“That’s Unusual for a Girl”: Gender as Disability in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”

While reading Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” I was struck by the subjugation of female characters. I remembered Judith Butler’s essay “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” in which the author muses, “What is it that claims us at such moments such that we are not masters of ourselves? To what are we tied? And by what are we seized?” (Butler 115). O’Connor’s character Hulga provided some answers. Because of inherent physical vulnerability and gender performance, women in “Good Country People” are trapped in a role assigned to them by a patriarchal worldview.

Though each person has a unique personality and body, he or she can never be completely autonomous. As Judith Butler writes, “it is through the body that gender and sexuality become exposed to others, implicated in social processes, inscribed by cultural norms, and apprehended in their social meanings. In a sense, to be a body is to be given over to others even as a body is, emphatically, ‘one’s own’ (Butler 116). Because of her physical body, Hulga is vulnerable. She cannot stop others from looking at her or touching her. This vulnerability is emphasized symbolically by Hulga’s prosthetic leg and glasses.

Just as Hulga relies on her glasses and prosthetic leg, she also relies on pre-scripted gender roles to carry her through social situations, even though they hinder her agency. With the physical body comes the need for a gender identity, which, as Butler states, “[is] to be understood as [a] mode of being dispossessed; way of being for another” (Butler 115). Though Hulga is aware of her identity, others rely on gender roles and other social signifiers to figure it out. Whether Hulga acts in accordance with her gender role or not, other people use her gender as a mechanism to judge her. In this way, the she is robbed of autonomy. For example, frustrated by her daughter’s “glum face” and “ugly remarks” upon being asked to join her mother for a walk across the fields, Mrs. Hopewell chastises Hulga, lamenting her behavior. O’Connor writes, “’if you can’t come pleasantly, I don’t’ want you at all,’ to which the girl, standing square and rigid-shouldered with her neck thrust slightly forward, would reply, ‘If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM’” (483).  Mrs. Hopewell resents Hulga’s unladylike behavior as much as Hulga resents her gender role. This is likely because of Mrs. Hopewell’s own conformity to a female gender and how it informs her thoughts and actions. Gender roles are so ingrained in social consciousness that they influence Hulga’s social interactions even when she has rejected them. She cannot be free of gendered constraints unless everyone around her spurns gender roles.

For Hulga, autonomy and gender-roles cannot coexist. Her attempt to regain agency by changing her name, earning an education, and denouncing religion make Hulga an “unusual girl,” and therefore a target for her patriarchal community (O’Connor 491). “Hulga,” a powerful, intimidating, and “ugly” name, shows her disdain for traditional femininity (signified by her given name, Joy) and helps her self-identify. O’Connor reveals, “she saw it as the name of her highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga” (O’Connor 484). By changing her name, Hulga symbolically reinvents herself, and sets herself apart from other, more traditionally feminine women. Though Hulga finally gains agency, it is swiftly revoked when others ignore her new name and new identity. Other characters like Manley take advantage of her in an attempt to force her back into a feminine gender role. As Butler predicts, her refusal to live in compliance with a scripted gender role alienates Hulga and makes her a target for the patriarchal society. Despite her new name and all that it signifies, Hulga is still vulnerable to the feminine role thrust upon her.

Only in Hulga’s imagination does she have control over a man. For example, when “she imagined that things came to such a pass that she very easily seduced [Manley] and that then, of course, she had to reckon with his remorse” (O’Connor 490). Her dream subverts the regular order of things in which the man is in control of any interaction involving a woman. However, after declaring that Hulga is “very unusual for a girl,” Manley kisses her (O’Connor 491). This kiss, as O’Connor describes it, “had more pressure than feeling behind it” (O’Connor 491). It is not an affectionate gesture, but a demonstration of male power. Since Hulga is vulnerable to Manley in both a physical and a social sense, his dominant behavior forces her back into a traditionally feminine (and submissive) role. More explicitly, the physical nature of Hulga’s vulnerability underscores her social vulnerability. For example, “when [Hulga’s] glasses got in his way, [Manley] took them off of her and slipped them into his pocket” (O’ Connor 491). When Manley removes the glasses, and later on the leg, Hulga is reduced (by a man) to Joy– the feminine woman devoid of agency. Hulga’s physical disabilities reflect her social disability: her gender. She cannot move freely from the barn or from the constraints of her assigned gender role and its relation to Manley’s. Manley maintains both the physical and social power he gains in his interaction with Hulga until the end of the story.

This story sheds light on the strife and discord that gender roles create. Even though Hulga rejects feminine gender roles, she can’t escape them because they are so firmly fixed in her community and society at large. The last line of dialogue suggests that gender roles disable us from living autonomous lives. O’Connor writes, “‘I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple’” (495). Though autonomy would be much more attainable without oppressive gender roles, the last sentence shows doubt about a future free of gender-influenced social obligation. O’Connor leaves Hulga in the attic of an abandoned barn—symbolically removed from society and literally removed from the story, a symbolic microcosm for the reader’s own society.  She never reveals when—if ever—Hulga regains autonomy. Rather, it seems that Hulga’s physical and social disabilities leave her trapped. Her true disability, one that we all share, is her need to adhere to a gender role in order to succeed in a social setting.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” from Ways of Reading: an Anthology for Writers. 113-131. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Comp. Kelly J. Mays. Ed. Spencer Richardson-Jones. 12th ed. New York: Norton, 2016. 481-94. Print.

