Hulga Hopewell of "Good Country People" is a unique character in O'Connor's fictional world. Although O'Connor uses the intellectual, or the pseudo-intellectual, in one of her novels and in seven of her short stories, Hulga is the only female in the bunch. Her gender, however, does not keep her from suffering the common fate of all the other O'Connor intellectuals. In every instance, the intellectual comes to realize that his belief in his ability to control his life totally, as well as control those things which influence it, is a faulty belief.
This story is divided into four rather distinct sections which help emphasize the relationships between the four central characters. By dividing the story into four loosely distinct sections, O'Connor is able to establish subtle parallels between the characters of Mrs. Freeman and Manley Pointer (a traveling Bible salesman) and between Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter, Hulga, while at the same time providing details which appear to emphasize the different facets of the four individual characters.
For example, O'Connor uses the day of Hulga's "enlightenment" in order to create parallels between Mrs. Freeman and Manley Pointer, while the flashbacks to the events of the previous day establish the parallels which exist between Hulga and her mother.
You might also wish to note that O'Connor's selection of names for her characters helps to establish their significance in the story. For example, the name "Hopewell" (hope well) characterizes both the mother and her daughter. Both women are individuals who simplistically believe that what is wanted can be had — although each of them is, in her own way, blind to the world as it really exists. Both women fail to see that the world (because it is a fallen world) is a mixture of good and evil. This misperception leads them to assume that the world is much simpler than it actually is.
Because both Hulga and her mother have accepted this false view of reality, each of them "hopes well" to tailor that world to meet her own needs — Mrs. Hopewell by living in a world where clichés operate as truth, and Hulga by insisting that there is nothing behind, or beyond, the surface world.
Although Mrs. Freeman (free man) is given a clearer view of the realities of the world (she does not, for example, accept either Hulga or Manley Pointer at face value), she chooses to concentrate on the diseased and the grotesque aspects of life.
The name Pointer (manly), not his real name, functions as a semi-obscene pun on one level, and it comes to point out, on another level, the depths to which humanity might descend if it follows only its "manly" nature.
In order to allow the reader to develop a degree of genuine sympathy for Hulga, O'Connor places her in an environment which would appall any sensitive person. Hulga is in constant contact with a vain but simple-minded mother and an apparently simple-minded but shrewd hired woman. Mrs. Hopewell survives in a self-made world of illusion, isolating herself from the real world by mouthing pseudo-philosophical, clichéd maxims which only isolate her further from her daughter who has a Ph.D. in philosophy.
Included in Mrs. Hopewell's repertoire of "good country" philosophy are such old standards as "You're the wheel behind the wheel," "It takes all kinds to make the world," and "Everybody is different." But, significantly, Mrs. Hopewell cannot reconcile herself to a daughter who is "different," despite the fact that Mrs. Hopewell can sound as though she has an all-accepting, catholic compassion. In fact, Mrs. Hopewell would probably sum up her inability to understand her daughter-with-a-Ph.D. by saying, "She's brilliant, but she doesn't have a grain of sense." Consequently, Mrs. Hopewell considers Hulga's acts of rebellion to be little more than pranks of an immature mind.
It is precisely Hulga's Ph.D. degree in philosophy which creates a major problem between the two women. Mrs. Hopewell thinks that girls should go to school and have a good time — but Hulga has attained the ultimate educational degree, and yet education did not "bring her out"; privately, Mrs. Hopewell is glad that there is "no more excuse for [Hulga] to go to school again." Mrs. Hopewell would like to brag about her daughter, as she can brag about Mrs. Freeman's daughters, but bragging about Hulga is next to impossible. Mrs. Hopewell can't say, "My daughter is a philosopher." That statement, as Mrs. Hopewell knows, is something that "ended with the Greeks and Romans."
Hulga's manner of dress also contributes to the vast misunderstanding that exists between the two women. Mrs. Hopewell thinks that Hulga's wearing "a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it" is idiotic, proof that despite Hulga's Ph.D. and her name change, she is "still a child."
