A long time ago – I was in the seventh grade, I think – I was a part of a group of students clustered around our art teacher’s messy desk. Everyone was talking at once. I don’t remember what I said, but at one point our teacher spun around and stared at me in astonishment. After a long silence, he asked, “Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor?” I said I hadn’t. “Well, you have to,” he said, taking a scrap of paper and writing down “Flannery O’Connor” and “Collected Stories” in big block letters. I wish to God I knew what I said.
I did buy the book, but I couldn’t make much of the stories at the time. After scanning the table of contents and flipping through a few of the stories, I put the book back on my shelf, where it stayed for about eight or nine years, when I discovered Flannery O’Connor again through different channels. By then I knew that stunning a person into a speechlessness that can only be alleviated by gasping out “You must read Flannery O’Connor” is rather an alarming thing to do.
I think “Good Country People” – alongside two or three of O’Connor’s other stories – is close to a perfect model of the short story form, and I think it’s only fair to tell you that one of the reasons I love this story so much is that it sucker-punches me in the gut. Hulga, its protagonist, is ridiculous. She’s naïve and arrogant and superficial and judgmental and afraid of almost everything she encounters – yet I read this story and I sympathize with her without exception and without question. Her arrogance is my arrogance; her vulnerability is my vulnerability. And while I think in general it’s a tricky business to make pronouncements about the motives and thought processes of a deceased author – especially an author as squirrely as Flannery O’Connor – I can only believe that the way she so successfully knocks the wind out of me in a story like this is – at least in part – by taking aim at herself.
But I think I should back up a bit before I tell you more about what I mean.
This story begins at an oblique angle, with a lengthy passage of exposition not about Hulga or the Bible salesman who briefly becomes her paramour but about Hulga’s mother and the gossiping tenant who serves as her housekeeper. Like so many characters in O’Connor’s stories, Hulga’s mother, Mrs. Hopewell, is obsessed with the classification of human beings. Her conversation is peppered with expressions like “Nothing is perfect,” “Well, other people have their opinions too,” and “That’s life!” – expressions that are designed to suggest that she is reserving judgment but that in fact make tacit judgments in and of themselves. She’s sort of a proletarian Nick Carraway in that sense. Mrs. Hopewell is proud of the way she manages her tenants, noting that “the reason for her keeping them so long was that they were not trash. They were good country people… She had telephoned the man whose name they had given as a reference and he had told her that Mr. Freeman was a good farmer but that his wife was the nosiest woman ever to walk the earth… Since she was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything – she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge” (272). Mrs. Hopewell sees herself as choosing to be passive in order to get along with domineering people – a judgment that I think is probably apt – and this is a technique that she likely picked up during her years of living with her angry, tortured, cynical daughter.
The story’s first sentence – “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings” (271) – seems at first to be nothing but a red herring. It took me dozens of reads to begin to understand what this sentence about an altogether minor character was doing in such a central location. I think it serves two purposes. First, it sets up this paradigm of forward and reverse (or active and passive) movement that will end up playing itself out between Hulga and the Bible salesman, who is more like a guerilla who moves in circles and spirals. Second, it begins the process of introducing Hulga to the reader through a series of defensive barriers, which is how the characters in the story are forced to relate to her. Just as her family members and neighbors have to approach Hulga through multiple layers of cynicism, anger, defensiveness, and veiled insult, the reader as well has to wade through several paragraphs (taking up five of the story’s twenty pages) of peripheral information about Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell before reaching the story’s true subject. In most other stories I would find this form of narration inefficient; in this story, though, the reader approaches Hulga with the same confusion and trepidation that she inspires in her poor, simple mother and her mother’s simple friends.
Hulga is a 32 year-old woman with a wooden leg, terrible fashion sense, and a Ph.D in philosophy. She’s sullen and angry and nasty, but most readers who have made it far enough along in their educational careers to encounter Flannery O’Connor can probably sympathize with her vitriol on some level. Her missing leg – which she lost in a hunting accident when she was ten, as we learn in the most abrupt parenthetical aside since Nabokov’s “picnic, lightning” – and a heart condition have kept her tied to her mother and her childhood home, even though in the absence of these handicaps Hulga would be “far from these red hills and good country people…in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about” (276).
At some point in her life, Hulga (whose birth name was Joy – Joy Hopewell, no less; she had the name legally changed when she turned twenty-one just to spite her mother) learned to use what her mother calls “her ugliness” as a weapon. She “lumbers” and “stumps” around the house, making as much noise as possible in spite of the fact that she is capable of walking with her wooden leg without limping. She dresses herself in the most absurd clothing she can find, including “a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it” (276). Her mother notes that “sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity” (276). She is most certainly a virgin, and on some level it seems likely to me that she creates such an offputting exterior in order to pre-empt the possibility that a man will find her attractive and she will have to face the embarrassment of making her sexual ineptitude known to him.