The Psychology of Enjambment in Ocean Vuong’s “Telemachus”

Enjambment is a device used to investigate and explore the interplay of content and movement both on the written page and in the minds of poet and reader. This essay will use findings from a psychological study on the effects of enjambment on mental processing through eye-movement-tracking, and Peter Halter’s essay “The Poem on the Page, Or the Visual Poetics of William Carlos Williams” (2015) as a lens through which to discuss the effects of enjambment on diegesis and mythology in Ocean Vuong’s poem “Telemachus.”

In a psychological experiment, scientists observed two forms of enjambment: prospective (syntactically incomplete), and retrospective (syntactically complete) (Koops van ‘t Jagt, et all, 4). Since in a prospective enjambment the syntax of the line is incomplete, the reader’s interpretation of the thought it contains and projects depends on the words that follow the enjambed line. When the syntactical unit is complete, as in a retrospective enjambment, a reader’s interpretation of the line changes when they read the following line, which will inform and perhaps change the meaning of the previously understood thought. In the same study psychologists found that, “whenever it is possible to interpret a fragment [of a poem], readers will do so, leading to longer reading times due to integration” (Koops van ‘t Jagt, et al, 20). Enjambment prompts the reader to interpret a fragmented text, they will amend that interpretation based on the lines that complete that fragment. Because of the integration of the two ideas, the reader’s interpretation of the poem is suspended (for a few milliseconds) in the whitespace between lines in a way that forces them to reconcile the fragmented meaning with the meaning that arrives after integration. The time it takes to integrate the two meanings can be used to great effect, as Halter exemplifies in his analysis of William Carlos Williams’ poetry.

In the poem “Good Night,” Williams uses enjambment as if to create a list of objects in a kitchen. On this method, Halter remarks, “it enumerates the objects in the order in which the speaker perceives them, and thus iconically embodies the process of perception. It exploits the way in which the eye explores the space surrounding it by incessantly moving from detail to detail” (Halter, 98). Hatler’s argument here is that this use of enjambment is mimetic; just as the speaker’s eyes move across his field of vision and take in the kitchen object-by-object, so must the reader in his encounter with the enjambed lines. The lines themselves enumerate a list of objects, but they only form a cohesive whole in their interactions with each other. This use of mimesis reveals objects in an order that creates relationships between them in time with the reader’s eye and processing.

Like Williams, Ocean Vuong uses enjambment, iconicity, and mimesis to create a psychological landscape in his poetry. Every line but the last in Vuong’s poem “Telemachus” is enjambed. The poem begins, “like any good son, I pull my father out / of the water” (Vuong, 1-2). This enjambment is prospective because it requires the beginning of the second line “of the water” to complete the syntax. Therefore, the reader’s eye speeds to the next line, “of the water,” as if pulled in order to make sense of the phrase. This example of enjambment is therefore mimetic, but it is also iconic because the word “out” stands surrounded on three sides by white space, visually pulling the line across the page, and the eye with it. “Out” is also a stressed syllable in the line:” like any good son, I pull my father out.” The stress on the final syllable of the line uses rhythm to propel the reader forward. It is worth noting here that I have stressed the comma after “son.” In the same psychological study of enjambment, scientists found that “perceiving visual boundaries in written texts involves the same processes as the perception of prosodic boundaries in spoken language,” (Koops van ’t Jagt, et al, 4). In other words, whenever a reader encounters a place in the written text where he would pause while reading aloud, he will pause during the silent reading of the poem. In this case I have marked the comma as a stressed syllable because the silence between “like any good son,” and “I pull my father out” is a significant aural moment in the reading of the poem which leads the reader to the final stressed syllable. It acts as a caesura; it changes the direction of the sentence and of the line. The first part of the line establishes the speaker as “a good son.” The second part of the line turns to why, and what was happening that would make the speaker act as a “good son.” It is also a significant moment in the poem overall because it shows the reader what kind of person the father is—one that gets into trouble—and the dynamic between the troublesome father and his “good” son.

The next enjambment operates for a more visual effect. The speaker continues, “drag him by his hair // through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail” (Vuong, 2-3). The white sand and the trail are metaphorically represented by the white space on the page and physical text. If the white sand is the untouched environment in the poem, its physical corollary, the white space, acts as a place for the poem to exist. Likewise, if the trail is a remnant of the father’s movement across the sand, the text is a physical and textual recording of that movement. Because of the enjambment here the poem is not only taking place in the reader’s mind, but also before them on the page. The fact that every line of the poem is enjambed also aids in the creation of a palpable landscape throughout the poem, both on the page and in the minds of reader and poet. The use of prospective and retrospective enjambments push and pull the reader across the page just as the tide rushes in and out on the beach in the visual landscape of the poem. In mimicking the movement of the ocean in the form of the poem, the entire landscape is made a degree more real for poet and reader; it prompts the reader to hear and see the ocean that exists behind the action of the poem. The use of enjambment as a mimetic as well as iconic device allows the poem to exist on multiple planes. This is psychologically significant, especially if the speaker of the poem is the implied poet.

