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.
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.