There are many similarities between the short stories “Good Country People” and “Where are you going, Where have you been?”, most notably their characters. Both stories contain a female protagonist, and a male antagonist, whose confrontations start out relatively normal, and progress to more and more surreal and twisted endings. Their main characters, Hulga and Connie, are shockingly similar, and yet strangely different, one a 15 year old wishing to be older and beautiful, the other a bitter 32 year old, wishing to be younger and ugly. These stories tell the tales of impressionable young women who are tempted by the delights of strange men, only to prove to themselves in the end how naive they really are.
In “Where are you going, Where have you been?”, Connie starts out as most teenage girls seemingly would – she wants to be more daring, to appear older, to experience more of the world. She sneaks away from childish pursuits, to the teenage or adult world, to drink and kiss boys rather than shop for school clothes, to see movies in a steamy car instead of in a theater. She talks of being beautiful as if it were her only good grace – beauty, to her, is the ultimate goal. She wants to be older, and more beautiful, and this is her downfall. Her foolishness, and her naivety is what appeals to Arnold Friend in the first place. Arnold Friend, a stranger, appeals to her early on in the story. He is older, more powerful, and smarter.
She is frightened, of course, but intrigued, and it is her yearning for the adult world, and the adult life, that, in the end, causes her downfall. She is suckered in by the convincing conman who uses his words to appeal to her weaknesses. She is tricked into being what Arnold wants her to be by his smooth words and his façade of confidence. She’s toyed with, played for the naïve fool she is, who is far too young for the world she wants to be a part of. Only at the very end of the story does she begin to realize what she has gotten herself into. She shows her true colors once she is confronted.
In “Good Country People”, Joy is a relatively normal girl with some not-too-normal problems. For one thing, her leg got blown off when she was younger in a bizarre hunting accident. This physical change made her completely self conscious, and essentially ruined her life. She could no longer be happy being herself, because she sees herself as true ugliness now. Thus, she feels forced to make herself what she thinks she is. She hates beauty now, and changes everything about her to seem ugly. She’s been to college, and yet still acts childish. She’s trying to be young, and ugly. And Manley Pointer notices this quality of her, and takes advantage of her. No matter how ugly she tries to be, he still tries to (or at least pretends to) like her for who she is. Hulga is, regardless of her ugly campaign, extremely flattered, and lets her guard down long enough for Manley to get away with her glasses, her leg, and more importantly, her dignity. She is also played for a fool based completely on her own insecurities. She too is a victim of a conman who notices that things aren’t always what they seem.
Connie and Hulga are very similar, as characters, and yet very different all the same. They both have their insecurities, and they are both easily preyed on by conmen and smooth talkers, but their insecurities are in entirely different realms. They both want what the other has, and due to this, they are constantly trying to be someone else, not themselves, and this is what makes them so easy to attack. They don’t know who they really are, and they think they want to be something else. This naivety is their downfall – they pretend to be something else, join a group they shouldn’t be in, and they are tempted by the men in these groups. But, when the tables turn, and their men aren’t what they appear to be, Connie and Hulga revert completely, from relatively confident phonies to sniveling little girls, helpless and hopeless, in their fake lives.
These two women are seemingly innocent, random bystanders picked by older smarter conmen. However, one could easily hold them responsible for their own fates. Not that the victim in a crime is to blame, but, honestly, if you leave your car door open, with the keys inside, and the motor running, while you go inside a store for a few hours, how can you possibly seem shocked when it gets stolen? These two women, whether they believe it or not, are waving hundreds of flags at these conmen – “Please target me!”… “Take my leg!”… By openly flaunting their insecurities and by allowing themselves to be charmed to the point of trusting the conmen, they are, if not wholly, then at least partially responsible for their own fates. They reached their own conclusions, and they got what they deserved.
Connie and Hulga are the same person, essentially – a woman with different problems wishes to be something that they are not, and wiser and smoother conmen see this, and take advantage of them. In the end, they are proven to be the phonies that they really are, and are left more vulnerable, and more open, than they were before they tried to infiltrate the world in which they didn’t belong. If there were a shared moral to these stories, and there is most definitely not an obvious one, they’d both be somewhere along the lines of “Be happy with what you have, because you might not belong anywhere else”, and in the cases of Connie and Hulga, this moral fits perfectly. They are the same person with different circumstances, and they are so easily preyed on by the wiser smoother conman. As these stories blatantly state, be happy with what you have. You might not fit anywhere else, and one day, someone might just call you on your bluff, to disastrous consequences.