Flannery O’Connor commented a good deal on her own work, explaining that she belongs “to that literary generation whose education was in the hands of the New Critics” who valued showing over telling. This, says Susanne Morrow Paulson (1988), might account for the difficulty in interpreting her work, for in general it lacks a narrator to reflect on or explain the ideas or characters in the story.
Early reception of O’Connor’s work shows this difficulty; A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which includes “Good Country People,” faced a rather hostile audience. For example, Time magazine labeled O’Connor “Ferocious Flannery” while another critic “placed her in a cult of Gratuitous Grotesque.” The violence and grotesque humor in her stories made many readers uncomfortable, and rather than understand her as a Christian writer, an interpretation generally accepted today, they understood her as a nihilist.
Many critics now place “Good Country People,” along with many of O’Connor’s stories, in the tradition of the Southern Gothic. Thelma Shinn (1968) is one of the earliest critics to read O’Connor in this way. According to Leroy Letterman, the Southern Gothic tradition stems from “a sense of Being” achieved through suffering “a redemptive catastrophe.” Shinn takes her understanding of the grotesque one step further by referring to O’Connor’s own comments on her work. According to Shinn, O’Connor explicitly said that she was “a novelist with Christian concerns” and that “the most reliable path to reality...is by way of the grotesque.” With this information, she analyzes O’Connor’s stories as a blending of the Roman Catholic with the Southern Gothic, which together account for their humor.
Because O’Connor wrote so much about her fiction, many critics draw on her comments to understand these stories. In 1958, just a few years after the publication of the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor said that the major themes of her writing are conversion and grace. Using this statement as his point of departure, A. R. Courtland (1983) politely disagrees with the author, arguing that while most stories are “about grace and redemption, not all of them depict the action of grace on a character. ‘Good Country People’,” he says, “is one story that leaves the question of salvation unanswered.”
Some more recent critical response to “Good Country People” addresses issues of gender in the story. Lisa Babinec (1990) argues that the story shows the damaging aspects of failed mother–daughter relationships, including “patterns of maternal domination, failed expectations, the effects of manipulation, and the ready acceptance of the masculine work ethic.” She then uses theories of maternal thinking by Marianne Hirsch and Sara Ruddick to interrogate the relationship between Mrs. Hopewell and Joy/Hulga.
The story begins with a description of Mrs. Freeman, specifically concerning her interactions with Mrs. Hopewell. She has been working for Mrs. Hopewell for four years, and the two women often converse over breakfast in the Hopewell’s kitchen. Mrs. Hopewell considers Mrs. Freeman to be extremely nosy, but she knew that before she hired her and has dealt with this problem by making sure that it is Mrs. Freeman’s job to know everything; she is in charge of the whole household.
Hulga, Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, lumbers around the house and stomps into the kitchen one morning while the two women talk. She was born Joy, and her mother refuses to call her by her legal name, Hulga, which she chose for its ugliness. On the other hand, Mrs. Freeman loves calling her by the name Hulga, because she relishes hearing ugly things. Hulga makes eggs while her mother considers how she probably should not have earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, since it has not brought her any good. Hulga has a weak heart and probably does not have long to live, which is why she lives at home. Her mother also connects her education to her lack of faith in God, since she has read a passage suggesting this in one of Hulga’s science books.
As Hulga makes eggs, her mother wonders what she said to the Bible salesman who visited the day before. He arrived with a large valise, apparently lugging around Bibles to sell, and charmed Mrs. Hopewell with his simple-mindedness. He told her that he was just a poor country boy and that he had a heart condition that might kill him soon. He didn’t want to go to college, he just wanted to sell Bibles. Mrs. Hopewell was moved to invite him to stay for dinner, during which Hulga completely ignored him.
After dinner, Manley overstayed his welcome telling Mrs. Hopewell about his poor family for two hours. When he finally left, Hulga was standing in the road and he stopped near her to talk. Mrs. Hopewell watched from afar, but could not hear what is said. Now, Mrs. Hopewell wonders what was said between her daughter and Manley as Mrs. Freeman prattles on about her daughters. Eventually, Mrs. Hopewell brings up the Bible salesman, and Mrs. Freeman mentions that she saw him leave; clearly, she saw him talking to Hulga as well.
