Stamping Out Joy
The Fallacy of Certainty in "Good Country People."
© 2 November 2002, Stephen Sparrow
"(Love is) not a word I use. I don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to
nothing." This is Hulga Hopewell's condescending reply to Manley Pointer's childish demand that
she say, "I love you," and it occurs when Hulga and Manley are smooching in the hay barn
where they've retreated for a romantic interlude while on a picnic. Hulga's reply begs the
questions, "what, no love to look forward to? Nothing to anticipate? Nothing but nothing?" The
notion that this world is in itself "the be all and the end all" was considered an
absurdity by Flannery O'Connor and she was not slow to correct anyone who might be thinking she
thought otherwise. In one letter, O'Connor good-humouredly chided agnostic friend Maryat Lee1 by
saying, "don't put me down in your Associate Reformed Presbyterian black books," and expanding on that
theme she emphatically denied holding the view that this life all ends in tatattatum and a tragic
little pie. "I believe in the resurrection of the body. I also believe in it before it gets that
way, dear girl," she wrote. O'Connor, a devout Catholic, was well aware of the difficulties facing
non-Catholic friends who tried to understand her beliefs, which, from a Catholic perspective can
be likened to watching a fish warily nibbling at a baited hook. In a letter to Betty Hester2 O'Connor reckoned that but for her (Catholic) faith she would be the stinkingest logical positivist
imaginable, and that label is what O'Connor must have had in mind when she invented the character of
Joy-Hulga Hopewell in "Good Country People". Hulga was definitely a logical positivist.3
At first sight, "Good Country People" is nothing more than a story about a young man named Manley
Pointer who, in the course of the romantic interlude in the barn, steals the artificial leg of Hulga
Hopewell. As the seduction scene proceeds, the reader hurries on, maybe anticipating some lip
smacking erotica, but no such "luck". Instead, (for those prepared to dig for it) comes the jolting
realisation that it is not her virginity that Hulga loses, but something of much greater importance:
she loses her faith; her carefully constructed faith in nothing, which all through the story is
symbolised by her wooden leg.
The story starts with a rundown on the Hopewell household. Mrs. Hopewell, a divorcee, is in charge of
the family farm and still has her thirty year old daughter Joy living at home. Joy is an academic
with a Doctorate in Philosophy. She lost one leg in a hunting accident at ten and also suffers from
a chronic heart condition, which precludes her leaving home and working. While studying at
university, Joy rebelled against her mother's conventional lifestyle and legally changed her name to
the purposely ugly sounding Hulga. Now forced to live at home, she stumps around with an irritable
expression and seizes any opportunity to make her mother appear stupid. No matter, Mrs. Hopewell
still insists on calling her Joy.
Enter Manley Pointer. He arrived late one day before dinner, and his simple but cunning doorstep
repartee had Mrs. Hopewell cornered. In almost no time he was in the parlour playing the sympathy
card, however Mrs Hopewell quickly came to, and Pointer was forced to admit he was selling things;
bibles actually, and looking around the room said it looked as if the Hopewells didn't own one. Mrs.
Hopewell said they did but it wasn't kept in the parlour. She wasn't going to let on that her
daughter was an atheist and wouldn't allow the bible to be on show. They continued chatting; Pointer
acting the simple country kid, a bit "down to things," and Mrs Hopewell trying to cheer him
up by saying that good country people were the salt of the earth and then she excused herself
briefly to see to her dinner. Hulga, who had been listening in, told her mother to, "get rid of
the salt of the earth and let's eat." Mrs Hopewell returned to the parlour to find Pointer
getting out his bibles and when she said she didn't want one he turned the conversation back to
himself and his sob story gained him an invitation to stay to dinner.
During the meal, Manley Pointer unpacked the whole of his sad life and outlined his ambition to
become a minister of religion. Before leaving, he made a date with Hulga for a picnic the next
morning. That night Hulga imagined she had seduced him and then had to convince him that he had
nothing to feel guilty about. She considered herself vastly intellectually superior to him and, given
this situation, she reckoned that, "true genius can get an idea across to even an inferior
The next day Hulga and Manley met as planned, and it wasn't long before they were canoodling in the loft
of the hay barn. However, while walking there Pointer tried to talk about Hulga's wooden leg (her
faith), and after telling her how brave she was slyly extracted the admission from her that she
didn't believe in God. He pretended astonishment and followed it up by asking if this meant
she wasn't saved. Hulga answered that it was she who was saved and that Pointer was the damned one;
damned by his belief.
