The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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Critical Overview

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Critical Overview
Critics recognized the importance of ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ immediately after it was published in the literary journal Kenyon Review in the spring of 1953. That year the story was included in the annual collection of exemplary short fiction published to honor the memory of the short story writer O. Henry. Critics have seen this story as a nearly paradigmatic example of O’Connor’s almost obsessive concern with religious themes—specifi- cally, an individual’s ability to find opportunities for salvation and redemption in everyday life.

Initial critical reaction to ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ was largely positive, though some critics were not quite sure what to make of O’Connor’s alternately ordinary and grim story. Highlighting the ambiguities and difficulties present in O’Connor’s stories, with their odd characters and often harrowing endings, the New Yorker went so far as to suggest that O’Connor’s collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find—in which ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ was reprinted— was meaningless and without depth. Time magazine, meanwhile, while acknowledging the skill in O’Connor’s narrative style, also found in it a certain amount of ‘‘arty fumbling.’’ Still, the New York Times deigned O’Connor’s collection the work of an ‘‘extraordinarily accomplished short story writer,’’ praising the author’s originality and noting, as others did, her use of ‘‘grotesque horror.’’ The reviewer also called attention to O’Connor’s singularly disturbing vision of life, acknowledging that O’Connor’s stories ‘‘were not a dish to set before most readers,’’ but adding that those ‘‘who are attracted by it will admire it immensely.’’

Since the original publication of ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’’ its reputation, like O’Connor’s, has grown in stature. Critics have expanded upon the theological reading of the story and have discovered or incorporated such themes as feminism and anti-materialism as well as its place in the Southern literary tradition.

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Essays and Criticism