Enter Manley Pointer – one of the best-named characters in literature. Manley Pointer arrives at the Hopewell home to sell bibles and quickly begins to show an interest in Hulga. He charms Mrs. Hopewell with stories of his impoverished backwoods childhood – Mrs. Hopewell who, over time, has become so badgered by Hulga’s aggressive intellect that she has trained herself to assume that all claims to simplicity must automatically come from a place of virtue and gentleness. Hulga largely ignores Pointer during this initial visit, but she does agree to meet him the next day, and during the night she begins to fantasize about a scenario in which she both mocks and seduces him at the same time: “She had lain in bed imagining dialogues for them that were insane on the surface but that reached below to depths that no Bible salesman would be aware of” (283). Even in fantasy, she can’t imagine a situation in which she would expose her own romantic vulnerabilities unless she were mocking another person’s inferior intellect at the same time. Startlingly, Hulga also lies about her age to Pointer, telling him that she is only seventeen instead of thirty-two – clearly as an attempt to hide the shame connected to her romantic and sexual inexperience as well as the shame of living in her mother’s home like an adolescent.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Manley Pointer is no Bible salesman. He does sell Bibles for a living, but the valise he brings on his second visit – identical to the one full of Bibles that he brought to tempt Mrs. Hopewell – contains hollowed-out Bibles that conceal liquor, pornographic playing cards, and condoms. Preoccupied with her visions of “seducing” the apparently simple and innocent Pointer, Hulga lets his guard down and fails to notice his intentions as he lures her into the hayloft of a nearby barn, removes her glasses, and – in the story’s most brilliant, chilling, and comic moment – “lean[s] over and put[s] his lips to her ear. ‘Show me where your wooden leg joins on,’ he whisper[s]” (288).
It’s at moments like these that I am in awe of Flannery O’Connor, who has managed the perfect characterization of the grotesque and sexless Hulga (who under her “ugly” exterior presumably possesses the same sex drives and desire for love and acceptance as anyone else): she gives the stump of Hulga’s missing leg the status of a sex organ. Hulga is both shocked and titillated by Pointer’s request and refuses it at first, but with further coaxing she does in fact remove her wooden leg and allow him to reattach it and remove it once more. The intimacy of this moment – unsurpassed by anything in Hulga’s life experience – is captured in this fantastically complex passage: “The obscenity of the suggestion was not what shocked her. As a child she had sometimes been subject to feelings of shame but education had removed the last traces of that as a good surgeon scrapes for cancer; she would no more have felt it over what he was asking than she would have believed in his Bible. But she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one else ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away” (288 – italics mine).
This passage raises so many questions. Is the stump of an amputated limb really “obscene?” Does education really remove shame from a person’s character – and, if so, why and how does it do so, and is this a good thing? Is shame really a “cancer”? The simile about the peacock (and let’s not forget here that O’Connor was an accomplished peacock farmer) suggests that what Hulga really feels about her leg is pride, and it’s true that, along with her Ph.D, her wooden leg is the primary (and the only tangible) locus of Hulga’s Hulga-ness: the impenetrable selfhood that we share with very few people and that is hidden behind the door that people tend to open during sex. It’s her soul: but it is hard and wooden (is it a phallic symbol? Good God, Flannery O’Connor is brilliant) and an inert thing that has been inserted in a place once occupied by living tissue.
Once she has allowed Pointer to remove her leg, Hulga allows him a few more intimacies. She admits her atheism and the obvious, childlike pride she feels for it – thrilling him more than she knows – and says, holding his face in her hands, “There mustn’t be anything dishonest between us. I am thirty years old. I have a number of degrees” (288). Never mind that she is still lying about age – since she is thirty-two – but the fantastic comedy of this moment, as she gazes lovingly into his eyes and tells him about her Ph.D, belies the fact that she has essentially offered up all of her vulnerability to Pointer at this point in the story. This is a sex scene in which not a single genital ever comes into play, and serves as the final lowering of Hulga’s defenses. When Pointer refuses to give back her leg, Hulga falls back on her earlier assumptions of Pointer’s innocent exterior and appeals to his claims to pious Christianity, prompting his fantastic reply: “I hope you don’t think… that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going” – a string of clichés that mirrors Mrs. Hopewell’s from earlier in the story – “And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga…you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing since the day I was born” (290-1). At this point Pointer tucks Hulga’s glasses and wooden leg into his valise and exits the hayloft via the ladder, leaving Hulga without vision, locomotion, and pride.
For all the sophistication of her intellect and the richness of her spirituality, Flannery O’Connor retains an uncanny level of access to the part of each person that remains forever an adolescent. “Adolescent” can mean a lot of things, of course, but in this case I think I mean the part of us that has never internalized the ways in which we are seen by others. When I was an adolescent, I was in some ways frightfully insecure, but I also recognized my capacity for infinite goodness and intelligence and wisdom and talent, and I became horribly frustrated when others did not recognize those qualities in the same way and related to be based on how I acted, not on the ideals that I knew existed beneath the surface. I think I was correct in thinking that those ideals existed within me, but what I didn’t understand is that they exist within everyone, and that none of us express those ideals in our daily lives in a way that lives up to how good we are in our minds and intellects and souls. When I looked at others, I saw only their imperfect surfaces, but I expected them to look at me and see the unlimited potential beneath my surface.
