The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor
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What is the theme of the story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?

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One theme of the story is the way the characters, particularly Mr. Shiftlet, miss God's grace by running away from it when it is right in front of them.

This is symbolized from the start when Mrs. Crater looks away from the sun (the light of God) and wants to...

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One theme of the story is the way the characters, particularly Mr. Shiftlet, miss God's grace by running away from it when it is right in front of them.

This is symbolized from the start when Mrs. Crater looks away from the sun (the light of God) and wants to shield herself from it. She runs away from God's light primarily by using material things. She wants to get rid of the presence of God in her life, which is her mute daughter Lucynell, who is described as an ‘‘angel of Gawd.’’

Mrs. Crater eventually "sells" this angel of God to Mr. Shiftlet, who gets no more satisfaction out of this than Judas did receiving money to betray Jesus. Mr. Shiftlet then abandons his chance for redemption when he leaves Lucynell in the diner and drives off.

At the end of the story, Mr. Shiftlet runs away from God's redemption once again. He feels the turnip-like clouds descending on him, and he prays to God to

"Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!"

God seems to answer his prayer with a cleansing rain, but instead of recognizing he is part of the slime that needs to be washed clean, Mr Shiftlet speeds in his car away from the purifying storm.

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A theme of “The Life You Save Might Be Your Own” is focus on God versus material things.

At the beginning of the story, Mr. Shiftlet is a Jesus-like figure.  He is a tramp carpenter who passes by one day and talks philosophically with the “old woman” Mrs. Crater.  He is not interested in money or material possessions.

"Lady," he said in a firm nasal voice, "I'd give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening."

Yet as he remains on her farm, Mrs. Carter corrupts him.  He first stays in an old car and does odd jobs for her for no money, but then he fixes the car.  He accepts money to marry her.  He becomes more interested in the material, and less interested in the spiritual.

The difference in Mr. Shiftlet’s character is especially evident when he picks up the hitchhiker.  He tells the boy how he has the best mother in the world, and it infuriates him such that he jumps out of the car.  As Mr. Shiftlet drives on, he realizes he has turned his back on God.  The sun he spoke of at the beginning of the story is covered with a cloud, and the rain hits his car.

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