The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own Analysis

  • Shiftlet 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.
  • When Shiftlet first appears, he assumes a Christ-like pose. This pose is purely symbolic, and Shiftlet's promise to "save" Lucynell through marriage proves empty.
  • "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 self-serving Shiftlet.

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Style and Technique

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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

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Unlike many other works of fiction, which explicitly address historical events or implicitly attempt to wrestle with aspects of a particular historical era, much of O’Connor’s fiction—including ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’—has a timeless quality to it. Aside from small details, such as the presence of an automobile, this story could just as well have been published in 1853 as in 1953. There is no mention, for example, of the Korean War or the post-World War II flight to the suburbs, important American social phenomena which took place in the early 1950s. Similarly, O’Connor does not appear to be making any explicit statements about the changing role of women in American society through either Lucynell or Mrs. Crater. In short, O’Connor’s stories are dominated by spiritual rather than historical or political themes. Nonetheless, some of the themes which appear in this story do lend themselves to a historical perspective.

Postwar Affluence and the Rise of the Automobile
When placed in the context of post-World War II America, this story can be seen as an implicit critique of an increasingly wealthy and mobile America that has become more concerned with money than with individuals. A key symbol in this story is the automobile, which was rapidly changing American lifestyles in the early 1950s. Suburbs were popping up all across the country and highways and expressways were being constructed, all because of the impact of the automobile. O’Connor uses the Craters’s old automobile, which Shiftlet repairs, as a symbol of his connection to material goods and his lack of compassion towards Lucynell, whom he abandons at a diner before driving off to Mobile.

O’Connor connects Shiftlet’s obsession with the automobile with his inability to attain some form of redemption through Lucynell, who is referred to as an ‘‘angel of Gawd.’’ Observers of American society who are aware of America’s growing obsession with the automobile during the 1950s can read ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ as a warning: If, like Shiftlet, we become too materialistic, if we abandon relationships with God and our fellow human beings, we will all lose our ability to experience religious grace. That Shiftlet sleeps in the car is linked by O’Connor to the coffins in which ancient monks used to sleep. Mrs. Crater observes, ‘‘They were not as advanced as we were.’’ But ‘‘advanced’’ may be used ironically here, suggesting that with their pure lifestyle of religious devotion the monks were more ‘‘advanced’’ than a society obsessed with constant mobility. In this sense, the automobile does become a kind of modern day ‘‘coffin,’’ leading these characters to a kind of death. Even the story’s foreboding title comes from a road sign which Shiftlet sees and which was a common sight along highways in the 1950s. O’Connor herself, speaking cynically of a television version of the story which was broadcast in 1957, said: ‘‘Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after.’’ O’Connor was not only criticizing television’s tendency to change dark endings into happy ones but was touching upon the importance of automobiles to her audience.

Relations between Women and Men
Some critics have suggested that ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ relies upon gender roles that men and women historically have been expected to play. Specifically, Mrs. Crater is rooted to responsibility. She cares for her farm and Lucynell, pays the bills, and even arranges Shiftlet’s and Lucynell’s wedding. Shiftlet, on the other hand, in the tradition of Herman Melville’s Ishmael (from Moby Dick) and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is a wanderer with no discernible ties. His desire to obtain the Craters’s automobile while seeking to abandon both Mrs. Crater and Lucynell seems to be a reflection of his desire to move on without becoming tied to women, who represent roots and entanglement in civilized society. In this reading, men are allowed a freedom that women are not.

Literary Style

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Point of View
O’Connor employs a detached yet observant third-person narrative in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own.’’ Shiftlet is a stranger without a fixed identity who wanders into the Craters’s lives. He soon moves in with them and takes an interest first in the Craters’s automobile and then in Lucynell, Mrs. Crater’s mute daughter. Shiftlet and Lucynell are married, but he abandons her at a roadside diner.

While Shiftlet clearly emerges as the central character, O’Connor offers enough glimpses into both his and Mrs. Crater’s psyche to provide insight into their motivations. For example, the reader learns that Shiftlet ‘‘always wanted an automobile but he had never been able to afford one before.’’ This passage, late in the story, confirms his desire for the automobile and the importance he places on money and material goods. Furthermore, O’Connor includes careful details in several descriptive passages which establish the natural world as an important aspect of the story. The reader might not perceive such details if the story were narrated from the point of view of one its characters.

The characters’ dialogue works in tandem with her descriptive passages to reveal their moral emptiness. For example, the cold, abrupt way that Mrs. Crater responds to Shiftlet’s elaborate soliloquies on sunsets and innocent women suggests that she intends to land Shiftlet as a husband for Lucynell. Readers may note that the initial discussion between Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater is odd, even unrealistic, moving casually from philosophy to human nature to the weather. Such jarring dialogue should be read closely because it reveals aspects of both characters’ personalities. It also suggests a certain fantastic quality that is consistent with much of O’Connor’s fiction and elevates her stories above a fixed time and place, giving them a mythic timelessness.

