Analysis of Characters in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a short story written by the American author Flannery O’Connor. It is one of ten stories in her short story collection called A Good Man Is Hard to Find. In this Southern Gothic tale, we are introduced to a mother and her daughter as they sit on a porch in an impoverished country town. A man, Mr. Shiftlet, crosses their path and after a bit of conversation is offered a place to sleep and food to eat in exchange for fixing things around the house.
He eventually is offered the daughter’s hand in marriage, and accepts with the reward of getting a car. The two marry and the mother provides money for them to go on a weekend honeymoon. But, in an unexpected turn of events, at least 100 miles away from her home, Mr. Shiftlet leaves the girl sleeping and stranded at the counter of a breakfast restaurant. Feeling very guilty, he searches for a hitchhiker to pick up in an effort to right his wrong and finds a little boy that had just run away from home.
Mr Shiftlet convinces the child to go back home to his mother and the story ends with him driving to Mobile. Flannery O’Connor does more than tell a humorous Gothic story with this piece of work; she uses the lives of Lucynell, Lucynell Jr, and Mr Shiftlet to illustrate the human condition and how we often put our morals to the side for our own selfish gain. Lucynell Crater is the retarded daughter of Mrs. Crater.
She has a childlike mind and is unable to speak. She is a simple spirit and lacks comprehension of her surroundings. She ha[s] long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck”(O’Connor). She was almost thirty but could pass for 15 or 16 because of her innocence. She is almost entirely silent the whole story, yet she plays a major role in the events that take place throughout the story. Lucynell was a key player in this story because she was Mrs. Crater’s only opportunity to get a son-in-law, and Mr. Shiftlets best opportunity to get a car. The story revolves around Mrs. Crater’s attempts to get Mr. Shiftlet to want to marry Lucynell.
She lies about Lucynell’s age, brags on how she is able to do housework, and even makes sure that he knows she is innocent. All the while, Lucynell is totally oblivious to the things that are taking place around her. Lucynell is used as a symbol in this story; she is a representation of the rejected salvation for Mr. Shiftlet. Mr. Shiftlet (Shiftlet suggesting that he is a sketchy character or that he will eventually change) is immediately recognized as a “tramp” by Mrs. Crater as he walks up the road.
His conversation leads the reader to believe that he is nothing but a con-man. O’Connor makes it apparent in Mr. Shiftlets speech that he knows exactly what to say in order to get what he wants. From the time he approached their porch, he was eying their car. He spoke as if he wanted to hang around because he wanted to be able to share their view of the sunset every morning, but it is apparent that he wants the car for himself in order to be free. Tom Shiftlet’s inability to be truthful and honest about his intent creates a situation for him that could have been avoided.
He hangs around the house, fixing things and even teaching Lucynell to speak. Because he is “a poor disabled friendless drifting man”(O’Connor) according to Mrs. Crater, and therefore there is no place in the world for such a man as he, it was assumed that he would marry her daughter, fulfilling her desperation for a son-in-law, and live out the rest of his life with the Craters. Because he went along with the assumption, he is in essence, forced to marry Lucynell and this leads to him abandoning her at the diner because he really did not want what he agreed to.
Mrs. Lucynell Crater (the name Crater suggesting an empty space or hole, indicating that she is in want/need of something) is a toothless old widow. Her husband died 15 years ago, leaving her to take care of Lucynell and the farm by herself for the rest of her life. It makes sense that she would be so welcoming and trusting of a complete stranger. “O’Connor connects the Craters’ lack of a man in the household to immobility and deterioration and Shiftlet presents a solution to both problems”(Arant).
Though handicapped by the lack of one arm, Mrs.Crater believes Mr Shiftlet will be a great help around the house and decides to provide food and a place to sleep for him in exchange for his services. As the story progresses, Mrs. Crater’s desperation for a son-in-law begins to show more clearly in her conversations with Mr. Shiftlet. She begins to use Lucynell as a bargaining tool as she offers him the car in exchange for marrying her daughter. She loses sight of the fact that Lucynell is not competent enough to enter into a marriage because her focus is gaining a son-in-law that could take care of the farm.
This is a very immoral decision because her duty as a mother is first and most importantly to take care of and protect her child. Her decision to marry Lucynell off also speaks to the fact that she either does not understand the sacred nature of marriage or does not care at all about it. As stated earlier, Mrs. Crater is well aware of Mr. Shiftlets desire to obtain the vehicle that had been sitting up for years so she uses it to negotiate a marriage between him and Lucynell. Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs Crater agree that he would marry her and take her out on a weekend honeymoon.
O’Connor makes it apparent that innocent Lucynell does not know what has taken place because she falls asleep on what ought to be the happiest day of her life. Lucynell was the saving grace for both Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater, but instead, just as the world rejects Christ’s salvation, she was rejected and these two characters are damned to a life of loneliness and guilt. Lucynell was Mrs. Craters life before Mr. Shiftlet came along, and the fact that she was crying at the thought of Lucynell being gone for only two days proves that she is definitely going to suffer more if she never returns.
As far as Mr. Shiftlet is concerned, Mrs. Crater trusted him with Lucynell, telling him “I wouldn’t let no man have her but you because I seen you would do right. ”(O’Connor) and he betrayed her trust. He abandoned his salvation, “he is on the run from grace; he longed for a car so that he could run faster and farther”(Rogers). He realizes that his actions were terrible and even after trying to redeem himself by picking up a hitchhiker he cries out to the Lord, “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth! ” and the story ends with him attempting to outrun the approaching storm.
A closer look at the characters in this story gives an accurate example of the human condition. The characters in most Southern Gothic stories are often decrepit, unsavory, poor and/or mentally ill. The authors use the extremities of the people in their stories to expose our internal mental condition as human beings. The purpose in doing so is to cause the reader to take a moment and examine their own lives. It makes one stop and think about how they may have acted in the situations presented in the stories and it gives them insight as to what could result from it.
On the surface, the automobile and wedding in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” seem to hold little to no importance. But from the beginning, it is clear that Mrs. Crater only wanted to keep Mr. Shiftlet around for the potential services that he could provide. He could have been her live-in carpenter as well as a husband for her daughter. At this point her daughter becomes an object instead of a human being. Even though Mr. Shiftlet pretends to be unconcerned with the money, he winds up asking about the car and even wants money for the wedding.
Eventually, just like Mrs. Crater, he abandons Lucynell for the belief that a car would fulfill his needs. Through the approach of Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater in relation to their desire to gain the things they thought they needed in order to be happy, Flannery O’Connor reveals a world in which money or material things have become more important than people or even spiritual peace.
Arant, Alison. “A Moral Intelligence”: Mental Disability and Eugenic Resistance in Welty’s “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Southern Literary Journal 44. 2 (2012): 69-87. Academic Search Premier. Web 5 Feb 2013 Baym, Nina, Mary Loffelholz.
“Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. New York W. W. Norton ; Co. 2007. 2522-2529. Print.
Rogers, Jonathan. “Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 2: ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’”. Jonathan-Rogers. com. 11 June 2012. WordPress. Web. 4 Feb 2013.