The story begins with a description of Mrs. Freeman, a woman working on a farm in rural Georgia. She is described as having three facial expressions: neutral, forward, and reverse. Ordinarily, she remains in forward: staring straight ahead. Reluctant to ever admit she has been wrong or to take back something she’s said, Mrs. Freeman rarely shows her “reverse” expression. When she does, she shuts down, barely responding to whomever she had been speaking to, and saying something vague and noncommittal like, “Well, I wouldn’t of said it was and I wouldn’t of said it wasn’t.”
Though not the story’s protagonist, Mrs. Freeman is the first character we are introduced to, as O’Connor moves among the different points of view of her characters. This description of Mrs. Freeman introduces, the idea that this story takes place in a world full of easy clichés and meaningless platitudes.
The story’s action begins at breakfast. Mrs. Hopewell, who owns the farm and employs Mrs. Freeman, begins the morning routine: she lights the gas heaters, and then her daughter goes into the bathroom and slams the door. Mrs. Hopewell refers to her daughter as “Joy,” but later we find out that Joy has changed her legal name to Hulga. The narrator describes her as blonde, highly educated, and thirty-two years old. She also has an artificial leg.
We will see that Mrs. Hopewell is indeed infuriating in her sense of self-satisfaction and superiority, but Hulga also still acts like a surly teenager, despite her thirty-two years. It’s suggested that Hulga disability feeds her introversion and alienation, and has given her a cynical view of the world—one manifested by changing her name from “Joy” to “Hulga.”
Hulga stays in the bathroom until Mrs. Freeman has arrived, and her small talk with Mrs. Hopewell is almost done. Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman talk about Mrs. Freeman’s daughters, Glynese and Carramae, whom Hulga has nicknamed “Glycerine” and “Caramel.”
Hulga is so irritated by what she sees as inane small-talk that she chooses to hide in the bathroom instead of join in. Her disdain for the others’ sickly-sweet demeanor is reflected in her choice of nicknames for Mrs. Freeman’s daughters. By contrast, Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman are happy to gossip.
Mrs. Hopewell is proud to introduce Mrs. Freeman, Carramae, and Glynese around town. When she had been looking for a new tenant and employee before Mrs. Freeman came on board, Mrs. Hopewell spoke with a man who told her that Mrs. Freeman was a good farmer but very nosy. Mrs. Hopewell hired her, but only because there were no other applicants. She also decided to take advantage of Mrs. Freeman’s nosiness, putting her in charge of as much as possible. Mrs. Hopewell prides herself in this decision, congratulating herself for being so clever. Even though Mrs. Hopewell knows that she herself has no real talents, she thinks that she is extremely good at putting the talents of others to the best use. Her attitude toward the world is indicated by one of her favorite phrases, “That is life.”
Mrs. Hopewell’s willingness to introduce the Freeman family around town is presented as surprising—in the world where this story takes place, class and status place people into a clear hierarchy. Mrs. Hopewell has a high opinion of herself and is happy to congratulate herself on good decisions, such as putting Mrs. Freeman’s nosiness to good use. But Mrs. Hopewell’s bland, uncritical attitude, reflected by saying “That is life,” suggests that she is not as mature and sophisticated as she believes.
Mrs. Hopewell comments on how helpful Mrs. Freeman has been, and Mrs. Freeman agrees. No matter what Mrs. Hopewell says, Mrs. Freeman agrees with her. They discuss different kinds of people: “It takes all kinds to make the world,” Mrs. Hopewell says. Mrs. Freeman responds, “I always said it did myself.” Hulga, hearing all this talk, which strikes her as petty and self-important talk, feels “constant outrage.”
Mrs. Freeman agrees with Mrs. Hopewell’s assessment of her employee’s helpfulness without a hint of humility. Like everyone in “Good Country People,” she sees people in a clear hierarchy, with herself at the top. She feeds into Mrs. Hopewell’s own ego by agreeing with whatever her employer says, while also building up her own self-image as someone both polite and wise. Hulga, on the other hand, is outraged by this endless self-justification and agreement.
Before the Freemans moved in, Mrs. Hopewell had a new family living on her property each year. Now the Freemans have been with her for four. Mrs. Hopewell needs someone to work the farm, because she divorced her husband. When Mrs. Hopewell tried to get Hulga to work with her, Hulga sulked so much that her mother said that it was better to work with a positive attitude or not at all. Hulga replied that she would work if asked to, but would not simply pretend to be happy—so Mrs. Hopewell hired tenants to live on and work her property. After bad experiences previously, Mrs. Hopewell appreciates the Freemans. She considers them “good country people,” which she contrasts with the “trash” who gave her trouble as employees previously.
