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.
Disease and Disability ThemeTracker
Disease and Disability Quotes in Good Country People
“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.”
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.
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…
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.
“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.”
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.
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.