O’Connor’s “Good Country People”

O’Connor’s “Good Country People” as a study of the writing craft -- particularly of crafting a story opening -- is rewarding for the usual markers of setting, tone and “telling detail,” but it is also unusual in terms of O’Connor’s persona’s easily-misunderstood voice (is she compassionately mocking, or just plain mean?), her ability to sequence in such a way that Gardner’s profluence is achieved within the matrix of an allegory while avoiding his warned-about pitfall of seeming manipulative or preaching, and her decision to introduce the protagonist after two other main characters who, in the first couple of pages, seem just as likely candidates to be our heroine.

As for setting, the title tells us right off that this is about “country” people. Beginning the story in Mrs. Hopewell’s farmhouse kitchen quickly establishes that it takes place in the female domestic realm -- indeed, men do not appear in these first pages except as recollections through the women -- and the focus on activities around mealtimes emphasizes this. The kitchen back door is unlocked, which illustrates an informality as well as a trust or openness -- maybe even a naivety about the dangers open doors leave one susceptible to, especially when the two women live alone. Mrs. Hopewell employs Mrs. Freeman and her never-seen husband to keep up the farm, but she is not wealthy; she has no other hired help, despite being saddled with a physically-compromised, grown daughter, as is evidenced by her having to light the gas heaters every morning, and the dust along the kitchen shelves. The lack of visible men on hand, along with the remote rural landscape and informal, unguarded doors and boundaries are the “telling details” that set the stage for Pointer to get away with the seduction and make off with the leg at the climax. O’Connor gives the reader just enough to visualize the situation without being suspicious of what he/she is being made to notice.

The tone is also immediately apparent in the title. When the typical reader sees “Good Country People,” she/he assumes the characters will be simple and their situations ripe for the mocking. Meeting beady-black-eyed, two- facial-expressions-to-her-credit, grain-sack-bodied Mrs. Freeman and willfully ignorant, lemons-to-lemonade Mrs. Hopewell only confirms these expectations. The women are not above discussing vomiting during breakfast, and speak in maxims like “it takes all kinds,” “nothing is perfect,” and “that is life.” Mrs. Hopewell considers herself and Mrs. Freeman to be “ladies” and prides herself on being a step above “trash.” They conduct the “important business” of gossip each morning, and sometimes find enough dirt to dish over the day’s other meals. Joy is introduced as our reluctant delegate by way of being educated, as presumably the reader is, but she has an artificial leg and no beauty to speak of with which to get a husband and leave, so she is a captive audience for the ladies’ dull observations each morning, and none too happy about it. She “lumbers,” “slams the door” when she hears the women in the kitchen, and humors herself by calling Mrs. Freeman’s teenaged daughters Caramel and Glycerin. But just so we’re clear on how she really feels, O’Connor describes Joy’s typical table manners: “the large, hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from face, would stare just a little to the side of (her mother), her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” That pretty much sums her up! All of these characters are described in a light, conversational style with a hint of condescension, which serves to seduce the reader much in the way that Joy/Hulga will be seduced by Pointer. Both the reader and Joy/Hulga are lulled into a comfortable space of looking down on the silly country folk.

The persona’s voice is such that we are laughing along with the storyteller. He/she assumes a third-person-subjective point of view that allows for intimacy with enough distance to tease the characters. This, of course, is turned into a teasing of the reader at the end when we and Joy are duped by Pointer, but for this ending, it is important to have our confidence at the outset and make us feel as though we are being let in on the joke. Gardner is uneasy with the idea of the authorial voice being one that passes obvious judgment, but O’Connor cleverly turns this into a device of irony. We don’t feel unduly manipulated by this confidence game of the narrator’s, because it is integral to the theme.

O’Connor also flouts Gardner’s admonition about preaching a message without ever stooping to sermonizing. Even though these characters are tropes to a great extent, they are not what Gardner calls “straw characters” that the author has coldly used. The two women may very well be common and easily recognizable, but they are still lovingly drawn. In the opening pages, we poke fun at them but we are not loathe to be in their company. Even hulking, painfully-named Joy is someone we find ourselves wanting to learn more about. Whenever the writer gives her characters such obviously symbolic names, like Hope-well, Free-man, and Joy (and later, Manley Pointer), it is expected that they will be “types,” but O’Connor still lends each one “telling details” that keeps them alive and believable. We know that Mrs. Hopewell has a knack for turning other’s bad qualities into advantages, like Mrs. Freeman’s invasiveness, and that is why they have such a copasetic relationship. She knows she is a little “quicker” than Mrs. Freeman, but also knows that Mrs. Freeman must always be allowed to think the reverse. Mrs. Freeman, despite being a self-righteous bulldozer, is good company for Mrs. Freeman, and has raised two daughters who may not be very bright but are at least social and in the act of living, unlike Joy. These are details that lend complexity and reality, as well as sympathy. Nasty Joy garners our compassion, too. Of course she is outraged; she is overeducated, under-stimulated, physically very unattractive -- the missing leg just punctuates it -- in her thirties and living on a farm with her simpleton mother. The killing detail pertaining to Joy is that she is blonde. To make her mousy or dark would have been true to type, but to make Joy a blonde is bitingly funny. We think of “blondes having more fun” and “bubble blondes.” The fun Barbie image of blonde hair along with her clashing name of Joy just makes this sad sack a punch line to her own joke of an existence. How can we not feel for her? O’Connor never tells us how to feel; she leads us through description and imagery to the emotion. Since these three characters are on the surface so laughable, it is surprising to us that we find ourselves invested in them, and it shows how powerful these fleshing details are.

That O’Connor chooses to introduce Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell before Joy, and, for the first two pages, anyway, does so with equal stress is fascinating because she performs a stylistic shell game with the protagonist; this plays into the theme of the confidence game. At first, we think it will be the puffed-up Mrs. Freeman who will be knocked down a peg -- her insistence upon always being right is just asking for a blow. Then, we think perhaps Mrs. Hopewell is going to be made to regret hiring the Freemans. She prides herself on being a good judge of character and discerner of “trash,” and her decision that the Freemans are “good country people,” even after being warned about Mrs. Freeman’s meddling, seems vulnerable to attack. Joy is so morose and broken from the get-go that we don’t really register her as a possibility in the first couple of pages. If anything, she appears to be a well-crafted cross for Mrs. Hopewell to bear.

The telltale “yearning” is not readily apparent. At this stage, Joy’s desire appears more as a lack. She is lacking in so many things, however, that we cannot possibly ferret out in this beginning which deficiency would be the target. I defy anyone to infer from the opening that somebody is going to make off with Joy’s leg, or that the leg is representative of her soul. To here, she hasn’t even had one of her atheist or philosophical tantrums or pronounced her name to be Hulga. I am not comfortable with stating that this mystery around Joy even creates anticipation because I do not believe we are given enough of the character yet to be cued to look for more. But given the twist that O’Connor is planning, can this be considered a crafting fault? Also, this opening deliberately refrains from completely orienting us, and we have little clue to what the conflict will be. We are not aware of a technique or device being acted upon us, and the payout later does not cheat us, so it must be viewed as an exception to the norm of story sequencing.

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