The story is filled with irony and symbolism. Shiftlet’s name is appropriate because he could certainly be considered shiftless or shifty. His saviorlike pose at the beginning of the story is surely symbolic, but the title, taken from a road sign that he later sees as he drives, suggests that Shiftlet should be concerned more for his own redemption than for being anyone else’s savior.
O’Connor often uses peacocks as symbols of the unrecognized beauty and mystery of grace; it is thus significant that innocent Lucynell’s eyes are described as “blue as a peacock’s neck.” The turnip-shaped cloud must also hold some significance: Turnips grow in the ground, conceivably among that slime of the earth with which Shiftlet is so obsessed. The fact that the cloud is exactly the color of the hitchhiker’s hat emphasizes the hitchhiker’s role as deliverer of Shiftlet’s moment of grace.
When Shiftlet speaks to the hitchhiker about his mother, he uses the same phrase that the restaurant boy uses to describe Lucynell: “an angel of Gawd.” Indeed, Shiftlet’s next tearful comment about his mother, that “he took her from heaven and giver to me and I left her,” could be describing exactly what has just taken place with Lucynell. Perhaps Shiftlet is becoming aware, if only slightly, of the weight of his transgression.
This story exemplifies O’Connor’s gift for ironic humor and her ability to capture the natural speech patterns of the inhabitants of her South. Because of the humor in her stories, the violence seems unexpected and the reader is unprepared for it, the same way that O’Connor saw humankind as usually unprepared for the grace of God.
The final irony in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” occurs after Shiftlet’s prayerful outburst in the car. A few minutes later, large raindrops begin pelting his car. The ironic message for Shiftlet is that his own actions have made him exactly the kind of slime he wishes to have washed from the earth.