Flannery O'Connor and the Job of Being Human, a Look at Roles & Masks: An Analysis
Being human is complicated but doesn’t have to be. People long to be accepted for who they are even though they don’t fit into societal roles. Humans want acceptance in areas such as making a living, or in becoming part of a group, and then cloak themselves with personas to attain those goals. They don’t trust others, however, because they know others sit behind a mask as well. Everyone says they want the truth, want others to be themselves, and then judge others when they don’t fit into expected roles. At the same time, people yearn to share themselves because it’s lonely hiding behind a mask. The real self longs for acceptance yet knows truth means vulnerability. Excepted roles are safer and come with preset approved maps. An author named Flannery O’Connor was aware of this situation and wrote a short story, “Good Country People.” The story clarifies “the uneasy job of being human (O’Connor), also acts as a reminder, a warning that people are not always as they seem. There are times when the truth about self is so unbearable, a disguise won’t work. It’s at this point some people angrily give up and choose the most hideous mask they can.
The main character is a thirty-two-year-old woman named Joy who views herself through a harsh lens. She feels ugly, has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and lives with her mother (Kirk 3). O’ Connor does not come out and say why she feels this way, but one of her legs being shot off in a hunting accident points to the reason. Her wooden leg becomes Joy’s focal point, becoming the reason for her negative feelings. She allowed the appendage to control her life. This is evidenced by how she acts like a rebellious teenager throughout the story. “She stomps around the house; slams doors; accuses her mother of being stupid; wears a grungy old skirt and a sweatshirt with a cowboy on it; speaks roughly to and is impatient with her mother.” Joy decides to change her name legally to Helga, the ugliest name she could come up with. There are people who refuse to see the truth and there are a variety of reasons why. One is reality is too painful to admit about someone they are about deeply. Another is for a person to not admit good qualities about themselves. To do so would be to take depth from the negative reality. The frustration Joy seems to feel everything about her has been overshadowed by her leg.
O’ Connor writes how Joy’s mother, Mrs. Hopewell, believes her daughter chose the “Ugliest name in any language.” Joy is annoyed about how her mother looks on the positive side as if ignoring the cold facts. Life had dealt a cruel hand, and she wanted her mother to admit it. This is apparent when O’Connor writes, “She saw Helga as the name for her highest creative act,” and a major triumph that her mother couldn’t turn that into Joy. The greater act though was in being able to turn herself into Helga. Joy’s mother either does not see Joy as ugly and ignores Joy’s situation or is in denial. Mrs. Hopewell sees the joy that her daughter provides and that was that. Mrs. Hopewell fulfills her role as a positive thinker, and so O’ Connor names her Hope Well. At one point, Joy’s mother does become frustrated and asks her daughter, “Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not?” Both Joy and Mrs. Hopewell play roles common to real people. O’Connor creating a character with similarities to her own might have been her way of sharing herself for a few reasons: one, she may have longed for acceptance. She didn't get out much due to her illness and as a result, she couldn’t gain confirmations and bonding socially. Two, it’s likely she struggled with her predicament as Joy did, feeling angry, sad, and frustrated. Her disease may have masked who she was without Lupus. Once the disease took a hold of her, that had covered everything else about her. People saw that and judged her through that lens. O’Connor reveals anger about this through Joy’s anger. O’Connor couldn't show others her true self because she couldn’t get out from behind the Lupus mask.
Sometimes authors write stories to work out frustrations with their own lives. There are several similarities between O’Connor and Joy in “Good Country People.” The author lived with her mother as an adult like her character did. O’Connor went off to college after high school and graduated from Georgia State in 1945 (Kirk 3-7). When O’Connor turned twenty-two, she moved to New York to pursue a writing career. After a diagnosis of lupus, she inherited from her deceased father, she moved in with her mother in Georgia. O’Connor then seemed to lead a limited life like her character. This adds further insight to the characters of “Good Country People.” Though O’ Connor led a productive life writing stories, Joy and O’ Connor had other things in common as well. Both suffered from a physical handicap, and both were annoyed with living with their mothers. Like Joy/Helga, O’Connor claims to have led an uneventful life that left her time for examination of everyday difficulties, especially the uneasy job of being human, with the difficulties of self, and with family. Interestingly, O’Connor doesn’t share much about her real mother. Did her mother look on the bright side of things as Joy’s did, and had her mother believed good country and God-fearing people were better than others, or at least more trustworthy?
