Identity as a Theme in “Good
The Oxford English dictionary
defines identity to be “The quality or
condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties, or
in particular qualities under consideration.” Most would find this definition a bit nebulous when using it to
discuss the effects of identity as a theme in a literary works such as “Good
Country People” by Flannery O’Connor. Plutarch gives a significantly more
tangible and relevant descriptive use of the word. In his renowned
“philosophie” book Morals, he says “That
the soule of this universall world, is not simple, uniforme and uncompounded,
but mixed..of a certaine power of Identitie and of Diversity” (65). In “Good Country People,” the complexities
and effects of identity are taken to the highest extremes. O’Connor portrays a
discordance of identities while simultaneously showing how identities can be
hidden and truly do have room for improvement. There are characters that appear
to mirror each other in various ways, as well as a possible reflection of the
authors own life in the character of Hulga. There are illusions to the idea of
people having multiple identities, and one’s true identity being fatally
misperceived. O’Connor demonstrates how the scope of identity is farther reaching
than individuality; through the characters interactions, plot and revelations
in “Good Country People, she unfold the truth of how you can deceive yourself
with false identities just as easily someone else, and failing to determine the
true identity of yourself and others can lead to your demise if the
problem is not addressed.
Mrs. Hopewell is a hollow character in her outlook on
life. Her entire scope of thought appears to be driven by platitudes and
dissatisfaction with her daughter. Her true identity, as with all of the major
characters in the story, is nebulous. Although she outwardly holds the intrinsic
good-natured values of the south in such high regards, some of her thoughts
appear to contradict this. Without delving into the complex relation between
her and her daughter Joy, Mrs. Hopewell’s identity needs some examining. To
begin, Mrs. Hopewell has a very narrow view of people. In reference to her
staff, Mrs. Freeman and her two daughters, she says “the reason for her keeping
them so long was that they were not trash” (1017). Mrs. Freeman is also the
only worker she has kept around for more than a year – to say that she is not
trash implies all the others were (or else why get rid of them?), which gives
the reader a glimpse into the superiority complex of Mrs. Hopewell. Through
Mrs. Hopewell’s interactions with Manley Pointer, we see the utterly unperceptive
Mrs. Hopewell blind to his true character. After Manley visits the house, Mrs.
Hopewell is reminiscing and says to Mrs. Freeman “Lord … he bored me to death but was so
sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people,
you know.” (1024) There are two examples of blindness to deduce from this
statement. The first is rather obvious; Manley Pointer reveals his true
character in the end, which is not Mrs. Hopewell’s idea of good country people.
He is a criminal, and his guise duped Mrs. Hopewell just as it did her
daughter. The other example is subtle, but important; remember, Mrs. Hopewell
said this to Mrs. Freeman. Mrs. Freeman is fully aware that Mrs. Hopewell
considers her “good country people” so saying that Manley bored her but she
could not be rude is insulting to Mrs. Freeman.
Although she might
seem to be entirely shallow, there are some rather poignant and perceptive
facets to Mrs. Hopewell’s character that are worth mentioning. Although she has
“plenty of experience with trash” (1018) from prior tenants, Mrs. Hopewell can
be considered a strong, independent woman on account of her divorcing her
husband and managing a farm on her own. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear that the
ex-husband has shown any involvement in the family’s life after the divorce.
Whatever the reason is for their divorce, it was great enough for Mrs. Hopewell
to take on the responsibility of a farm and caring for their crippled,
terminally ill child. Additionally, it would seem probable that Mrs. Hopewell
was the one who paid for Joy’s schooling: nothing short of a Ph.D. in
philosophy. “Mrs. Hopewell said that people who looked on the bright side of
things would be beautiful even if they were not” (1019) This philosophical,
albeit simple, thought is one of the more intelligent things Mrs. Hopewell says
in the book. Anthony
Synnott theorizes about beauty and ugliness in a way that would resonate with
Mrs. Hopewell, saying that “Beauty and ugliness are evaluated linguistically
therefore, not only as physical opposites but as moral opposites. Ugliness and
physical deformities … are stigmatized … the psychic and social significance of
ugliness is immense” (55-6). However, the scene is imbued with subtle hypocrisy as Mrs. Hopewell makes
no pretense of living by that reasoning in relation to her daughter. Although O’Connor clearly intends to identify
Mrs. Hopewell with negative attributes, she does not want Mrs. Hopewell to be
misconstrued as being devoid of any depth as a character.