The concept of “good country people” recurs throughout the story, referring to Mrs. Hopewell’s view that there is a certain kind of person who lives out in the country and is a simple, moral person. By contrast, she judges dishonest or lazy poor people as “trash.” With these phrases, Mrs. Hopewell presents a clear hierarchy in how she views society—she professes an admiration for “good country people,” but that admiration is essentially condescension, and part of why she praises them is because it reinforces her own sense of superiority.
Mrs. Hopewell accepts her daughter’s negative attitude because Hulga lost her leg when she was ten years old in a hunting accident. Because of Hulga’s artificial leg, Mrs. Hopewell notes that she has never “never danced a step or had any normal good times.” When Mrs. Hopewell gave birth, she named her daughter “Joy,” but when Joy turned 21, she changed her name to Hulga to spite her mother.
It is notable that Mrs. Hopewell values the “normal” above all else, and sees her own daughter as somehow “abnormal” because of her leg. Hulga (like O’Connor) sees through the hypocrisy of people like her mother, but she is able to offer little of her own—she can only act against others, not for herself.
When Mrs. Freeman began to call Hulga by her new name, at first Hulga was angry. She does not want anyone to like her new name. At the time she changed it, she had a grim vision of the Roman god Vulcan (the god of fire, volcanoes, and the forge). She considers it a great victory that she was able to turn the name her mother gave her into something so ugly. Mrs. Freeman has a strange interest in Hulga’s missing leg and the details of her accident, repeatedly asking her about the story. Hulga’s leg was lost in a hunting accident when she was shot. Hulga dislikes Mrs. Freeman’s interest in her disability, but finds Mrs. Freeman and her daughters useful “when they occupied attention that might otherwise have been directed at her.”
Hulga is vulnerable when it comes to her own identity: when Mrs. Freeman calls her “Hulga,” she reacts as if it were a violation of her privacy, even though that is the name she chose for herself—because she chose the name to assert her agency and mock others, and doesn’t want anyone else to be in on the joke. Like the god Vulcan (who is himself disabled), Hulga imagines herself alone, toiling away at work that others will never appreciate. Mrs. Freeman’s interest in Hulga’s disability seems to bother Hulga, indicating that her artificial leg is the key to her vulnerability. Even though Hulga does not like or respect the Freemans, she relies on them to distract her mother’s attention from her.
Hulga resents that Mrs. Hopewell would often criticize her facial expression, saying that “people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not.” Hulga, for her part, chooses to stomp her feet loudly whenever she enters the kitchen, just to irritate her mother.
Hulga prefers to act just as miserable as she feels, valuing authenticity over a cheery attitude. She so resents her mother’s phoniness that she causes her mother annoyance whenever possible—and acts very immature in the process.
Mrs. Hopewell regrets allowing Hulga to return to school to get a PhD. Hulga is thirty-two years old, but because of a heart condition she is only expected to live to forty-five. She would like to go travel and lecture at universities, but cannot do so because of her illness. At home, as if to spite her mother, Hulga wears an old skirt and a faded sweatshirt. She is frustrated with her ordinary surroundings. When Mrs. Hopewell asks her daughter to smile more, Hulga demands “Woman! do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!” Having studied philosophy as a graduate student, Hulga spends much of her time reading and taking long walks. Her mother finds the study of philosophy absurd and confusing, and she wishes that she could say “My daughter is a nurse” to the neighbors. Hulga, meanwhile, has little interest in any men nearby, whom she regards as uneducated and unintelligent.
Hulga’s heart condition and artificial leg have dominated her life: instead of travelling the world and learning, she is trapped at home—and yet she seems to wallow in her misery, rather than trying to do anything to change her situation. Hulga sees herself as superior to and more intelligent than the men in the area, showing that she too sees a clear hierarchy of people with herself at the top. Hers is based on education, intelligence, and authenticity, however—not class, wealth, or religious faith. Hulga is in some ways similar to O’Connor herself, who was diagnosed with lupus and not expected to live past middle age. Also like Hulga, O’Connor was well educated and brilliant, but living in a relatively uneducated Southern environment.