Sometimes humans hide behind a cloak to gain something, such as Manley Pointer in “Good Country People” does. He uses the role to disguise himself and to take advantage of Joy. He is a young Bible salesman who arrives at the doorstep of Mrs. Hopewell and Joy’s home. Joy finds him annoying and is annoyed with her mother for liking and trusting him simply because she saw him as “good country people.” Mrs. Hopewell bases her judgment on Manley’s manners and on what he tells her. Since Mrs. Hopewell often believes the best in others, and does not question her own opinion, she invites Manley to dinner. Joy’s lens soon begins to change when she takes an interest in Manley. She had never been with a man before and decided it was time she was. Joy then slides into the role of seducer. In reality, her judgment of Manley is like her mother’s. Joy believes because Manley is a good country person, he can easily be taken advantage of. Joy lies to Manley about her age and allows him to assume other details about her as well. In the end, both Mrs. Hopewell and Joy are wrong. Manley Pointer had personified Joy’s belief system. His name implies he would point things out, and he does. The joke is eventually on Joy because Manley slid into a role. He used the guise of a good country person to sell Bibles, and also to steal Joy’s artificial leg, the very thing that represented her soul. She sees her appendage as the most important thing about her. After Manley obtains Joy’s leg, he sheds the role and reveals his true self to Joy. Despite her façade of apathy, blindness, and anger, Joy wants to be accepted because until this moment, she felt she hadn’t been. Manley deceptively appeared to want Joy for who she was and when the surprise comes along in the story, O’Connor’s warning about people is made. The irony is Manley’s motive is not what readers would guess. He used Joy to steal her leg because it is fake – an imitation of a real one, just as roles are. Manley then sheds the role to show Joy who he really is. O’ Connor seems to assume readers will be as stunned as Joy is. Humans often interpret a lie as a betrayal and thus readers might believe Joy needed the lesson at this point. Joy had grown in the end, changed, and did not stay the same as when first introduced, a requirement of a believable character. Eventually, Joy finally realized she is not as smart and superior as she had thought and found herself in a situation where education wouldn’t help. Manley’s violation of her most sacred part transforms her however, and Joy would never be the same.
O’ Connor admits to being a Christian and “Insisted that the perspective of Christianity allowed her to interpret the details of life and guaranteed her ‘respect for [life’s] mystery’” (Samway 240-243). These facts point to why she created struggling characters who struggled with spiritual and bizarre situations. It seems O’ Connor meant for her tales to be lessons with a Christian slant. When O’Connor speaks about creating fiction, she says, “Fiction is about everything human, and we are made from dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, they shouldn’t try to write fiction.” (Goodreads). Fiction is about characters wrestling with the human condition. Writers like showing the struggle and readers like witnessing how characters deal with the fight. They wear their clothes, put themselves in their place. They often want to learn new coping mechanisms while rooting for the character’s success.
Authors often begin a story with their main character, but O’Connor began “Good Country People” with an annoying neighbor and her mother. Her mother wears a role of politeness, even though Mrs. Freemen is giving her a hard time. Joy’s mother wears the label of good country people staunchly, but Joy saw this as self-serving. O’Connor displays insight to Mrs. Hopewell’s personality when she writes, “Since she was the type who had to be into everything then, Mrs. Hopewell decided not only to let Mrs. Freeman be into everything, but she would also see to it that she was into everything—she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge.” The scene shows Mrs. Hopewell believes she sees who Mrs. Freeman for who she really is. Still, Mrs. Hopewell tries to make the best of the situation. Mrs. Freeman needed a job with someone who could deal with her personality and Mrs. Hopewell needed help around the house. After all, there were no other applicants and Mrs. Hopewell had heard Mrs. Freeman was “Good Country People.” Mrs. Hopewell probably knew other people would see Mrs. Freeman through a negative lens, and at her too for hiring the woman. If this were not so, she would not have told people that “Glynose and Carrame (Mrs. Freeman’s daughters) were two of the finest girls she knew, that Mrs. Freeman was a lady and that she was never ashamed to take anywhere or introduce her to anybody they might meet.”