Mrs. Freeman has a
strikingly complex identity despite the fact that less space is devoted to her
character than to Mrs. Hopewell’s, Joy’s or Manley Pointer’s. O’Connor appears
to deliberately portray similarities between Mrs. Freeman and Hopewell, while
still holding Mrs. Freeman’s identity as entirely separate and more intact than
Mrs. Hopewell. Although the story is not centered around Mrs. Freeman, the
beginning and the end are; the first sentence of the story is “Besides the
neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Free had two others,
forward and reverse, that she used for all her human interactions” (1016). O’Connor
portrays this very stoic character who “could never admit herself wrong on any
point. (1016). Like Mrs. Hopewell, she uses the same platitudes in
conversation, but in a drastically different way then Mrs. Hopewell. While Mrs.
Hopewell actually believes in and cherishes these mundane sayings, Mrs. Freeman
is using them solely in response and agreement with Mrs. Hopewell. Because she
is referred to Mrs. Hopewell by her husband as being “the nosiest woman ever to
walk the earth,” Mrs. Hopewell has made her in charge and involved with
everything at the farm. This really speaks to Mrs. Hopewell’s identity and
shows a bit of vitriol – her solution to an employee’s nosiness is giving her
an excessive amount of job duties.
A common conversation
between Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman is, “Hopewell Everybody is different.”
“Freeman Yes, most people is.” “It takes all kinds to make the word.” “I
always said it did myself.” These banal conversations reoccur throughout the
story and their significance is questionable until the final lines, when Mrs.
Hopewell comments on how simple Manley Pointer was and Mrs. Freeman says “Some
can’t be that simple … I know I never could” (1030). Unto then, Mrs.
Freeman’s identity appeared to be rather imprecise. Her odd acute interest in
hearing over and over how Joy lost her leg and her “special fondness for the
details of secret infections hidden deformities and assaults upon children” made
the reader question her true identity and morals (1019). Additionally, the only
time she speaks of her daughters is in reference to their sex lives and
ailments. These details appear to be minute when in the end, O’Connor alludes
to an enlightenment in Mrs. Freeman that appears unmatched by any other
daughter Joy might be considered the crux of the whole story, as she is always
acting on a character, or being acted upon. Joy, who changes her name to Hulga,
is as ugly outward as she is inward. She loathes her mother’s platitudes, and
her fawning over those who she sees as good country people. Although Mrs.
Hopewell has many character flaws of her own, she is never directly rude to
other character. When the bible salesman, who is widely considered good country
people until his self-revelation, comes to visit, “he addressed several remarks
to Joy, which she pretended not to hear” (1022). Joy believes in nothing; her
philosophical education has not only led her to believe in nothing, but also
clouds the beauty in everything. She holds her own intellect in the highest
esteem, and her beliefs in the nothingness of everything. O’Connor bitterly
confesses that Hulga “didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers … She
looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity” (1020). She
uses words like “hulking” and “rigid-shouldered” or “bloated” to describe
Hulga’s non-feminine appearance. The world has been harsh to Hulga; not only
does she have prosthetic leg to further accentuate her non-normativity, she has
“a weak heart” and is not expected to live past forty-five (1019). With her
shrewdness, she believes she has the world completely figured out – because it
has been ugly to her, she will be ugly to it. Clearly, as Anthony Synnott said
above, the psychic significance of ugliness has effected Joy/Hulga in “immense”
Mrs. Hopewell is a quintessential Southerner
whose simplicity and overt self-confidence drives her daily life and
conversation. Because she so greatly identifies with the southern ideas of
beauty in a woman, anything other than this perturbs her. This is why her name
is so indicative of her state of mind; she is always hoping for a change to the
present or the past with regards to her daughter Joy. Her daughter’s identity
is a striking contradiction to all that Mrs. Hopewell holds in such high regard.
“It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year Hulga grew less like other people
and more like herself – bloated, rude and squint-eyed” (1020). Her daughter
does not embody any of the ideals of Southern beauty in a woman – thinness, hospitality,
interests in men, or cherishing the few “good country people” Mrs. Hopewell so
desperately wishes there were more of. She “would think that if Joy would
only keep herself up a little, she wouldn’t be so bad looking” (1019). Mrs.
Hopewell in a way obsesses over Joy’s ugliness and deformities, but not solely
because Joy is bad-looking – it is in conjunction with Joy’s ugly personality
and nihilist beliefs that make Mrs. Hopewell so discontented with her. I refer
again to Synnott’s analysis of beauty and ugliness in that they are both “physical
opposites” and “moral opposites.” Joy’s ugliness in her personality detracts
from her beauty almost equally to her physical deformities and appearance in
Mrs. Hopewell’s eyes; she sees Joy’s morals as contrary to hers at every turn. Mrs.