Back at breakfast, Mrs. Freeman notes that her fifteen-year-old daughter, Carramae, who is married and pregnant, has been vomiting. Watching Hulga, Mrs. Hopewell wonders what her own daughter said to the Bible Salesman who had shown up the day before. The narrative then jumps backwards to Mrs. Hopewell’s encounter with the Bible Salesman.
Mrs. Hopewell is jealous of the romantic success of Mrs. Freeman’s daughters. In her world, status is defined not just by wealth or land, but also by social respectability, building a family, and acting out the status quo—which for a young woman means getting married and having children.
The day before, a Bible Salesman shows up at the Hopewell home, seeming earnest and well mannered, and carrying a valise full of Bibles. Mrs. Hopewell invites him inside, and he explains that he’s there to sell Bibles. He flatters Mrs. Hopewell, telling her that he has heard of her good character. He also comments that there is no Bible in their house’s parlor—Mrs. Hopewell blames Hulga for this. Mrs. Hopewell then lies to the Bible Salesman, telling him that she keeps a Bible by her bedside. He insists that every family should have a Bible in the parlor, but Mrs. Hopewell refuses, and suggests that it’s time for him to leave.
At first appearance, the Bible Salesman seems earnest and simple-natured. His religious devotion even shames Mrs. Hopewell into claiming (falsely) that she has a Bible at her bedside. This lie, more explicitly than anything else, shows Mrs. Hopewell’s hypocrisy for what it is. In her mind she is morally superior to others, but if she is willing to lie about the Bible without a second thought, then she has no real claim to any moral high ground.
The Bible Salesman responds that he’s “just a country boy” and that “People like [Mrs. Hopewell] don’t like to fool with country people like me.” He adds that he is “not even from a place, just from near a place,” and introduces himself as “Manley Pointer.” Mrs. Hopewell then insists that she does appreciate “good country people,” but just then Hulga arrives, ready for dinner, and demands that her mother get rid of the Bible Salesman. At this point, the Bible Salesman comments to Mrs. Hopewell that, unlike many other young men, he is not interested in selling Bibles to pay for college—he simply wants to serve his faith. This appeals to Mrs. Hopewell, who is frustrated with what she sees as her daughter’s excessive education. The Bible Salesman also, mentions that he has a heart condition, and hearing this, Hulga began to cry, believing that the two of them must have the same condition. She insists that he stay for dinner.
The Bible Salesman seems able to read Mrs. Hopewell’s hypocrisy right away, and plays into her clichéd idea of “good country people,” using a (possibly invented) farm-country heritage to indicate that he is good-natured, simply, and sincere. Mrs. Hopewell happily buys into this impression, seeming to congratulate herself for recognizing good character and, once again, reinforcing her highly conventional perception of the social hierarchy with herself at the top. Hulga, meanwhile, naturally scorns the Bible Salesman at first, but then feels a sudden burst of emotion when it seems like someone else might share her same heart condition.
At dinner, Hulga pretends not to hear whenever the Bible Salesman speaks to her. He tells his hosts about his childhood, mentioning that his father was crushed by a tree when he was eight. The Bible Salesman claims to be nineteen years old, and to have grown up going to Sunday school. Hulga leaves the table, and Mrs. Hopewell spends two hours listening to the Bible Salesman talk about his life before telling him that she must be going. The Bible Salesman responds that Mrs. Hopewell is the nicest person he has met in his travels. He leaves, and outside, Hulga is waiting for him in the road. They speak, and Mrs. Hopewell sees them, but she cannot hear what is said.
The Bible Salesman earns Hulga’s trust by telling a story of his own sorrow. She begins to feel that someone might understand her—but she also never loses her sense of superiority, as she assumes that she is far more intelligent and educated than he is. It’s suggested that Mrs. Hopewell doesn’t actually like talking with the Bible Salesman, but only listens to him talk for hours because it’s the polite thing to do, and it fits into her conception of herself as someone who appreciates “good country people.”
Back in the present, Saturday morning, Mrs. Freeman now recounts the romantic success of her daughter, Glynese. Hulga joins in, hoping to keep Mrs. Freeman there as long as possible in order to evade any questions from her mother. Mrs. Hopewell comments on how dull she found her conversation with the Bible Salesman, yet how kind and sincere he seemed. Soon after, Hulga storms off to her room.
The easygoing chatter between Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman contrasts with Hulga’s sense of seriousness about life. It’s suggested that something romantic passed between Hulga and the Bible Salesman outside, and Hulga wants to avoid her mother’s nosy questions about it. Once again, the thirty-two-year-old Hulga seems like a moody teenager.
