The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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Student Question

What are three types of symbolism in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"?

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There are several kinds of symbolism in the short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Flannery O'Connor, including the names of the characters, the color of the characters' clothes, the stance like a cross that Shiftlet assumes, and the car as a representation of a coffin.

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In the short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Flannery O'Connor, a drifter named Tom Shiftlet shows up at the farm of an old woman and her deaf-mute daughter, both of whose names are Lucynell Crater. He claims he can fix things, and the old woman offers to let him work for food and a place to sleep. What he is interested in is Mrs. Crater's car, which he sleeps in. Shiftlet makes repairs around the farm and gets the car running again, while Mrs. Crater attempts to convince him to marry her daughter. He ultimately agrees, but on their honeymoon he abandons Lucynell in a diner and drives off in the car, which is what he really wanted.

There are numerous types of symbolism in this story. For instance, the names of the characters are symbolic. The name Shiftlet suggests a shifty, deceptive, and devious character, while the name Crater indicates emptiness.

The colors of the clothing that people wear are symbolic. When Shiftlet first approaches the farm, he has on a black suit and a brown hat; these colors suggest death and decay. Both Mrs. Crater and the hitchhiker that Shiftless picks up at the end of the story wear gray hats, indicative of neutrality or blandness. The daughter Lucynell first wears a blue dress and then a white wedding dress, both of which are symbolic of freshness, purity, and innocence.

When Shiftlet first arrives at the farm, he turns and faces the sunset and puts his arm and half-arm up. O'Connor writes that "his figure formed a crooked cross." This symbolizes that he is one of God's creatures but that he is somehow broken, deformed, and misshapen. It foretells the way that he later betrays Mrs. Crater and her daughter.

Finally, the car is an important symbol. Shiftlet desires the car so much that he is willing to lie, cheat, and abandon the nearly helpless Lucynell to get it. It is significant that when Mrs. Crater says he can sleep in it, he mentions that "the monks of old slept in their coffins." In accepting Mrs. Crater's offer, Shiftlet has a chance of genuine redemption: a real home and family. Instead, he betrays the old woman and her daughter and steals the car. Even as he gains possession of it, it becomes his nemesis in that it causes his moral ruin.

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