The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Flannery O’Connor

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own Themes

The three main themes in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” are the search for the meaning of life, moral corruption, and God and religion.

  • The search for the meaning of life: Shiftlet tries and fails to bring meaning into his life when he marries Lucynell and then abandons her.
  • Moral corruption: The story depicts a morally corrupt world in which money has become more important than people or spiritual peace.
  • God and religion: Both Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are unable to embrace everyday manifestations of God’s grace.

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Search for the Meaning of Life
When Shiftlet approaches the Crater’s farm, it is not clear what type of person he is. What is apparent is that he is searching for something. By marrying Lucynell and then abandoning her, he has missed an opportunity to experience redemption (an event symbolized by the ‘‘guffawing peal of thunder’’ and his anguished plea to God at the end of the story). Shiftlet has failed to bring meaning into his transient life. He entered the Craters’s lives as a lonely wanderer, and he leaves it the same way.

Given the gradually increasing interest he shows in money and Mrs. Crater’s automobile, perhaps Shiftlet believes that such material possessions might bring meaning to his life. By the end of the story, he has obtained these things, as well as a wife who can perform household chores and who, as a mute, ‘‘can’t sass [him] back or use any foul language,’’ as Mrs. Crater tells him. But none of these things bring meaning into Shiftlet’s life. He wanders on towards Mobile (notice the double meaning of the town’s name), where he will likely continue to live a life devoid of significance.

Moral Corruption
While on the surface, the automobile and wedding gift in ‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ seem unimportant, they in fact reveal a world in which money has become more important than people or spiritual peace. From the beginning, it is clear that Mrs. Crater is seeking to lure Shiftlet into her home so that she can gain his services—first as a carpenter, and then as a husband for her daughter. This causes Mrs. Crater (whose name suggests emptiness) to treat her own daughter as little more than an object to be traded.

While Shiftlet seems initially unconcerned with money, he is soon inquiring about the automobile, as well as cash for a wedding. (His name suggests that he is capable of such a ‘‘shift.’’) Like Mrs. Crater, he also abandons Lucynell, mistakenly believing, perhaps, that a car—which he admits he has always wanted but has never been able to afford— will fulfill his needs. O’Connor’s morally corrupt characters, who prize cars and money over human relations, are capable of self-deception but not selffulfillment. In the end, Shiftlet cannot avoid the fact that he is once again empty and wanting.

God and Religion
Closely related to the moral corruption of Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater is their inability to embrace everyday manifestations of God’s grace. Indeed, both surrender Lucynell, who is referred to as an ‘‘angel of Gawd.’’ In doing so, each trades a symbol of God’s presence for material comfort. It is this very absence of religious redemption that has led to Shiftlet’s nomadic life and Mrs. Crater’s lack of compassion. 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. Shiftlet even makes one final desperate attempt by offering a ride to a young boy. But the boy scolds Shiftlet, who is bluntly reminded of the lack of a religious presence in his rootless existence.

Nature and Its Meaning
‘‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’’ opens with a ‘‘piercing sunset’’ but ends with a ‘‘cloud descended . . . over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind’’ the car driven by Shiftlet. A thunderous storm breaks; Shiftlet’s eyes are ‘‘instantly clouded over with a mist of tears,’’ and he feels ‘‘that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him.’’ The light and illumination of the sun has been replaced by a dangerous and threatening storm. These are two examples of O’Connor’s use of natural imagery in this story.

Such imagery serves as a function both of O’Connor’s plot and her characterization. Mrs. Crater is initially seen ‘‘shading her eyes’’ from the light of the sun and later standing ‘‘as if she were the owner of the sun,’’ whereas Shiftlet is initially awed by its beauty. Mrs. Crater tries to deflect the sun, while Shiftlet seems to want to understand its powers. This is confirmed later when, after a ‘‘fat moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens,’’ Shiftlet says that ‘‘a man had to escape to the country . . . where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.’’ This lush passage, connecting the moon, plants, and animals, further suggests the important presence of nature in O’Connor’s story and the way in which she uses it to suggest Shiftlet’s longing. Even the first word he teaches Lucynell is ‘‘bird.’’

While attempting to persuade Shiftlet to marry Lucynell, Mrs. Crater refers to Shiftlet as a ‘‘poor disabled friendless drifting man.’’ This appears to be where Shiftlet’s ‘‘shift’’ of attitude begins to take place. Natural allusions point the way. ‘‘The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards,’’ and his smile becomes ‘‘a weary snake waking up by a fire.’’ Nature remains present, but it is more threatening, foreshadowing Shiftlet’s abandonment of Lucynell. After he leaves Lucynell at a diner, a sinister storm breaks. The storm seems to have a double meaning; Shiftlet pleads for the storm and asks it to ‘‘wash the slime from the earth.’’ Such salvation eludes Shiftlet, but as all of O’Connor’s complex allusions to nature suggest, nature can be both a pleasure and a threat, a guiding light or sinister shadow. This is consistent with O’Connor’s view of her characters, who are capable of either saving or condemning themselves.

Themes and Meanings

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“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” was part of Flannery O’Connor’s book A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), a collection that demonstrates her skill at using irony, violence, and the grotesque to create opportunities for redemption in the lives of characters who are often comical and always spiritually adrift in a realistic, yet highly symbolic world. O’Connor demonstrates humankind’s need for the mysterious grace of God, a gift that is offered suddenly in ordinary settings. Violence is a means to wake up characters to their own moral deficiency, to burn away their virtues so that there is nothing left but a humbled self, standing in perfect readiness to accept redemption.

Shiftlet indeed becomes a savior to Mrs. Crater by fixing up her farm. He also unintentionally delivers a moment of grace to her when she seems to acknowledge her feelings for her daughter for the first time, as Shiftlet is about to drive away with her. She says tearfully, “I ain’t ever been parted with her for two days before.” It is too late for Mrs. Crater: In her ambition to acquire a son-in-law, she seals Lucynell’s fate by marrying her off to Shiftlet.

Shiftlet’s own spiritual redemption is still a possibility. Throughout much of the story, he seems harmless, amiable, cheerfully performing his tasks on the Crater farm; however, his preoccupation with the automobile makes it easy to guess at his ulterior motives. His need and potential for redemption is even greater than Mrs. Crater’s. After the story was published, O’Connor herself described Shiftlet as a comic character, but still “of the Devil because nothing in him resists the Devil.”

The hitchhiker’s violent outburst shocks Shiftlet and renders him momentarily vulnerable, a device frequently used by O’Connor to demonstrate that a character is at a crucial moment and ready, if he or she chooses, to accept God’s grace. Does Shiftlet really see the ominous, turnip-shaped cloud in front of him, which is surely a symbol for his moment of potential redemption? It is difficult to know Shiftlet’s reaction because the story ends with him racing the storm to Mobile. All the reader knows is that Shiftlet has been offered a chance at self-recognition; he may choose to accept or reject it.

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