The night before, Hulga had lain in bed, imagining intense conversations between herself and the Bible Salesman. She thought about their talk by the fence, when he had made a joke and commented on her artificial leg, saying that she seemed “real brave” and “real sweet.” On the way to the gate, he explained that he considers himself a serious person who is keenly aware of his own mortality. He said that he likes girls who wear glasses, to him an indication of intellect, and that he is only interested in girls who think about existence and their own mortality. Hulga said she feels the same, and felt a connection with him. Then he proposed that they have a picnic the next day.
The Bible Salesman has drawn Hulga’s attention by being different—more sincere, she thinks—than the other people Hulga knows, and by directly commenting on her artificial leg. He also flatters Hulga’s sense of intellectual superiority to gain her interest. It’s clear that Hulga feels stifled and alone in her mother’s house, and so she can’t help idealizing the Bible Salesman as soon as he seems like he might be a “deep” person who could share her interests.
Hulga shows up to the gate at 10 am the next day—when she and the Bible Salesman had agreed to meet—but no one is there. Hulga did not think to bring food for the picnic, and used nasal spray on her collar because she has no perfume. She begins to wonder if he will ever show up, but then The Bible Salesman appears. He is wearing a new hat and carrying his valise, which Hulga notes seems to be much less heavy today.
Hulga is completely unprepared for any kind of romantic date, and immediately assumes the worst—that the Bible Salesman won’t show up. Mrs. Hopewell would probably be pleased that her daughter was going on a date with such a “nice boy,” which is precisely why Hulga keeps it a secret—she doesn’t want to give her mother any satisfaction.
As the two walk, the Bible Salesman asks Hulga where her artificial leg joins to her body, and Hulga is offended. The Bible Salesman says that he meant no offense, and that God will take care of her. Hulga states that she does not believe in God, and the Bible Salesman exclaims, “no!” as if he is shocked beyond words. Hulga had expected to try to seduce him, but at the edge of the woods, the Bible Salesman kisses her. Hulga has never been kissed before, and reflects that it is an “unexceptional experience.”
Hulga, who generally takes such a rational-minded view of the world, is touchy at any mention of her artificial leg. She takes pride in telling the Bible Salesman that she is an atheist, imagining that she will seduce him, “corrupt” him, and reveal to him the cynical, non-religious truth of the universe. Hulga never considers that she might be the naïve one. Their “unexceptional” kiss reinforces her belief that she is more sophisticated than ordinary people, and sees through everyday illusions like romance. This scene also echoes O’Connor’s life—it’s rumored that she only ever kissed one person one time (a textbook salesman), who described it like “kissing a skeleton.”
They arrive at the old barn, where Hulga had imagined she would seduce him. The Bible Salesman asks if Hulga has been “saved.” She responds, saying that “In my economy . . . I’m saved and you are damned.”
Hulga still sees herself as the savvy one and thinks the Bible Salesman is naïve. She hopes to bring the Bible Salesman out of the ignorance that she sees in Christianity and into a broader understanding of the world—one in which enlightenment is the equivalent of being “saved,” and ignorance of being “damned.”
They enter the barn. The Bible Salesman laments that they can’t go up to the loft because of Hulga’s missing leg. She is offended and immediately climbs up. She says he doesn’t need his Bibles, but he brings up the valise anyway. They kiss. When Hulga’s glasses get in the way, the Bible Salesman takes them off and puts them in his pocket. He tells Hulga that he loves her. He insists that she say the same of him. While Hulga stares off into the distance, thinking of a response, the narrator notes that the landscape “could not seem exceptional to her for she seldom paid any close attention to her surroundings.”
Hulga’s insistence that she climb up to the loft indicates sensitivity regarding her artificial leg—a sensitivity which the Bible Salesman is now exploiting. By living such an intellectual life, Hulga has to some extent cut herself off from the natural world, reaffirming that, for all her knowledge of philosophy, she is missing out on many aspects of life. The Bible Salesman now starts acting strange and possessive, as it becomes more apparent that he is a kind of “collector”—of both love confessions and of other people’s most intimate possessions.
Again, the Bible Salesman demands that she say she loves him. Hulga explains that love is “not a word I use. I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.” She expresses pity for the Bible Salesman. Finally, after he keeps insisting, she admits that she loves him “in a sense,” and she tells him that she is thirty years old and well educated. He responds that he doesn’t care about all that, only whether she loves him.
