Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor, 1955
The magic trick:
Presenting Hulga and her mother as total opposites only to unite them in the end through one crucial similarity
Flannery O’Conner’s stories are so richly layered it’s almost comical to limit my appreciation of why her story works to one magic trick. But that’s the format here at this blog, so bravely we press on.
The magic trick I highlight here is O’Connor’s cagey portrayal of Hulga and her daughter. The two women are presented as opposites, if not antagonists, for most of the story. But in the end, we find that they are not so different as they may have seemed.
The crucial passage, for me, comes very early in the story during the explanation as to why Mrs. Hopewell hired the Freeman family. She had heard that Mrs. Freeman has a reputation as a busybody, but Mrs. Hopewell decides she can use that weakness to her advantage by making it Mrs. Freeman’s job to be sticking her nose into everyone’s business; she will put Mrs. Freeman in charge. O’Connor writes, “Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.” Besides being a brilliant single-sentence capture of a character – at once damning, sympathetic, and humorous – it also sets the stage for our understanding of Hulga as the story progresses.
Hulga has a multitude of reasons for taking interest in the young bible salesman. Near the top of the list: she wants to use his good country innocence; she wants to seduce him, and take what she will from the experience according to her own rigid philosophy. In other words, she has learned well from her mother. Hulga, like her mother, can’t see any wrong in herself and takes advantage of others’ perceived weaknesses. It’s a subtle and surprising compare-and-contrast, and one that is all the more beautiful and knowing because it highlights a complicated mother-daughter relationship. And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
The girl at first did not return any of the kisses but presently she began to and after she had put several on his cheek, she reached his lips and remained there, kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him. His breath was clear and sweet like a child’s and the kisses were sticky like a child’s.