Sunday, March 19, 2006

good country people

Earlier this week, Maud Newton posted an excerpt from Flannery O'Connor's essay collection Mystery and Manners, in which O'Connor reflects on one of my favorite short stories of all time, "Good Country People." I used to love to teach this tale of wooden-legged Ph.D. Hulga Hopewell and nefarious bible salesman Manley Pointer. Watching the humor behind Pointer's name dawn on the students was only one small joy in discussing the story. From the Mystery and Manners excerpt:

In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. I once wrote a story called "Good Country People," in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I’ll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody’s wooden leg being stolen.

I've never been more of an average reader than when reading this story. Beyond the wooden leg theft, Hulga's relationship with her mother - who "could not help but feel that it would have been better if the child had not taken the Ph.D." - can't help but ring true to any female doctoral candidate whose parents don't quite get it.

The girl had taken the Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a school teacher,” or even, “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans. All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.

The story in full can be found here.