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.
Disease and Disability Theme Icon

Flannery O’Connor lost her father to systemic lupus erythematosus at the age of fifteen. This same disease was then diagnosed in O’Connor herself, debilitating her for many years and causing her death at age 39. Disease is present throughout much of O’Connor’s work, and she uses it to show how true hardship and an awareness of one’s own mortality can transform people. While Mrs. Hopewell lives in a world of clichés and conventional morality, Hulga’s awareness of her own death makes her a more contemplative and introspective person.

Hulga seems to see her missing leg, the result of a childhood accident, as the very core of her identity. As the story puts it: “She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail…she took care of it as someone else would his soul.” She is intimately familiar with the limitations of her own body. Each day, also, she is aware of the frailty of her heart and the possibility that she might die. Together, her missing leg and her heart condition have defined her life: they have forced her to stay close to home and led her to seek refuge from the world, to give up religion, and to devote herself instead to the study of books and philosophy. Her disabilities haven’t just defined what Hulga has done with her life, they have also defined her views of life and the world. Because of her intellectual pursuits, and because of her disabilities, Hulga believes that she sees the world as it really is—that she sees through the lies of religion and complacency to the truth of the deceit, greed, and lust beneath. As Mrs. Hopewell puts it, Hulga avoids a romantic life because she is practically able to smell the stupidity of boys around her. And it is certainly possible to infer that Hulga started to call herself Hulga, as opposed to her given name of Joy, precisely because of the “true vision” of the world that she feels her disabilities have given her. Her disease and disability have fundamentally changed her identity to one that is cynical of the “joy” in the world and instead sees ugliness.

In another story, one of O’Connor’s characters says “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” In “Good Country People,” Hulga’s disease serves that role, making her constantly aware of her own mortality. While Hulga may not be a perfectly moral person, she is certainly more concerned with living an ethical life and seeing things clearly than her insulated and convention-obsessed mother, and O’Connor makes it clear that these qualities stem from her own disease and disability.

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Disease and Disability ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Disease and Disability appears in each chapter of Good Country People. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Disease and Disability Quotes in Good Country People

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

“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.


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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. 

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.

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.

“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. 

But she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes away.

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

From Hulga's behavior we have gotten the sense that she is deeply sensitive about the artificial leg, simultaneously feeling deformed by it and using it as a weapon to make others uncomfortable. In this passage, the strange importance of the leg to her is confirmed. The leg, as it embodies her uniqueness and her vulnerability, is almost a sacred object for her, one that she can barely even manage to confront (she handles it "almost with her own eyes away"). This is peculiar for a character who claims to see through the whole world to "nothing." Clearly, the leg is something of a blind spot for her, something that escapes her cynical and piercing analysis. It is telling, too, that the narrator speaks of her caring for the leg "as someone else would his soul." In a sense, as the leg is the key weakness in the cynical philosophies through which Hulga interprets the world, the leg is like her soul. It is the one part of her that is helpless and authentic and vulnerable to others. 

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.