O’Connor’s reserved tone also plays a part in achieving this quality. Rarely does she intrude into the narration, pointing the reader neither in one way nor the other. O’Connor’s subtle tone requires the reader to pay close attention to the details that she provides. Given O’Connor’s detached narrative point of view, when a disturbing line like ‘‘The world is almost rotten,’’ is spoken by Shiftlet, readers should assume that this is more than just a casual observation.

O’Connor’s short fiction is steeped in the culture of the American South, and ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ is no exception. The landscape—rural farmland that is seemingly isolated from ‘‘the real world’’—heightens the timelessness, or disconnection from a specific time or era, of O’Connor’s fiction. The Craters and Shiftlet make a quick appearance in the nearby town so that Lucynell and Shiftlet can be married, and the only other setting used in this story is the highway, where the newlyweds stop at a roadside diner.

Setting is important in one key area: the character’s voices. They speak with a fairly strong Southern dialect, using local slang and occasionally broken English. The effect, however, can be disturbing, since such important issues are often discussed using this seemingly flawed language. ‘‘There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart . . . out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,’’ Shiftlet says at one point, ‘‘and studied it like a day old chicken, and lady . . . he don’t know no more about it than you or me.’’ This odd, powerful imagery is made stronger because it is revealed using such language.

Symbols and Imagery
O’Connor uses symbols and imagery to signifi- cant effect in this story. Some recurring images and symbols include Christ, nature, physical ailments, and the automobile. When the reader is first introduced to the protagonist, for example, Shiftlet forms ‘‘a crooked cross’’ against the sky. He is also a carpenter. Thus, he appears to be a Christ figure, but since he has only one arm, it may be that he is a flawed Christ. Indeed, all three characters are physically disabled: Shiftlet is without an arm, Mrs. Crater is without teeth, and Lucynell is unable to speak. All of these physical features may reflect the difficulties of the human condition, which is made worse by both Shiftlet’s and Mrs. Crater’s refusal to embrace Lucynell, the manifestation of God’s grace (or ‘‘angel of Gawd,’’ as she is called) in the story.

Nature is perhaps the most pervasive symbol in this story. It is used as both a positive contrast to the crass materialism of Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater and as a negative foreshadowing technique. For example, after Shiftlet chooses to pursue his greed, the tone of the story grows darker. Both nature and Lucynell, who is closely linked with nature in the story, are depicted as victims of the automobile which Shiftlet resurrects.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: In 1950, the U.S. produces 6.7 million automobiles and sells over 13 million used automobiles. In 1956, The Federal Aid Highway Act proposes the construction of approximately 42,500 miles of roads, particularly interstate freeways, to connect major cities. The federal government is to pay for 90 percent of the proposed 33.5 billion effort.

1990s: With approximately 70 percent of the Interstate Highway System having been finished by 1976, the system is now essentially complete. In urban centers it provides major arteries for daily commuting traffic. However, it is now worn from use and in need of repair and continuous upgrading.

1952: The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission explodes a hydrogen nuclear fusion bomb at its testing site at the Eniwetok proving grounds in the Pacific. In the following year, the U.S.S.R. will explode a hydrogen bomb designed by Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov.

1989: The Berlin Wall, built in 1961 and separating Democratic West Germany from Communist East Germany, is torn down. In the next two years, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Warsaw Pact countries will agree to reduce their military armaments, the leaders in Russia will agree to give up the monopoly of power held by the Communist party, and Russia will lose control over 15 of its member republics.

1953: O’Connors’s character Shiftlet mentions the removal of a human heart by a doctor, but the first transplant of a human heart is 14 years in the future.

1999: There are approximately 2,300 heart transplants performed in the U.S. each year. Approximately 73 percent of patients with transplanted hearts survive for 3 years after their surgery. Approximately 85 percent of patients with transplanted hearts can return to work or participate in some pleasurable activity, including certain sports.

Media Adaptations

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‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ was filmed for television in 1957 as a segment included in ‘‘Playhouse of Stars’’ and starred Gene Kelly, Agnes Moorehead, and Janice Rule. This adaptation has a different ending than O’Connor’s story.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading
Desmond, John F. ‘‘The Shifting of Mr. Shiftlet: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’’’ in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1974-75, pp. 55-9. A close reading of Shiftlet’s character, in which the author argues that his motivations devolve during the course of the story from good to bad.

Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque, University Press of Mississippi, 1986, pp. 112-18. A reading of the religious themes and O’Connor’s use of the Grotesque in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own.’’

Giannone, Richard. Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love, University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 54-7. A study on O’Connor, which concentrates on Shiftlet’s denial of spiritual grace.

Kessler, Edward. Flannery O’Connor and the Language of the Apocalypse, Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 141-47. Through analysis of language in O’Connor’s fiction, Kessler develops a largely negative reading of ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’’ finding the story unnecessarily ambiguous and shallow.

Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor, University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 144-55. This work identifies O’Connor with two other Southern writers and pursues her work from a feminist rather than a religious perspective.

Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor, University of South Carolina Press, 1995, pp. 52-6. A general introduction to the themes of ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ as well as to O’Connor’s life and other works.


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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.

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