Terry Teachout says that in Flannery O’Connor’s world “unbelievers living in a fallen world tainted by modernity suddenly find themselves irradiated by grace, but… they struggle in vain against its revelatory power.” In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Tom T. Shiftlet lives in a fallen world tainted by modernity but he struggles in vain to receive the revelatory power of grace, perhaps because he avoids any kind of real commitment. Shiftlet is unwilling to commit himself to Mrs. Crater’s farm (despite his claim to have taken a “personal interest” in her plantation (O’Connor 7)), in his marriage to Mrs. Crater’s daughter, or even to teach the boy he picks up as a form of penance for abandoning Lucynell. He is evil but, as André Bleikasten says, he is “pettily evil” (140) and in the same way, his quest for redemption is just as petty. The narrator tells the story of Shiftlet’s visit to the Crater farm but the natural and religious symbolism of the story shows that he, nor Mrs. Crater, make any spiritual progress in the course of it.
At the start of the story Mrs. Crater sees a one-armed tramp coming toward their isolated house “his face turned toward the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain” (O’Connor 1). The sun is often used in O’Connor’s stories as a symbol of the Passion of Christ, according to Dorothy Walters (220-221), and here could mean that his religious belief is stable but only for the moment. As a result, Mrs. Crater knows she does not have to be afraid of him, even though Shiftlet has a high forehead and a mouth like a steel trap which gives him a devilish appearance. When he comes to a stop in front of the porch he raises his arms to form “a crooked cross” (O’Connor 2), in other words not the true cross but that of antichrist. The reader knows to distrust everything he says from that point on but the extent of his evil is not yet known.
Mrs. Crater, who is evil in her self-centered, materialistic nature, is too busy to notice Shiftlet’s qualities because her mind is fully occupied by her intention to trick him into marrying her daughter. She hardly listens to him. She observes him with her arms folded, “as if she were the owner of the sun” (O’Connor 2), meaning she believes herself to be a good, religious woman, one who could redeem Shiftlet. Everything Mrs. Crater sees belongs to her, including the farm, the three mountains, and her daughter. The narrator soon shows that her main goal is to make her own life as easy as possible, and having a handyman around the house as well as a husband for her daughter would fulfill all her dreams. Her self-centeredness makes her easy game for the conniving tramp.
Mr. Tom T. Shiftlet is just as materialistic but pretends to be a philosopher, one who rejects society and all its ways. He says he would give the fortune to watch the sunrise and set from Mrs. Crater’s porch, but his sharp eye has taken in all the details of her property. He is especially interested in a disused automobile that has not functioned for fifteen years since Mrs. Crater’s husband died. The automobile, says Claude Richard, is a symbol that often appears in O’Connor’s stories as representing “mystical revelation” (Paulson 216), the vehicle by which characters pursue grace. This defunct car indicates that Mrs. Crater’s spiritual development ended long ago; that, in O’Connor’s words, she is a “moral moron,” one whose character does not change (qtd. in Desmond 106).
The car also stands in contrast with the house in reflecting a conflict in Shiftlet. “The body, lady,” he tells Mrs. Crater, “is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always….” (O’Connor 10). Mrs. Crater ignores this sign of the man’s “ethical dualities that define not only the pain of being divided internally between mind and body, but also painful contradictions in society and the world” (Paulson 85), but instead chooses to believe that if Shiftlet can make the stationary automobile run again his spirit will keep him coming back to the house. ” She laid the bait carefully,” says the narrator but Shiftlet knows what she is trying to do and smiles “like a weary snake waking up by a fire” (O’Connor 10), which suggests a devil in paradise waking up to an opportunity to fulfill his dream: to own a car in which to find the mystical revelation that is up to that point lacking from his life.
Some of O’Connor’s stories end in an act of violence to “shock us into ‘grace’” (Paulson 86) but it will turn out that Shiftlet is not a violent man. All the same, he is evil. As O’Connor, herself says, “Mr. Shiftlet is of the Devil because nothing in him resists the Devil” (qtd. in Paulson 93). The snake in him awakens the moment he senses an opportunity to pursue his own goals at the expense of others. Also, he confuses his spiritual self as the quality of his character when he explains that he has “to follow where my spirit says to go,” in this case taking his wife for a meal at a hotel. This confusion in terminology is central to Shiftlet’s failure to reach his ultimate goal of being redeemed by God’s grace. He tells Mrs. Crater that he has “moral intelligence” (6) but it soon becomes clear that he does not understand that term. He judges the world as being “almost rotten” but excludes himself from that judgment even though he is to a large extent rotten. He believes in his lies and tends to shift the blame for anything he does wrong to other people. When he tries to “milk” Mrs. Crater he gets insulted when she tells him he is milking her and as soon as he has married the daughter he begins “twisting his neck in his collar,” as if to escape from his new responsibility, immediately blaming the officials for not knowing who he was and the law for not satisfying him (O’Connor 11). As Paulson says, “he projects his evil impulses outward until he feels the world is ‘slime’” (94).
