Monday, September 21, 2009

"Aren't you just good country people?"

"Good Country People", by Flannery O'Connor, is a story of a woman so cursed by unfortunate circumstances and so blinded by her education, that when she unwittingly lets her guard down long enough to fall in love with who she perceives to be a simple-minded bible salesmen, she finds him literally pulling her leg (very distasteful, I know) and is left to be (half) a victim of her own ignorance.

In the story, Joy--who changes her name to the more self-deprecating Hulga--is a 32-year-old atheist and amputee living with her mother, Ms. Hopewell, because she cannot otherwise look after herself. Joy is described early in the story to have "the look of someone who has acheived blindness by an act of will and means to keep it" (2531), a clear echo of Ellison from Invisible Man; Joy and her mother, because of their belief of the American Myth of "Good Country People" are exactly the sleepwalkers Ellison had in mind. Mrs. Hopewell hangs onto her neighbors, the Freemans, like she is hanging onto an old family heirloom or some relic of America's (long dead) past.

Mrs. Hopewell is aptly named, because she is a constant apologist for others and is never one to judge: "Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still yet another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too" (2530). Her blatant acceptance and tolerance of all diversity is a hallmark of the American foundation of equality, but her position to declare that "everybody is different" and mean it in an honestly good natured way reveals her of her position that she has never been a victim of oppression, and that she cannot fathom what it feels like to be persecuted for being different, and that she is better than people. The belief in a simple-minded and good country people is a belief that there exists a hierarchy of people who are smarter and more aware, and people who are dumb but good-natured.

The fact that she can say "people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not" (2532), shows that Mrs. Hopewell is aware that things are not what they seem, but with a healthy dose of denial, all things can be pretty and forgotten. She hopes for the best. She knows better. But either way, she clings to the hope that everybody is deep down good inside.

Way at the other end of the spectrum is Joy, who believes that "we are not our own light!" Joy knows that knowledge does not come from within, but does nothing to remedy her own situation. If science wishes to know nothing of nothing, then the purpose of science is supposed to be a clear fight against ignorance. Joy is well versed in philosophy and theory of things, but has no experience in the action of it. She is so blinded by the fact that she is educated, that she allows herself to subscribe to the fact that those who are "uneducated" are simple-minded and "good", just like her mother believes.

Joy's gross error is her underestimation of the bible-salesman. She allows herself to believe in "the idea of him" (2538), which she had originally intuited, but her longing for someone to connect with--not on an intellectual level but on a loving or sexual level--allowed her to manifest just the right combination of naivety, willful ignorance, and arrogance: "You poor baby. It's just as well you don't understand. We're all damned. But some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see. It's a kind of salvation" (2540). Little does she realize that in her attempts to seduce him, he has orchestrated his own perverted conquest of the blind-and-handicapped-Hulga. He steals her artificial leg.

Is it her own fault for being so blind? Are we somewhat responsible for sitting in the chair, even though we are well aware of the consequences, that a knife will come out and stab us?

On the superficial level, all we have of people are our perceptions. We have our hopes, sometimes for the better in people, and sometimes for the worst in them. It is never okay to deem a separate or different group of people more inferior or simple than us. It is never accurate to assume, or to estimate people one way or another. People are never what they appear. The Hopewells of the world must take responsibility for their assumptions. Like James Baldwin said in "The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American", we must examine ourselves and "be willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what really is happening here. Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people". We are guilty, as guilty as the Hopewells. The myth is that we are all equal, and that being different has no effect on our equality. And so far, the likeliest way we can learn the truth is the hard way, unfortunately, like Joy. Did she even learn anything, or will she retreat farther into her self-hatred? I think that's the saddest part of the story.

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