Good Country People

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Themes and Colors
Class, Identity, and Superiority Theme Icon
Appearances and Realities Theme Icon
Authentic Faith and Vulnerability Theme Icon
Disease and Disability Theme Icon
Hypocrisy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Good Country People, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearances and Realities Theme Icon

The way characters understand other characters in “Good Country People” is often the opposite of how these characters truly are. Moreover, the way characters present themselves in “Good Country People” is often the very opposite of how they are. The title of the story, “Good Country People,” is meant to be read ironically. Both of the characters whom Mrs. Hopewell describes as being “good country people” turn out not to fit that description at all. The Bible Salesman, who claims to identify with the phrase and presents himself as simple and pious, turns out to be an irreverent womanizer, and he steals Hulga’s artificial leg. Mrs. Freeman, meanwhile, is somber, superior, judgmental, and self-centered throughout the story—not simple and kind-hearted, as Mrs. Hopewell assumes. Mrs. Hopewell’s entire idea of “good country people” depends on her self-conception as being superior to those people, and yet in the story it is very clear that Mrs. Hopewell is no more intelligent, sophisticated, or cultured than the other characters. The very phrase “Good Country People” and the way that it defines reality becomes meaningless and suspect.

Hulga is the centerpiece character of the story, and O’Connor uses her exterior and interior lives to comment on the way that looks can be deceiving. Though outwardly a disabled, grumpy, and short-tempered character, her short and absurd tryst with the Bible Salesman, during which O’Connor enters her complicated mind, reveals Hulga to be a person seeking love and acceptance even as she struggles to master her emotions in a world that has often been cruel to her. Further, to entice the Bible Salesman Hulga tries to modify her own appearance, pretending to be younger than she is, never realizing that the Bible Salesman is hiding who he is in a much more fundamental way.

By the end of “Good Country People,” O’Connor literally illustrates the distance between appearance and reality. The Bible Salesman’s valise appears quite early on in the story, and throughout the story both the characters and we, as readers, believe that it contains Bibles. In fact, at the end of the story the man opens the valise up to reveal just two Bibles, one of which is actually hollow and contains alcohol, playing cards, and pornography. The man who seemed innocent and harmless suddenly becomes a villain, and Hulga must not only deal with the loss of her leg but also the fact that her conception of her own superior intelligence is not as definitive as she had believed.

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Appearances and Realities Quotes in Good Country People

Below you will find the important quotes in Good Country People related to the theme of Appearances and Realities.
Good Country People Quotes

The reason for her keeping them so long was that they were not trash. They were good country people.

Related Characters: Mrs. Hopewell, Mrs. Freeman
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Hopewell is constantly patting herself on the back for her kindness in employing Mrs. Freeman. She believes that this reflects well on her since she, as a wise person of high status, has had the kindness and good sense to hire someone who is what she believes to be the good kind of poor ("good country people") rather than the bad kind ("trash"). This shows just how central social class is to Mrs. Hopewell's worldview. Instead of seeing Mrs. Freeman as simply a good or bad person, she sees her as a poor person first and approves of her in a condescending way that implies that she is respectable and simple rather than just good. This is also ironic, since Mrs. Freeman is not a particularly good person, and she is no more "simple" than Mrs. Hopewell herself. Mrs. Hopewell's obsession with social class, then, has blinded her to the realities of the world around her that should have been obvious.

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“Her remarks were usually so ugly and her face so glum that Mrs. Hopewell would say, ‘If you can’t come pleasantly, I don’t want you at all,” to which the girl, standing square and rigid-shouldered with her neck thrust forward, would reply, ‘If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM.”

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy) (speaker), Mrs. Hopewell (speaker)
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

This comment comes in the context of the narrator explaining why Mrs. Hopewell hired Mrs. Freeman, commenting that the "trash" families she had hired before her were not the kind of people she wanted to be around. It is ironic, then, that Mrs. Hopewell's own daughter--someone of high social class and much education--is someone who, like the "trash," Mrs. Hopewell does not want to be around. Mrs. Hopewell is so consumed by her preoccupation with social class, though, that she cannot recognize this parallel. Mrs. Hopewell is unable to acknowledge the reality of even her own daughter's character, preferring to pretend that Hulga could be more pleasant if she tried, and refusing to grapple with the pain and suffering that has made her this way. For her part, this is another example of Hulga responding to the pain and loneliness of her life by purposefully acting "ugly" just to spite her mother.

She thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times.

Related Characters: Mrs. Hopewell
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a blatant example of Mrs. Hopewell's preference for her petty illusions over looking reality in the face. Hulga's reality does not fit in with Mrs. Hopewell's narrative of her own life, a life that she believes should be good and pleasant and successful because of her class. As such, she cannot acknowledge that her disabled daughter is unhappy and living a life unlike the one Mrs. Hopewell imagined for her. That Mrs. Hopewell prefers to think of Hulga as a child rather than acknowledging that she is an adult further shows her condescension and delusion. Hulga is a full-grown, well-educated woman whose peculiar attitudes and beliefs come from a complex life of suffering and studying, but rather than engaging with this Mrs. Hopewell instead takes the condescending and disrespectful approach of thinking of Hulga as a child who doesn't know who she truly is and might someday grow into someone "normal." This also shows the infuriating reality that Hulga lives with in which very few people are willing to deal with her frankly and honestly, something she craves. 

Mrs. Hopewell was certain that she had thought and thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language. Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed without telling her mother until after she had done it. Her legal name was Hulga.

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy), Mrs. Hopewell
Related Symbols: The Artificial Leg
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a complicated passage that is revealing of both Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga. For Mrs. Hopewell, this shows her cynicism and lack of compassion. She seems to believe that in changing her name from Joy to Hulga, her daughter has done something perverse to personally spite her. She never steps back and tries to understand why Hulga might have wanted to change her name, and she never considers reasons for her having chosen it other than simple perversity. Hulga, though, feels that the name gives her power over other people because it is shocking. For Hulga, the name is an affront to others in the way that her appearance, attitude, and artificial leg are. Hulga feels empowered by embracing what she sees to be the reality of her condition, rather than living with a name like Joy that feels false. However, Hulga likes her name best when only she is willing to use it; she is uncomfortable when Mrs. Freeman uses the name and feels that her privacy has been invaded. This is a key to Hulga's vulnerability; her insecurities about her leg and appearance mean that she embraces ugliness only when she herself is wielding it. When it fails to make others uncomfortable, Hulga's name turns on her and makes her feel vulnerable.

She had a vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom, presumably, the goddess had to come when called…

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy)
Related Symbols: The Artificial Leg
Page Number: 275
Explanation and Analysis:

It's revealing that Hulga associates her name with Vulcan, the Roman blacksmith god. Vulcan is also disabled, and is typically shown to have a limp just like Hulga. Vulcan is known as strong and skilled, though ugly. Importantly, he is powerful and desirable, as he is the lover of Venus (the goddess of love and beauty) despite his deformity. Hulga's identification with Vulcan shows her fantasies and desires; it shows that she wishes to be powerful and to be loved for who she is. What Mrs. Hopewell assumes was a choice made from cynicism and perversity is actually, in a sense, an optimistic and almost sentimental choice in which Hulga seeks to remake herself into the person she wishes to be. This is key to understanding Hulga, who thinks of herself as somebody who sees through the world's artifice through negativity and cynicism. Hulga does not realize that her desires and fears and sorrow make her vulnerable to the same kinds of illusions that she faults her mother and Mrs. Freeman for believing.

On a side note, it is also telling that Hulga, who is insistently atheistic, turns to Roman mythology to make sense of herself. While she never brings up the Christian religion, she has not eschewed religion altogether; she turns to another system of belief to create a metaphor for her world.

Mrs. Hopewell could not say, “My daughter is an atheist and won’t let me keep the Bible in the parlor.” She said, stiffening slightly, “I keep my bible by my bedside.” This was not the truth. It was in the attic somewhere.

