Friday, June 8, 2012

Good Country People: Review

Well, due to scheduling issues (a conflict arose between my personal tendencies and my hope of future gainful employment), I just wrote this. I started at 1:30 am and went till 5:50 am, and I'm now posting it. The story is well worth reading (it is, after all--but after all what, I wonder? Anyway, it is O'Conner, and she had peacocks), and the review will make a bit more sense if you're familiar with the story (theoretically, but I won't really know till I read this when I'm actually conscious).


P.S. "From tonsure to toenails" was fun to write.

J. A. Broussard J. Ladino, English 344 Short Paper, Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor: The Violent Take it by Force

My argument is two-fold, and goes from a broad general claim to a nice little pointy one. First, I'll demonstrate that Good Country People is, from tonsure to toenails, a story about a girl whose sense of identity consists solely in being different than anyone else being shown exactly how normal she really is. Her difference from the others is chiefly demonstrated in three ways: her atheism, her education, and her pursuit of ugliness, and in reverse order. My second argument is that her wooden leg stands as the foundation of her relied-upon uniqueness in this, her tiny little world, and that without it, she is no different from any other human.

Joy is introduced somewhat late in the story--as it is about her--but her role upon entering is quite significant: she is the "large blonde girl who had an artificial leg," and she lives with her condescending mother even though she is "thirty-two years old and highly educated." This is all the description given to the main character: she is a bulky, blonde spinster with one leg and a Ph.D. We later find that she also has big glasses, a constant scowl and a weak heart. Both Glynese and Carramae are contrasted to her by both being beautiful and being thought beautiful, and they (and their mother) are constantly praised to the skies by Joy's mother, who, in the contentedness of her nescient oblivion, fails to mention her own daughter. But so does the narrator, for quite some time. But then Joy is remembered, and the narrator makes the only reference to her father, informing us that he isn't dead, but Mrs. Hopewell (such a telling name) divorced him, and he appears to have made no further incursion into the lives of his former family. Now Mrs. Hopewell often needs her daughter Joy to walk the fields with her, a task that Joy ironically takes no joy in. But then the irony is undone with the name, as well as any beauty that we could have stubbornly managed to cast over Joy as a veil: Joy is Joy no longer; hello Hulga.

Joy, at twenty one, achieved her crowning ugliness in changing her name. We aren't led to believe that she was innately ugly--at least, her mother thinks that "if she would only keep herself up a little" she wouldn't be, but Hulga is smart enough to know that she could never be as pretty as girls like Glynese and Carramae, so instead of being rejected as a third-rate beauty, she decides to preemptively reject beauty entirely. Again and again and again and again we are given the same type of adjective; whether it's describing her attitude, her expression, or even the noise she makes, it's the same type of adjective; it's always the same type of adjective: it's an ugly adjective. Awful, lumbering, bloated, rude, squint-eyed, bad looking, hulking, stout--on and on they go. She was plain, but plain is normal, and instead of joining the throng trying to be like the "Southern Belles," she decided to despise them all. From her first entrance into the story she mocks the pretty girls, as if beauty itself were a sin. And she takes pleasure in dressing in a rather hideously eclectic outfit, rather as if she were walking through a thrift store when a tornado struck. But there's a security there: if you don't try, you can't fail. So she can't have beauty? Fine. She didn't want it anyway. So none of the nice young men want her? Well she could "smell their stupidity;" why would she want them?

Bierce defined erudition as dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull, and true to form, Hulga gets her doctorate in philosophy. Not out of any love of Boethius or fondness of Plato (though she seems to have adopted his maxim that true genius largely consists in being intelligible to fools), but because it further alienates her from the world that didn't want her. So, she who desired nothing so that she could be denied nothing has now achieved superiority for superiority's sake: she has constructed an ivory tower, the better to despise all those pathetic beings on the ground with. And despise them she does, for she leaves academia, where her knowledge would have been nothing special, returns home and quotes Malebranche to her condescending (and rather dense) mother, which seems somewhat akin to performing a quantum physics equation for the benefit of a june bug.

