The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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Character analysis of Mr. Shiftlet, Mrs. Crater, and Lucynell in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."


Mr. Shiftlet is a drifter with a mysterious past, displaying both charm and deceit. Mrs. Crater is a manipulative, shrewd widow eager to marry off her mute daughter, Lucynell, to Shiftlet. Lucynell, innocent and pure, becomes a pawn in their schemes, highlighting themes of exploitation and moral decay.

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How would you characterize Mr. Shiftlet, Mrs. Crater, and Lucynell in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?

Mr. Shiftlet: He can be characterized as apathetic, shrewd, amoral, and devious. Mr. Shiftlet is an astute judge of human nature. He knows how to manipulate someone's emotions for his own benefit. In the story, Mr. Shiftlet is successful at getting what he wants because he understands Mrs. Crater's motivations.

Mr. Shiftlet does not shrink from using every weapon at his disposal to manipulate the old woman; he flatters her and disarms her with his faux "boy-next-door" persona. When Mrs. Crater tells him that she can't pay him for any work he performs, he doesn't argue with her. Instead, he deflects her attention with the cryptic statement that "there's some men that some things mean more to them than money."

In fact, Mr. Shiftlet diverts Mrs. Crater's scrutiny with a list of questions that simultaneously irritates and fascinates her. As a shrewd judge of human nature, Mr. Shiftlet understands that the old woman is motivated by both self-preservation and maternal love. His perceptive observations allow him to tailor his words accordingly: he does not argue when Mrs. Crater tells him Lucynell is more valuable than a "casket of jewels" and he manufactures deep delight at every word the old woman speaks. He ingratiates himself to Mrs. Crater and eventually obtains what he really wants: a car for himself.

Mrs. Crater: She is opinionated, cantankerous, and greedy. Mrs. Crater imagines herself world-wise and shrewd. Both Mrs. Crater and Mr. Shiftlet share similar traits. There is an important difference, however. Mrs. Crater loves her daughter dearly, while Mr. Shiftlet appears to harbor no affection for anyone. In the story, Mrs. Crater is mainly motivated by her desire to see Lucynell settled before she dies. Her love for her daughter is her Achilles heel, so to speak. However, her avaricious nature gets the better of her, and she fails to discern Mr. Shiftlet's true intentions.

Mrs. Crater wrongly assumes that her assumptions about her daughter are shared by Mr. Shiftlet. This contributes to her downfall at the hands of the duplicitous con man. At the end of the story, we discover that Mrs. Crater has been defrauded, with Lucynell no closer to being secure in life than before Mr. Shiftlet showed up.

Lucynell: She is the only innocent in the story. Because of her mental disability, Lucynell cannot discern Mr. Shiftlet's true motivations for marrying her. Her trusting nature leads her to abide by decisions made on her account. Lucynell is dependent, powerless, and untarnished by the baser human emotions. Her innocence makes Mr. Shiftlet's behavior all the more heinous in comparison.

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How would you characterize Mr. Shiftlet, Mrs. Crater, and Lucynell in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?

Flannery O'Connor offers clues to the characterization of at least two of the characters in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." 

Mrs. Crater's name is undeniably apt.  She is empty, hollowed out, a crater, in a moral sense.  O'Connor makes this apparent in Mrs. Crater's attitude toward her vulnerable, mute daughter.  Mrs. Crater eagerly schemes to pawn off Lucynell to Mr. Shiftlet to relieve herself of the burden she feels as her mother. 

Mr. Shiftlet is as amoral as his antagonist, Mrs. Crater.  His desire is to get what he can for free; at Mrs. Crater's farm that will manifest in taking her car and, temporarily, her innocent daughter.  He is too lazy (shiftless) and untrustworthy (shifty) to prosper in life through hard work and smart management.  He is a con man in perpetual motion, always on the lookout for his next mark—"shifting" only for himself in the world.

Lucynell is a flat or static character meant to represent innocence.  She is unable to care for herself and becomes a commodity to be traded, her humanity unrecognized. In this way she also functions as a foil to both her mother and Mr. Shiftlet.  Her goodness opposes their greed and manipulations.

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How would you characterize Mr. Shiftlet, Mrs. Crater, and Lucynell in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?

Mr. Tom Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are grotesque characters.  Mr. Shiftlet's obsession with morality and Mrs. Crater's obsession with her daughter drive the story. Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are similar creatures: both have selfish motives for their seemingly moral actions.  Mr. Shiftlet wants a car and Mrs. Crater wants a son-in-law to take care of the property.

