Good Country People: Metaphor and Irony
Joy Hulga is the main character of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” She represents the proud, young educated student who has renounced any faith in Christ. As her mother Mrs. Hopewell puts it to Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman, “My daughter is an atheist and won’t let me keep the Bible in the parlor” (O’Connor 278). Manley turns out to be both Joy’s double and foil — atheistic like herself, but also seeking to seduce her for her false leg (he is a collector of oddities), even as she seeks to seduce him to show that she does not believe in sin. The great irony is that proud Hulga falls for Manley — only to be rejected. For O’Connor, a Roman Catholic, sin is the absence of good — and the absence of any good whatsoever at the end of the story is what acts as the real blow to Joy Hulga, leaving her high up in the loft without assistance, her pride taken away from her and only the reflection of her own need of salvation staring back at her from the distance. This paper will show how in “Good Country People” O’Connor uses irony and metaphor to convey a sense of the gulf that exists between “enlightened” but ignorant Hulga and “humble” but informed Joy.
Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter Joy is a college graduate whose education has been so good that she is no longer qualified to do anything but look down her nose at everyone around her — after all, O’Connor ironically notes, one cannot say that “my daughter is a philosopher,” as Mrs. Hopewell ruefully observes (O’Connor 276). In other words, Joy Hulga has received a doctorate but can do nothing with it other than sit “on her neck in a deep chair, reading” and looking “at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity” (O’Connor 276). Part of Joy Hulga’s problem is that she has a weak heart — otherwise, as she likes to tell her mother, she would be away lecturing at a college. Because her heart is no good, however, she is confined to her mother’s home in the country. O’Connor is using irony and metaphor here — Joy Hulga hasn’t the heart to be a good philosopher and hasn’t the simplicity and joy to be a good country person. She is good for nothing — and that is why she believes in nothing. In fact, she hates her mother — which is why she legally changed her name from Joy to Hulga: it was an act of revenge against her mother, much like Milton’s Satan seeks to destroy God’s creation — Adam and Eve — in order to get back at his own Creator.
Joy uses her wooden leg to further annoy those around her: O’Connor states that she can walk quietly but chooses not to — she enjoys unsettling those she despises and deliberately seeks to be ugly (which is why she chose the name Hulga — it sounds bruising to the ears). In the Bible salesman, she sees her perfect prey: an innocent (so she believes him to be) whom she can corrupt/convert to her own belief in nothingness. Since she cannot lecture nihilism and atheism to college students, she can at least put her beliefs into practice in the country by seducing the innocent Manley Pointer. The irony of course is that Pointer is not innocent in the least: if his euphemistic name is no indication, his satchel full of booze, porn and knick-knacks should be. He is the masculine double of Hulga and also her foil. She does not realize it but what O’Connor is showing to the reader is that she, not Pointer, is the real innocent: she is the one in the dark about herself. The impish Pointer knows exactly who he is and where he is going: he is out to con the world and take what he can get in the process. In Hulga, he sees a prize wooden leg that would fit neatly in his satchel. Hulga views her leg as St. Michael might have viewed his sword: a weapon against all foes. That she loses it in the end is O’Connor’s way of sending her the ultimate punishment — and also the ultimate mercy: for according to O’Connor’s belief, suffering is a gift that can, when united with the suffering of Christ, act in a redemptive manner. Punishment is typically a grace for O’Connor’s characters that brings them to the brink of actual self-knowledge. It is at this brink that a real understanding of the actual world, the actuality of sin, and the need for salvation can be achieved. It is at this brink that O’Connor leaves Hulga — literally sitting in the lurch, no longer able to help herself. Proud Hulga is humiliated, her face “churning” as she sees a reflection of her fleeting/retreating Hulga self “struggling successfully over the green speckled lake” in the distance (O’Connor 291). Manley has been a metaphor: he represents the soul without grace — empty, deceitful, carrying with it nothing but passing fancies for trinkets and pleasure pills. He is Hulga. Hulga without her leg — which itself is a metaphor for her hollow pride — is brought to the brink of becoming once more Joy: humble, gracious, and forgiving. None of this is said directly by O’Connor, but it is all implied through her use of the literary devices of ironic juxtaposition and metaphor. O’Connor never shows her characters going through the conversion process: rather she always leaves them at the moment of grace — that moment when truth finally lands with a bang on her character’s consciousness. What they do with it, of course, is up to them. It is as though the conversion process is not really something the characters are expected to go through but rather the reader.
In conclusion, O’Connor’s use of irony and metaphor allows the reader to see Joy Hulga for what she is — a proud, young woman in need of saving (both literally and figuratively). The gulf that opens up between her Hulga self and her joyful self is as wide as the distance between her and the man for whom she (momentarily) confessed a love. In that instant, she became vulnerable — open to real love. The love that she became open to was not Manley love, however — but rather the love of Christ who seeks, as O’Connor believed, to enter into every human soul.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” In The Complete Stories of Flannery
O’Connor. NY: Harcourt, 1971. Print.
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