The natural result of this arrogant ascendency alienates her yet further. In this world of religious pretensions she declares her furthest removal yet: atheism. After all, her mom is a "good Chrustian;" what further distance could she possibly travel? Her mom prizes beauty; she seeks ugliness. Her mom adores "good country people;" she goes to the city to get her Ph.D. in philosophy. And now she openly rejects the same thing that her mom professes to believe, though her reason for it is not so much a profound, personal belief in atheism as it is a product of her liberal and progressive education, designed to set her apart from all the hidebound religious people where she lives. For, as it turns out, she is a hypocrite in her unbelief the exact same way that her divorced, lying mother is a hypocrite in her belief: each use their "beliefs" in an attempt to deceive the same person. She may use a different method, but it's to the same end of impressing and gaining the approval of the Bible salesman.

So, I've unpacked the character and motivations of Hulga-Joy: she must be different, and she must be superior, like every fourteen-year-old girl who gets a belly-button ring. Now it's time to turn to the final, climactic scene, in which all of her defenses are undone in a single stroke, in which the tiny world that she lives in is crushed in an impact with a totally alien world: the world that she thought she lived in. Here, the statue meets the man, the shadow meets the object, the imitation meets the model. Here, Hulga meets the man who truly is who she falsely claims to be, and she realizes that she is no different than anyone else.

She sets out to seduce the childlike salesman, though she's never so much as kissed anyone before. She gets him to take her to the desired seclusion of the barn-loft (or he gets her to get him to take her there), but then the tables are turned: she is prepared to seduce him so that she can give him a deeper understanding of the world but she was not prepared to actually expose herself to him. But then he asks to see her soul: he asks where her leg attaches, and in such a way that she can't really back down without losing her chance of seducing him. She asks why he wants to see it, and he responds with the absolute truth: " 'Because,' he said, 'it's what makes you different. You ain't like anybody else.' "

This is the crux of the entire matter: her leg is what makes her different. But being different is all that she is. She has always simply sought to be unlike the other people, so that is her entire identity, her superiority and her strength. Her leg was to her what Sampson's hair was to him, and in surrendering it, she surrendered herself.

She allows him to remove her leg. "It was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his." Her own life was the life of being different, being in control, being smart and independent and opposed. Now she has surrendered her leg as another would surrender his soul, and she is fully his. But his life truly is that life that she had tried to live. He truly is an amoral atheist, and he cheerfully goes ahead with their mutual "seduction;" she's suddenly the puritanical prude who proceeds to accuse him of hypocrisy. He responds with a hilarious unrighteous indignation that he is a perfectly consistent sinner who doesn't believe in any of that Bible "crap" that he peddles.

The fascinating thing in all of this is her volte face: he is willing, yea verily eager to be "seduced" by her. But she doesn't seduce him. She can't. She can't seduce him, because his seduction of her is wholly and irrevocably complete. He has done to her what she was going to do to him, and the remorse she has to deal with is not his, but her own. She wanted to give him a deeper understanding of the universe; instead, he gives her a deeper understanding of herself, and she realizes she is not the amoral, untouchable, high and mighty intellectual she'd thought she was. She went to seduce a child, and ends up a child: their roles are fully reversed. He is revealed to her as a man truly is who she falsely claimed to be, and she is revealed to herself as a woman who truly is who he falsely claimed to be. Then, in his final words to her, he makes a profound statement. He says "you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing every since I was born!" He had thought, a few moments before, that she was "some girl" because she professed to believe in nothing. But now she is brought to the edge of nothing--as McCarthy would say, "as close to nothin' as you can get without fallin' in," and she doesn't fall in: she isn't willing to go any further. Before, she had something and believed in nothing. Now she believes in something and has nothing. Nothing but normal, run-of-the-mill humanity, and the knowledge that she never had nothing to begin with.

Wodehousian Fun