Are there ambiguities in Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"? Can some element of the story be interpreted in more than one way? Does the ambiguity result in...

Are there ambiguities in Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"? Can some element of the story be interpreted in more than one way? Does the ambiguity result in confusion, or does it add to the complexity of the story?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One point of ambiguity in Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" concerns motive. Throughout the whole story, neither character really is the type of person they pretend to be, nor do they really want what they say they want. We can see this as being true for both the old woman and Tom Shiftlet.

Tom's questionable character can be seen all throughout the short story. For example, at one point Tom makes the claim that he has "a moral intelligence!" but then stares at the old lady he is speaking to "as if he were astonished himself at his impossible truth." In other words, both characters know Tom is lying and doesn't truly have the moral compass he boasts of having.

As for the other character, the old lady frequently says how much she adores her daughter Lucynell, how she could never live a day without her, and how she "wouldn't give her up [in marriage] for nothing on earth." Yet we are also told that she's just itching for a son-in-law. We know that at least one of her motives for wanting a son-in-law is that she wants help around the house. But could there be another, undisclosed motive? If she is lying when she says she wouldn't give her daughter up for any reason, then could she also be lying when she says she would never part with her? Is it possible that she is bribing him with an automobile to marry her daughter not so that he'll stick around as her son-in-law but so that he'll take her daughter far away from her? Hence, true motive becomes the point of ambiguity in the story.

Also, if we can question the old lady's true motives, then the ending in which Tom abandons Lucynell in a small-town diner, calling her a hitchhiker, becomes the ending the old lady expected and even wanted, not a surprising and unfortunate ending.

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