The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own Summary

"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is a short story by Flannery O'Connor in which one-armed drifter Tom Shiftlet agrees to marry Crater's daughter in exchange for a car.

  • Shiftlet works for Mrs. Crater as a repairman, and he is enamored with the late Mr. Crater's car.
  • Mrs. Crater makes a deal with Shiftlet: if he marries her daughter Lucynell, she'll give him the car. He accepts.
  • After the wedding, Shiftlet and Lucynell leave for their honeymoon. Shiftlet abandons Lucynell at a restaurant.
  • Shiftlet picks up a hitchhiker who tells him to "go to the devil" before jumping out of the car.


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Tom Shiftlet, a drifter, wanders onto the farm of Lucynell Crater and her daughter, also named Lucynell, who is deaf. Mesmerized by the beauty of the sunset, Shiftlet raises his arms to the sky, forming a crooked cross with his body, and holds this saviorlike pose for nearly a minute before introducing himself. Mrs. Crater can see from a distance that Shiftlet is a tramp and is not afraid of him. While the daughter looks on innocently, Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater converse seriously. He asks her many deep questions that she does not answer, such as “What is a man?” and makes proclamations such as “The world is almost rotten.” During this entire philosophical conversation, Shiftlet cannot keep his eyes and thoughts off an old automobile parked in the shed, which he would love to have; likewise, Mrs. Crater is sizing him up as a handyman for her farm and a potential son-in-law.

Shiftlet ingratiates himself, teaching Lucynell her first word, “bird,” and performing fix-up duties, including repairing and painting the late Mr. Crater’s automobile and roofing the garden house. Mrs. Crater slyly offers Shiftlet the car, some money, and a home if he will marry her daughter. In their first conversation, Shiftlet tells Mrs. Crater that he would not marry unless he could find an innocent woman among all the trash. Mrs. Crater points out that Lucynell, in her deaf, childlike state, is as innocent as one can be. After haggling over such issues as how much money Mrs. Crater will give him for a honeymoon, Shiftlet finally agrees when the old woman offers to buy the paint for the car, which is now running. The three of them head to town the following Saturday for the wedding. Shiftlet is left cranky and dissatisfied with the civil ceremony, although it is uncertain whether Lucynell has any idea what is taking place. Mrs. Crater is pleased at the success of her plan to acquire a son-in-law to work around the place but appears to have some misgivings saying good-bye to Lucynell as she departs with Shiftlet for the two-day honeymoon.

The fact that he has acquired the coveted car fails to cheer Shiftlet as Lucynell picks the wooden cherries off her Panama hat and tosses them out the window as they drive to Mobile. Shiftlet abruptly leaves Lucynell at a roadside eating place called The Hot Spot, after she falls asleep waiting for her food. Seeing himself as an honorable man, Shiftlet pays for the food and instructs the counterboy to give it to her when she wakes up. Before Shiftlet leaves, the counterboy comments that the sleeping Lucynell “looks like an angel of Gawd.”

Back on the road, and still depressed, Shiftlet picks up a young male hitchhiker, to whom he delivers a dramatic monologue about mothers, especially his own who, he says, was “an angel of Gawd.” The young man only glares, suddenly tells Shiftlet to “go to the devil,” and jumps out of the slowly moving car. Shiftlet feels like “the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him,” and he asks God to “break forth and wash the slime from this earth!”

An ominous, turnip-shaped cloud, which matches the color of the hitchhiker’s hat, appears before Shiftlet’s car. There is a peal of thunder behind him and huge raindrops begin pelting the back of his car as he races toward Mobile.

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