Hopewell is entirely unsatisfied with Joy’s decision to obtain a Ph.D. in
philosophy. She feels as though she can’t be proud to tell others that her
daughter is a philosopher, and that she “thought it was nice for girls to go to
school and have a good time but Joy had ‘gone through'” (1019). It appears that
all hope is lost between this mother and daughter relationship until possibly
the end of the story through Hulga’s revelation.
The meaning of the characters’ names
in the story are of high importance in representing their identity. As was
briefly described, Mrs. Hopewell’s name does not have the word ‘hope’ in it
accidentally. She lives her life in a state of longing; her daughter may be her
biggest let down given all that she holds in such high esteem. The hope
associated with her name can hardly be taken positively however; it appears to
be more in the form of resentment of her daughter. As for Mrs. Freeman, the
word ‘free’ appears to be used ironically here (which may even correlate to her
being the butt of the ironic ending). She has been bound to Mrs. Hopewell’s farm
for four years and enslaved to Mrs. Hopewell’s vapidity. Although she doesn’t
show it in her speech, it can be deduced that her intellect runs far deeper
than Mrs. Hopewell’s, which would make the platitudinous conversation she is
succumbed to incredibly aggravating.
The meaning behind the dual identity
of Joy/Hulga requires a thorough examination of its own. The names can be
considered as polar-opposites in meaning and representation. The first, was
given to her by Mrs. Hopewell and is reflective of her hope for Joy. She hoped
for Joy’s personality to be more reflective of her name, whereas Joy despises
and fails to embody the sense of the name, while acting fairly robotically when
she is called it. This was her public name; when Mrs. Freeman referred to Joy
as ‘Hulga’ she was highly offended because “she considered that name her
personal affair” (1019). It was her way
of placing herself above her mother and the good country people she so keenly
despised. “One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to
turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn
it herself into Hulga” (1019). She believes it is genius that she picks the
ugliest name in her mind to represent that what she thought was ugly, herself. The
name gives her independence and a new identity separate from what was assigned
to her by her mother. Melita Schaum describes the psychology behind this better
than most when she alludes to “Hulga’s hubristic belief that she can remake and
thereby “own” herself in an originary way … by renaming and so “claiming”
herself as property, she executes a heretical parody of divine Creation” (16).
Hulga’s over-reliance and false sense of superiority in her intellect turns out
to be her fatal flaw in the end.
Hulga’s name attaches her identity
to her prosthetic limb. The limb is the zenith of her ugliness and is the
symbol of disability in the story. Her limb represents the identity she is
trying so hard to conform with — one who understand that everything in life is
meaningless and everything leads to and is nothing. “She was as sensitive about
the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” and in heavy contemplation
thought about how “she took care of it as someone else would his soul” (1028).
These private “beliefs” are the same as the one’s she has about her name; she
associates her soul and morals solely with her name and leg. They are in
reality, non-beliefs, as it is clear they hold no true humanistic or moral value
which is why they are such fitting beliefs for the persona of Hulga.
It makes complete sense why many
believe Flannery O’Connor used Hulga as a literary device to mirror herself.
O’Connor was a celibate, as it appears Hulga is, and lived with her mother. As
is consistent with her stories, such as this one and “A Good Man is Hard to
Find,” she appeared to have very little faith in finding human happiness. Her
outward appearance was pale, shrew and unshapely, and because of Lupus she was
deformed and on crutches – mirroring Hulga’s one disability and non-femininity.
O’Connor speaks of her father saying “I am never likely to romanticize him… I
knew him only by a kind of instinct.” Her father died when she was fifteen and
she did not think highly of him. This is paralleled in “Good Country People” by
Mrs. Hopewell divorcing her husband, thus removing him from Hulga’s life early
and being left with the responsibility to take care of the farm. Susanna
Gilbert’s comments in a piece about Flannery O’Connors story “Everything That
Rises Must Converge” hold true to this story as well:
This struggle makes its way into her
fiction not only literally—through images of blood, disease, death, and twisted parent-child relationships—but
figuratively, as well, as many of
the stories in her final collection replicate the very dynamics of her
disease—its omnipresent symptoms,
sudden, surprising violence, and, most importantly, its grotesque drama of the self against the self.
appears to be her own harshest critique. As it is entirely clear that Hulga
represents her physically, O’Connor’s portrayal of her as this morally-empty
character shows a self-degradation that is undeserved. O’Connor was not a
morally empty person; she was a devout Roman-Catholic who believed “the meaning
of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ” (1004). It would be tragic if
such a renowned and high-minded author shackled herself to such harsh
interpretations of her moral being.
