Flannery O'Connor. Good Country People

Nihilist Hypocrites

by Brandon Colas
  Many people hold destructive opinions without considering their full implications. Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" uses characterization, symbolism, and irony to warn people with a nihilistic philosophy of life that their beliefs will inevitably lead to ruin. In this story a young atheist woman is destroyed when she is brought face-to-face with the evil personification of her worldview.

The story's tragic "heroine" is Joy Hopewell, a well-educated, thirty-two year old woman with an artificial leg. She has earned a doctorate in philosophy, and her speech is refined and precise. She has a heart condition that forces her to live at home with her mother. Despite her name, Joy is ironically described as large, hulking, bitter, and angry. To her own mother, she appears, "bloated, rude, and squint-eyed" (184). She is also sarcastic, mocking her mother and Mrs. Freeman without their realization. Joy has changed her name to Hulga, which is a symbol of the control she has for her own life and the ugly lack of meaning she sees in the world around her. Despite her haughty attitude, Hulga is unhappy and searching for acceptance. She asks her mother to take her, "like I am," and clearly perceives the faults of her mother and Mrs. Freeman (183-184).

Hulga's negative characterization comes from her nihilistic approach to life. To those around her, the expression on her face is one of "constant outrage" and she appears blind "by an act of will" (182). She is an atheist and refuses to allow her mother to keep a Bible in the family parlor. She has no qualms about being blatantly rude to Mrs. Freeman-if she believes in nothing, she has no reason to be polite. In reference to a shallow, cheery remark from her mother she screams, "We are not our own light!" (184). In other words, she believes there is no purpose in life.

In one of her books, she has underlined in blue pencil ". the strictly scientific approach to Nothing.. [is] wishing to know nothing of Nothing." (184). This statement is from Nietzsche, a philosopher who argued that atheism is an intellectual triumph over Christianity. Like Nietzsche, Hulga believes that "we are all damned" but those who "have taken off our blindfolds" see "that there's nothing to see" and gain "a kind of salvation" (191). She arrogantly tells Manley, "I don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to nothing" (191).

Surprisingly, despite Hulga's nihilism, she has some vulnerable areas in her life. Her artificial leg, an integral symbol within the story, is the most significant one. She is extremely sensitive about it, though her education has "scraped her shame away" for anything else (192). She is the only one who has ever touched it. Hulga treats her leg tenderly, "as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her eyes turned away" (193). Her leg represents her soul (which she, no doubt, does not believe exists) because it is the most important thing about her. This truth about her is also revealed by Manley's awed words, ". it's what makes you different. You ain't like anybody else" (192). Hulga is amazed by his perception. What Manley says comes from "beyond wisdom" and is "the truth about her" (192). Despite her façade of apathy, blindness, and anger, she wants to be accepted "like I am", and until this point no one has done so. Her mother considers her an overgrown child because of her leg. Mrs. Freeman considers her a fascinating aberration because of her leg. But Manley seems to understand that she is a real person, unique from everyone else, because of her leg. He could care less about her education (192). He deceptively seems to want her for who she is.

When Manley Pointer, a traveling Bible salesman, enters the Hopewell house, he reflects characteristics of the three female characters. He staggers into the house with his suitcase, as Hulga clumps around with her artificial leg. Mrs. Hopewell is won over by his simplistic phrases (which sound like her) and weak heart (which sounds like Joy). Mrs. Freeman's fascination with the deformities of life, especially Hulga's leg, is reflected in him as he stares at Hulga like an animal at the zoo. Manley's clothing also shows his reflection of Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga. His hat is toast-colored with a red and white band. Hulga wears a yellow sweatshirt around the house, and a white polo to meet him. Mrs. Hopewell wears a red kimono early in the story. His innocent appearance and reflection of the three women makes an important point about nihilistic beliefs. Nihilism seems normal and even a little dull on the surface. A closer evaluation shows that Manley is wicked-as is nihilism.

Manley Pointer personifies Hulga's belief system and how it affects life. His name implies that he is going to point something out to her, and he teaches her a grotesque lesson. Like the Nietzchian passage outlined in blue, he enters the story wearing a blue suit. His blue suit is a critical element of the symbolism in the story, showing his reflection of the nihilism that Hulga espouses, and foreshadowing his atrocious actions. His valise seems to pull him into the house. His true beliefs, represented by the interior of the valise, control him. The disgusting interior contents are later revealed inside a Bible, disguised as truth. The contents are sordid sexual tools that, hidden in something holy, represent morally repulsive ideas couched in philosophy that seem logical and trustworthy.

