So who are “good country people”? Are they “the salt of the earth,” as Ms. Hopewell? Are they those who simply haven’t “taken off the blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see,” as Joy/Hulga claims? Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” explores this tension between mother’s and daughter’s points of view.
The story opens with Mrs. Hopewell, a divorced landowner, and her thirty-two year old daughter, Joy. Mrs. Throughout the story, Mrs. Hopewell defends her belief in “good country” against her daughters cynicism and nihilism. (Nihilism being a philosophy that sees religion or any belief in a Divine Power as false and used to keep people in subjugation. To perceive that all that exists is what we experience in the physical world liberates an individual, according Nihilism.) For Mrs. Hopewell, the belief in “good country people” becomes central to her worldview, the belief in salvation of the world. (Did you notice the significance of her name- Hopewell?) As she responds to Manely’s challenge, “Why, I think there aren’t enough good country people in the world […]I think that’s what’s wrong with it!”
Counterpoised to Mrs. Hopewell is Joy/Hulga’s view of the naivete of those her mother calls “good country people.” The passage Mrs. Hopewell finds underlined reveals Joy/Hulga’s nihilism:
“If science is right, then one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of nothing. Such after all the strictly scientific approach to Nothing. We know it by wishing to know nothing of Nothing.”
To unpack this key passage, science’s goal is to prove the lack of connection between the physical and spiritual, to show existence is entirely confined to our material reality and empty it of any Divine presence. Reading this passage attacks the very core of Mrs. Hopewell’s belief structure.
Enter into this dispute Manley Pointer, a travelling Bible salesman. For Manley, “good country people” becomes a term to manipulate others. He uses the term to win over Mrs. Hopewell: “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!” He pretends to share her belief that true morality exists among these “real genuine folks,” among whom Mrs. Hopewell claims to be.
For Joy/Hulga, Manley is seen as again those unenlightened whom she sees herself above. The night before her rendezvous with Manley she dreams of seducing him. However, what happens reverse Joy/Hulga’s expectations. Having encouraged her up to the barn loft, Manley pressures her into showing him her prosthetic leg and having him remove it. Manley then goes on to reveal his own nihilism: his guise as “good country people” is a ploy to sell Bibles and lure vulnerable women into stealing from them. As he claims, “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.” O’Connor leaves us with both Mrs. Hopwell’s and Joy/Hulga’s worldviews having been exploded.