Friday, February 19, 2021

Good country people

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Good Country People Overview

Critic John Ditsky

Source Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed., edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 14

Criticism about (mary) Flannery Oconnor (15-164), also known as (Mary) Flannery OConnor, Mary Flannery OConnor

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Genre(s) Short stories; Novels; Gothic novels; Letters (Correspondence); Essays

Perhaps there was a time when Flannery OConnor was regarded chiefly as a cult author adored by Catholic readers on the basis of her unusual southern Catholic background, but those days are gone forever. Her fiction and her nonfiction are distinguished by a religious ardor, to be sure, but the former is never tendentious or preachy. Rather, OConnor is artist enough to let her characters hang their own moral selves, generally on the basis of that pride that goeth before a fall, or that fails to anticipate its own shortcomings in the face of other forms of pride, and other follies and vices as well.

An often-anthologized story in this mode is Good Country People. Though its title drips with OConnors usual caustic irony as regards folk sententiousness, it expands as the story proceeds to hoist as well those who think themselves superior to such simplistic usage. In her more public utterances, OConnor noted that we are inclined to accept the southern grotesque as the local norm when we might well refuse its applicability to our own lives. In OConnors work, we are all, northern and southern, capable of grotesquerie, in just the way Sherwood Anderson employed the term. In OConnors unremitting world view, we are all monsters in some sense or other.

Ironical too are the names of the two women whose conversations parenthesize OConnors story. Mrs. Hopewell is heard talking to her employee Mrs. Freeman, whom she has hired because she and her husband were reputed to be good country people, at the beginning and the ending of the story. Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are quick to slip into the dialogue of maxims that apparently marks good country people

Ive always been quick. Its some that are quicker than others.

Everybody is different, Mrs. Hopewell said.

Yes, most people is, Mrs. Freeman said.

It takes all kinds to make the world.

I always said it myself.

These banal routines of oneupmanship morning banter are overheard by Mrs. Hopewells daughter, large hulking Joy, as early as the latters morning bathroom visits, and OConnor begins to shift the storys focus to this ungainly woman of years who has lost a leg, acquired a Ph.D. in philosophy--which in her mothers mind becomes redundantly useless--and changed her legal name to Hulga, a switch from a beautiful name to the ugliest name in the language, apparently the former Joys claim to having addressed her identity candidly.

It would hardly be surprising if the intellectual OConnor might not have intended to parody herself in the person of Joy/Hulga. OConnor was killed early on by the disease lupus, while Hulga, maimed in a hunting accident, has a weak heart and might see forty-five at best. Hulga contents herself with a philosophy that abhors the contemplation of nothingness and an attitude that holds her above the nice young men of the region. That is, at least until the Bible salesman comes calling.

Manley Pointer, with his hilariously phallic name, ingratiates himself with Mrs. Hopewell, even though she has no desire to buy one of his Bibles, because he is also good country people; Hulga, operating at a supposedly more sophisticated level of insight, might have found him attractive because she feels his superiority as an unbeliever, or because they share the same heart condition. He admires her wooden leg and her glasses; she meets him by prior arrangement, having imagined seducing him and thus getting an idea across even to an inferior mind, her true genius being able to deal with his expected remorse.

Only through the logic of threes does the reader note OConnors suggestion that Hulgas defects include not only defective vision and a missing leg, but also her status as a conscious nonbeliever. Finding that she can endure his kisses with detachment, Hulga goes further in her pride and reveals her nonbelief, which the young boy accepts with admiration as though she were a fantastic animal at the zoo. She even leads him to the barn loft where he removes her glasses, after which, with unwitting irony, she pities him I dont have illusions. Im one of those people who see through to nothing; she claims to have achieved a kind of salvation by having taken her blindfold off. Insisting on honesty between them, she tells him that she is thirty years old--shaving off a couple of years--and that I have a number of degrees. I dont care a thing about all what all you done, he replies, as though she had confessed to a sordid past; and he demands to be told that she loves him, which she does after a series of ardent kisses, congratulating herself on having had seduced him. The reader notes the sexual role-reversal here, the boy asking for assurances of love, the woman seducing, or thinking she is.

As if to play up that aspect of the story, OConnor has the young man request that she remove her artificial leg for him, something she took care of ... as someone else would his soul. It is what makes her different, he says, tallying with the notion of soul. Faced with his innocence, she complies, and she finds in her quasi-sexual yielding that It was like losing her own life and finding it again miraculously, in his. This parody of Christian paradox makes the boy her false savior, and almost immediately, the boy takes from his case of Bible samples one that actually contains a flask of whiskey, a box of condoms, and a pack of pornographic playing cards. He startles her by saying that though he is good country people, he is no perfect Christian but someone who has been believing in nothing since birth. In a grotesque ending worthy of Faulkner, the young man scrambles out of the barn loft with Hulgas artificial leg, her glasses, and, one hopes, her self-deception. But the narrational camera pans back to Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, who reflect in their ignorance on how simple the good country boy is. In this masterful moral tale, Flannery OConnor shows us a character who, with her useless Ph.D. in Philosophy, might instead have better studied the one about the farmers daughter and the traveling salesman.

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