Some people work hard to be viewed through a certain lens and might be surprised when a completely different view than they originally planned, occurs. O’ Connor displays Mrs. Freeman’s personality for a good whole page, writing Mrs. Freeman as responding to every word Mrs. Hopewell says, no matter how short, or how quickly. Mrs. Freeman’s grating personality comes through when she says, “I know it. I have always been quick. It’s some that are quicker than others.” Mrs. Freeman talks her head off but did not “[a]dmit herself wrong on any point.” Mrs. Freeman wants to be an authority on everyone’s personal business. To compete with Mrs. Hopewell, she is constantly on the lookout for ways to subtly “up” her during conversation. The way the women speak to each other is shown one morning when Mrs. Freeman “ups” Mrs. Hopewell:
“Everybody is different,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“Yes, most people are,” Mrs. Freeman, said.
“It takes all kinds to make the world.”
“I always said it did myself.”
This back and forth is typical dialogue between the two women. Their conversation is riddled with clichés and trite expressions. Mrs. Freeman knows she cannot compete with Mrs. Hopewell monetarily, but she always gets the last word in with their conversations. Although she is not as materially wealthy as Mrs. Hopewell, she takes great pride in her daughters. She reveals in the fact that Glynese and Carramae have admirers, while Joy, who is twice their age, does not. Joy has never had a relationship with a boy. Mrs. Hopewell, over the years, has noticed, “Every year Joy grew less like other people and more like herself: bloated, rude, and squint-eyed.” So, Mrs. Freeman is successful at showing up Mrs. Hopewell because she compares her daughter to Glynese and Carramae, and wishes Joy were more like them.
O’ Connor helps readers know the role of each of her characters by giving them names to match their personality. For example, we find Mrs. Hopewell thought positively about most people, especially her daughter, and as a result, names her Joy. This reveals the expected joy her daughter brought to her. Readers may marvel though over the irony of Mrs. Hopewell’s positive outlook with others while scoffing at those who are not good country people. Joy does not view life or herself as beautiful, and her outlook appears dismal. Mrs. Hopewell finally gives into her daughter’s change of name to Helga because maybe she, like Joy, thought it a better match. Manley is shown as being the first man Joy will be with sexually, and his name reflects his personality too. His name shows readers how Joy will use him because he is a man. The names are significant to the lens O’ Connor wants readers to view characters by and yet, seems to want readers to also see how they didn’t always match their names. This too seems to match her warning.
The truth of “Good Country People,” and its characters, seem to have been O’ Connor’s way of holding a mirror up to society. She reminds readers people wear roles and others by the roles they wear. Humans are usually themselves when alone, and yet long to share their real self, but quickly slip on a role when someone enters the room. Maybe O’Connor meant more than a warning. Maybe her work simply helped her need to understand others and herself.
Flannery O’Connor’s life may have been limited because she had Lupus, but that hadn’t affected her intellect and awareness. She had notions about the complexity of being human. One of these notions was with the battle of fitting in with and being ourselves, which is what her character, Joy, does in "Good Country People." Humans want to trust one another but realize others wear a mask as we do. “Good Country People” is an example of the problem people have between truth and roles. The story provides details and texture and does a good job. It’s a testament to O’Connor’s talent as a writer. As we go about this uneasy task of being human, maybe we need to remember people don’t fit neatly into roles and everyone is struggling for acceptance.
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Goodreads. “Quotable Quotes” https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/79366-fiction-is-about-everything-human-and-we-are-made-out
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