O'Connor's Human ClichÃÂÃÂ© "You cannot judge a book by its cover." Everyone has undoubtedly heard this expression at one time or another. Although familiar clichÃÂÃÂ©s such as this one are all too often overheard and overused in everyday conversation in our society, they are also well-founded. One work of short fiction which effectively illustrates this point is "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor. It is a story set in the rural south at the home of the Hopewells. Manley Pointer, a traveling Bible salesman, visits Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter, Joy, who has renamed herself Hulga to spite her mother and herself in a sense. Manley's visit serves to bring the proud and somewhat arrogant Hulga to a startling epiphany in her life as she finds in the end that she is not as wise or strong as she imagines she is. Through her clever use of irony, symbolism, and imagery, O'Connor illustrates how both Hulga and Manley have managed to create facades that conceal their true natures, which are far different than they would like anyone to believe.
Just as in other O'Connor stories, some objects and characters in the story have both literal and symbolic meanings, and some events within the story foreshadow the ending as the reader finds that things are not always as they initially appear to be.
One of the first events in the story that illustrates this point is when the Bible salesman, Manley Pointer, mistakenly says to Mrs. Hopewell, "Good morning Mrs. Cedars" (O'Connor 122). After being corrected, he puns "I hope you are well"(122).
He further asserts that he thought her name was Cedars because of the name printed on the mailbox , which is actually the name of the place. In his haste, his actions here somewhat foreshadow the startling realizations that are to come.
Additionally, the imagery in this story serves to illuminate the characters and their significance to the central meaning of it. For example, as Margaret Whitt suggests, "misplaced faith in appearances is central to the themes of this story"(38). Hulga is described in the story as being childishly dressed and making unnecessary noises with her wooden leg, for her leg was lost in a hunting accident over twenty years earlier, when she was ten years old. She also has a Phd in philosophy and regularly shouts at her mother, quoting obscure philosophers. She also has a weak heart which prevents her from using her degree in a professional capacity. Her mother can make no sense of these references. Even upon reading parts of one of Hulga's books, which reads "science, on the other hand, has to assert its soberness and seriousness afresh and declare that it is concerned solely with what is" , Mrs. Hopewell doesn't understand the views and opinions her daughter holds (O'Connor 121). Through these descriptions of Hulga, the reader initially views her as a mentally strong person who attempts to compensate for her physical shortcomings with a strong intellectual exterior. As the reader finds, though, at the denouement of the story, this proves to be her main mistake as she is totally tricked by Manley Pointer. Manley is described as being so heavily weighed down with his suitcase of Bibles that he is somewhat lopsided and has to brace himself to keep from falling over.
"Just like Hulga, he is projected here as an awkward physical specimen with this slight lack of balance"(May 117). It is arguably unclear at the beginning of the story as to whether Pointer is actually a good Christian or simply a cunning salesman who knows all the right things to say.
Consider the salesman's somewhat humerous name, Manley Pointer. After deeper thought about the phallic and funny nature of this moniker, the alert reader can almost predict that it is Manley Pointer who gives the Hopewell's the big stiff one in the end (of the story, that is). Also consider Hulga's drastic change of her name which she had legally changed without her mother's knowledge "in an act of rebellion"(Donley 1). She chooses to rid herself of her given name, Joy, to the ugliest sounding name she could find (O'Connor 119).
In addition to changing her name, Hulga has other rebellious traits that make her character more easily imagined. The slamming of doors, unnecessary dragging of her prosthetic leg, and the seemingly condescending attitude she has towards her mother show that she has a superior attitude which will soon be her undoing. The reader can also plainly see that she is very proud of her intellect and her vast knowledge of the existentialist philosophy. This pride, however, will soon be depleted when she is naÃÂÃÂ¯ve enough to be manipulated by Manley (Donley 1). Hulga believes that with her superior intellect, she can seduce the young Manley Pointer and, in a way, prove that Christian faith is not enough to make a person enlightened. As the tables are turned, though, Hulga finds herself in the barn with the "salesman" and he takes her leg as she discovers that he is not a good Christian Bible salesman at all, but a whiskey-drinking, porno-toting drifter who is actually more worldly wise than she is.
Finally, at the end of the story, Pointer opens his suitcase and it is revealed that he has "only two bibles in it" and one of them is "hollow and [contains] a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and a small blue box"(O'Connor 130). This, in more ways than one, is a prime example that "you cannot judge a book by its cover". The beauty of "Good Country People" is that it demonstrates how people can sometimes use clichÃÂÃÂ©s and stereotypes to enable them to avoid thinking or seeing clearly.