The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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

Quick answer:

Mr. Shiftlet is true to his name: shifty, amoral, and selfish, he tricks Mrs. Crater into giving him a car in exchange for marrying her daughter. Mrs. Crater is almost as rotten as Mr. Shiftlet and treats her daughter like a bartering tool. Lucynell is the only innocent character at the story. Both her mother and Mr. Shiftlet take advantage of her because she's mentally handicapped. In the end, Mr. Shiftlet abandons her at a restaurant called The Hot Spot.

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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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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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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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