Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
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...
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Unlike many other works of fiction, which explicitly address historical events or implicitly attempt to wrestle with aspects of a particular historical era, much of O’Connor’s fiction—including ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’—has a timeless quality to it. Aside from small details, such as the presence of an automobile, this story could just as well have been published in 1853 as in 1953. There is no mention, for example, of the Korean War or the post-World War II flight to the suburbs, important American social phenomena which took place in the early 1950s. Similarly, O’Connor does not appear to be making any explicit statements about the changing role of women in American society through either Lucynell or Mrs. Crater. In short, O’Connor’s stories are dominated by spiritual rather than historical or political themes. Nonetheless, some of the themes which appear in this story do lend themselves to a historical perspective.
Postwar Affluence and the Rise of the Automobile
When placed in the context of post-World War II America, this story can be seen as an implicit critique of an increasingly wealthy and mobile America that has become more concerned with money than with individuals. A key symbol in this story is the automobile, which was rapidly changing American lifestyles in the early 1950s. Suburbs were popping up all across the country and highways and expressways were being constructed, all because of the...
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Point of View
O’Connor employs a detached yet observant third-person narrative in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own.’’ Shiftlet is a stranger without a fixed identity who wanders into the Craters’s lives. He soon moves in with them and takes an interest first in the Craters’s automobile and then in Lucynell, Mrs. Crater’s mute daughter. Shiftlet and Lucynell are married, but he abandons her at a roadside diner.
While Shiftlet clearly emerges as the central character, O’Connor offers enough glimpses into both his and Mrs. Crater’s psyche to provide insight into their motivations. For example, the reader learns that Shiftlet ‘‘always wanted an automobile but he had never been able to afford one before.’’ This passage, late in the story, confirms his desire for the automobile and the importance he places on money and material goods. Furthermore, O’Connor includes careful details in several descriptive passages which establish the natural world as an important aspect of the story. The reader might not perceive such details if the story were narrated from the point of view of one its characters.
The characters’ dialogue works in tandem with her descriptive passages to reveal their moral emptiness. For example, the cold, abrupt way that Mrs. Crater responds to Shiftlet’s elaborate soliloquies on sunsets and innocent women suggests that she intends to land Shiftlet as a husband for Lucynell. Readers...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: In 1950, the U.S. produces 6.7 million automobiles and sells over 13 million used automobiles. In 1956, The Federal Aid Highway Act proposes the construction of approximately 42,500 miles of roads, particularly interstate freeways, to connect major cities. The federal government is to pay for 90 percent of the proposed 33.5 billion effort.
1990s: With approximately 70 percent of the Interstate Highway System having been finished by 1976, the system is now essentially complete. In urban centers it provides major arteries for daily commuting traffic. However, it is now worn from use and in need of repair and continuous upgrading.
1952: The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission explodes a hydrogen nuclear fusion bomb at its testing site at the Eniwetok proving grounds in the Pacific. In the following year, the U.S.S.R. will explode a hydrogen bomb designed by Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov.
1989: The Berlin Wall, built in 1961 and separating Democratic West Germany from Communist East Germany, is torn down. In the next two years, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Warsaw Pact countries will agree to reduce their military armaments, the leaders in Russia will agree to give up the monopoly of power held by the Communist party, and Russia will lose control over 15 of its member republics.
1953: O’Connors’s character Shiftlet mentions the removal of a human heart by a...
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Topics for Further Study
Research aspects of Christian theology—specifically, passages or stories from the Bible— and compare them with the themes in O’Connor’s story. Start with Jesus’s disruption of the market in the temple or Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.
Research the automobile’s effect on American society in the early 1950s. Include such aspects as the way it was advertised on television and in magazines to demonstrate its effect on our modern lifestyle and culture. Based on your research, how might readers from the 1950s have greeted O’Connor’s somewhat critical depiction of the automobile in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’?
Is O’Connor’s depiction of young Lucynell Crater insensitive to people with disabilities? Why or why not?
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‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ was filmed for television in 1957 as a segment included in ‘‘Playhouse of Stars’’ and starred Gene Kelly, Agnes Moorehead, and Janice Rule. This adaptation has a different ending than O’Connor’s story.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, and Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, also explore the search for meaning in a seemingly empty and cruel world. Salinger’s novel was published in 1952 and is particularly interesting since its main character, Holden Caulfield, is a teenager. Updike’s novel was published several years after O’Connor’s story. Both of these novels are set in the Northeast, rather than the South.
James Joyce published several stories and novels which depict religion quite differently than do O’Connor’s stories. His novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and some of his stories in Dubliners often depict religion as oppressive.
‘‘The Church and the Fiction Writer’’ is included in Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s essays and prose. This piece explains O’Connor’s concern with what she called the ‘‘added dimension’’ of religious spirituality in her fiction.
O’Connor’s other fiction complements this story. Her works include two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). All of her short fiction was reprinted in The Complete Stories.
As I Lay Dying, a novel by William Faulkner published in 1930, is another example of Southern Gothic fiction. Told from several different perspectives, it follows a family’s journey to another county to bury their dead wife and mother....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Desmond, John F. ‘‘The Shifting of Mr. Shiftlet: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’’’ in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1974-75, pp. 55-9. A close reading of Shiftlet’s character, in which the author argues that his motivations devolve during the course of the story from good to bad.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque, University Press of Mississippi, 1986, pp. 112-18. A reading of the religious themes and O’Connor’s use of the Grotesque in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own.’’
Giannone, Richard. Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 54-7. A study on O’Connor, which concentrates on Shiftlet’s denial of spiritual grace.
Kessler, Edward. Flannery O’Connor and the Language of the Apocalypse, Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 141-47. Through analysis of language in O’Connor’s fiction, Kessler develops a largely negative reading of ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’’ finding the story unnecessarily ambiguous and shallow.
Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor, University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 144-55. This work identifies O’Connor with two other Southern writers and pursues her work from a...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Asals, Frederick. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Flannery O’Connor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Caruso, Teresa, ed. “On the Subject of the Feminist Business”: Re-reading Flannery O’Connor. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.
Lake, Christina Bieber. The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005.
O’Gorman, Farrell. Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Robillard, Douglas, Jr. The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
Spivey, Ted R. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the...
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