Hulga stomps off to her bedroom. She is supposed to meet Manley at the gate at ten o’clock, and she has been up thinking about it all night. She remembers their conversation from the evening before, during which she lied to him and said she was only seventeen years old, and he told her he thought she was “real sweet.” They connected about the fact that they both might die soon from a heart condition, and he invites her on a picnic for the next day. Now, she sets off to meet him at the gate.
Manley has been waiting for her behind a bush across the street, and as they walk toward the woods, he immediately asks her about her wooden leg. She is clearly bothered by his question, and he drops the subject. When they reach the edge of the woods, he kisses her; she has never been kissed before and is not particularly impressed. They enter a barn to sit down, and climb up a ladder to the loft. Hulga is able to even though she has a wooden leg; in fact, she climbs up first to prove to Manley that she is not at a disadvantage. They lie down and kiss in the loft, and after a while Manley demands that she tell him she loves him. She agrees, but reservedly, having pity on him because she thinks of him as a “poor baby.”
Soon he convinces her to show him where her wooden leg connects to her body, and eventually he gets her to remove it. He marvels at it and it seems as if he just wants to learn how to take it on and off. Daydreaming about a day when he will help her take care of the wooden leg, Hulga agrees. They continue to kiss, and without her leg she feels entirely dependent on Manley. But she begins to panic and asks him to give it back to her. Instead, he opens his valise to reveal that there are only two Bibles inside, and that they are fake; they open to reveal a flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and some medicine in a small blue box.
Hulga is shocked and asks, “Aren’t you… aren’t you just good country people?” He laughs and implies that he is going to rape her. She yells at him, “You’re a Christian!” and accuses him of being a hypocrite. He still refuses to give her her leg back; instead, he slams it inside his valise and climbs down the ladder, abandoning her in the loft. On his way down, he calls to her that she is not so much smarter than him; he doesn’t believe in God, either. Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are in the back pasture and as they watch him leave, Mrs. Freeman comments that she could never be as simple as he is.
It seems odd that the story, whose focus is Hulga and her wooden leg, begins with a description of Mrs. Freeman and her interactions with Mrs. Hopewell. But this characterization is important, since Mrs. Hopewell believes the Freemans to be “good country people.” Later, she decides that Manley must also come from “good country people,” which turns out to be a gross misconception. When he tells her that he is just a simple country boy, she answers, “Why! Good country people are the salt of the earth!”
This elevation of what Mrs. Hopewell considers “good country people” is linked to the theme of disgust with the world in general, which is prevalent in many of O’Connor’s stories. Mrs. Hopewell tells Manley, “I think there aren’t enough good country people in the world! I think that’s what’s wrong with it… You don’t see any more real honest people unless you go way out in the country.” Of course, this judgment of Manley is incorrect, since he is a liar and swindler.
Hulga’s deformity, her missing leg, has shaped her as a character. She used to be insecure about her wooden leg, but now she reveres it as her defining quality, besides her education. She takes care of it by herself and never lets anyone see it. However, this type of attitude without any faith in God is represented as leading to her downfall, since once she lets Manley take off her leg, she becomes extremely vulnerable. She doesn’t know how to be without it, so she panics, and he ends up stealing it and abandoning her in the loft.
Hulga’s education is connected to her lack of faith in God, especially in the mind of her mother. When Mrs. Hopewell reads one of her daughter’s science books, the words “worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish.” She tells Manley that she doesn’t believe in God. Instead, during their interactions, she tries to maintain control of her mind. When he kisses her, she is pleased to discover that it is just “a matter of the mind’s control.” Before he tells her he loves her, “her mind never stopped or lost itself for a second to her feelings.” But operating in this way leaves her handicapped when she becomes vulnerable. When Manley tells her that he likes her wooden leg because it makes her different, “she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood.” Her mind, of course, is incapable of this feat.
As is common in many of O’Connor’s stories, eyes are an important symbol. In this case, they are used to reveal that the people whom Mrs. Hopewell believes to be “good country people” are in fact nothing of the sort. In the opening of the story, Mrs. Freeman’s face is compared to a truck, specifically with regard to the action of her eyes: “Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.” This aggressive gaze is referenced again at the end of the story as she and Mrs. Hopewell watch Manley walk away after abandoning Hulga in the loft: her “gaze drove forward.” Manley, also believe by Mrs. Hopewell to come from “good country people,” has eyes that are described violently as he is distracted by Hulga’s disconnected wooden leg: “Every now and then the boy, his eyes like two steel spikes, would glance behind him where the leg stood.”