For my money Flannery O’Connor wrote a better and more convincing freak story than Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson or Cormac McCarthy. In her stories there is always something meaningful at stake. When asked about freaks in Southern literature she said that Southern writers can still recognize a freak because “to be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” O’Connor practiced what she preached. A highly theological writer herself, many of her stories are case studies re: a kind of freak that is only possible in a universe big enough to contain both Heaven and Hell.
I always thought writing a story about a freak would be easy. The weirder the better. But you figure out sitting down to write one that it’s much more difficult than it looks. If a freak is too weird the reader cannot relate to them and therefore doesn’t care to read about them, but if a freak isn’t weird enough they aren’t a freak. They’re just a little weird.
“Good Country People,” is a helpful object lesson in how to navigate this problem. Hulga Hopewell, the main character of the story, is painted in absolutely unflattering terms and yet we still care about her. Below are some of the physical characteristics O’Connor uses to describe Hulga:
large blonde girl
had an artificial leg
thirty-two years old
her eyes icy blue
her remarks were usually so ugly
her face so glum
standing square and rigid-shouldered
neck thrust slightly forward
poor stout girl
had never danced a step or had any normal good times
her arms folded
nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn’t help
had a weak heart
yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it
blank and solid and silent
wore a pair of slacks and a dirty white shirt
she did not own any perfume
round freezing-blue eyes
You get the idea. There is almost nothing positive written of Hulga; but I was pulled into her character because O’Connor switches her third-person narration to and from the point of view of Hulga, Hulga’s mother (Mrs. Hopewell), and a more omniscient classical third-person narrator. This has the effect of giving the reader a view from many angles. It becomes clear throughout the first part of the story that Hulga is possibly being unfairly judged by her mother. Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga have very different ideas about life. Many of the descriptors above come from either the mouth or mind of Mrs. Hopewell in response to the antagonisms between them. Mrs. Hopewell is also a fan of platitudes and obvious statements like “nothing is perfect,” “it takes all kinds to make a world”, “they’re just salt of the earth people,” etc. which she often uses as stand ins for actual conversation with Hulga. All these subtle moves had me rooting for Hulga even though the surface of the story is unforgiving to her. But Hulga is not only a freak to her mother. There is a cast which supports Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, a tenant family which lives in the house, foregrounding the notion of good ol’ fashioned hardworkin’ country people who don’ have time to thunk ‘bout the meaning of life and such—distancing Hulga from the consensus in the house and adding irony to her situation.
In this way O’Connor is trusting us to make up our own minds about Hulga. We know she isn’t overly pleasant but we’re not sure we trust Mrs. Hopewell either and consequently discount some of what he hear about Hulga and perhaps even feel sorry for her.
But these complications in point of view only serve to make Hulga an outcast. A freak is something more. I think this is why O’Connor risked overstating her case by taking one of Hulga’s legs. This type of move is classic O’Connor though she doesn’t do it without purpose. The leg serves an important narrative function which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read the story. But the missing leg doesn’t make Hulga a freak either. It’s more like a symbol-laden prop for the Southern gothic style.
The definition of freak, the real enchilada, comes from Mrs. Hopewell herself as she’s observing Hulga from a distance. A definition we can perhaps all relate to.
It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she [Hulga] grew less like other people and more like herself—bloated, rude, and squint-eyed.
Less like other people and more like herself.
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