In the short story, "Good Country People", Flannery O'Connor details the encounter of Joy-Hulga, a woman with a doctorate in philosophy, a wooden leg, and a chip on her shoulder, and Manley Pointer, a door to door bible salesman with a hidden agenda. On the surface, they appear to be as different as night and day, a Christian and an atheist, an optimist and a pessimist. O'Connor also hits the reader with a heavy dose of irony when it becomes apparent that Joy-Hulga isn't as wise as she believes and Manley isn't as na " ive as he appears, and their stark dissimilarities can be seen on a whole new level. But a careful comparison reveals that they have more in common than immediately visible. Joy-Hulga is the stories' protagonist.
A hunting accident has left her with a wooden leg, crippled, both physically and spiritually. It could be said that she is the "perfect stereotype of an intellectual". She studied philosophy and, after receiving her doctorate, changed her name from Joy to Hulga, a name that she believes is as ugly as she sees herself. Her years studying philosophy have left her a stout atheist and existentialist.
This makes her name change quite ironic, since Hulga in Norwegian means "The Holy One". O'Connor says of Joy-Hulga", She believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul tht corresponds to her wooden leg". Her existential beliefs are seen in one of her books, that says of science, "We know it by wishing to know nothing of Nothing". She believes her philosophical wisdom makes her "enlightened" and somehow compensates for the weaknesses she once had. But there is more to Joy-Hulga than she lets on. Deep down she has a desire for love and happiness.
She also appears to be comfortable with her situation but she is actually very ashamed. She stomps around the house with her wooden leg (which is more herself than she is) and attempts to appear as ugly as possible. She attacks Mrs. Hopewell by saying, "Woman, do you ever look inside" but, ironically, it turns out that not "looking inside" is Joy-Hulga's downfall. Her supposed intelligence gives way to her glaring naivet'e and her lack of worldliness leaves her clothed only in her extreme innocence. This leads us to Manley, who is seemingly a simple and devoted Bible salesman. He is a "nice young man", just the type that Joy-Hulga holds disdain for.
Manley's name has meaning as well. "Manley" refers to his power over Mrs. Freeman and Joy-Hulga, while "Pointer" can be a reference to the horns and pointed tail of the devil. His friendly and open nature is the exact opposite of the withdrawn and mean-spirited Joy-Hulga. Manley "wanted to become a missionary because he thought that was the way you could do most for people". Mrs. Hopewell's reference to him as "good country people" and "the salt of the earth" further reflects their differences. Joy-Hulga decides to act on her contempt for Manley by planning on seducing him, thus destroying his Christian beliefs and displaying her power over him.
O'Connor writes", She took away all his shame and turned it into something useful". Manley, as it turns out, also has a spiritual deformity. He is hollow, even his name isn't real. There is no substance to this "good country people" except for his apparent mission to bring manipulation and degradation into as many lives as he can.
His nicely conceived front and spiritual emptiness is symbolized by his hollow Bible, filled with every tool of vice one could imagine; a flask of whiskey, a pack of dirty cards, and a prophylactic. And his surprising actions are hinted at when he says, "You can never tell". When Joy-Hulga's failed seduction turns into Manley's stealing Hulga's leg and, in the process, revealing his true self, their roles in this disturbing relationship are switched. Taking Joy-Hulga's leg turns out to be the same as taking away the person she had worked so hard to create. She is left alone in her innocence and naivet'e. She has been played by the country bumpkin she thought she was manipulating.
Manley is now the worldly one. He is the seducer and the manipulator. The fact that he had been using her the entire time is shocking to Joy-Hulga and the reader. He leaves her with the chilling remark, "I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" Despite the residency at opposite ends of the spectrum of both their real and fabricated selves, there is a tie that binds these two characters together. Both harbor the existential belief in the meaningless of life.
This belief in nothing is their driving force, but it is their biggest flaw. It leads to Joy-Hulga's manipulation and abuse and is the impetus for Manley's strange fetish. The differences between these two characters is obvious, and while O'Connor's use of irony to reverse their roles and reveal the flaws in their beliefs, there is a common thread between them. A perversion of existentialism almost to the point of nihilism is shared by these two strange and surprising characters.
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Dibble, Terry J. Flannery O'Connor's Short Stories, Notes. Lincoln, NB: Cliff's Notes, 1986 3.
Enjolras, Lawrence. Flannery O'Connor's Characters. Lanham, MD. University Press of America, 1998 4.
Di Yanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. 4th edition. Boston, MA. McGraw Hill Publishing, 1998 5.
Tyson, Wendy. Watermarks: Examining the Good in "Good Country People". 23 July 2001.
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