In addition to Hulga's wearing inappropriate clothes, her name change (from "Joy" to "Hulga") cut such a wound into Mrs. Hopewell that she will never entirely heal. To change one's name from "Joy" to "Hulga," according to Mrs. Hopewell, was an act of ridiculously immature rebellion. Mrs. Hopewell is convinced that Joy pondered until she "hit upon the ugliest name in any language" and then legally changed her name.
Mrs. Hopewell is embarrassed and angry about her daughter's behavior, but she knows that she must ultimately accept it — because of the hunting accident which cost Joy her leg when she was ten. This misfortune is compounded by a doctor's opinion that Hulga will not live past forty because of a heart condition; furthermore, Hulga has been deprived of ever dancing and having what Mrs. Hopewell calls a "normal good time."
The chasm between the two women is even further deepened by Mrs. Hopewell's attitude toward the Freeman girls — as opposed to her attitude toward Hulga. Mrs. Hopewell likes to praise Glynese and Carramae by telling people that they are "two of the finest girls" she knows, and she also praises their mother, Mrs. Freeman, as a lady whom "she was never ashamed to take . . . anywhere or introduce . . . to anyone." In contrast, Mrs. Hopewell is deeply ashamed of Hulga's name, the way she dresses, and her behavior.
Hulga's own attitude toward the two Freeman girls is one of repulsion. She calls them "Glycerin" and "Caramel" (oily and sticky sweet). Mrs. Hopewell is aware that Hulga disapproves of the Freeman girls, but she herself remains enchanted by them, totally unconscious of her own daughter's deep need to be accepted — even though Hulga states that "If you want me, here I am — LIKE I AM."
As a result of Mrs. Hopewell's failure to understand Hulga, Hulga withdraws; she decides not to attempt any meaningful relationship with her mother. We see this withdrawal particularly in a scene in which her mother has just uttered a series of her favorite, ever-ready platitudes, and O'Connor focuses on Hulga's eyes. Hulga's eyes, she says, are "icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it."
Hulga, then, by O'Connor's admission is "blind," and ironically, it is during one of Hulga's exchanges with her mother, while Hulga is attempting to reveal her mother's blindness to her (her lack of awareness), that Hulga fails; instead, she reveals a vast weakness in her own professedly atheistic views, laying her open later to Manley Pointer's attack.
Mrs. Hopewell had told Hulga, in simple, "good country" terms, that a smile on her face would improve matters ("a smile never hurt anything"). In a moment of seemingly immense insight, Hulga lashed out at her mother, yelling, "We are not our own light!" In addition, she cited a seventeenth-century Catholic philosopher, Malebranche, for uttering this truth initially.
O'Connor is showing us here that Hulga, with her Ph.D. degree in philosophy, has until now professed absolute atheism. To Hulga, there is no god and there is no afterlife; man is all. Now, however, we see that Hulga unconsciously wants to believe that there is a power greater than herself. Subconsciously, she deeply desires something to which she might surrender herself, as she later does to Pointer's advances. Thus, ironically, in pointing out her mother's "blindness," Hulga has revealed to us that she herself is blind about her own desires and her own view of reality.
Remember that until this moment, Hulga has subscribed to an atheistic viewpoint. She has believed that she was an iron-willed rationalist, as indicated by the underlined passage in one of her books that Mrs. Hopewell attempted to read. Hulga's conscious assumption that there was nothing behind the surface reality which we see around us is a far cry from the "truth" that she now cites in Malebranche's philosophy. Malebranche, a seventeenth-century Catholic philosopher, believed that even the simplest of bodily movements was possible only because of the supernatural power that was constantly present. This supernatural power metaphorically functioned as the strings between the puppet master (the mind) and the puppet (the body).
The ever-present hostility which exists between Hulga and her mother is undoubtedly aggravated by the presence of Mrs. Freeman, whom Hulga's mother idealizes as an example of "good country people." Hulga's mother naively believes in the absolute goodness of "good country people"; she believes that if a person can hire good country people, "you had better hang onto them." O'Connor, however, does not depict Mrs. Freeman as an example of "good country people."