Shiftlet explains the world’s fallen condition as being due to the changing times. Nothing is like it used to be, just like the car is not what it once was but he still regards it as his way out. He repairs, or resurrects the automobile as if that will lead to his redemption but, as John F. Desmond says, “Shiftlet converts the car into an idolatrous object, a false icon that mirrors his own dualistic sensibility” and therefore “remakes the car into his own distorted image of reality” (48). In other words, he wants to escape the rottenness of the world which, according to Desmond, “is about to engulf him” (49), but it will only take him deeper into his evil nature.
When Shiftlet prays to the Lord to “break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” (15) it is he who is the slime because it is he who has added evil to the world by robbing the widow and abandoning his new bride at The Hot Spot and who is now headed for Mobile to pursue his salvation. The last paragraph must be closely analyzed to see how all the elements of the story come together here:
The turnip continued slowly to descend. After a few minutes, there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin, can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet’s car. Very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile. (O’Connor 15)
The turnip refers to the hat worn by the boy he had picked up earlier. Shiftlet had looked for a hitchhiker and spots one as the “reddening ball” of the sun sets ahead of him. This symbol indicates that Shiftlet has recovered his sense of being redeemed by the death of Jesus Christ, and when he speaks to the boy he picks up he does so as a missionary would, about the sacredness of a boy’s mother. The boy, however, sees through Shiftlet’s hypocrisy and jumps out of the car. At that point, a cloud “the exact color of the boy’s hat, and shaped like a turnip,” (14) descends over the sun. The “guffawing peal of thunder” behind him seems to be mocking his fake resurrection of the car with its fake purification, and the “fantastic raindrops” only cleanse the trunk of his car. Rather than slowing down to be purified in his turn, Shiftlet quickly accelerates to out-run the “galloping shower,” “his stump sticking out the window” as a symbol of his damaged soul defying the shower – perhaps God’s grace – from actually washing away his sins, or avoiding this natural baptism.
As for Mrs. Crater, she has manipulated Shiftlet into marrying her daughter by misrepresenting her as being half her actual age, and as the ideal domestic slave who cannot even talk back to her lord and master. All her scheming has led to her life becoming as desolated as her house. She is a body without a spirit now that her angelic child with pink hair and blue eyes is no longer there to keep her company. Lucynell is left at The Hot Spot without any way of letting anyone know where she lives and perhaps without any interest in going home. The pale youth who reverently touches her hair as Lucynell sleeps with her head resting on the counter will probably take her into his care. Her innocence is her salvation unless The Hot Spot symbolizes hell.
This story shows that for O’Connor evil can express itself in a variety of ways, from the murderous violence in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” to her “characters being ruthlessly stripped of any pretense to dignity,” as Bleikasten says. “Wrenching from the Devil the dark, handsome mask… O’Connor exposes his essential banality and restores him to his favorite hunting ground: the everyday world. The color of evil, in her work, is gray rather than black…. The banality of evil is what brings it within range of mockery” (Bleikasten 140). In other words, O’Connor does not believe that evil is a higher reality but part of the everyday world where the stakes are often pitifully small but where disfigured characters turn to each other in the hope of redemption, then turn the other’s life into a minor hell. In Shiftlet’s case, he cannot stay with anyone long enough to turn that person’s life into hell because he is like the automobile that carries him toward Mobile, “always on the move, always …” trying to escape his hell.
Bleikasten, André. “The Heresy of Flannery O’Connor.” Eds. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark. Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1985.
Desmond, John F. Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988.
Paulson, Suzanna Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Richard, Claude. “Flannery O’Connor and Narratology.” Ed. Suzanna Morrow Paulson. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Teachout, Terry. “Believing in Flannery O’Connor.” Commentary Magazine, 2009.
Walters, Dorothy. “The Lack of Beauty in Flannery O’Connor’s Work.” Ed. Suzanna Morrow Paulson. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.