Hulga Hopewell as an Example of Freakishness in Southern Gothic Literature
One of the most prominent and important features of Southern Gothic literature is its incorporation of a character that is a “freak” into the narrative, with this freak being someone who stands out due to a disability that is external, internal, or sometimes both. Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor displays mastery of the subject not only by creating freakish characters, but also by turning her stories into the freak shows that partially characterize our conceptions of the American South. Hulga Hopewell of O’Connor’s short story Good Country People exemplifies this method of storytelling, as she provides not only the character of the freak but also the situation with which the audience can feel the atmosphere of a freak show.
O’Connor believes that writers of Southern Gothic literature have a penchant for writing about freaks because “[they] are still able to recognize one”, a notion which entails the author having a conception of “the whole man”(44). Thus, the freak serves for the reader a comparison of their “completeness” and the character’s “incompleteness”. Her suggestion that freakishness is synonymous with incompletion correlates with Hulga, whose leg was shot off in a hunting accident as a child. The narrator writes from the point of view of her mother, saying, “She thought of [Hulga] still as a child because it tore her heart to think that instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times.” Mrs. Hopewell’s reflection upon her daughter is evidence of her belief that because of Hulga’s disability and freakishness, she lacks the “normal” experiences that supposedly shape people and is thus an incomplete person. This opinion sets the characterization of Hulga in motion, foreshadowing further evidence of her incompleteness in the narrative.
O’Connor also believes that when the protagonist of a piece of American literature is not distinctly “American”, he is a freak, or he at least has “a good deal of explaining to do” (37). This points out the deep contrast between two character types in American literature: the Northern, who is “American”, and the Southern, who is a “Freak”. Hulga embodies struggle between the two character types, as she is educated like those from the Urban north, but is also disabled and emotionally stunted like those of what is considered the uncivilized South. The internal struggle between the two characters is seen in the quote, “She had a weak heart. Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about” (O’Connor, 5). While Hulga’s education is evidence of her trying to embody the Northern ideals of education, we find it doubtful that her “heart condition” is what is holding back from her intellectual pursuits, as it is most likely her immaturity and supposedly “southern” freakishness. Despite her sophisticated mind, O’Connor still labels her as a freak because of her emotional stiltedness that keeps her from becoming a well-rounded woman, highlighting the differences in Northern and Southern ideals, characterizations, and literatures.
Hulga’s deformity in character is solidified by the reaction of the reader to the final incident, the freak show sequence, in which a fake Bible salesman steals her wooden leg. She keeps saying, “Give me my leg!” as he runs off with it, and the one-legged woman is left stuck in the loft of a barn (18). One of the first instincts of the reader during this scene is to laugh, even a little bit, because of the bizarreness and darkely comic tone of the event. The scene is an uncomfortably humorous one, as the reader is torn between feeling sorry for Hulga and wanting to mock her as she’s being put in her place. The experience between the reader and the story is one of equal temperament to a classic freak show, in which “freaks” were exhibited to the public oftentimes to be laughed at. It’s horrific and uncomfortable, but it is not unexpected if the narrative takes place in a region that has such a history of inhumanity (slavery, etc.). The irony of O’Connor’s narrative is that it is called Good Country People, when all we really see are false values and in Hulga’s case, an exaggerated portrait of the grotesque.
Because of Hulga, Good Country People could be interpreted as a portrait of a freak and a written account of a freak show, as it evokes the emotions of compassion as well as certain degree of derision. This method of storytelling is how O’Connor reminds the audience of what it means to be “normal”, as characters like Hulga give us something to compare ourselves too. A fair part of O’Connor’s brilliance in the Southern Gothic genre is her aforementioned ability to see who a real “freak” is, even and especially the ones who look normal on the outside. The compassion, pity, and dark humor with which O’Connor writes her freaks is what sets her apart from other audience members at Southern freak shows, enabling her to describe a true experience of the South and freak culture as a whole.
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