After a rather humdrum exchange of kisses (from Hulga's standpoint), Pointer started pestering Hulga
to say that she loved him and it was then that she told him that love was an illusion and
knowing that was a kind of salvation, however Pointer wouldn't stop, and after Hulga reluctantly
admitted to "loving" him, he demanded she prove it by allowing him to see where her leg joined on.
Hulga was shocked by this suggestion, but after more pressure she relented and showed him, and even
let him take the leg off. Without her wooden leg Hulga suddenly felt insecure and even frightened,
but then Pointer refused to give it back and instead suggested they start having real fun. He
opened the valise he had brought along and took from it a hollowed out bible that contained a flask
of whisky, a deck of cards with pornographic images, and a box of condoms. Hulga was now both
frightened and angry and screamed for her leg to be given back. She accused Pointer of being a "fine"
Christian. "You're just like them all," she told him.
Pointer now displayed his true colours and vehemently denied believing in all that "Christian
crap," and when Hulga again screamed for her leg to be returned he put it in his valise along
with the hollow bible and its contents. He started down the loft ladder but not before telling Hulga
that he had gotten a lot of interesting things this way including on one occasion a woman's glass
eye, and additionally he didn't think Hulga was very smart and he had been believing in nothing
since he was born. With Pointer gone, Hulga was left stranded in the hayloft neither able to stand
"Good Country People" is about the standoff between traditional wisdom on one hand, and positivism
(on its way to becoming nihilism4) on the other. Joy and good country people (the
salt of the earth) represent tradition, while the pessimistic and spiteful Hulga,
determined to rid the earth of its salt, represents positivism; and just to keep
the pot boiling Manley Pointer is the essential Nihilist. Joy has turned herself into Hulga (a
killjoy) who won't allow her mother to display the family bible in the parlour and who urges her
mother to send Pointer on his way. "Get rid of the salt of the earth and let's eat," she
says; the corollary being get rid of all that old hat stuff. Throughout the early part of the story
we see examples of Hulga's intellectual bent, and we get a taste of her weird mental meandering
when Manley Pointer asks if she has ever eaten a chicken two days old. Her reply is a calm, "yes,"
implying, "why not?" Manley Pointer is no fool and his "innocent" question about eating tiny
chickens was a clever ploy to gauge the size of Hulga's ego, which might determine how easy she
could be. The manner in which Hulga replies tells us she thinks it ridiculous that someone as naive
as Pointer could ever upstage her, and by inference this same answer shows again that Hulga has
little use for conventions and traditions. Hulga is not planning on carrying any moral baggage
around. For her, anywhere is better than somewhere; the opposite of what O'Connor once wrote in an
Hulga claims to be sustained by a faith in nothing. Talking about love she tells Pointer, "I
don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to nothing." If Hulga really
believes love is an illusion, then consistency demands she feel the same about hate. Hulga's faith
is nothing other than a mystical vision of nothing. She is the opposite of St Peter who was able to
walk on water so long as he kept his gaze fixed on Christ6, but the instant he looked elsewhere his
faith failed, and he sank and had to be rescued. Hulga, her wooden leg stolen by Pointer, loses her
faith and with it her certainties. Prior to that she never conceived of being hurt by anything as
feeble as another human being but now she has discovered anger and hurt in what somebody has done to
her, and that certainly is no illusion.
Hulga tried to intellectualise her position. Each of her opinions and actions she rationalised,
which is in contrast to Manley Pointer who instinctively rejected faith because it got in the way of
enjoyment. His undoubted motto was "live for the moment." Remember, Pointer was a
Nihilist, and a cunning and manipulative one at that. Hulga, for all her education, was no match
for him. The existence of Pointer was a lesson for Hulga whose logical positivism was in reality a
pseudo philosophy. Hulga conveniently forgot that everything that exists has a cause and a reason
for existing. She was like those children who play number games where, after some elaborate
calculations, the first number thought of is discarded. From there onward everything is abstract.
