Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Tom Shiftlet, a drifter, wanders onto the farm of Lucynell Crater and her deaf, retarded daughter, also named Lucynell. Mesmerized by the beauty of the sunset, Shiftlet raises his arms to the sky, forming a crooked cross with his body, and holds this saviorlike pose for nearly a minute before introducing himself. Mrs. Crater can see from a distance that Shiftlet is a tramp and is not afraid of him. While the daughter looks on innocently, Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater converse seriously. He asks her many deep questions that she does not answer, such as “What is a man?” and makes proclamations such as “The world is almost rotten.” During this entire philosophical conversation, Shiftlet cannot keep his eyes and thoughts off an old automobile parked in the shed, which he would love to have; likewise, Mrs. Crater is sizing him up as a handyman for her farm and a potential son-in-law.
Shiftlet ingratiates himself, teaching Lucynell her first word, “bird,” and performing fix-up duties, including repairing and painting the late Mr. Crater’s automobile and roofing the garden house. Mrs. Crater slyly offers Shiftlet the car, some money, and a home if he will marry her daughter. In their first conversation, Shiftlet tells Mrs. Crater that he would not marry unless he could find an innocent woman among all the trash. Mrs. Crater points out that Lucynell, in her deaf, childlike state, is as innocent as one can be. After haggling over such issues as how much...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Life You Save May Be Your Own Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Part 1 Summary
Part I: Meeting
An old woman and her daughter sit quietly on their porch at sunset when Tom Shiftlet comes walking up the road to their farm. Through carefully selected details, O’Connor reveals that the girl is mute, that the old woman views Shiftlet as ‘‘a tramp,’’ and that Shiftlet himself wears a ‘‘left coat sleeve that was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it.’’ The two adults exchange curt pleasantries. ‘‘I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening,’’ Shiftlet states, looking at the sunset, to which the woman coolly answers, ‘‘Does it every evening.’’ Shiftlet surveys the run-down farm and inquires about a rusted automobile, which has not worked in years. ‘‘Nothing is like it used to be, lady,’’ Shiftlet observes. ‘‘The world is almost rotten.’’ Again the woman’s response is abrupt: ‘‘That’s right.’’ Their disturbing conversation continues along the same lines, with additional important allusions to nature. Shiftlet then reveals that he is a carpenter, which suggests that he may be of some use to Mrs. Crater around the farm. Shiftlet’s occupation identifies him with Jesus Christ, who was also a carpenter. Mrs. Crater offers him shelter in exchange for work but warns, ‘‘I can’t pay.’’ Shiftlet says he has no interest in money, adding that he believes that most people are too concerned with money. Sensing not only a handyman but a...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
Part 2 Summary
Part II: Resurrection
Once Shiftlet moves into the Crater’s farm, he fixes a broken fence and hog pen, teaches Lucynell how to speak her first word (‘‘bird’’—a recurring symbol in O’Connor’s fiction), and, most importantly, repairs the automobile. ‘‘With a volley of blasts it emerged from the shed, moving in a fierce and stately way. Mr. Shiftlet was in the driver’s seat. . . . He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.’’ At this moment, when Shiftlet most clearly appears to be the bearer of heavenly powers, Mrs. Crater offers Lucynell to him. He replies, however, by stating, ‘‘It takes money,’’ suggesting that he is perhaps changing and becoming more interested in money. Soon he compares the human spirit to an ‘‘automobile,’’ and his smile turns into ‘‘a weary snake.’’
Earlier allusions to nature’s beauty have given way to nature’s darker side. In her desperation to gain Shiftlet’s services and marry off her daughter, Mrs. Crater offers Shiftlet a small sum. In this symbolically important car, the three of them drive into town, and Shiftlet and young Lucynell are married. Shiftlet’s once mournful philosophical inquiries suddenly become bitter now that he has taken a wife and some money. The newlyweds then set off on their honeymoon.
Part III: Abandonment
The newlyweds stop at a diner, and in the middle of eating,...
(The entire section is 438 words.)