When I consider all the stories in the canon involving a phony lover who seduces a middle-aged philosophy Ph.D. only to steal her wooden leg, I believe that O’Connor’s “Good Country People” has a claim as one of the best of these. Seriously, like most of O’Connor’s stories–and unlike a good many other writers’–“Good Country People” lingers in the mind like a particularly bizarre image.
What is Flannery O’Connor up to in this story? Rather than trying to offer a definitive reading, something I’ll save for another day, I’d like to accentuate the negative and attempt to answer what I believe O’Connor is not up to in “Good Country People.”
On the surface, this story might seem to be a simple swipe at Christians, evangelicals, Southern evangelicals, rural Christians, religious people in general, or some combination of these ideas. It doesn’t take too long, however, to realize that such an interpretation is too simplistic. Joy/Hulga, after all, is not a religious person at all. Manley Pointer, the faux Bible salesman, turns out to be a scam artist bent mostly on depriving people of their prosthetics. Neither of the two older women seems to be more than nominally religious, Christian or otherwise.
On one level, I’d suggest that we can learn a bit about this story by considering Barack Obama’s ill-considered comments during the 2008 election season:
“It’s not surprising then they [small town and rural voters] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
While I’m a practitioner of religion and an owner of guns, I believe there is a lesson to be learned from the president’s words. The Hopewell household has a history of clinging to both guns and religion. The problem with them is that they don’t really know how to use either of them properly. Joy/Hulga lost her leg years ago in a hunting accident. I’ve hunted for many years and can state without fear of contradiction that blowing the leg off a ten-year-old is pretty much inexcusable. Similarly, Mrs. Hopewell brandishes her religion like a sort of divining rod, a part of the package involved in deciding whether people are decent and respectable. Joy/Hulga makes a religion of her academic training, again, not doing anything with it, not truly living it out, but clinging to it as a sort of shield.
O’Connor, then, is not bashing Christians, religion, or non-Catholics. It seems more plausible that she is pointing out the self delusion of many who invoke Christianity without any real awareness of its demands.