The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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What does the title "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" signify?

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The title of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" means that for some people, saving their own life and looking after their own needs comes first. To these people, their selfish needs and wants are far more important than taking care of other people or trying to improve or save their lives.

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Ultimately, the only life that Shiftlet is interested in looking after is his own. He has no real interest in marrying the deaf, childlike Lucynell. However when her mother, Mrs. Crater, offers Shiftlet—who had been a drifter up until now—a car, a home, and some money in exchange for becoming her son-in-law, he eventually agrees. His initial hesitation was not put to rest by any realization that he had feelings for Lucynell but by the fact that Mrs. Crater sweetened the deal by throwing in a new coat of paint for the car.

Shiftlet further proves that the only life he is really interested in saving is his own when he abandons his brand new deaf wife at a roadside restaurant. In Shiftlet’s opinion, he is still an honorable man, as he pays for the food and instructs the boy behind the counter to give her the food when she wakes up.

As for Lucynell’s mother, she scarcely has her daughter’s needs at heart at all. It is by and large her desire for a man around the house to carry out the tasks at which Shiftlet quickly proves adept, like roofing the garden house and fixing various things. She is not perturbed by the fact that no one knows whether Lucynell understands what has happened during her wedding ceremony to Shiftlet.

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Shiftlet wants to save his own life, but he can only see this salvation in secular terms. For instance, he abandons Lucynell to, he thinks, save himself. He surrounds himself with false piety and false religious talk that hides from him the reality of his own lack of faith--and the reality that he is not saving his life in any real way.

When he picks up the boy on the side of the road and then converses with him in false pieties about the goodness and purity of their mothers, the boy responds with revulsion and tells the truth. Then he jumps out of the car, saving his own life. He knows Shiftlet is poison.

Shiflet, however, is lost. He projects what he understands as the darkness of the cloud, which is his own darkness, onto the boy, seeing it as "the exact color of the boy's hat." Instead of acknowledging his own inner darkness, he says:

"Oh Lord!" he prayed. "Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!"

Both the boy and the storm are trying to communicate with him to point out his darkness and need of salvation, but he can not "hear" them. The life he saves could be his own, but at this point, it isn't.

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The title could be interpreted as a salutary warning to play fair in one's dealings with other people. The implication seems to be that one should always treat others fairly because what goes around comes around. If you don't treat them fairly, however, then you're liable to get payback.

Unfortunately, neither Mr. Shiftlet nor Mrs. Crater pay heed to this moral injunction. Shiftlet doesn't value Lucynell for herself as a human being; he simply sees her as a means to an end, as nothing more than a meal ticket. As for Mrs. Crater, there's no sense that she's acting in her daughter's best interests. She's engaged in little more than a tawdry business deal in which Lucynell is bartered in exchange for a son-in-law and handyman.

In both cases, an opportunity for redemption has been offered, but passed up. Unable to act honestly, to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater have missed the opportunity to save themselves.

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Like many of Flannery O'Connor's stories, this reflects her ideas about salvation and redemption. The title can apply equally to Shiftlet or Mrs. Crater, and can be seen as a warning or reminder to seek a change in their lives before they become morally bankrupt.

Throughout the story, Shiftlet is searching for something. He believes he finds it in material possessions, such as the automobile and wedding gift revealing a world in which money has become more important than people or spiritual peace. While Shiftlet seems initially unconcerned with money, he is soon inquiring about the automobile, as well as cash for a wedding. He obtains these things, but they do not bring meaning into Shiftlet’s life. He wanders on, likely to continue a life devoid of significance. By marrying Lucynell and then abandoning her, he has missed his opportunity for redemption. He entered the Craters’s lives as a lonely wanderer, and he leaves it the same way. Thus, he has not saved his own life. In the end, he is once again empty and wanting.

Mrs. Crater needs saving as well. It is clear she is luring Shiftlet into her home so that she can gain his services— as a carpenter, and as a husband for her daughter. She treats her own daughter as little more than an object to be traded. Both Mrs. Crater and Shiftlet show an inability to embrace everyday manifestations of God’s grace. Both abandon Lucynell, trading personal connection and compassion for material goods. It is this absence of redemption that has led to Shiftlet’s nomadic life and Mrs. Crater’s lack of love for her daughter. The title is revealed in a road sign warns Shiftlet, ‘‘the life you save may be your own.’’ Embracing Lucynell would have offered him an opportunity to grasp at some form of salvation or atonement—one that Mrs. Crater has apparently already yielded. But neither finds salvation.

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