Related Characters: Mrs. Hopewell (speaker), Hulga Hopewell (Joy), The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another example of Mrs. Hopewell's lack of self-awareness. She is quite concerned with appearing to be a good Christian (her embarrassment at not having a Bible in the parlor shows this), but the fact that her Bible is somewhere in the attic reveals that she is probably not a devout Christian, as she does not know exactly where to find it and she clearly does not look at it much. Furthermore, her willingness to casually lie about her Bible casts doubt on her claims to being a good Christian.

During this interaction Mrs. Hopewell never doubts herself or her intentions, instead casting the blame on her atheist daughter who apparently will not allow a Bible to be kept in the parlor. This is deep hypocrisy; Mrs. Hopewell is clearly the one to blame for having stashed her Bible in the attic, but she feels no shame or hint of awareness about this, preferring to see her daughter as the one who has failed. As long as Mrs. Hopewell appears to be a good Christian in the eyes of others she is satisfied; this interaction shows that her own private behavior doesn't seem to trouble her. 

“Well lady, I’ll tell you the truth—not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple. I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it. I’m just a country boy.” He glanced up to her unfriendly face. “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”

Related Characters: The Bible Salesman (speaker), Mrs. Hopewell
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator later gives hints that the Bible salesman is not who he claims to be, but Mrs. Hopewell take this statement at face value when he makes it. In fact, he is manipulating Mrs. Hopewell into inviting him to stay by playing to her blindnesses and prejudices. What he says seems to be just what Mrs. Hopewell would expect to hear from a young man like him--he admits to being simple, and flatters Mrs. Hopewell by acknowledging that people of her status are above people like him. He also, by saying that people like her don't fool with people like him, creates an opening for her to display her goodness and charity by inviting him to stay. The Bible salesman, then, is taking advantage of Mrs. Hopewell's classism and need to show that she is moral and respectable. In reality, though, the Bible salesman is revealing Mrs. Hopewell's self-absorption and naïveté. Since he is playing up the stereotype she expects to find, she remains blind to his actual motives and character as an individual person.

“Lord,” she said, “he bored me to death but he was so sincere and genuine I couldn’t be rude to him. He was just good country people, you know,” she said, “—just the salt of the earth.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Hopewell (speaker), Mrs. Freeman, The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Mrs. Hopewell is condescending and hypocritical. While she admits that she found the Bible salesman boring, she could not be rude to him to his face, though she is perfectly willing to insult him behind his back. This shows that her dinner invitation to him was not real kindness, but rather hewing to the social expectations for what a "good" person looks like. She is also, once again, making the condescending distinction between "good country people" and "trash." Because the boy seemed polite and Christian, Mrs. Hopewell assumes that he is a simple and good person, albeit one who is below her. In fact, the boy is manipulating her for his own perverse intentions, but she is so beholden to her own stereotypes and so enamored with her own wisdom and judgment that she remains blind to the reality of the situation. 

“I like girls that wear glasses,” he said. “I think a lot. I’m not like these people that a serious thought don’t ever enter their heads. It’s because I may die.”

Related Characters: The Bible Salesman (speaker), Hulga Hopewell (Joy)
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another example of the Bible salesman's pitch-perfect manipulations of the characters in the story. While with Mrs. Hopewell he pretended to be devout and simple, with Hulga he flatters her insecurities about her appearance ("I like girls that wear glasses"), claims to be an intellectual, and attributes his peculiar tastes to a heart condition that might kill him. In other words, the Bible salesman pretends to be exactly the kind of man that Hulga might find relatable or sympathetic, despite her refusal to admit that she has this sort of desire. The Bible salesman has proved himself to be an astute judge of character, while Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga (both of whom pride themselves on their wisdom in understanding who people really are) are shown to be easily misled. Their desire for the Bible salesman to be the person they want him to be have masked their ability to see through his behavior. Though the Bible salesman proves to be the least simple of all of them, the characters' assumptions that they are smarter than him make them unable to suspect his motives. 

“I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.”