Mr. Shiftlet is a misshapen drifter whose outer deformity (he is missing half of one of his arms) resembles his inward deformity (his twisted view of morality). His name, Shiftlet, mirrors his shifty and shiftless nature. He is an archetypal trickster and is amoral, which is ironic considering that he is obsessed with the idea that the world is rotten and immoral.  

Mrs. Crater is also portrayed as a trickster. She tries to trick Mr. Shiftlet by lying about her daughter's age.  She uses her daughter and treats her more like an animal than a human. Her loneliness causes her to use Lucynell as an object to get what she wants. Mrs. Crater, like Mr. Shiftlet himself, is the type of person that makes the world rotten.

Lucynell, a grown woman who has the mind of a child, is the one person who can redeem Mr. Shiftlet. Lucynell's innocence is a foil for Mr. Shiftlet's experience. Lucynell represents those who are preyed upon by amoral and cunning people such as Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater. In the end, instead of redeeming Mr. Shiftlet, Lucynell exposes his true character.

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How does the fate of Mrs.Crater, Lucynell, and Mr.Shiftlet connect to the title of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?

O'Connor's religious vision deals with humankind's fall from grace.  Her comedy shows her characters' blindness and inability to redeem themselves through nihilism and materialism.  The title "The Life you Save May be Your Own" deals not with highway safety, but with salvation in the afterlife.

Mr. Shiflet's fate is just as his name suggests: a shiftless wanderer.  He begins and ends the story lost.  Though he has the ability to redeem himself by marrying an Innocent, Lucynell, he abandons her in favor of a car, a few bucks, and a hitchhiker.  Ironically, the hitchhiker boy abandons him the same way Shiftlet abandons Lucynell.

Lucynell remains silent the entire story; as such, she is an Innocent, uncorrupted, the Virgin Mary, and "angel of Gawd."  She is blind to the cruelties and materialism of the world.  But, because of her mother's blindness, Lucynell is abandoned on the highway.  In the end, we must assume that she will be corrupted too.  As she is literally lost by the end of the story by Shiftlet, her life too is not saved.

Mrs. Crater too loses everything in the story: her daughter, her car, and her salvation too.  She has been deceived by an imposter, Shiftlet.  Her faith in him is misguided; instead of protecting her daughter, an Innocent, she ends up brokering a marriage to a fraud, paying Shiftlet--a kind of pagan, unholy dowry.

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Describe the characters Shiftlet and Lucynell Crater from ''The Life You Save May Be Your Own.''

Tom T. Shiftlet’s dressing resembles that of a tramp. He has on a “black town suit and a brown felt hat” and carries a tin toolbox. He only has half of his left arm intact. When asked where he hails from, he says, "Tarwater, Tennessee." He claims to be twenty-eight years of age, presently working as a carpenter, and having past experiences as a gospel singer, a railroad foreman, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, a radio studio employee, and a member of the army. According to the old woman, he is a “poor disabled friendless drifting man." His character comes across as untrustworthy, scheming, and selfish. He is as shifty as his name. He works hard to gain the old woman’s trust, then cons her out of her car and just enough money with which he can take off to a place called Mobile. He is willing to go to any lengths to meet his objectives, even marrying the younger Lucynell, who he later abandons at a restaurant called The Hot Spot. He does not care about what will happen to Lucynell, a mentally disabled and mute woman, left all by herself, asleep, in a desolate foreign diner. It is ironic that he is this heartless in spite of posing or acting otherwise.

Lucynell Crater is introduced as an old woman, who goes by the same name as her daughter. She must have lost her teeth due to age, as she declines to take the chewing gum that Shiftlet offers her during their first meeting. She has lived in the lonely house with her mentally handicapped and mute daughter since her husband died. The older Lucynell comes across as selfish and scheming, just like Shiftlet. She plans to coerce Shiftlet into marrying her daughter, in exchange for food and board. She is highly manipulative, as she doesn’t tire of reminding Shiftlet of his destitution and the fact that marrying the younger Lucynell would be a big favor done to him. It is ironic that she claims to love her daughter a lot, yet is desperate to marry her off to a drifter, who does not even appear interested in the girl.

The younger Lucynell is a symbol of innocence. According to The Hot Spot’s counter boy, Lucynell looks like “an angel of Gawd." She is a victim of her mother’s ambition and Shiftlet’s dishonesty.

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