Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 2: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club continues this week with “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

The central action of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”" is a battle of wits between Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell Crater–Shiftlet angling to get the old woman’s car, the old woman manipulating Shiftlet to marry his daughter. It is tempting to call their mental chess match, with its measures and countermeasures, a duel of competing world views. Mr. Shiftlet presents himself as a philosopher, constantly steering the conversation toward life’s imponderables. The old woman is a pragmatist, earth-bound and world-weary, the kind of person who believes she sees through everything.

But even if these two characters compete with one another, I’m not sure their world views do. Both Mr. Shiftlet’s philosophizing and Lucynell Crater’s no-nonsense materialism are both ways of avoiding any claims that God might have on their lives. Mr. Shiftlet’s restlessness is not that of a man in search of truth, but the restlessness of a man running from truth. His favorite topic, the theme of his song, is unknowability.

“There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart…and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady…he don’t know no more about it than you or me.”

“People don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady…what is a man?”

“What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my heart and cut it out..they wouldn’t know a thing about me. It didn’t satisfy me at all.”

The old woman’s pragmatism cuts through all that. She asks no philosophical questions, answerable or unanswerable. When she asks anything at all, she is asking for information she can use.

“Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?”

“What you carry in that tin box, Mr. Shiftlet?”

“Are you married or are you single?”

When Mr. Shiftlet marvels at the sunset, Mrs. Crater, empty of both curiosity and wonder, shuts him down with a remark that is true enough but misses the point altogether: “Does it every evening.” She dismisses all of Mr. Shiftlet’s big talk with a curt answer or a practical question or a clamping of the jaw. Her world is simple; its meaning is summed up in a deep well, a warm house, and no mortgage. And a son-in-law. Her pragmatism reaches its logical conclusion in her remarks to Mr. Shiftlet about her mute daughter: “One that can’t talk can’t sass you back our use foul language.” True enough. But missing the point altogether.

Lucynell Crater’s earth-boundness is answered by Mr. Shiftlet’s rootlessness. He is on the run from grace; he longs for a car so that he can run faster and farther. Throughout O’Connor’s oeuvre there are characters who try to run away from God. Some get caught anyway, and some don’t. The fact that Mr. Shiftlet is still running at the end of the story–that is to say, he hasn’t been caught–doesn’t speak well for his spiritual condition. He calls on the God in the thunderhead to “break forth and wash the slime from this earth.” But rather than letting himself be washed clean, he steps on the gas and races ahead of the storm. O’Connor, as I mentioned last week, saw more hope for soul of the serial killer the Misfit than for the soul of the comparatively harmless Mr. Shiftlet. The Misfit is standing still at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The last we see of Mr. Shiftlet, he’s still running.

  • Janna

    Not that I’m qualified to be your editor, but I think we may have a couple of titles mixed up in this post. I haven’t read this story in awhile, is Lucynell still in the car with him at the end of the story?

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    This worldview contrast is a very interesting point. The thing I am less certain about is Mr. Shiftlet’s state at the end. One thing you didn’t mention, and I am still a bit mystified over, is the presence of the boy/hitchhiker and how Mr. Shiftlet, seemingly out of nowhere, opens up to him about his mother, and then receives that stinging insult. The boy seems more symbol than real. He’s in and out, almost like a deus ex machina. I also found this line interesting: “A cloud, the exact color of the boy’s hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sky…” Again, more symbol than real?

  • Jessica

     No, Mr. Shiftlet leaves her at a diner.   She’s a confusing character too.  Is there some significance to the boy at the diner calling her “an angel of Gawd?”

  • Jessica

    Thanks for the insight about the competing worldviews between Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater.    Mr. Shiftlet seems to have such a pessimistic, nihilistic view of life – “the rottenness of the world almost engulfed him.”   There’s no meaning and no hope in anything he says.   He’s a broken man, physically disabled, but instead of being drawn to the younger Lucynell, also physically impaired, in love and empathy, he uses her and abandons her.  I found that part of the story so sad.  He carries out his worldview to its logical conclusion.  If the rottenness of the world is all there is, then one might as well be rotten too.

  • http://www.chrisyokel.com/ Chris

    That’s an interesting point Jessica. So maybe he’s trying to “cheat” on his own worldview at the end of the story, but then gets it thrown right back in his face by the little boy? A taste of his own medicine, perhaps?

  • http://www.bryanajohnson.wordpress.com/ Bryana Johnson

    I felt like the boy/hitchhiker at the end was significant in that he gave Mr. Shiftlet an opportunity to show us that he is fully aware of his own rottenness. He lectures the boy about bad decisions (the same bad decisions that he made himself) and becomes very emotional throughout the course of that discussion. But although he is acknowledging that he is sickened by the state of the world, and by the evil he is a part of, he doesn’t ever appear to have any intention of doing things any differently than he always has.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I wondered if Shiftlet was truly speaking of his mother, or just rattling off at the mouth, trying to distance himself from his desertion of Lucynell the younger. The phrase that triggered this for me was when he said his mother was “an angel of Gawd,” exactly the phrase the kid at The Hot Spot uses for Lucynell. It seems like Shiftlet latched onto that and in his twisted way he’s reaching back into his dim past. In his mind, he’s speaking of a saintly mother–which makes him look better. The reality is he’s lying through his teeth and he’s rotten.

    I’d be interested if anyone else had this feeling.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Oops! This was supposed to be added on as a reply to Chris who wonder why Shiftlet opened up on the topic of his mom out of nowhere.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    I like this picture of two worldviews. I couldn’t help but think that both Mrs. Crater and Mr. Shiftlet were both in this for what each could get from it. In the end, is the stranded, forsaken Lucynell going to be missed even by her mother? It’s impossible to tell for all Mrs. Crater’s talk of what a smart, helpful girl her daughter is. Very sad.

  • Jessica

     That’s sounds right. It’s hard to see how else the little boy hitchhiker fits in to the story.

  • http://profiles.google.com/micahpaul Micah Hawkinson

    For me, one of the most compelling things about O’Connor is her ability to address such serious (even heartbreaking) themes so humorously.  I can’t think of many funnier moments in literature than these interchanges between Mr. Shiftlet and and Mrs. Crater.  My favorite:

    “Lady,” he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump, “there ain’t a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn’t fix for you, one‑arm jackleg or not. I’m a man,” he said with a sullen dignity, “even if I ain’t a whole one. I got,” he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, “a moral intelligence!” and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.

    The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. “I told you you could hang around and work for food,” she said, “if you don’t mind sleeping in that car yonder.”

    “Why listen, Lady,” he said with a grin of delight, “the monks of old slept in their coffins!”

    “They wasn’t as advanced as we are,” the old woman said.

  • http://www.greenertrees.net/ Julie

    I have to admit that I was holding out hope that Mr. Shiftlet was just a misguided dreamer.   Bummer.