In the Crucible of Life: “Good Country People” as Moral Apologetic

Flannery O’Connor’s literary works are unforgettable. Small in number but powerful in effect, her short stories bring to life bizarre characters who are often psychologically distorted and, as a result, relationally debilitated. There’s much to pity about the O’Connor protagonist—usually he or she is alienated from friends or family and has had some past traumatic experience with lingering physical or emotional damage. But any such pity is tempered by the story’s revelation that the character’s current difficulties are self-created and self-perpetuated. This brings us to the crux of any given O’Connor story, as each one culminates in a ruthless exposure of the main character’s pretenses, the false beliefs about themselves, the world, or others that they use to promote or protect themselves.

This confrontation with reality, O’Connor brings to her characters to free them from self-delusion and the unavoidable pain that comes from being misaligned with reality. O’Connor is not one to enable a character’s skewed take on the world. Thus, the shocking conclusions of O’Connor’s stories are not only the defining feature of her work; they are the impetus behind their creation. She seeks with her writing to get her readers’ attention, to reveal the truth to a contemporary world that doesn’t often see it. She explains as much in her essay, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” collected in Mystery and Manners, a book worth the time of anyone interested in the humanities:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

To this end, O’Connor places her characters into situations that try their convictions. The result is a reckoning, a testing of how well the character’s worldview matches up to reality. O’Connor shows readers that the success of a worldview in the crucible of life’s real challenges provides a key measure of how evidentially strong such a worldview is; this is philosophy in practice, philosophy through literature. The testing is often painful because it reveals (to the character and reader) the consequences of thinking against the grain of reality. Such is definitely the case in O’Connor’s devastating “Good Country People.” (If you’ve never read it, read it now; you won’t regret it! O’Connor’s stories are better experienced than explained.)

This memorable tale is populated with stubborn characters, clinging to their problematic understandings of reality in the face of compelling evidence of just how deeply wrong their convictions are. The story reveals the twistedness of human nature, our self-defeating selfishness, and our self-protecting worldview blinders. At its center is Joy Hopewell, a thirty-two year old still living at home, dependent on yet resentful of the support offered by her divorced mother. The relationship between the two is fraught with tension as Mrs. Hopewell treats her daughter as a child, and Joy—for all her education and presumed sophistication—remains emotionally impaired.

Much of Joy’s life is spent provoking her mother, from studying philosophy to legally changing her name to Hulga to over-exaggerating the noise made by her wooden leg when she walks. All of these activities are designed to highlight the bitterness of life that Joy feels her mother has refused to acknowledge. Mrs. Hopewell, for her part, in Pollyannaish fashion, coasts through her life, ignoring anything at odds with the superficiality she confuses and conflates with happiness. She explains away any of life’s challenges with meaningless generalities that offer no actual comfort: “Nothing is perfect,” “that is life!” and “other people have their opinions, too.” “Good,” a word central to the story’s title and repeated often in the text, seems to have little meaningful content for either mother or daughter. It is simply a label applied of convenience, somewhat manipulatively to coerce others and to project an impression of equanimity. The disparity between its use and the characters’ worldviews become clearer as the story progresses.

The “good country people” first mentioned in the story are the Freemans, the tenants hired out by Mrs. Hopewell to farm her land. Yet despite insisting the Freemans were a “godsend,” Mrs. Hopewell clearly dislikes the wife and mother, finding her gossip tiresome, her nosiness off-putting, and her obsession with the grotesque disturbing. Regardless, whether out of necessity or stubbornness, Mrs. Hopewell withstands these daily assaults on her patience, all the while projecting an agreeable façade.

For Joy, her mother’s “happy” façade is more than unsatisfactory. Joy has experienced much pain—losing her leg at ten in a freak hunting accident, encumbered by a heart condition that will most likely cost her life, friendless, and without romantic prospects. In the face of the pain she has experienced (and continues to experience), her mother’s denial of life’s difficulties is offensive. And Joy seeks to unsettle that denial; however, she does so by embracing the opposite error of her mother’s. Where her mother can acknowledge only a goodness-reduced-to-politeness, Joy espouses only darkness. She harasses her mother, launching inexplicable, inappropriate, and inordinate philosophical tirades at her benighted parent. To make up for her mother’s denial of life’s tragedies, Joy props herself up with outrage and angry derision, all of which is a willful decision on Joy’s part to overlook the blessings she has.

O’Connor endorses neither Joy nor her mother’s approach to life, yet it is Joy whose worldview is unmasked as faulty and self-destructive. Joy supposedly embraces moral anti-realism, predicated on her atheism. In her conversations with the traveling Bible Salesman, Manly Pointer, she mocks his professed belief in God and patronizes his requests for affirmation of her love. She believes she is educating this seemingly backward yokel in the harsh realities of this world: “‘We are all damned,’ she said, ‘but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.’”

In all of this, O’Connor sets Joy up for a confrontation between her self-conception and the implications of her stated worldview. When she finds herself duped by one she thought beneath her, one she assumed held traditional moral values, she is left without shelter to hide behind. For the protection she had been relying on—a cynical condescension that claimed to reject absolutes—is revealed as a sham. What she claimed to believe is precisely what leaves her vulnerable in the barn loft, legless and exposed. For, ultimately, O’Connor seems to suggest, Joy has the luxury of claiming to believe in nothing only because of her deeper conviction that others who claim to believe in human dignity and who espouse values such as honesty and compassion will actually live by those convictions.

Absent such a context, her radical claims are domesticated and rendered toothless; rather than inhabiting the role of renegade and maverick, her stance would merely be garden variety, humdrum, and bland. As such, Joy’s nihilism, paradoxically enough, parasitically depends on abiding, even absolute moral realism. Joy can mock her mother’s niceties, for example, only because she never doubts her mother’s commitment to her. Joy is free to proclaim that she “is one of those people who see through to nothing” only because nothing actually rides on this proclamation. That is, nothing rides on it until she meets her moral anti-realist match.

By creating a real-world situation governed by the nihilism Joy professes and putting her at the mercy of one who lives according to the anti-realism Joy claims to believe, O’Connor deftly dismantles the hypocrisy of such an attitude. And the resulting shock leaves the character altered (one hopes for the better) and the reader schooled.

Photo: "Düsseldorf Shattered View" by Magnus. CC License.