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy) (speaker), The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Bible salesman attempts to goad Hulga into telling him she loves him, Hulga attempts to explain to him that, essentially, she doesn't believe in love. She refers to love as an "illusion" that she can see through to "nothing." Later she says that knowing that there is "nothing to see" is a kind of salvation. She believes that she is telling the salesman things that his inferior intellect will not allow him to understand, and she even pities him and condescends to him, telling him that "it's just as well you don't understand." However, while she is saying all of this she is also clearly falling prey to her own illusions about what is happening between the two of them. Even though she knows she doesn't love him, she seems to believe that he loves her and that what is passing between the two of them is mutual and genuine. This is what makes this emotional "epiphany" of hers so tragic—she can't really "see through to nothing," and the genuine connection she thinks she is experiencing actually only goes one way.

“I am thirty years old,” she said. “I have a number of degrees.”

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy) (speaker), The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a heartbreaking moment in which Hulga expresses her vulnerability almost openly. In the face of the Bible salesman's professions of love, her insistence that there "mustn't be anything dishonest between us" shows her wholehearted belief that what is occurring is genuine, and that she can now reveal exactly who she is to somebody who is likely to love her for it. This is a dark irony, since the reader is about to learn that literally everything that is occurring between the two of them is false.

It is also telling of Hulga's vulnerability and hypocrisy that she was willing to lie to him in the first place, telling him she was more than a decade younger than she really is. Hulga prides herself on embracing who she is and shocking other people, but the fact that all it took for Hulga to lie about her age was a young, simple-seeming Bible salesman to look at her with interest betrays the deep vulnerability at her core, and also the fragile nature of the cynical armor of superiority and negativity she has built.

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.

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy), The Bible Salesman
Related Symbols: The Artificial Leg
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the emotional climax of the story, the moment in which Hulga has an authentic experience of opening herself to another person and allowing herself to be moved. O'Connor writes that in all her stories she seeks to have a character experience a moment of grace, which is a painful transformation that opens them to something beautiful or good. But for O'Connor grace does not necessarily mean salvation or redemption, and it does not mean the character will be spared from pain or violence. However, for this brief moment Hulga allows herself to be transformed by a seemingly pure person asking her to reveal to him her greatest vulnerability, a "truth about her" that she had never allowed anybody to see, though she seems to have always wanted someone to ask. Hulga glimpses here the beauty of instincts that come from "beyond wisdom," which shows her ability for the first time to question the sufficiency of her life and worldview. Here Hulga is doing something completely unexpected (O'Connor has shown her to be a walled-off and cynical character so far) when she agrees to show the man her leg, and she is rewarded for this trust with a feeling resonant with descriptions of Christian faith ("losing her life and finding it in his," as the Christian is supposed to lose his life and find it again in Christ). While the beauty of this moment soon dissolves into terror, the Bible salesman has succeeded in making Hulga glimpse something better than the life she has been living.

It was hollow and contained a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and a small blue box with printing on it. He laid these out in front of her one at a time in an evenly-spaced row, like one presenting offerings at the shrine of a goddess. He put the blue box in her hand. THIS PRODUCT TO BE USED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE, she read, and dropped it . . . It was not an ordinary deck but one with an obscene picture on the back of each card.

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy), The Bible Salesman
Related Symbols: The Bible Salesman’s Valise
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene ushers in the dark turn of "Good Country People." Hulga has made herself entirely vulnerable to the Bible salesman, who is still pretending to romantically interested in her. However, when he pulls out his valise, which Hulga assumed was full of Bibles, he opens it to reveal that it has just two Bibles in it, one of which has been hollowed out and filled with all kinds of sinful items. It is at this moment that Hulga and the reader truly understand that the Bible salesman, like his valise, is nothing like he presents himself to be; he not good, nor is he simple. 

The line about the salesman presenting each item like "offerings at the shrine of a goddess" is interesting, since the only other time in which the word "goddess" appears in the story is during Hulga's fantasy about being like Vulcan. At the beginning of the story Hulga muses that "the goddess had to come [to Vulcan] when called," a thought that revealed Hulga's desire to be, like Vulcan, a powerful and deformed seducer. In the line about the Bible salesman laying the items out like offerings, though, this earlier thought seems to be turned on its head. Hulga, not the Bible salesman, is the one who has been seduced, and now she realizes that he, rather than being good and simple, is powerfully manipulative and morally deformed.

