In “Good Country People”, Mrs. Hopewell sees the people of her world as falling into a clear hierarchy. At the bottom is a group of people she calls “trash,” whom she describes as poor, uncultured, and essentially criminal. Next is a group she identifies as “good country people.” These people are poorer than landowners like Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter Hulga, as well as less educated. Mrs. Hopewell champions these people as “the salt of the earth,” as people who are vital to the functioning of the world, since “it takes all kinds to make the world.” Yet, her regard for “good country people” is essentially condescending—she views such people, including her maid Mrs. Freeman and the Bible Salesman, as “good” only in the context of also seeing them as inferior to her and her daughter. Further, there is a sense that it makes Mrs. Hopewell feel even more powerful and “enlightened” that she is willing and able to differentiate between the “good” and “trash” people beneath her on the social ladder.
By shifting into other characters’ perspectives, however, O’Connor suggests the folly of seeing the world in terms of such hierarchy, as well as how subjective it can be. Because Hulga is more educated than everyone else in the story, she sees herself as wiser and able to see things as they truly are. She feels able to define herself (she even renames herself from her given name of Joy to Hulga), and therefore as sitting at the top of the hierarchy. Meanwhile, Mrs. Freeman constantly attempts to express her superiority over her husband and to prove her equality with Mrs. Hopewell and thus considers herself atop the stack. Thus, every character tries to understand herself in terms not only of her social class — how much education or money she has — but also how she compares to the people around her and the attributes she thinks make her stand out. Nearly every character in the novel sees the world, and themselves, in a way that places them at the top of the hierarchy.
The story pushes even further, though, and suggests that seeing the world in terms of hierarchies actually makes one blind to the realities of the individuals in the world. While Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga, and Mrs. Freeman strive to make their identities known and concrete—Hulga, for example, shouts to her mother: “‘If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM”—the Bible Salesman takes a different approach. He takes advantage of his low social position to get people to sympathize with him. He allows others to see him as they like and then plays into their class-based stereotypes. Mrs. Hopewell sees him as simple, blameless, “good country people,” and he presents himself as such. However, the final revelation of his corruption and shamelessness demonstrates how one cannot assume based on class or even on one’s outward appearance what a person is really like. Ultimately, the Bible Salesman even outsmarts the highly educated Hulga, who assumes he’s a complete dimwit at the start. Through his deceit and cunning, the Bible Salesman manages to con the other three women, each of whom thought she was better than him, and in fact is able to (and motivated to) pull off his con because they assumed they were better than him. In this way, the Bible Salesman further proves both the fragility and danger of believing in any kind of class-based or intelligence-based social hierarchy.
Class, Identity, and Superiority ThemeTracker
Class, Identity, and Superiority Quotes in Good Country People
By the time Joy came in, they had usually finished the weather report and were on one or the other of Mrs. Freeman’s daughters, Glynese or Carramae, Joy called them Glycerin and Caramel.
The reason for her keeping them so long was that they were not trash. They were good country people.
Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about.
“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!”
“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.”
True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind. She imagined that she took his remorse in hand and changed it into a deeper understanding of life. She took all his shame away and turned it into something useful.
“In my economy,” she said, “I’m saved and you are damned but I told you I didn’t believe in God.”
“I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.”
“I am thirty years old,” she said. “I have a number of degrees.”
“You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
“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.”