Hulga states outright that she still sees herself as seeing through all of life’s illusions (like romantic love), in contrast with the Bible Salesman, whom she still thinks is simple and naïve. She believes that she has tricked the Bible Salesman by lying about her age and education, and still doesn’t realize that she is being tricked as well.
The Bible Salesman then tells Hulga to prove that she loves him. He asks her to show him where her artificial leg connects to her body. She refuses. The Bible Salesman acts insulted, and says that Hulga has just been using him. The Bible Salesman tells her that he1 artificial leg is what makes her special. Hulga feels that “for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence.” In this moment of epiphany, her harsh exterior softens, and she agrees to show him where her artificial leg adjoins her body. She feels a total vulnerability, and briefly imagines running away with the Bible Salesman. The feeling is like “losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.”
Hulga’s seemingly religious epiphany is perhaps the most crucial moment of the story. Whereas she moves through everyday life protecting herself with arrogance and intellectual superiority, here she makes herself completely vulnerable—and in that moment of vulnerability, she accesses a more spiritual state of being, something which Flannery O’Connor might call “grace.” This is the one true act of authentic faith in the story, and even O’Connor’s language in describing it echoes that of the Bible: Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The Bible Salesman asks Hulga to show him how to take the artificial leg off and then put it back on again, and she does. The Bible Salesman then removes the leg. Hulga demands that he put it back on, but he does not. She feels helpless. The Bible Salesman begins to kiss her again, but Hulga pushes him off.
Hulga is punished for her act of faith, unfortunately as the Bible Salesman is not as innocent as Hulga believes. Instead of rewarding her trust with kindness, he seizes on her moment of vulnerability to take her leg from her and keep it, committing the ultimate violation of her vulnerability.
The Bible Salesman then takes out one of his Bibles from his valise and opens it, revealing it to be hollowed out inside. It contains a flask of whiskey, pornographic playing cards, and a box of condoms. He offers Hulga a drink of the whiskey. Hulga is shocked, and she says that she thought he was “just good country people.” She repeatedly demands to be given her artificial leg back. The Bible Salesman comments that he’s surprised that an atheist is so perturbed at his drinking alcohol and possessing condoms and pornography. He refuses to give the leg back, implying that he wants to have sex with Hulga first. She responds that, in all his hypocrisy, he is a “perfect Christian.” The Bible Salesman ridicules her for thinking that he is actually Christian.
The Bible Salesman is not what he seems, and neither is his valise. The valise, which seemed to contain Bibles, in fact contains traditional “sinful” objects—alcohol, pornography, and condoms. Similarly, the Bible Salesman’s devout appearance is shown to be an illusion. In this moment he overturns Hulga’s whole sense of superiority. She thought that she was savvy and “saw through to nothing,” perceiving the hypocrisy inherent in most “perfect Christians,” but the Bible Salesman mocks her for being surprised by his sinful behavior, as if believing that he might be genuinely religious was naïve and childish on her part.
The Bible Salesman then grabs the artificial leg and places it, along with the rest of his things, into his valise . As he descends from the loft, he tells Hulga that he has a whole collection of things he’s stolen in a similar way, and says that his real name is not Manley Pointer. He proclaims “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.”
The Bible Salesman’s theft of Hulga’s leg represents a desecration of her most private boundaries. Indeed, it seems that he takes pleasure in this intimate kind of violation, as he reveals that the leg is only one of many “souvenirs” he has acquired in similar situations. He has been the savvy manipulator all along (the exact opposite of a “good country boy”), whereas Hulga thought she was the one seducing him. It’s suggested that Hulga wasn’t as cynical as she thought she was, and she is now punished for her act of faith and vulnerability—punished by someone who better sees the harsh “truth” of life, and in his cynicism is totally deceitful, atheistic, and amoral.
Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, busy working, watch the Bible Salesman walk from the woods toward the highway. Mrs. Hopewell concludes that he had been selling Bibles. As they watch the Bible Salesman walk down the road, both Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman reflect that they could never be as “simple” as the Bible Salesman is.
For all their self-righteousness and sense of superiority, Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell reveal themselves to be totally ignorant of the truth of the world around them. Not only can they not see the Bible Salesman for what he is, but they pronounce him exactly the opposite: simple-minded, one of the “good country people.” Their condescension of him allows themselves to feel less “simple,” and the fact that they see him like this from a distance shows just how pervasive hypocrisy is—even someone who, from far away, seems like a stereotype of “good country people,” when examined more closely often reveals hidden sins and complexities.