Analysis of Flannery O'Connor's 'Good Country People'

The False Comfort of Cliches and Platitudes

Flannery O'Connor
Apic / Getty Images

"Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) is a story, in part, about the dangers of mistaking platitudes for original insights.

The story, first published in 1955, presents three characters whose lives are governed by the platitudes they embrace or reject:

  • Mrs. Hopewell, who speaks almost exclusively in cheerful clichés
  • Hulga (Joy), Mrs. Hopewell's daughter, who defines herself solely in opposition to her mother's platitudes
    • A Bible salesman, who turns the clichéd beliefs of the unsuspecting mother and daughter against them

    Mrs. Hopewell

    Early in the story, O'Connor demonstrates that Mrs. Hopewell's life is governed by upbeat but empty sayings:

    "Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too. She would make these statements […] as if no one held them but her […]"

    Her statements are so vague and obvious as to be almost meaningless, except, perhaps, to convey an overall philosophy of resignation. That she fails to recognize these as clichés suggest how little time she spends reflecting on her own beliefs.

    The character of Mrs. Freeman provides an echo chamber for Mrs. Hopewell's statements, thereby emphasizing their lack of substance. O'Connor writes:

    "When Mrs. Hopewell said to Mrs. Freeman that life was like that, Mrs. Freeman would say, 'I always said so myself.' Nothing had been arrived at by anyone that had not first been arrived at by her."

    We are told that Mrs. Hopewell "liked to tell people" certain things about the Freemans -- that the daughters are "two of the finest girls" she knows and that the family is "good country people."

    The truth is that Mrs. Hopewell hired the Freemans because they were the only applicants for the job. The man who served as their reference openly told Mrs. Hopewell that Mrs. Freeman was "the nosiest woman ever to walk the earth."

    But Mrs. Hopewell continues to call them "good country people" because she wants to believe they are. She almost seems to think that repeating the phrase will make it true.

    Just as Mrs. Hopewell seems to want to reshape the Freemans in the image of her favorite platitudes, she also seems to want to reshape her daughter. When she looks at Hulga, she thinks, "There was nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn't help." She tells Hulga that "a smile never hurt anyone" and that "people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not," which could be insulting.

    Mrs. Hopewell views her daughter entirely in terms of clichés, which seems guaranteed to make her daughter reject them.

    Hulga-Joy

    Mrs. Hopewell's greatest platitude is perhaps her daughter's name, Joy. Joy is grumpy, cynical and utterly joyless. To spite her mother, she legally changes her name to Hulga, partly because she thinks it sounds ugly. But just as Mrs. Hopewell continually repeats other sayings, she insists on calling her daughter Joy even after her name is changed, as if saying it will make it true.

    Hulga can't stand her mother's platitudes. When the Bible salesman is sitting in their parlor, Hulga tells her mother, "Get rid of the salt of the earth […] and let's eat." When her mother instead turns down the heat under the vegetables and returns to the parlor to continue singing the virtues of "real genuine folks" "way out in the country," Hulga can be heard groaning from the kitchen.

    Hulga makes it clear that if it weren't for her heart condition, "she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about." Yet she rejects one cliché – good country people – in favor of one that sounds superior but is equally trite – "people who knew what she was talking about."

    Hulga likes to imagine herself as being above her mother's platitudes, but she reacts so systematically against her mother's beliefs that her atheism, her Ph.D. in philosophy and her bitter outlook begin to seem as thoughtless and trite as her mother's sayings.

    The Bible Salesman

    Both the mother and the daughter are so convinced of the superiority of their perspectives that they don't recognize they're being duped by the Bible salesman.

    "Good country people" is meant to be flattering, but it's a condescending phrase. It implies that the speaker, Mrs. Hopewell, somehow has the authority to judge whether someone is "good country people" or, to use her word, "trash." It also implies that the people being labeled this way are somehow simpler and less sophisticated than Mrs. Hopewell.

    When the Bible salesman arrives, he is a living example of Mrs. Hopewell's sayings. He uses "a cheerful voice," makes jokes, and has a "pleasant laugh." In short, he's everything Mrs. Hopewell advises Hulga to be.

    When he sees that he's losing her interest, he says, "People like you don't like to fool with country people like me!" He's hit her in her weak spot. It's as if he's accused her of not living up to her own cherished platitudes, and she overcompensates with a flood of clichés and an invitation to dinner.

    "'Why!' she cried, 'good country people are the salt of the earth! Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds of make the world go 'round. That's life!'"

    The salesman reads Hulga as easily as he reads Mrs. Hopewell, and he feeds her the clichés she wants to hear, saying that he likes "girls that wear glasses" and that "I'm not like these people that a serious thought don't ever enter their heads."

    Hulga is as condescending toward the salesman as her mother is. She imagines that she can give him "a deeper understanding of life" because "[t]rue genius […] can get an idea across even to an inferior mind." In the barn, when the salesman demands that she tell him she loves him, Hulga feels pity, calling him "poor baby" and saying, "It's just as well you don't understand."

    But later, faced with the evil of his actions, she falls back on her mother's clichés. "Aren't you," she asks him, "just good country people?" She never valued the "good" part of "country people," but like her mother, she assumed the phrase meant "simple."

    He responds with his own clichéd tirade. "I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn't born yesterday and I know where I'm going!" His certainty mirrors -- and therefore calls into question -- Mrs. Hopewell's and Hulga's.