Flannery O'Connor's story "Good Country People" and Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" are both stories about the ways in which people connect to each other and the poor job that they generally make of the process. While each of these stories seems at first to be about people's attempting to communicate with each other, by the end of both of these stories what we are left with is an impression of the ways in which people are isolated from each other both by their preconceptions of what certain kind of people should be like as well as by the way life's tragedies accumulate over time to create barriers between people that are impermeable even to far more genuine attempts to communicate than we see in these stories.
O'Connor's story is set in a rural Georgia that seems distant to the kind of America that most of us are familiar with both in place and even more so in time, for the world that her characters inhabit seems to be one that has been -- Brigadoon-like -- in some essential way been left out of time.
The major characters in Welty's story are Mrs. Hopewell, who directs the daily business of her family farm with the help of her tenants, the Freemans. Joy, Hopewell's daughter, also lives at the farm since she feels unable to take care of herself since as a child she had her leg shot off in an accident. Although she has a doctorate in philosophy and so should be versed in the accumulated wisdom of the ages as well as in the ways in which humans have tried to come to an understanding of the ways in which every individual has to come to terms with both the joys and the tragedies of life, Joy is strikingly unwise, still childish and dependent at 33.
Joy's most prominent characteristic is the anger -- although it might more accurately be called petulance -- that she feels at the other two women in the household. This anger is given one of its most visible symbols in the story by the fact that she has changed her name from the lovely "Joy" to the cumbersome and ugly-sounding "Hulga," which is not a name at all but a way of making herself sound as ugly and worthless as she in some essential way feels herself to be.
The action of the story -- which serves not so much as action or plot for its own sake but as a way in which O'Connor can further and more convincingly develop her characters -- centers around the entrance of Manly Pointer, a man who enters into this rural world to sell Bibles and himself. He and Hulga make a date for a picnic on the following day, and during the night Hulga dreams that she will be able to use her education and superior intellect to control him and seduce him.
However, Manly is no more "good country people" than Joy is joyous, and when they rendezvous the next day in the barn loft, Hulga finds herself not making love to an attractive man but robbed by him, as he steals her false leg and leaves her humiliated and even more incapable of caring for herself than she was before.
The moral of the story is twofold: Joy is not as smart as she believes herself to be (as so many people are in fact not...
Hulga at first believes that -- for the first time in her life -- she will be able to unite herself heart and soul with another human:
She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decided that for the first time in her life she was face-to-face with real innocence. This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her. When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, "All right," it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his (http://www.barksdale.latech.edu)
But in the concluding lines of the story, she realizes how she has been deceived. She understands that in fact there is no connection between the two of them. Manly has never wanted her to understand him nor has he wanted to understand her -- for any such genuine understanding and connection would reduce his ability to treat her as nothing more than another "mark."
"Give me my leg!" she screeched. He jumped up so quickly that she barely saw him sweep the cards and the blue box back into the Bible and throw the Bible into the valise. She saw him grab the leg and then she saw it for an instant slanted forlornly across the inside of the suitcase with a Bible at either side of its opposite ends. He slammed the lid shut and snatched up the valise and swung it down the hole and then stepped through himself. When all of him had passed but his head, he turned and regarded her with a look that no longer had any admiration in it. "I've gotten a lot of interesting things," he said. "One time I got a woman's glass eye this way. And you needn't to think you'll catch me because Pointer ain't really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don't stay nowhere long. And I'll tell you another thing, Hulga," he said, using the name as if he didn't think much of it, "you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" And then the toast-colored hat disappeared down the hole and the girl was left, sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight. When she turned her churning face toward the opening, she saw his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake (http://www.barksdale.latech.edu).
Joy/Hulga is certainly a difficult character to like throughout most of the story because she is petulant and childish, arrogant and unwilling to take responsibility for herself. And yet by the of the tale we are inclined to sympathize with her because there is about her character a certain innocence and a great deal of vulnerability, and we see in her someone who will be repeatedly hurt throughout her life.
The characters in Welty's "A Worn Path" are made of sterner stuff, although this attribute may in fact be only an artifact of the narrative structure that Welty has chosen for her story. Unlike in "Good Country People," where the author has placed the major characters front and center, in "A Worn Path" the most important relationship is one that we in fact do not actually see at all, or rather one that we only see half of.
The story follows an old black woman named Phoenix Jackson as she walks through a forest and a series of fields as she makes her way into town one winter's day. Very little actually happens -- other than the fact that a dog lunges at her and startles her into falling into a ditch from which she is rescued by a passing hunter.
The first part of the story is not so much about this journey she is making but about how tired and how worn out she is -- and we sense that this inner exhaustion stems not from the rigor of the walk itself…
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