Presumably, most adults have outgrown this double standard, most likely because we get tired of the horrible ways that people react to us when we act on it. I don’t know about you, though, but for me this little voice inside me that both knows of my greatness better than anyone else and is ready to leap up in anger and defensiveness at anyone who threatens that greatness is still very much present. I can control this voice, but I’ve never succeeded in making it go away. Hulga’s snarliness, her contempt for her mother and for her mother’s tenants, and the fact that “every year she grew less like other people and more like herself – bloated, rude, and squint-eyed” (276) set off little waves of sympathy in me that I find very hard to justify. Sometimes I think there is no tension so great as the tension between that voice inside us that insists on our superiority to the rest of the world and simultaneously feels a terrible fear of the judgment of that flawed world. What is that voice – the id? the reptile brain? the immortal adolescent? For now I’ll call it the inner Hulga. I know I have one. I don’t think everyone’s inner Hulga speaks with the same voice or agonizes over the same trivia, but I suspect that everyone has one. And the kind of fiction that I like to read is the kind of fiction in which this tension exhibits itself on the page.
When I taught this story in my high school classes, I sometimes gave the following writing assignment: Write a story about yourself, in the third person, in which you come off as an unlikeable character. This was always given as one of several choices, since it requires a level of personal revelation that not every student will be ready for, and I have always believed in using a light touch when asking students to write about personal topics. In general, though, the students who did choose this option often did their best work of the year, soaring well beyond the assigned page limit and turning in work reflecting a newfound maturity. I don’t know exactly why this assignment works as well as it does, but I do have a few ideas. I think that most of us develop a series of unconscious strategies designed to suppress our inner selfishness and our inner meanness. Maybe we have a few friends with whom we let our mean streaks fly. Maybe we express our nastiness through writing or acting or art. Maybe we sign up for martial arts and unleash our aggression on punching bags and sparring partners. Maybe we turn that anger inward and hurt ourselves or become depressed or stay up all night cleaning our houses until they shine. Many beginning writers – whether they are high school students or well into adulthood – are operating with their inner Hulga switched off because, well, because they do everything in their lives with their inner Hulga switched off. This is a mistake, of course, since anyone who has read “Good Country People” knows that Hulga is the center of the story’s energy. Hulga is one of the most human characters I have ever seen committed to the page. She is human because she embodies the meanness that comes from our vulnerability and that is at its most mean when it turns on itself.
You know that old guy who called you sweetheart in Target last week? The one who wanted to know how you were going to carry that big flat of bottled water all the way out to your car by yourself? You wanted to kick him in the shins, didn’t you? In real life, it’s probably a good idea that you didn’t kick him. He was probably a veteran, for one thing, and he probably saves his dimes and nickels in a coffee can at home and has a wife who is dying of something. Your kicks would have left bruises: he might even have had to see a doctor. In real life generosity of spirit and restraint and forgiveness are admirable qualities that keep our lives from being even more nasty, brutish, and short than they already are. But when you sit down to write your story, kick him in the shins. Kick him in the shins – because he saw you only for your surfaces (never mind that you’re only seeing him for his) and was too short-sighted to see the Hercules within you who could not only carry the flat of water but could shot-put it out of the park if given the opportunity – and see what happens. Hell, forget the shins – those rubber running shoes you’re wearing would probably barely hurt him there. Kick him in the nuts. Kick him in the nuts, not at the end of your story, but at the beginning. Kick him when there is still plenty of time for the meanness of that act to sink in, both for the victim of the act and for its perpetrator, your protagonist. Let your protagonist feel both the glory and the terror of being powerful and ugly and mean. And don’t let the story end until she is trembling in the hayloft without her wooden leg.
It is common in creative writing workshops for students to be told to resist putting themselves on paper. In the workshops I’ve taken, the dirtiest words one could speak were but that’s the way it really happened; loyalty to real-life events was absolutely forbidden. In most cases I think this rule is a good one, and all writers should learn to fictionalize and transmute their experiences on the page. But fiction does have its origin in the real energies of our lives, and in my experience one of the primary human energies is the tension between who we are on the inside and who we appear to be to everyone else. It is good that you’ve learned to control that thirteen year-old voice inside you, the one that wants to thrust her acne-ridden face at the world and tell it once and for all how misunderstood she is. Keep that voice quiet at the grocery store, at the office, and in church. But when you sit down to write, you have to listen to it, because that voice knows something about you that the demands of adult life have pushed you to forget. No matter the circumstances or the target of its anger, that voice is always saying one thing – I am who I am – which, as Flannery O’Connor knew well, is what God said from the burning bush when Moses asked for his name.