“You’re just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re . . .”

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy) (speaker), The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

By this point, Hulga knows that the Bible salesman has tricked her, but she remains completely physically vulnerable to him because he refuses to give her back her leg. In wild anger, she lashes out at him with her cynical intellect, making simultaneously a pronouncement about his own hypocrisy and the general hypocrisy of Christianity. She appears to be trying to wound him by insulting what she still seems to believe is his faith. This is another moment of Hulga's sense of superiority blinding her from the reality of the situation. She still thinks she is smarter than the Bible salesman, and for that reason does not believe it possible that he has manipulated her to the extent that he has. However, her tactic fails, since the Bible salesman declares that he doesn't believe "that crap," proving that he might be even more cynical and disillusioned with the world than Hulga herself.  

“I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things,” he said. “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way. And you needn’t to think you’ll catch me because Pointer ain’t really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don’t stay nowhere long.”

Related Characters: The Bible Salesman (speaker), Hulga Hopewell (Joy)
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before the salesman says this, the narrator describes his face as being drained of all the pretense of admiration it had held before. The salesman, then, has exploited Hulga's sense of superiority by appearing to admire her intellect (the thing she puts forward to the world as making her unique) as well as her leg (the thing that she believes actually makes her unique, and the key to her vulnerability). In this passage, the salesman then demolishes everything that Hulga holds dear. He has now clearly outmaneuvered her, which challenges her sense of intellectual superiority, and he makes her leg seem less unique by saying he has stolen many other things like it. The cherry on the cake is that the salesman declares that he, like Hulga, is also using a false name, one that allows him to steal intimate possessions from vulnerable women without being caught. Hulga previously stated that she viewed her name as her "highest creative act," and it crushes her to see that all of these things that she invented in order to give herself power were also all used by this salesman, whom she believed to be simple, to take power away from her. 

“You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

Related Characters: The Bible Salesman (speaker), Hulga Hopewell (Joy)
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

After the previous passage demolished Hulga's sense of uniqueness and self-worth, the Bible salesman leaves her with this last insult. Hulga truly believed that she could protect herself from the world with her negativity and her intellectualized cynicism, but it failed to protect her from someone who managed to beat her at her own game. Hulga's major weakness with this man was that she underestimated him—she believed so haughtily in her own intellectual superiority that she could not consider that maybe this simple man, who seemed like "good country people," could hold a version of her same beliefs and cynicism. She never once suspected his cunning or his dark motives—in fact, she assumed she was the one manipulating him. With this last statement, though, Hulga and the reader know that the Bible salesman was the opposite of what he presented himself to be, and that his charade worked with all the characters because he was able to play so well into each of their vanities and stereotypes. 

“Why, that looks like that nice dull young man that tried to sell me a Bible yesterday,” Mrs. Hopewell said, squinting. “He must have been selling them to the Negroes back there. He was so simple,” she said, “but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Hopewell (speaker), Mrs. Freeman, The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Connor ends the story with a crushing display of condescension and irony from Hulga's mother. After she sees the Bible salesman walking through the field with his valise (which, unbeknownst to her, contains her daughter's artificial leg), she belittles the man's intelligence while appearing to make a kind and wise statement about the goodness of simple poor people. Her vague and sentimental statement that "I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple" provides a deep irony; in this scenario, Mrs. Hopewell, who has never once suspected that the salesman is not who he appears to be, is actually the simple one, and the world is certainly not better off for her blindness.

This closing scene of self-congratulatory and deluded superiority by Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman moves the reader from one dark scenario to another. Hulga has been deeply betrayed, but her betrayal came only after her experience of grace and connection. O'Connor forces the reader to consider that perhaps Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are not any better off than Hulga, though, as they have experienced neither open betrayal nor transformative grace, and, as such, they are left sitting on the porch still engaging in petty conversations about the people around them.