Hulga has tiptoed away from reality the way somebody might dump a newborn baby in a trash bin and
hope to be out of earshot before it wakes and cries, but when Manley Pointer stole her wooden leg,
suddenly the discarded first number popped up again and the abandoned baby cried out.
Hulga's certainties about the meaningless of life have come straight from fear; an inability to
confront doubts. As a child, she admitted to feelings of shame but her education had
removed the last traces of those feelings, and that same education had wiped out her doubts, replacing them
with certainty constructed around Atheism7. Certainty is the parent of fundamentalism, no matter what
its source, but no thing, not even Atheism, exists without a purpose. Behind the world there is a
purpose, and behind the purpose stands the person of God, in whom resides all meaning. Otherwise,
neither this world nor we can have any meaning, which is a stumbling block for those who claim that
the presence of evil rules out the existence of God, and Simone Weil8 demolished that standpoint by
saying, "if God does not exist because of evil, then what can evil take from a world devoid
of meaning." O'Connor, building on that said, "evil is not a problem to be solved but a
mystery to be endured."9
The evil inside Nihilist Manley Pointer was an empty creed symbolised by the hollowed out bible
filled with the trappings of materialism, viz. meaningless sex. Right to the end, Pointer fooled
Hulga and she mistook him for a Christian until he put her right on that score just before running
off with her leg.
The recurring theme in all of Flannery O'Connor's writing is the search for some enjoyable thing that is both lasting and incorruptible. Straining the essence from O'Connor's stories uncovers the
fact that this thing does exist but it lies outside of human experience; being a supernatural thing
encompassed by the Virtue of Hope. Invariably O'Connor's stories stop right at the cliff edge of
this realisation. In that light we can see that "Good Country People" ends with Hulga stuck in the
hayloft (this meaningless world) trying to cope without one leg (her faith). With a little
imagination, we can see her getting down the ladder and hopping and crawling her way back to the
house like the Prodigal Son10 returning home. We can imagine Hulga undergoing the humiliation of
answering to her mother. Hopefully it will be a healing experience, and maybe after a decorous
interval Hulga will come around and admit how futile logical positivism is and go back to
being happy when people call her by her given name, Joy.
1. O'Connor Collected Works. Library of America. Pages 1035-1036
2. O'Connor Collected Works. Library of America. Page 949. O'Connor wrote, "if you live today you
breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the
(Catholic) Church to fight it with or tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the
stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now."
3. According to logical positivism, there are only two sources of knowledge:
logical reasoning and empirical experience. The former is analytic a priori, while the latter is
synthetic a posteriori; hence synthetic a priori does not exist.
A statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by
means of the experience--this assertion is called the verifiability principle. The meaning of a
statement is its method of verification; that is, we know the meaning of a statement if we know the
conditions under which the statement is true or false.
Metaphysical statements are thus forbidden: they are meaningless. Also, the traditional philosophy is
indeed meaningless, and the only role of philosophy is the clarification of the meaning of
The above are some of the main philosophical tenets of logical positivism culled from the Internet
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
4. Nihilism is the assumption that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or
communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns
existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than,
perhaps, an impulse to destroy.
5. From Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, "The Catholic Novelist In The
Protestant South." Page 200. O'Connor wrote, "but good and evil appear to be joined in every
culture at the spine, and, as far as the creation of a body of fiction is concerned, the social is
superior to the purely personal. Somewhere is better than anywhere. And traditional manners, however
unbalanced are better than no manners at all."
6. New Testament: Matthew 14. 22-32. Mark 6. 45-52. John 6. 15-21
7. Atheism is the rejection of belief in God.
8. Simone Weil [1909-1943] was a French Philosopher. Background Jewish and agnostic. Made her own way to
Christianity but was never baptised. Flannery O'Connor possessed Weil's published notebooks and was
intrigued by her life and philosophy.
9. From Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, "The Catholic novelist In The
Protestant South." Page 209.
10. New Testament: Luke 15. 11-32