How would you characterize Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater and her daughter, Lucynell, in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?
Mr. Shiftlet is true to his name: shifty, amoral, and selfish, he tricks Mrs. Crater into giving him a car in exchange for marrying her daughter. Mrs. Crater is almost as rotten as Mr. Shiftlet and treats her daughter like a bartering tool. Lucynell is the only innocent character at the story. Both her mother and Mr. Shiftlet take advantage of her because she's mentally handicapped. In the end, Mr. Shiftlet abandons her at a restaurant called The Hot Spot.
Mr. Tom Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are grotesque characters. Mr. Shiftlet's obsession with morality and Mrs. Crater's obsession with her daughter drive the story. Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are similar creatures: both have selfish motives for their seemingly moral actions. Mr. Shiftlet wants a car and Mrs. Crater wants a son-in-law to take care of the property.
Mr. Shiftlet is a misshapen drifter whose outer deformity (he is missing half of one of his arms) resembles his inward deformity (his twisted view of morality). His name, Shiftlet, mirrors his shifty and shiftless nature. He is an archetypal trickster and is amoral, which is ironic considering that he is obsessed with the idea that the world is rotten and immoral.
Mrs. Crater is also portrayed as a trickster. She tries to trick Mr. Shiftlet by lying about her daughter's age. She uses her daughter and treats her more like an animal than a human. Her loneliness causes her to use Lucynell as an object to get what she wants. Mrs. Crater, like Mr. Shiftlet himself, is the type of person that makes the world rotten.
Lucynell, a grown woman who has the mind of a child, is the one person who can redeem Mr. Shiftlet. Lucynell's innocence is a foil for Mr. Shiftlet's experience. Lucynell represents those who are preyed upon by amoral and cunning people such as Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater. In the end, instead of redeeming Mr. Shiftlet, Lucynell exposes his true character.
Flannery O'Connor offers clues to the characterization of at least two of the characters in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."
Mrs. Crater's name is undeniably apt. She is empty, hollowed out, a crater, in a moral sense. O'Connor makes this apparent in Mrs. Crater's attitude toward her vulnerable, mute daughter. Mrs. Crater eagerly schemes to pawn off Lucynell to Mr. Shiftlet to relieve herself of the burden she feels as her mother.
Mr. Shiftlet is as amoral as his antagonist, Mrs. Crater. His desire is to get what he can for free; at Mrs. Crater's farm that will manifest in taking her car and, temporarily, her innocent daughter. He is too lazy (shiftless) and untrustworthy (shifty) to prosper in life through hard work and smart management. He is a con man in perpetual motion, always on the lookout for his next mark—"shifting" only for himself in the world.
Lucynell is a flat or static character meant to represent innocence. She is unable to care for herself and becomes a commodity to be traded, her humanity unrecognized. In this way she also functions as a foil to both her mother and Mr. Shiftlet. Her goodness opposes their greed and manipulations.