Good Country People

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Class, Identity, and Superiority Theme Analysis

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Class, Identity, and Superiority Theme Icon
Appearances and Realities Theme Icon
Authentic Faith and Vulnerability Theme Icon
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Class, Identity, and Superiority Theme Icon

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.

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Class, Identity, and Superiority Quotes in Good Country People

Below you will find the important quotes in Good Country People related to the theme of Class, Identity, and Superiority.
Good Country People Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy), Mrs. Hopewell, Mrs. Freeman, Carramae and Glynese Freeman –
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

These women believe themselves to be good, moral people who are better than everyone else. However, Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are constantly gossiping about others, which is not a pastime considered virtuous or industrious. Mrs. Hopewell, who has the greater social status, further believes herself to be kind and discerning because of her treatment of Mrs. Freeman. Her willingness to spend time with someone lower class, her identification of Mrs. Freeman as "good country people" rather than "trash," and her ability to make good use of Mrs. Freeman's nosiness all inflate Mrs. Hopewell's already large ego. However, when we see the two women together it is clear that they have similar interests and personalities, and neither one of them is better or smarter than the other. This passage is also an indication of Joy (Hulga)'s bitterness and cynicism. Joy mocks the names of Mrs. Freeman's daughters, who are pretty and successful in love, for seemingly no reason. This hints at Joy's own vulnerability and the pain of her loneliness. While she believes that she is being honest and intelligent by seeing through the hypocrisy and artifice of others, she actually cuts others down partly out of insecurity.


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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.

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.

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy)
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

This statement comes just after the revelation that Hulga has a fatal heart condition that will likely kill her within fifteen years. Her disability, then, is not limited to the inconvenience of her missing leg; she also has an internal condition that threatens her life. This becomes important later in the story, because the Bible salesman is able to exploit her rare compassion by mentioning his own weak heart. Once again, this shows how vulnerable Hulga is because of her disabilities.

In addition, this statement shows Hulga's need to be superior, just like every other character in the story. Because of Hulga's appearance and disabilities, she believes that she cannot make others see that she is is superior to them through the traditional avenues of marriage and children and social life, so she scorns these things and embraces education and intellect instead as the things that will set her apart. Even though Hulga believes that her intellectual pursuits allow her to see through the social world she lives in, Hulga's deployment of her intelligence shows that she is of similar character to Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman—those who are constantly trying to put forward the qualities and accomplishments that they believe will make them be seen as superior and respectable.

“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. 

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.

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

This passage is where Hulga's own hypocrisy and superiority become very clear. Even though she believes that, with the Bible salesman, she has met somebody more like her than anyone she has ever known, she still assumes that she is smarter than he is. Further, though she herself has not learned to productively deal with her shame and remorse, she envisions herself being able to transform the shame and remorse she assumes that the Bible salesman feels. This is resonant with her sentimental vision of herself as Vulcan. Like Vulcan, she sees herself as the wise and deformed seductress who can lure somebody to her. In addition, Vulcan, as a blacksmith, is tasked with transforming one object into another; Hulga imagines herself as sort of an emotional blacksmith, rescuing and empowering the Bible salesman. The tenderness and vulnerability apparent in this vision shows that Hulga, who has created immense emotional armor for herself, has one enormous vulnerability, and that is the possibility of somebody actually being able to love her for who she is. 

“In my economy,” she said, “I’m saved and you are damned but I told you I didn’t believe in God.”

Related Characters: Hulga Hopewell (Joy) (speaker), The Bible Salesman
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

Hulga believes that she has "saved" herself through intellect. She believes that she has learned the truth of the world, and can protect herself from harm and artifice by seeing the hypocrisy, negativity, and ugliness of every situation. Because of this, she pities the Bible salesman when he kisses her. She believes that he has felt passion, while she has seen through the illusion of passion to understand that kissing was nothing special, even though she did react physically (with a surge of adrenaline) to the kiss. So here, she is again showing her superiority by telling the Bible salesman that she, a person of reason and intellect, is saved while he, a person she assumes to be governed by a silly kind of faith, is not. Clearly, though, this is an example of Hulga failing to identify the reality of the situation. The Bible salesman is manipulating her, while she is relishing the opportunity to play superior to him and teach him about her worldview. Hulga has fallen victim to her rare sentimentality, and it gives the Bible salesman an opening to exploit her. 

“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.

“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.