The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor

Farmhouse and Car (1933)
Prudence Hayward
source Wikiart
Imagine a small town in the southern United States on a hot day.  An old woman and her daughter sit on the front porch of their house, the woman suddenly alert while the daughter plays vacantly with her fingers. Down the road, a man materializes, a young man but by his appearance obviously a drifter.  He has “a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” The woman and man greet each other, each eyeing the other with a hesitant speculation and a mutually concealed distrust.  After an introduction, the woman tries to find out more about Mr. Shiftlet but the man adeptly avoids answering, speaking of cars, hearts, lying and the definition of man. With more talk, it becomes clearer that the man is interested in the old car in the yard that had belonged to the woman’s deceased husband, and the woman is interested in a suitor for her mentally disabled daughter. Agreeing to stay on for board and food, the man begins to spruce the place up and soon it looks much improved.

As time passes, the woman continues to subtly bargain for a husband for her daughter, as Shiftlet counters, bargaining for the car.  Finally a deal is struck, the two marry and the car becomes his. Yet the material desire of his heart is at war with the obligation to his new unwanted wife.  Shiftlet finds himself with a choice and the struggle within himself is powerfully displayed.

This story was perplexing, and although I haven’t read any of O’Connor’s other works, I have a feeling that she regularly creates confusion with readers.  While reading The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own, I was struck with impressions rather than feelings, as if I was following an incohesive story.  The story is there, but O’Connor inserts so many phrases that are pregnant with meaning, that you simply can’t help analyzing them, wondering if there is some sort of secondary communication.  Let’s see what I can make of it.

The Farmer’s Daughter (1945)
Prudence Heward
source Wikiart

First of all, does Mr. Shiftlet’s name imply that he is a “shifty” character, or does it indicate a possibility of shift or change within him?  Or both?  Initially, he is presented swinging “both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross.”  There is definitely religious connotations here, but notice the “crooked cross.”  There is certainly something very imperfect about this man.  He is also a carpenter, which was the profession of Jesus — does that mean anything or not?  When the woman tells him that he must sleep in the car, Shiftlet answers, “Lady, the monks of old slept in their coffins.”  Here is another allusion to religion and death (although monks slept in their coffins so they would get used to not fearing death, but that’s another story).

O’Connor also employs colour imagery in profusion, from the bright colours around Lucynell, the daughter, indicating innocence, purity and happiness, to the black, brown and grey colours worn by the man and woman, from the sun shining forth at the beginning of the story, only to be covered by a cloud at the end.

Portrait of a Man (1911)
Albert Bloch
source Wikiart

There is much speculation as to what O’Connor wanted to convey with this story, and there certainly appears to be deeply imbedded layered meaning.  When writing, O’Connor applied a type of analogical technique that allowed to reader “to see different levels of reality in one image or situation ….. (having) to do with the Divine life and our participation in it ….. was also an attitude towards all creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities and I think that it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is every going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature.”

For me, the impression that stood out was the subtle change in the man.  Initially, he is a tramp, someone who is disconnected to the material, content to wander and take odd jobs.  His exchange with the woman borders on the philosophical on his side and he is likened to a Christ-like figure.  Yet as soon as he espies the car, a possessive desire begins to simmer inside him, causing him to abandon his ideals, and he is satisfied to barter with the mother for Lucynell as if she were an animal or possession.  Because his attention is fixed on a worldly goal, Shiftlet becomes blind to simple pleasures and human empathy.

Portrait of a Boy
Albert Bloch
source Wikiart

If nothing else, O’Connor gives the reader a multitude of possibilities and honestly, this short story was a compelling and intriguing experience.

Next week, for my Deal Me In Challenge, I’ll be reading the short story by Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House.

Week 7 – Deal Me In Challenge – Six of Clubs

0 thoughts on “The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor

  1. Great post and analysis! You did a much "deeper dive" than I did for this story when I guest-posted about it on Mirror With Clouds last year. I remember loving the descriptions thatO'Connor uses when Mr. Shiftlet finallygets that old heap started and running…

  2. Thanks! I could be right, then again I could be totally wrong ….. or partially right ……. Who knows? And I'm still confused about the title but I didn't even go there in my post.

  3. i've only read one or two of O.Connor's tales, and not this one; but it's a lot like what i read… don't know enough about her to know if she was a one trick pony or not, but even so, there's not enough in her work, excellent though it might be, to attract me very much… i guess i have the feeling she tries to do too much with her writing… or maybe it's just her perspective i have trouble with…

  4. I've read all of Flannery o Connor. She has a wicked sense of humor and her stories always have unexpected twists. And yet there is something somber lurking underneath the surface where she makes poignant observations about human nature. She likes to show the crookedness of people. By that I don't mean people are crooks but that people are "warped" or "broken".

    As a devout Catholic she would believe that mankind is fallen.

  5. I know what you meaning about her doing too much, but since it was a short story, I was able to look at it as a different approach. If it was a whole novel, it might have been overwhelming. I'll continue to read her though and perhaps get a better sense of her style.

  6. I'd read enough of O'Connor's background to expect religious or moral elements in her works, but her approach was interesting and quite unique. I'm impressed that you've read all her works, but then again, I'm envious of all the reading time you get and the number of books and reviews you are able to complete so I shouldn't be surprised. You can perhaps give me some more insight as I read more of her works! 🙂

  7. Ah Jay, thanks so much for addressing the title in your review! I was wondering about it and what you say makes sense. I'm going to think more about it. Thanks for linking your review!

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