On the contrary, Mrs. Freeman is depicted as a fairly shrewd woman who is capable of "using" Mrs. Hopewell's blindness to reality, just as Manley Pointer will later "use" Hulga's blindness to reality for his own selfish advantage. In fact, Mrs. Hopewell is so blind to reality that she believes that she can "use" Mrs. Freeman. She has heard that Mrs. Freeman always wants to "be into everything"; that being the case, Mrs. Hopewell believes that she can counter this character defect by putting Mrs. Freeman "in charge." We know, of course, that Mrs. Freeman is no fool when it comes to manipulating.
O'Connor further reinforces her view of Mrs. Freeman as a manipulator of Mrs. Hopewell by giving her, Mrs. Freeman, attributes which parallel those of Manley Pointer. For instance, both Mrs. Freeman and Manley Pointer are seen as "good country people" by Mrs. Hopewell; both have a morbid interest in Hulga's wooden leg; both of them allow their "victims" to form an erroneous view of "good country people"; and finally, both Pointer and Mrs. Freeman are described as having steely eyes capable of penetrating Hulga's facade.
The arrival of nineteen-year-old Manley Pointer, Bible salesman and con artist, is presented in highly realistic terms by O'Connor. He is familiar with all the slick tricks used by the typical door-to-door salesman, and he also has a second sense which enables him to take advantage of Mrs. Hopewell even though she is not interested in entertaining a salesman of any description. His comment, "People don't like to fool with country people like me," touches a hidden switch in Mrs. Hopewell, and she responds with a barrage of platitudes concerning good country people and the world's lack of sufficient numbers of that breed. To her, "good country people are the salt of the earth." Asking to be excused for a moment, Mrs. Hopewell goes into the kitchen to check on dinner, where she is met by Hulga, who suggests that her mother "get rid of the salt of the earth . . . and let's eat."
When Mrs. Hopewell returns to the parlor, she finds Pointer with a Bible on each knee. As she attempts to get away from him, he mentions that he is just a poor country boy with a heart condition. This mention of a heart disease, paralleling Hulga's heart trouble, has a marked effect on Mrs. Hopewell, and she invites him to stay for dinner even though she is "sorry the instant she heard herself say it." Throughout the dinner, Pointer stares at Hulga, who eats rapidly, clears the table, and leaves the room.
As young Pointer is leaving, he arranges to meet Hulga the following day, and the banal conversation between the two of them clearly illustrates Hulga's naiveté. She convinces herself that "events of significance" with "profound implications" have occurred. That night, she lies in bed imagining dialogues between herself and Pointer that are insane on the surface but which reach below to depths that no Bible salesman would be aware of. "Their conversation . . . had been of that kind," she says. She also imagines that she has seduced him and will have to deal with his remorse. She also imagines that she takes his remorse and changes it into a deeper understanding of life. Finally, Hulga imagines that she takes away all of Pointer's shame and turns it into "something useful."
When Hulga meets Pointer at the gate, she finds it easy to continue her misconceptions about his innocence and her wisdom. Their kiss — Hulga's first — is used by O'Connor to indicate that Hulga's plan may not go as smoothly as she imagines. Even though the kiss causes an extra surge of adrenaline, like that which "enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house," Hulga is now convinced that nothing exceptional happened and that everything is "a matter of the mind's control."
Hulga, however, is wrong, and even O'Connor's color imagery which is inserted as Hulga and Pointer make their way to the old barn (likened at one point to a train which they fear may "slide away") contributes to the impression that Hulga may have met her match. The pink weeds and "speckled pink hillsides" (pink being the color symbolic of sensuality and the emotions) serve to emphasize how Hulga is slowly losing control of the situation.
Having reached the barn, the two climb into the loft, where Pointer actively begins to take control. Because Hulga's glasses interfere with their kissing, Pointer removes them and puts them in his pocket. The loss of Hulga's glasses symbolically marks her total loss of perception, and she begins to return his kisses, "kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him." Although Hulga tries to continue her "indoctrination" of the youth by explaining that she is "one of those people who have seen through to nothing," Pointer ignores her comments and continues to woo her, kissing her passionately and insisting that she tell him that she loves him. Finally, Hulga utters, "Yes, yes," and Pointer then insists that she prove it. This request leads Hulga to believe that she has "seduced him without even making up her mind to try."
