The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor
In The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of change, betrayal and redemption. Taken from her A Good Man is Hard to Find collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on the reader realises the significance or importance of O’Connor’s description of Lucynell. It is through her description that the reader becomes aware that Lucynell is an innocent. Not only is she deaf and mute (unheard and silent) but when Shiftlet arrives at Mrs Crater’s home Lucynell is dressed in a blue organdy dress (imagery of the Virgin Mary) and while her mother is talking to Shiftlet on the porch the reader learns that Lucynell has blue eyes (innocence and heavenly). Likewise when Lucynell marries Shiftlet she is dressed in white (purity). Another important point to note early in the story is the characters names. The name Crater suggests a void or emptiness, as if is something is missing (which it is) and Shiftlet or shifty suggests possible deviousness but can also represent the idea of a shift or a change (the possibility to change).
There is no doubt that Shiftlet has the possibility to change and this can be seen several times in the story. When he is standing on the porch talking to Mrs Crater there is a beautiful sunset and Shiftlet’s shadow takes the shape of a crooked cross (idea of redemption). He is also a carpenter (biblical significance) and agrees to become Mrs Crater’s handyman in return for food and lodgings (act of charity) and the chance to fix Mr Crater’s (deceased) old car. The car is important because it is something that Shiftlet has always wanted. He imagines that a car can define a man and later when it is painted the reader will get a closer insight into the significance of the colours that Shiftlet uses to paint the car, again O’Connor playing on the idea of imagery through colours as she did when describing Lucynell. The car is painted green which suggests life or charity (possible redemption) and has a yellow band which some observers have suggested represents betrayal or deceit. The car is important for another reason. It is through it that Shiftlet has the possibility to ‘rise from the dead’ (be redeemed), O’Connor telling the reader that when Shiftlet does manage to get it started he sat in the driver’s seat and ‘he had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.’
Both Mrs Crater and Shiftlet want something. Shiftlet wants the car because he believes it is something that will define him as successful and Mrs Crater wants to find a son in law who will marry Lucynell and look after her and the farm. Both have selfish goals and in some ways are both betraying the innocent Lucynell. They are both thinking about themselves rather than about Lucynell (she is not marrying out of love). Though Crater marries Lucynell and there is still a possibility of redemption or atonement, he abandons her (and the idea of atonement) in The Hot Spot restaurant and in essence Mrs Crater is selling her daughter to Shiftlet. O’Connor also utilises the imagery of the sky in the story just as she did in The River. When Shiftlet does marry Lucynell and is driving off to Mobile with her for the honeymoon ‘the early afternoon was clear and open and surrounded by pale blue sky.’ This imagery is important because it suggests that there is still an opportunity of redemption for Shiftlet but after he abandons Lucynell at The Hot Spot the reader finds that ‘deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke.’
When Shiftlet does leave Lucynell at The Hot Spot he comes across a young boy on the highway wearing a grey hat and carrying a suitcase. He pulls up beside him and offers him a ride. This encounter is important because it is through it that Shiftlet again gets the opportunity of redemption. As he is driving towards Mobile he tells the boy how good his mother was but it is the boy who tells him that not only is his own mother a ‘flea bag ’ but that Shiftlet’s mother is a ‘stinking pole cat.’ After the boy jumps out of the car Shiftlet notices that the sky has changed colour again (O’Connor again using the imagery of the sky). Shiftlet can see a turnip shaped cloud the colour of the boy’s hat and feels ‘the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him.’ It is as if Shiftlet has become aware of his wrongdoings in life and he prays to God ‘Oh Lord! Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!’ Though the reader suspects that Shiftlet is again looking for redemption O’Connor ends The Life You Save May Be Your Own with any chance Shiftlet has of redemption being lost when we find that Shiftlet ‘very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile.’ Again Shiftlet is running away from grace and redemption just as he did when he had the opportunity of redemption through marriage to Lucynell.