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"Good country people" unmasked: Hulga's journey to salvation.

Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga, the bickering mother and daughter in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," are united by their interest in the legendary category of people for which the story is named. Mrs. Hopewell tells a Bible salesman that "good country people are the salt of the earth!" and Hulga responds to this sentiment with "Get rid of the salt of the earth" (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories [Orlando: Harcourt, 1955]: 177-78). While the simplicity of good country people keeps Mrs. Hopewell optimistic about the world, Hulga, the nihilist, bases her identity on her self-aggrandized superiority to them. However, when she finds herself deceived by Manley in the dramatic role reversal of her final scene, she leans, traumatically, that belief in good country people is an illusion, as is nihilism. Manley shatters both Mrs. Hopewell's and Hulga's belief systems, and by doing so he becomes a vehicle of grace through which Hulga is prepared for salvation.

While O'Connor responds emphatically to the destructiveness of nihilism through Manley's humiliation of Hulga, the humanist beliefs that Mrs. Hopewell demonstrates are disputed in a more subtle manner. Mrs. Hopewell's religion is an ambiguous moral code that she feels good country people abide by. She says "people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not" and she lives by her sayings, "Nothing is perfect," "that is life!" and "well, other people have their opinions too" (174,169). What ultimately exposes Mrs. Hopewell's profane belief in the goodness of humanity is her statement that equates good country people to "the salt of the earth," a biblical reference to early followers of Christ (177). Commentator Donald A. Hagner writes that the metaphor refers to "something that is vitally important to the world in the religious sense" (Matthew 1-13 [Dallas: World Books, 1993]: 99). Mrs. Hopewell's usage of this phrase maintains that good country people are indispensible, though her need of them is not based on a religious deficiency, but a desire for morality. Her lack of interest in the specifics of Christianity is revealed in the same scene, as the narrator tells us that Mrs. Hopewell lies to Manley when she tells him her Bible is beside her bed: "It was not the truth. It was in the attic somewhere" (177).

Hulga, however, is the only character "privileged" by enlightenment, which occurs as a result of her victimization at the hands of Manley. Her experience with him in the barn opens her to redemption, for O'Connor points Hulga to God and away from nihilism by causing her to experience a kind of conversion with the ideals bound to betray her. Though she had determined to maintain her superiority over Manley, she promptly forgets about her nihilistic beliefs and is captivated by the illusion of intimacy she experiences with him. She makes herself completely vulnerable to Manley by allowing him to see her wooden leg, the most private part of her: "No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul" (191). When she concedes to let him take it on and off, the language recalls a typical Christian conversion experience. She feels that Manley "had touched the truth about her" and when she gives him permission, "it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his" (191). She has the correct experience with the wrong entity, as is made clear in the exchange between Manley and Mrs. Hopewell when he echoes the words of Jesus: "whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Mt. 16:25 KJV). Having already discarded nihilism in order to fall in love with Manley, Hulga retreats to the safety of good country people when his guile becomes evident. But this belief that Hulga appeals to is also shattered. When Manley leaves Hulga speechless in the barn, she is in a fractured state, which is absolutely necessary in order for her to be prepared for a "true" conversion that she should find in God.

It is significant that Mrs. Hopewell, for all the scrutiny of her beliefs, is not brought to a moment of redemption as Hulga is. The values she taught Hulga are challenged in this story, though she remains oblivious while Hulga is confronted with their falsity. The story is framed by the presence of Mrs. Freeman, the original example of a good country person. Though Mrs. Hopewell accepts Mrs. Freeman's flaws, such as her officiousness, her belief is grounded in an innate sense of morality that accounts for her trust in Manley and others she considers to be like him. This perspective contradicts the doctrine of original sin, which Hulga leans as she stammers, "Aren't you [...] aren't you just good country people?" in her final scene (193).

Country people may exist, but not as Mrs., Hopewell believes. Manley's perfidy speaks to the hollowness of belief in the goodness of humanity and so the ending lines reinforce the idea of original sin as Mrs. Freeman admits her own inability to be good: "Some can't be that simple [...]! I know I never could" (195). These lines are nevertheless ironic, as 0'Connor intimates the complicated task of challenging this belief system. Though Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are aware of their own shortcomings, they both watch Manley leave the woods and admire his simplicity directly after he has violated Hulga. The nihilist in disguise as good country people acts as the unlikely catalyst for Hulga's enlightenment, but Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are left in the dark. At the end of this story, the belief in nihilism has been eliminated, though Mrs. Hopewell's brand of humanism remains. "Good Country People" therefore closes with two unfortunately deceived women whose situation proclaims the perpetual infection of the world with false ideals.

Rachel Pietka, Chapman University
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Author:Pietka, Rachel
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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