Flannery O’Connor, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

April 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Unlike the previous Flannery O’Connor stories reviewed here, her 1953 short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” defies easy description.  There are no preachers of a Church without Christ, no Misfits giving the lie to “good breeding” and genteel manners, no confused young boys trying to self-baptize themselves in order to wash away the detritus of their young lives.   Yet “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” has its own haunting quality about it, perhaps because it is so subtle in its presentation of souls trying to gain advantage in life, whether or not it is at another’s expense.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” opens with an old woman and her daughter on a porch, apparently in northern Georgia or Tennessee, when an apparent drifter, a Mr. Shiftlet, appears, searching for a place to stay.  The mother tries to gauge Shiftlet’s intent (at first, he is described as being “a tramp”) and the two engage in a series of bantering probes, trying to peer deeper into the other’s true intentions.  There is a wry, black humor occurring here, with the adult daughter, Lucynell (the younger; the mother is also named Lucynell), being caught in the middle of a sort of perverse bargaining between the two.  The mother wants her married; Shiftlet at first takes more interest in the ancient Ford that’s been parked there since the girl’s father died some fifteen years before.  Soon into their semantic circling, Shiftlet says this:

He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening.  A sly look came over his face.  “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways.  I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before:  how you know I ain’t lying?  How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”

“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.

“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie.  Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?” (pp. 174-175)

“What is a man?”  What a portent-filled question this is; in some ways, what is a “human” lies close to the heart of O’Connor’s fictions.  What makes us lie to each other’s faces, trying to gain an advantage that most often is negligible at best?  Why do we go about trying to “pull a fast one,” to cover ourselves with our own fabrications in order to present a false face to the world?  These questions, although unspoken in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” loom large over it.

Shiftlet and the mother come to a series of arrangements, grudgingly agreed to by each.  Shiftlet will do work for shelter and the car.  Lucynell, the innocent girl with “pink-gold hair and blue eyes,” becomes the next center of attention.  Her mother wants to marry her off; Shiftlet responds to her probing into his marital status curtly:

There was a long silence.  “Lady,” he said finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today?  I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.” (p. 175)

There is ironic foreshadowing in this line, considering how Lucynell, whose silence is eventually explained, is often depicted as an innocent among the fallen.  As her mother and Shiftlet continue to haggle in the week to come, Lucynell becomes engaged to Shiftlet, to her mother’s great delight, as she seems to be relieved at the thought of her burden being removed.  Yet Shiftlet, who began by bargaining for a place to stay, begins to wheedle for more:  the car (then the car with a fresh coat of paint), a “mortgage-free farm,” and then a dowry for him to marry Lucynell.  The mother, in her desperate desire to rid herself of her deaf-mute daughter’s care, eventually accedes to these terms.

One of the themes that comes to the fore around the midpoint of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is that of the dualism of body and spirit, of permanence and wandering:

“Lucynell don’t even know what a hotel is,” the old woman m uttered.  “Listen her, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world.  You don’t need no money.  Lemme tell you something:  there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”

The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.  He didn’t answer at once.  He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it and then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit.”

The old woman clamped her gums together.

“A body and a spirit,” he repeated.  “The body, lady, is like a house:  it don’t go anywhere, but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile:  always on the move, always…”

“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place.  You can go to the courthouse and see for yourself.  And yonder that shed is a fine automobile.”  She laid the bait carefully.  “You can have it painted by Saturday.  I’ll pay for the paint.”

In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.  After a second he recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else.  I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost.  I got to follow where my spirit says to go.” (pp. 179-180)

Not only does this scene set up the final third of the novel, it lays bare the inner conflict within Shiftlet’s soul:  the desire to be “free,” to have his “spirit” roaming wherever it may.  It is a powerful desire, one that leads him to the ultimate betrayal of innocence.  Yet conscience is a powerful thing and a road sign dealing with speeding, the titular “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” pricks Shiftlet painfully.  His self-justifications for his actions are ripped apart and shown for the lies they are when he encounters a young hitchhiker at the end (the connection with how innocent Lucynell is abandoned is made quite explicit), who calls his statements for the lies that they are.  As the story closes, Shiftlet is anguished, yet ultimately unrepentant. It is with him “rac[ing] the galloping shower into Mobile” that provides a metaphoric parallel to a man being chased by hellhounds.  Shiftlet is guilty as all and he knows it and the ultimate question of “the life you save may be your own” takes on a different level of meaning.  While it certainly is lesser in scope than the majority of her other stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a muter yet only slightly less powerful work than her more well-known tales.

Originally posted at Gogol’s Overcoat in February 2013.

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