In Flannery O'Connor's story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," what is the irony when Mr. Shiftlet "felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him"? 

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mr. Shiftlet conceives this sentiment in the penultimate paragraph of the story. He had just given a boy a lift and spoke tearfully about his mother, mentioning that she had been an angel and that God had taken her away from him. His passenger's response shocked him, for he cried out:

"You go to the devil!"... "My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!"

The boy then grabbed his suitcase and jumped out of the vehicle into a ditch. 

At this point, Mr. Shiftlet was seemingly overwhelmed by the approaching darkness to his front and behind, caused by the gathering of massive rain clouds which shaded the sun. It was then that he felt what is mentioned in the quote.  

The irony lies in the hypocrisy of what Mr. Shiftlet feels. He, through his lies and deceit, has added to the so-called 'rottenness of the world.' He had deceived Mrs. Lucynell Crater and her simple-minded daughter, also named Lucynell, into trusting him by offering his services to the family. He inveigled himself into their lives and later married the younger Lucynell after he had fixed their car and received seventeen dollars and fifty cents for a weekend honeymoon.  

The wedded couple drove off and about one hundred miles into their journey, Mr. Shiftlet dumped his bride at a diner called The Hot Spot, stating that she was a hitchhiker. She was asleep at one of the tables and he said that he could not wait for her. He then drove off.

Mr. Shiftlet is obviously just as rotten as the world he feels he would be overwhelmed by, which makes his view so fundamentally ironic.

pmiranda2857 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The irony is in the fact that Mr. Shiftlet, himself is a perfect example of the rottenness of the world.  He is saying that he is afraid of people like himself. 

And the significance of this statement at the end of the story, because he is so shocked by the comments made by the boy, who is angry at him, because Shiftlet said his mother was an angel.  The boy has had a difficult life. 

Shiftlet's response is very ironic, he prays for help.  This is the same man who married a simple woman, so he could steal her mother's car, and has abandoned this woman, his wife, in a diner and driven away.

The irony that Mr. Shiftlet would pray for help, and ask the Lord to cleanse the earth of slime, the true irony is that he is part of the SLIME THAT HE WANTS CLEANSED.

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own

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