Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” was part of Flannery O’Connor’s book A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), a collection that demonstrates her skill at using irony, violence, and the grotesque to create opportunities for redemption in the lives of characters who are often comical and always spiritually adrift in a realistic, yet highly symbolic world. O’Connor demonstrates humankind’s need for the mysterious grace of God, a gift that is offered suddenly in ordinary settings. Violence is a means to wake up characters to their own moral deficiency, to burn away their virtues so that there is nothing left but a humbled self, standing in perfect readiness to accept redemption.
Shiftlet indeed becomes a savior to Mrs. Crater by fixing up her farm. He also unintentionally delivers a moment of grace to her when she seems to acknowledge her feelings for her daughter for the first time, as Shiftlet is about to drive away with her. She says tearfully, “I ain’t ever been parted with her for two days before.” It is too late for Mrs. Crater: In her ambition to acquire a son-in-law, she seals Lucynell’s fate by marrying her off to Shiftlet.
Shiftlet’s own spiritual redemption is still a possibility. Throughout much of the story, he seems harmless, amiable, cheerfully performing his tasks on the Crater farm; however, his preoccupation with the automobile makes it easy to guess at his ulterior motives. His need and potential for redemption is even greater than Mrs. Crater’s. After the story was published, O’Connor herself described Shiftlet as a comic character, but still “of the Devil because nothing in him resists the Devil.”
The hitchhiker’s violent outburst shocks Shiftlet and renders him momentarily vulnerable, a device frequently used by O’Connor to demonstrate that a character is at a crucial moment and ready, if he or she chooses, to accept God’s grace. Does Shiftlet really see the ominous, turnip-shaped cloud in front of him, which is surely a symbol for his moment of potential redemption? It is difficult to know Shiftlet’s reaction because the story ends with him racing the storm to Mobile. All the reader knows is that Shiftlet has been offered a chance at self-recognition; he may choose to accept or reject it.