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Like many of Flannery O'Connor's stories, this reflects her ideas about salvation and redemption. The title can apply equally to Shiftlet or Mrs. Crater, and can be seen as a warning or reminder to seek a change in their lives before they become morally bankrupt.
Throughout the story, Shiftlet is searching for something. He believes he finds it in material possessions, such as the automobile and wedding gift revealing a world in which money has become more important than people or spiritual peace. While Shiftlet seems initially unconcerned with money, he is soon inquiring about the automobile, as well as cash for a wedding. He obtains these things, but they do not bring meaning into Shiftlet’s life. He wanders on, likely to continue a life devoid of significance. By marrying Lucynell and then abandoning her, he has missed his opportunity for redemption. He entered the Craters’s lives as a lonely wanderer, and he leaves it the same way. Thus, he has not saved his own life. In the end, he is once again empty and wanting.
Mrs. Crater needs saving as well. It is clear she is luring Shiftlet into her home so that she can gain his services— as a carpenter, and as a husband for her daughter. She treats her own daughter as little more than an object to be traded. Both Mrs. Crater and Shiftlet show an inability to embrace everyday manifestations of God’s grace. Both abandon Lucynell, trading personal connection and compassion for material goods. It is this absence of redemption that has led to Shiftlet’s nomadic life and Mrs. Crater’s lack of love for her daughter. The title is revealed in a road sign warns Shiftlet, ‘‘the life you save may be your own.’’ Embracing Lucynell would have offered him an opportunity to grasp at some form of salvation or atonement—one that Mrs. Crater has apparently already yielded. But neither finds salvation.
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