In the short story “Good Country People” by author Flannery O’Connor, the story’s main character is Joy Hopewell, a well-educated 32-year-old woman with an artificial leg. She has a heart condition that forces her to live at home with her religious mother, meanwhile, Joy has earned a doctorate in philosophy and constantly must remind her mom that she does not believe in a god. Ironically, while her given name contains positive words like joy, hope, and well, Joy is described physically as large, bitter, and angry. She is also very sarcastic, mocking her mother and farmhand, Mrs. Freeman, without their realization. Joy has also changed her name to Hulga, an act of rebellion clearly done in order to symbolize the control she has in her own life.
The negative characteristics given to Hulga stem from her nihilistic view of life. The expression on her face is described as one of “constant outrage” and in response to a shallow yet cheery remark made by her mother she yells, “We are not our own light!”(4). A nihilist phrase meaning there is no purpose in life.
When Manley Pointer, a bible salesman, staggers into their house, Hulga’s mom, Mrs. Hopewell, is won over by his simplistic phrases and both mother and daughter describe him as a “good country boy”. By the end of the visit, Manley is able to seduce Hulga.
The ironic seduction scene in the previously mentioned barn explains the true nature of Hulga’s beliefs as they crash around her. For the first time, she realizes the evil of nihilism and the damage nihilism incurs. The central irony of the story is that Hulga claims to be a nihilist, but is not. She begins to embrace Manley, “kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him” (9). She has “never been kissed,” implying that she has never had trust or companionship, which is logical for someone who will not believe in anything. Very quickly, Hulga begins to almost trust his outward Christian worldview. Manley then asks for her leg, which shocks her. He explains that her leg is the most important feature of her. She is moved and gives the leg to him. After years of studying, earning a doctorate, and expressing the beliefs of nihilism, after just two visits from Manley, his “beliefs” have won her over. She dreamily imagines a wonderful future where she can run away with him. Hulga’s nihilistic atheism is pushed aside, and her life suddenly contains meaning. However, after asking for the leg back, the story’s tone shifts from one of trust to one of panic.
To this request, Manley tells her to wait and takes a bible out of his suitcase. When he opens it, this bible is revealed to be hollow, with a flask of whisky, obscene cards, and some sort of birth control in it. Hulga is understandably stunned and asks if he is a “good country people”(10). She pleads with him to be innocent, to meet her need for love which atheism does not fulfill. She begins to recognize her own beliefs in their personified form, and suddenly wants the Christian ideals she has mocked for years.
Manley becomes angry as he realizes that she thinks herself superior to him and begins to leave. If Hulga was a genuine nihilist she would believe that due to the meaninglessness of life, one has no reason to be hurt by such a turn of events. Manley leaves, stealing her leg and mocking her, saying, “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” (10). An echo of the beliefs she preached at the beginning of the story. She has finally faced her own views and they have ruined her life.
While I disagree with many of the beliefs that O’Conner expresses through this story, mainly her clear dislike of atheism, with the two atheist characters either lacking basic morals or being sad, angry people until they find a good Christian to show them the “correct” set of beliefs. That being said, I agree with many of her criticisms of nihilism with its overfocus on the meaningfulness of life and inherent sentiment of superiority over others.