Meet Joy aka Hulga Hopewell and Elisa Allen, two young women living out their days in the countryside. Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck give us glimpses into their ordinary lives in the short stories “Good Country People” and “The Chrysanthemums”. Both stories, written in the first half of the 20th century, highlight what a women’s daily life may have been like in a patriarchal society. These were times when women were still separate from the man’s world they lived in and often would compensate by embodying masculine traits. Although Elisa and Hulga lead quite different lives, both women share the personality trait of masculinity and ironically both find themselves uniquely disarmed by seemingly innocent male characters that show up in their lonely worlds.
An omniscient narrator takes us into the homes of Hulga and Elisa. Hulga lives in a rural Southern farmhouse and Elisa on a secluded ranch in Salinas Valley. Hulga is a well-educated 32-year-old woman who doesn’t enjoy the company of others, including her Mother. Hulga’s leg was shot off in a hunting accident when she was a child and she now has a wooden leg. Elisa is a married woman in her mid 30’s who lives on a ranch in California with her businessman of a husband. Hulga and Elisa, although both isolated, spend their days differently. Hulga spends her days reading and avoiding conversation with the women she lives with and Elisa spends her days working in the garden watching her husband’s business transactions from afar. Although both women are isolated, Elisa’s isolation is more due to geographical location and Hulga’s isolation is the result of personal choice. Steinbeck immediately paints the picture of isolation for us in “The Chrysanthemums” by describing the “high gray-flannel fog of winter” that “closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from the rest of the world” (244). Elisa watches the outside world from her symbolic container of a garden, she observes her husband interacting with men in business suits as she tends to her chrysanthemums. Hulga shuts off the outside world by burying her face in books on her front porch, contained by the symbolic gate at the end of her driveway. Although Elisa is married and Hulga has the company of her Mother, both women are separate from the outside world; Elisa held by her garden and Hulga by her intellect and disability.
In addition to the isolation they share, both women crave the possession and embodiment of masculine energy. It is repeatedly mentioned throughout “The Chrysanthemums” that Elisa is strong, an adjective commonly associated with men. Her face is described as strong and handsome, she carries powerful scissors with her, she has strong hands and even the flowers she grows are described as strong (Steinbeck 244). Her physical figure is “blocked and heavy”, she wears a man’s hat, “clod-hopper shoes” and “heavy leather gloves” while she works (Steinbeck 244); this description paints the picture of a masculine woman. Dr. Enklena Shockett describes in her psychoanalysis of Elisa that she has the “desire to enjoy a significant role in a male-dominated society.” Dr. Shockett goes even further to claim that Elisa’s chrysanthemums resemble a phallus, symbolizing the power that Elisa gains by possessing her own phallus and working in the garden like a man. In “Good Country People” Hulga is also presented as quite masculine, she stands “square and rigid”, is a “stout girl” and talks in a “purely mechanical way” (O’Connor 187). The first evidence that she desires to be perceived as masculine is the decision to change her name from Joy to Hulga, a much less feminine name. As David Havird describes in his article “The Saving Rape: Flannery O’ Connor and Patriarchal Religion” Hulga has “intellectually at least – transformed herself into a man, a god.” Hulga envisions her name “working like the ugly swearing Vulcan” to whom “the goddess had to come when called” (O’Connor 187). Havird describes Hulga as using her intellect to separate herself from her femininity and as wearing a “masculine mask.” Havird also identifies Hulga to possess a phallic symbol, her wooden leg, and this phallus adds to her masculine self-image. Both women have been successful in developing a hardened masculine outer shell, even to the extent that they both possess their own phallic symbol.
While the women are portrayed as masculine we see that they are also lonely and longing for affection. A commonality that contributes to the idea of loneliness is their eye color; Hulga with “her eyes icy blue” (O’Connor 186) and Elisa “her eyes as clear as water” (Steinbeck 244). Blue is commonly associated with negative feelings. This image of both women having blue eyes gives the reader the idea that they share an element of sadness and loneliness. Hulga and Elisa’s loneliness is further demonstrated when unexpected male visitors show up in each story. In “Good Country People” it is Manley Pointer the bible salesman and in “The Chrysanthemums” it is an unnamed bearded man who fixes household items. Initially, Elisa and Hulga are not interested in these men but eventually the men win their affection by paying compliments. The man who approaches Elisa compliments her chrysanthemums, which causes “the irritation and resistance” to melt from Elisa’s face (Steinbeck 247). Pointer tells Hulga “I think you’re real brave”, “I think you’re real sweet”, “I like girls that wear glasses” (O’Connor 193) and these compliments win her affection causing Hulga to agree to meet Pointer the following morning for a picnic. While both women originally met the men with resistance they found themselves softened and eventually attracted to them once shown the slightest bit of affection. Their desperation to connect with these men on some level adds to the idea that they are filled with loneliness.
