The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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Why is "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" still regularly taught and assigned in literature courses today, and do you think it should be? Why or why not? What might it say about human nature or experience that could still be considered important or instructive today?

Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is taught in literature classes because it does what literature is supposed to do: it presents various aspects of human nature and human experience for readers to think about, especially issues of deception, naivety, and betrayal.

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We read and study literature in order to learn about human nature. Works of literature allow us to experience all kinds of different people and places without leaving our own homes. They allow us to meditate on various themes and ideas that we might not otherwise encounter. To help you understand why Flannery O'Connor's story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is included in literature courses, let's think about what the tale has to say about people and about the human experience.

The story centers around three characters: a mother and daughter both named Lucynell Carter and a drifter named Tom T. Shiftlet. Lucynell the elder is a shrewd old woman, but only to a point. She wants to see her daughter married off, but mostly because she wants to have a man around the place permanently to take care of them. She works hard to "sell" her daughter's strong points to Mr. Shiftlet, but she doesn't recognize him for what he really is. He impresses her with his fine talk and his handiness around the house, and that is as far as she sees. Indeed, this woman demonstrates how someone can be both shrewd and naïve at the same time.

Lucynell the daughter is "simple," as people used to say. She is completely innocent with the mind of a four- or five-year-old child in the body of a thirty-year-old woman. Lucynell is fascinated by Mr. Shiftlet as a child would be, for he is like no one she has ever met before, and he pays attention to her. But Lucynell is no judge of character, and she becomes the victim of both her mother and Mr. Shiftlet. We cannot help but feel sorry for her when her new "husband" betrays her and leaves her stranded alone at a restaurant so far from home.

Mr. Shiftlet himself puts on quite a good show. He has all kinds of ideas in his head, ideas that really are worth thinking about. He nudges us to reflect on the marvels of nature, the meaning of money, and the mysteries of life. Yet Mr. Shiftlet cares little about any of these ideas. He is trying to win over Lucynell Senior so that he can gain access to and eventual ownership of her car. This seems to be his primary motive throughout the story. He will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.

We can see even from these brief character sketches how much depth of meaning exists in this story. We already understand how much we can learn about human nature and about life from these characters' personalities and choices. Indeed, this is why the story is taught in literature classes. It makes us reflect on the way people think, speak, and behave, and it makes us look at ourselves in comparison.

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