Hulga is outraged to discover that the "proof of love" demanded by Pointer is that she show him where her wooden leg joins her body; Hulga is "as sensitive about her artificial leg as a peacock is about his tail." No one ever touches it but her. She takes care of it as someone else might take care of his soul.
In an address delivered before a Southern Writers Conference, O'Connor commented on the wooden leg: "We're presented with the fact that the Ph.D. is spiritually as well as physically crippled . . . and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg." Since this is the case, it is not surprising that Pointer's comment that it is her leg which "makes her different" produces the total collapse of Hulga's plan.
O'Connor's account of Hulga's reaction is worth examining in detail since it stresses the fact that Hulga's decision to surrender the leg is essentially an intellectual one:
She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her. When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, "All right," it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously in his.
O'Connor's selection of a well-known biblical parallel ("He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it," Matthew 10:39) clearly depicts Hulga's rational surrender to Pointer and firmly underlines the significance of her rational decision within the context of the story.
Having made her commitment to Pointer, Hulga allows herself to indulge in a fantasy in which "she would run away with him and that every night he would take the leg off and every morning put it back on again." Since she has surrendered her leg (now functioning emblematically as her soul) to Pointer, Hulga feels "entirely dependent on him."
Hulga's epiphany, or moment of grace, occurs as a result of Pointer's betrayal of her faith in him and his destruction of her intellectual pretensions. Prior to his betrayal of her, Hulga considered herself to be the intellectual superior of all those around her. She relied upon the wisdom of this world to guide her, contrary to the biblical warning to "See to it that no one deceives you by philosophy and vain deceit, according to human traditions, according to the elements of the world and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
However, in order for Hulga to progress beyond her present state, it is necessary for her to realize that "God turned to foolishness the 'wisdom' of this world" (I Corinthians 1:20). From Hulga's point of view, the surrender of her leg was an intellectual decision; consequently, the destruction of her faith in the power of her own intellect can come only through betrayal by the one whom she rationally decided to believe in, to have faith in.
Manley Pointer plays his role by removing Hulga's leg and setting it out of her reach. When she asks that he return it, he refuses, and from a hollowed-out Bible (emblematic perhaps of his own religious condition), he produces whiskey, prophylactics, and playing cards with pornographic pictures on them. When a shocked Hulga asks whether or not he is "good country people," as he claims he is, Pointer replies, "Yeah . . . but it ain't held me back none. I'm as good as you any day in the week."
Disillusioned, Hulga tries to reach her wooden leg (soul) only to have Pointer easily push her down. Physically defeated, Hulga attempts to use her intellect to shame Pointer into returning the leg. She hisses, "You're a fine Christian! You're just like them all — say one thing and do another," only to hear Pointer tell her that he is not a Christian. As Pointer is leaving the barn loft with Hulga's wooden leg, he further disillusions Hulga by telling her that he has obtained a number of interesting things from other people, including a glass eye, in the same way that he took Hulga's leg.
Pointer's final comment strips Hulga of her last resource — her feeling of intellectual superiority. "And I'll tell you another thing," Pointer says, "You ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born."
Consequently, it is a totally chastened Hulga who turns "her churning face toward the opening" and watches Pointer disappear, a "blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake." The color imagery associated with Pointer as he leaves (blue, with heaven and heavenly love; green, with charity and regeneration of the soul), coupled with the image of walking on the water, would appear to indicate that O'Connor wishes the reader to see Pointer as an instrument of God's grace for Hulga. Although Pointer may seem an unlikely candidate for the role of grace-bringer, O'Connor, in commenting on the action of grace in her stories, has noted that "frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace."
O'Connor uses the final paragraphs of the story to make clear the parallel which she established earlier between Hulga and her mother. Hulga has now undergone mortification, and Mrs. Hopewell appears to be facing a future revelation. Mrs. Hopewell's analysis of Pointer, "He was so simple . . . but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple," is as wrong as Hulga's earlier assessment of Pointer. The final irony in the story involves Mrs. Freeman's response: "Some can't be that simple. . . . I know I never could." Thus, the reader is left with the impression that Mrs. Hopewell will also have to undergo an epiphanal experience which will destroy the confidence she has in her ability to control and to use Mrs. Freeman.