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

Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925.

“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work.” For O’Connor, reality meant spirit – the everlasting soul was the site of reality, not the material world, no matter how bound to it we appear to be. Again and again, she pushes her characters into terrifying epiphanies, moments of grace that they are hardly able to maintain. O’Connor’s lines about violence, reality, and grace were delivered in a discussion on her most-anthologized tale, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ but the sentiment saturates her fiction, where heroes are fatally flawed, stuck in the clay of the material world, yet still striving for a recognition of something metaphysical that might give meaning to it all.

The hero of ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ is Tom T. Shiftlet, a one-armed shapeshifting trickster who drifts into the lives of Lucynell Crater and her daughter, Lucynell Crater Jr. The narrator notes that his grotesque figure resembles a “crooked cross” and Shiftlet claims to be a carpenter. Like so many of O’Connor’s heroes, he’s a failed Jesus, a dissatisfied seeker. What is a man? he demands of Lucynell Crater upon their initial meeting.  It’s a question that the narrative can’t answer but can nevertheless repeatedly pose.

O’Connor presses her vision of reality upon Shiftlet. He marries the daughter Lucynell Crater Jr. in what amounts to an economic exchange “That didn’t satisfy me none.” He soon abandons her in a highway diner, and the reader senses that this is just one more failure in life stuffed with failure. But O’Connor gives the hero another chance to redeem himself. After passing a mundane sign that warns, “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own,” Shiftlet picks up a young boy hitchhiking on the side of the road. He seems to recognize something of himself in the boy, and guilt and regret seep into his consciousness. His attempts to reach out to the boy are met with rejection, however, and the lad jumps from a moving car into a ditch. The story concludes in ominous, anxious conclusive inconclusiveness as Shiftlet prays to God: “Oh Lord! . . .Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” His prayer is answered.

First published in The Kenyon Review, Spring 1953, and available to read online here. Collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955, and in Complete Stories, FSG 1971, and now from Faber and Faber, 1990

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