How does the story The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O'Connor support or attack political or moral views?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The story The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O'Connor is not overtly political, but like all of O'Connor's work engages deeply with moral and religious issues. Although O'Connor herself was Roman Catholic, and has stated that her faith very much influenced her writing, her work does not preach simple solutions to moral problems, but rather emphasizes moral ambiguity, portraying people not as all good or all bad, but as flawed creatures who nonetheless bear within themselves the potential for moments of redemption.

In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, we encounter several such moments of grace against a southern Gothic background. Our first intimation of this is the character of Shiftlet, who appears as follows:

He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross.

This image suggests physical imperfection (the short arm), but Shiftlet also seems to be an image of Christ on the Cross, albeit a crooked one. 

On a moral level, his helping the widow and her disabled daughter appears a virtuous act, and yet he is, in part, motivated by money, raising the important issue of whether act or intent is determinative of moral quality. On one hand, he appreciates the moral innocence of Lucynell, but on the other, abandons her, albeit with qualms. He appears both to be searching for innocence, and yet participating equally in a fallen world. He fulfills some of his moral responsibilities, and cares about his faith and moral character, and yet is prone to despair at points.

Because the story ends with Shiftlet driving off in the rain, we do not know what his final moral choices will be, and thus the story in a sense forces us to draw our own moral conclusions.

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