The ironic seduction scene explains the true nature of Hulga's beliefs as they crash around her. For the first time, she realizes the evil of nihilism and the damage nihilism incurs. The central irony of the story is that Hulga claims to be a nihilist, but is not. She begins to embrace Manley, "kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him" (191). She has "never been kissed," implying that she has never had trust or intimacy in her life, which is logical for someone who will not believe in anything (190). Hulga now almost trusts his outward Christian worldview.

Manley then asks for her leg, which shocks her. He explains that her leg is the most important feature about her. She is moved, and tenderly surrenders herself to him. He is not a country bumpkin, but her savior. The experience is described as "losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his," (192) paralleling the words of Jesus in Mark, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." His apparent beliefs have conquered her. She has given all of herself to him and is at peace. She dreamily imagines a wonderful future where she can "run away with him" (192). Hulga's nihilistic atheism is pushed aside, and her life suddenly contains meaning. Then she softly asks for her leg back, and the story's tone shifts from trust and innocence to panic and alarm.

Manley tells her to wait, and opens his suitcase. The suitcase is lined with blue, like his suit and the Nietzchian passage, representing his true nihilistic belief system. Inside the valise, a hollow Bible is opened to reveal a flask of whisky, obscene cards, and a birth control device. Hulga is stunned. She asks pleadingly, if he is "good country people" (193). She is pleading with him to be innocent, to meet her need for love which atheism does not fulfill. She begins to recognize her own beliefs in their personified form, and suddenly wants the Christian ideals she has mocked for years.

Manley becomes angry as he realizes that she thinks herself superior to him, and snarls, "I'm as good as you any day of the week" (193). She refuses his sexual advances and becomes furious, screaming, ironically, that he is not acting like a Christian and that all Christians say one thing and do another (Christian hypocrisy is one reason that Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God). Her anger at the outworking of a nihilistic worldview in Manley's life exposes contradictions in her own worldview. If Hulga is a genuine nihilist, although she can be hurt at her horrible treatment, she should expect nothing less. A meaningless life has no reason to be offended by such a turn of events which seem to confirm its meaninglessness. Manley leaves, stealing her leg and mocking her, remarking, "I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" (193) Manley has shown what her beliefs will do to a person. As Manley disappears below a hill, an "evil-smelling onion" is pulled up by Mrs. Freeman (194). This evil smell represents the stench that Manley is leaving behind in the form of Hulga's ruined life. She has finally met her beliefs, and they have destroyed her.

Manley the nihilist's perverse victory at the end of the story is puzzling at first glance. O'Connor is not suggesting that nihilism is an acceptable way of life. Nihilism destroys those whom it touches just as Manley destroys Hulga. Manley's "success" is marred by his weak heart. He does not have long to live.

It may appear that Manley's "weak heart" is a falsehood, contrived to gain sympathy and increase his Bible sales. Manley is a liar and a fraud, but his "heart condition" is a genuine aliment (186). Throughout the story, he is often tired and out of breath. He arrives at the Hopewell house "on the point of collapse" and on his way to the covert picnic with Hulga, is twice described as "panting" when he speaks (185, 190-191). When last seen by Hulga, he is "struggling" over the hill as he flees with her leg (191). He rambles for hours about his life in front of Mrs. Hopewell after he reveals his medical condition. Much of what he tells her consists of lies (his ambition to be a missionary), but it is unlikely Manley is creating two hours of pure falsehood. It is possible that he is being truthful in some points, such as his heart. In addition, his heart condition is another parallel between Manley and Hulga, besides his clothes and nihilistic worldview. Finally, it foreshadows his doom. This may be small consolation to Hulga, but his imminent death is a reminder that judgment is coming, and his victory is temporary. Nihilism may appear to win temporarily, but meaningful philosophies of life will eventually be victorious.

"Good Country People" is a complex short story, showing the disgusting results of a belief system that denies meaning in life. The end results of a nihilistic philosophy of life are hideous. Mrs. Hopewell's "most important" phrase, "Well, other people have their opinions too," is shown to be insipid (182). Treatment of others reflects one's personal beliefs, and a nihilistic worldview held by an individual can bring about destruction upon others, as well as oneself.

© Brandon Colas, October 2006
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