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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 mind."

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 nor walk.

"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 essay5.

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 statements.

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

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