Manley Pointer created a false identity
for himself just as Joy/Hulga did, but ones that were entirely different. He
first arrives at the Hopewell house disguised as a blissfully ignorant good
country boy, whom Mrs. Hopewell welcomes with open arms. He tricks Mrs.
Hopewell into giving him the same hospitality she would any other good country
person when he says “And besides, I know I’m real simple. I don’t know how to
say a thing except to say it. I’m just a country boy.” He glanced up into her
unfriendly face. “‘People like you don’t like to fool with country people like
me”‘ (1021). Many Pointer is cunning enough to trick Hulga in the same way.
Hulga believes she found “pure innocence” in the boy, which is why she wanted
to seduce him. Ironically, although she would never admit it, it was her trust for values and morals of good
country people that made her go to the loft with Manley Pointer. It was there
that he revealed his true character, and broke free from his false identity as
a good country boy. Melita Schaum comments on his true character saying that he
is “a figure of mischievous disruption characterized by rule-breaking, likes,
theft, shape-shifting, and wordplay” (1). Manley Pointer was not a good person;
he was a deranged villain, who saw what the artificial leg meant to Hulga. He
admits that he has done this many times before with other woman tells Hulga
“you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born” (1030).
He reveals to Hulga what believing in nothing truly is. Within this revelation,
he admits that Manley Pointer is not his real name; he has formulated a
different name, like Hulga, and his identity and purpose in the story appears
to be tied to it just as hers is. Manley Pointer can be read as a sexual innuendo,
such as the idea of a man’s “pointer,” but also in the sense that he was meant
to reveal or “point” something out to Hulga which in this case was her
misconceptions of his and her own identity.
In Manley Pointer’s revealing of his
true identity, Hulga is able to understand her own. When Hulga acquiesced into
giving him her leg, she was symbolically handing over her identity to him. The
leg was Hulga, and by Manley Pointer taking it, she iss able to have a truly
human moment; she iss for the first time aware of her human limitations and the
conditions of her humanity. William Burke characterizes this transformation as
recurring in O’Connor’s works; it is her “standard short story structure: a
character with an exaggerated sense of her importance and value is brought
through the agency of an outside to the destruction of her comfortable world in
a moment of enlightenment” (221). Hulga finally realizes that she has no
beliefs; everything about her identity for her was tied up in the leg. Once the
leg was taken she could see how vulnerable and helpless she really was.
Schaum parses out the deceptions
that have taken place in the final scene between Hulga and Manley Pointer:
Manley Pointer… removes Hulga’s
glasses in the hayloft and pockets then, leaving her practically blind, seeing the world in inversions of blue and
green shapes, mistaking earch for
water. Yet obviously this is only an emblem for the inversions and blindness she has willed upon herself by way of her
nihilistic philosophy and pride; Hulga – as is the
case for all those caught in the falsity of intellectual hubris – has long been
duping herself (7).
“who has achieved blindness by and act of will and means to keep it,” has never
seen so clearly, despite the irony of her glasses being taken. For Hulga to
come to terms with her own self-deception, she needed to be duped by an
external force to demonstrate how she has been tricking herself. Hulga is the
character in the end who realizes that because of her false identity she has
managed to trick everyone including herself and has to now change. She serves
as the example of someone who fails to perceive her own identity while
misguidedly trusting another and the implications that can have on your current
William. “Displaced Communities and Literary Form in Flannery O’ Connor’s “The Displaced Person.” Modern Fictions Studies 32.2 (1986):
219-227. Project Muse. Web. 10 December 2017.
Ann, and Flannery O’Connor. The
Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction.
Ninth ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2016. Used bibliography on Flannery
O’Connor and her short story “Good
Susanna. “Blood Don’t Lie: The Diseased Family in Flannery O’ Connor’s “Everything
That Rises Must Converge.”‘ Literature and Medicine 18.1 (1999): 114-131.
Web. 8 December 2017.
Melita. “Erasing Angel: The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O’Connor’s
Short Fiction.” The Southern Literary Journal 33.1
(2000): 1-26. Project Muse. Web. 9 December 2017.
Anthony. “Truth and Goodness, Mirrors and Masks Part II: A Sociology of Beauty
and the Face.” The British Journal of Sociology 41.1 (1990): 55-76. Jstor. Web. 29 April 2010.