This implied poet reveals himself in the following lines, and, if he is the speaker, adds a new significance to enjambment in the poem—it allows him to mythologize interactions with his father, who left the family when Vuong was a child (Armitstead). The speaker continues, “I kneel beside him to see how far// I might sink. Do you know who I am, / Ba? But the answer never comes” (Vuong, 8-10). The question “Do you know who I am” is a retrospective enjambment that relies on the noun of address, “Ba,” to complete it. However, since there seem to be no other figures in the poem but the father and the son, the use of the word, “Ba,” only emphasizes the fact that this is the voice of a speaker who uses the Vietnamese word for “father.” The speaker’s gender is revealed in the next few lines when he compares the father to a green bottle that “might appear // at a boy’s feet containing a year / he has never touched. I touch” (Vuong, 11-13). If the father is the green bottle it follows that the speaker relates to the boy. Following this analogy, the year inside the green bottle may represent the time the father and son spent apart. However, the enjambment on the phrase “I touch” makes it possible for the speaker to engage those years.

The enjambments on “containing a year / he has never touched. I touch / his ears,” are both retrospective since they end in complete syntactical units (11-14). Vuong’s use of retrospective enjambments is significant because they require a reader to rewrite an understanding they previously held—for example, that not only does the bottle contain a year, but a year that the speaker has never touched. Recalling that the speaker is the implied poet, the rest of the line, “I touch,” since it is at the end of the line, shows that the poet does engage with the year he never touched. The retrospective enjambments allow the implied poet to rewrite the year such that he has touched it. Vuong uses retrospective enjambments to rewrite a history in which he spends more time with his father.
The speaker’s desire to reunite with his father through poetry is emphasized further in the final sequence. The speaker muses,

“I turn him
over to face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine—but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.” (Vuong, 17-24)

The retrospective enjambment on “in his sea-black eyes. The face” places the face and the eyes in the same line and leads the reader to understand that the speaker’s face—not the cathedral–is reflected in the father’s eyes. The clarification in the next line, “not mine—but one I will wear” alerts the viewer to the fact that the face in question is actually the father’s. In likening his face to his father’s the implied poet brings his father into the poem and acknowledges their genetic relationship.

The final kiss in the poem is both a good-bye and an acknowledgment of the distance between the father and son outside the poem. The speaker’s description of the kiss that seals the father’s lips—a tactile action—emphasizes the fact that the action only takes place within the poem. These last few lines become a meta-textual moment in which the implied poet acknowledges his preoccupation with writing his father back into his life as a form of drowning. This poem begins the first section of the book which deals with many iterations of the father-son dynamic. In this way the poem acts as a retrospective enjambment within the collection-as-text, its meaning evolving as the reader wades through the poems that follow.

Works Cited

Armitsted, Claire. “War Baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-
winning poet,” The Guardian. 13 October 2017. Web. Date Accessed: 16 February 2018.

Halter, Peter. “The Poem on the Page, or the Visual Poetics of William Carlos Williams,” William

Carlos Williams Review, Vol. 32, no. 1-2. Penn State University Press: University Park, PA (2015). Print. 95-115.

Koops van ‘t Jagt, Ruth, Dorleijn, Gillis, Hendriks, Petra, Hoeks, John C.J. “Look Before You Leap: How Enjambment Affects the Reading of Poetry,” Scientific Study of Literature. Vol. 4, no. 1. John Benjamins Publishing Company (2014). PDF. 1-24

Vuong, Ocean. “Telemachus,” Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon Press: Port
Townsend, WA (2016). Print. 7-8.

Works Cited and Appendix for Expressionist Painting Essay

Works Cited

Heller, Reinhold. “Brücke in Dresden and Berlin,” Brücke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913. Ostfildern (2009). Print. 12-58.

Hoberg, Annegret. “The Blue Rider—History and Ideas,” Der Blau Reiter in Lenbachhaus, Munich. Prestel: Munich (2013). Print. 21-75.

Hoberg, Annegret. “Murnau with Church I” Der Blau Reiter in Lenbachhaus, Munich. Prestel: Munich (2013). Print. 106.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Murnau with Church I (1909). Oil on cardboard.

Kandinsky, Wassily. On the Spiritual in Art. Trans. Sadler, Michael T.H. (1977). PDF.

Monet, Claude. House of Parliament (Effect of Fog) (1903). Oil on canvas.

Willett, John. Expressionism. Wiedenfeld and Nicolson: London (1970). Print.



Claude Monet. The House of Parliament (Effect of Fog), 1903. Oil on canvas.






Claude Monet. The House of Parliament (detail), 1903.


Wassily Kandinsky. Murnau with Church I, 1911. Oil on Cardboard.