether she does actually achieve grace is again unclear ‘the girl was left, sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight.’
The ending of the story is also interesting as it highlights that Mrs Hopewell has not changed. She is in the back pasture with Mrs Freeman digging up some onions and sees Pointer walking across the field. Again Mrs Hopewell’s perception of things is incorrect. She assumes that ‘he must have been selling them (bibles) to the Negroes back in there’, and she turns to tell Mrs Freeman ‘he was so simple but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.’ The reader left aware that Mrs Hopewell is to remain as ignorant as she was at the beginning of the story and that Joy is the only one who has the opportunity for redemption or grace.