There is an element of sexual energy that contributes to Hulga and Elisa being vulnerable to the upcoming actions of the two men. In “Good Country People” it is obviously shown in the writing. After Hulga’s initial encounter with Pointer it is revealed that she spent that night pondering on him and “imagined that she seduced him” (Steinbeck 193). Although she considers him to be an “inferior mind” (Steinbeck 194) she is still interested in the idea of “very easily” seducing him (Steinbeck 193). The sexual attraction that Elisa has towards the unnamed salesmen is more subtly implied. Elisa begins her interaction by flirting with the man through the use of laughter and clever jokes. She quickly hides her masculine scissors in her pockets and smoothens her head “searching for fugitive hairs” (Steinbeck 246) showing that she is concerned with how this man perceives her appearance. As she kneels on the ground potting flowers for him, “her breast swelled passionately” “her voice grew husky” and she “shook out her dark pretty hair” (Steinbeck 247-48). She even reached out to touch the man but decided not too and let her hand drop to the ground as she “crouched low like a fawning dog” (Steinbeck 248). Later in the story special attention is paid to Elisa bathing, she tears off her clothing and scrubs her body until she is “scratched and red” (Steinbeck 249) sending the message that she is sexually frustrated after this encounter. Both women find themselves touched by these men; their usually masked sensuality is brought out by these brief interactions and this sensuality causes them both to become quite vulnerable.
In the end these two men emasculate both of the female characters by disarming them of their phallic figures. In the case of Hulga this is done through an obvious and blatant physical assault against her. Manley Pointer invites Hulga on a picnic with him, as she goes to meet him at the symbolic gate to the outside world she has “the furious feeling that she had been tricked” (O’Connor 194), her intuition foreshadowing what is to come. Pointer leads her towards a nearby barn where they climb up into the barn’s loft. Although Hulga had the forethought that she would be seducing Pointer she in turn ends up being seduced. Manley persuades her to remove her wooden leg and as he made his request Hulga “uttered a sharp little cry and her face instantly drained of color” (O’Connor 196) at the thought of being separated from her phallus. Once her leg is off Manley “pushed her down” and refuses to return the prosthetic to her causing Hulga to be “entirely dependent on him” (O’Connor 197). He further reveals himself to not be a bible salesman but a man who steals from women for fun. Hulga’s loneliness and vulnerability to the attention from Pointer unfortunately leaves her stranded and without her phallus in the barn’s loft.
The disarming of Elisa by the tinker sales man is not done by physical force as it is with Hulga. Elisa started off refusing the man’s services, to which the man reacted with “exaggerated sadness” and a “whining undertone” (Steinbeck 247). He searches for some way to make connection to Elisa and he brings the conversation to her chrysanthemums stating that he knows a woman who has been on the lookout for some of these flowers. Elisa grows “alert and eager” (Steinbeck 247) at this point in the story and she excitedly prepares him a pot of her precious phallus-like flowers to take to said woman. At this point she has a change of heart and she searches for saucepans for the man to fix, once his goal of making a sale is met “his manner changed, he became professional” (Steinbeck 248). After being paid he starts to head off and Elisa brings the conversation back to the flowers and he seems to have already forgotten about them as he says “Sand, ma’am?…Sand?…Oh, sure. You mean about the chrysanthemums”(Steinbeck 249) foreshadowing that the flowers may not have as much importance to him as Elisa would hope. Later in the evening Elisa accompanies her husband on a date, as they are driving she sees the flowers thrown on the side of the road. She becomes instantly saddened, her husband taking note asking her what is the matter. However, she hides her tears and sadness from her husband keeping the distress that this sales man has caused a secret. Just as with Hulga, Elisa’s lonesome life on the farm allowed her to become vulnerable to the actions of this strange man who misrepresented himself as being interested in her garden only to gain a sale and leaving Elisa’s precious phallus-like flowers lying on the side of the road.
The isolation and lack of interaction with the outside world creates a vulnerability that exists beneath these two women’s masculine outer shells. When Elisa and Hulga make a connection to another human being the reader is at first pleased, but when they are stripped of their phalluses and each uniquely devastated we see that that the happiness felt for them came too soon. Hulga is left alone and disabled as she watches Pointer run off with her leg “successfully over the green speckled lake” (O’Connor 198). Elisa finds herself turning away from her husband after seeing her flowers on the side of the road, “crying weakly—like an old woman” (Steinbeck 252). Isn’t it ironic, that these two women living in a patriarchal society, attempting to possess masculine qualities of their own, are only to be emasculated by men in the end?
Havird, David. “The Saving Rape: Flannery O’Connor and Patriarchal Religion.” The Mississippi Quarterly 47.1 (1993): n. pag. Web. 23 February 2010.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” Literature and the Writing Process Backpack Edition. Elizabeth McMahan et al. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. 185-198. Print.
Shockett, Dr. Elena. “Psychoanalysis as an Instrument to Read Literary Texts: The Chrysanthemums.” International Journal of Academic Research 3.6 (2011): n. pag. Web. 23 February 2010.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature and the Writing Process Backpack Edition. Elizabeth McMahan et al. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. 244-252. Print.
Professor Henny Kim
March 8, 2015