As a devout Catholic, Flannery O’Connor felt her calling in life was to convert her readers through her stories. As with many of O’Connor’s stories, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” readers must struggle to define what is and is not morally correct. This is the story about a drifter who meets an old woman and her feeble-minded daughter living on an isolated farm. Throughout the story, both the vagrant and the old woman have ulterior motives guiding their every action and decision.
The drifter, Mr. Shiftlet, conspicuously resembles a broken Christ figure. He approaches the old woman’s yard walking with a sideways slant. One of his arms is missing from the elbow down, and with the other he carries a tin toolbox. We learn later that he is indeed a carpenter, alluding to the biblical image of Jesus. As he greets the two women, the sun is setting over the mountains in the distance, causing him to turn and stare for a prolonged time with outstretched arms, “his figure formed a crooked cross” (146). Despite his broken appearance, Mr. Shiftlet declares, “I’m a man . . . even if I ain’t a whole one. I got . . . a moral intelligence!” (149). It is this moral intelligence that he seems to struggle with throughout the story. He claims to be disheartened with the current state of society, disparaging people for being complacent, concerned with money, or promiscuous. Yet all the while he is talking to the old woman, he is assessing the condition of the car he espies jutting out from the barn: “He judged the car to be about a 1928 or ’29 Ford” (147).
The old woman, Lucynell Crater, is no better. The entire time Mr. Shiftlet is talking to her, she is making plans of her own. Mr. Shiftlet tries to engage the old woman in philosophical discourse: “He asked her what she thought she was made for but she didn’t answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a onearmed man could put a new roof on her garden house” (148). Finally, after a long diatribe by Mr. Shiftlet, she blurts out, “Are you married or are you single?” (149). It becomes increasingly apparent that the old woman intends to marry off her deaf mute daughter, Lucynell, in order to get a handyman. She makes it clear to Mr. Shiftlet that she would not let a man take Lucynell away but suggests that she would marry her off if the man agreed to stay on the farm.
In this story, Lucynell is the pawn in a game of high-stakes chess. As readers, we know that Mr. Shiftlet is more interested in the car than in Lucynell, but he does seem to have some affection for her. He treats her kindly from the minute he arrives, giving her a stick of gum and teaching her her first word, bird. Mr. Shiftlet tells the old woman “that the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble . . . [and that] he never would have been able to teach Lucynell to say a word if he hadn’t cared and stopped long enough” (150). Yet he clearly seems dismayed by the proposition of marrying her. Martin writes, “One has the feeling that [Lucynell’s] hilarious antics mysteriously mock the purposes of both [the old woman and Mr. Shiftlet] and that her idiocy is a blessed condition far superior to their calculating devices” (209). Lucynell’s innocence ensures her spiritual redemption, as can be evidenced by her likeness to “an angel of Gawd” (154).
Is Mr. Shiftlet a heartless con man, as some critics suggest? This may be suggested by his physical deformity. André Bleikasten claims that in O’Connor’s stories “[the] deformity of bodies point[s] to a deeper sickness, invisible but more irremediably tragic, the sickness of the soul” (141). While Mr. Shiftlet preaches his morals and prays to God, he also exhibits some unethical actions: lying, marrying Lucynell in order to obtain the car, and then abandoning Lucynell in a strange place. But if Mr. Shiftlet’s professed principles are simply an act, then we must wonder why he continues the charade alone in the car. Once the hitchhiker has jumped out of the car, Mr. Shiftlet “felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him . . . [and cried out] ‘Oh Lord! . . . Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!’ ” (156). Perhaps Mr. Shiftlet is simply a lost soul searching for spiritual grace. Martin claims that Lucynell is the embodiment of grace and as such is Mr. Shiftlet’s opportunity at redemption, which he ultimately rejects. Martin writes, “[Mr. Shiftlet’s] complete awareness of his action is indicated by his transference of the waiter’s phrase from Lucynell to his mother, all the while thinking of his abandonment of the girl: ‘My mother was a angel of Gawd. . . . He took her from heaven and giver to me and I left her.’ . . . As the title of the story indicates, it is not Lucynell’s life that he must save, but his own” (88).
As with most O’Connor tales, at the story’s close, we are left to ponder whether the protagonist has made any progress at all toward spiritual redemption.
Bleikasten, André. “The Heresy of Flannery O’Connor.” In Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark, 138–158. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
Grimshaw, James A., Jr. The Flannery O’Connor Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Martin, Carter. The True Country. Kingsport, Tenn.: Kingsport Press, 1969.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” In The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.