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.