At a Glance

  • Tom Shiftlet is one of Flannery O'Connor's most memorable characters. As a one-armed drifter with greasy hair and no real scruples, Shiftlet embodies the word "shifty." He likes to ask philosophical questions like, "What is a man?" and talk about how "rotten" the world is, but this is mostly an act designed to steal Mrs. Crater's car. In the end, he's shown to be just as "rotten" as everyone else.
  • When Shiftlet first appears, he assumes a Christ-like pose, flinging his arms out in the shape of a lopsided cross. This pose is purely symbolic, and Shiftlet's promise to "save" Lucynell through marriage proves empty. In the end, Shiftlet has a moment of revelation in line with the sentiment of the story's title: "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."
  • Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic, and, like most of her stories, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is imbued with Christian themes of revelation, redemption, and grace. Lucynell, the only innocent character in the story, is described as "an angel of Gawd." Her character acts as a foil to the shifty, self-serving Mr. Shiftlet.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is filled with irony and symbolism. Shiftlet’s name is appropriate because he could certainly be considered shiftless or shifty. His saviorlike pose at the beginning of the story is surely symbolic, but the title, taken from a road sign that he later sees as he drives, suggests that Shiftlet should be concerned more for his own redemption than for being anyone else’s savior.

O’Connor often uses peacocks as symbols of the unrecognized beauty and mystery of grace; it is thus significant that innocent Lucynell’s eyes are described as “blue as a peacock’s neck.” The turnip-shaped cloud must also hold some significance: Turnips grow in the ground, conceivably among that slime of the earth with which Shiftlet is so obsessed. The fact that the cloud is exactly the color of the hitchhiker’s hat emphasizes the hitchhiker’s role as deliverer of Shiftlet’s moment of grace.

When Shiftlet speaks to the hitchhiker about his mother, he uses the same phrase that the restaurant boy uses to describe Lucynell: “an angel of Gawd.” Indeed, Shiftlet’s next tearful comment about his mother, that “he took her from heaven and giver to me and I left her,” could be describing exactly what has just taken place with Lucynell. Perhaps Shiftlet is becoming aware, if only slightly, of the weight of his transgression.

This story exemplifies O’Connor’s gift for ironic humor and her ability to capture the natural speech patterns of the inhabitants of her South. Because of the humor in her stories, the violence seems unexpected and the reader is unprepared for it, the same way that O’Connor saw humankind as usually unprepared for the grace of God.

The final irony in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” occurs after Shiftlet’s prayerful outburst in the car. A few minutes later, large raindrops begin pelting his car. The ironic message for Shiftlet is that his own actions have made him exactly the kind of slime he wishes to have washed from the earth.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Unlike many other works of fiction, which explicitly address historical events or implicitly attempt to wrestle with aspects of a particular...

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Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
O’Connor employs a detached yet observant third-person narrative in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your...

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Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1950s: In 1950, the U.S. produces 6.7 million automobiles and sells over 13 million used automobiles. In 1956, The Federal Aid Highway...

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Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Research aspects of Christian theology—specifically, passages or stories from the Bible— and compare them with the themes in...

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Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ was filmed for television in 1957 as a segment included in ‘‘Playhouse of Stars’’ and...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, and Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, also explore the search for meaning in a seemingly...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Further Reading
Desmond, John F. ‘‘The Shifting of Mr. Shiftlet: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Life You Save May Be Your...

(The entire section is 260 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Asals, Frederick. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Flannery O’Connor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Caruso, Teresa, ed. “On the Subject of the Feminist Business”: Re-reading Flannery O’Connor. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Lake, Christina Bieber. The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005.

O’Gorman, Farrell. Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Robillard, Douglas, Jr. The Critical Response to Flannery O’Connor. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Spivey, Ted R. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995.