The short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” written by renowned southern writer Flannery O’Connor in 1953, tells the story of an elderly woman and her disabled daughter, both named Lucynell Crater, and a partly disabled man, Tom Shiftlet, whose interaction on a warm midsummer night will change all of their lives forever. O’Connor takes all three characters together and gradually intertwines their lives with “an abundance of irony and deliberately studied realistic detail” (Clasby 511). What binds the plot together, though, is the inherent use of archetypal motifs to intertwine these apparently disparate characters. While some call this short story a theological cartoon due to O’Connor’s prevalent use of religious symbols in her stories, O’Connor also uses archetypal motifs to form the basis for this story.
As the story begins, the old woman and her daughter are sitting on their porch at sunset when out of the direction of the setting sun appears Mr. Shiftlet. As Mr. Shiftlet gets closer to the house, the old woman at first is cautious about the stranger approaching because she and her daughter do live in a “desolate spot” (O’Connor) but her fear is quickly abated when she notices Mr. Shiftlet is “a tramp and no one to be afraid of” (O’Connor). In addition to this the old woman notes that “His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him” which further indicated that this man was no threat to her and her daughter.
From this beginning, O’Connor begins to entwine the story with religious symbolism such as her description of the Mr. Shiftlet turning away to face the setting sun with his arms outstretched resembling “a crooked cross” (O’Connor) and the fact that Mr. Shiftlet is a carpenter (reminiscent of Jesus Christ) to cede the story with religious significance. However, what is more interesting, and less evident to the casual reader, is that O’Connor is using the archetypal motifs which Clasby describes as a “grim and ravenous personification of the Great Mother and a maimed hero who seeks to cheat her out of her treasure [her daughter]” (511) as the basis for the story.
As the story progresses, the relationship of the treasure, the daughter Lucynell, to the mother becomes much darker. As Clasby notes “the daughter’s potential identity as the beautiful anima, or soul figure, can emerge only when the hero has defeated the dark forces of the terrible mother” (511). If this story were written like the fairy tales of old, our hero Mr. Shiftlet would in the end free the treasure, Lucynell, from the grasp of the evil mother and live happily ever after much like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty but this is not that kind of story. So, it is that Mr. Shiftlet begins the bargaining process whereby he can get Mrs. Crater to release Lucynell. However, in a twist which only O’Connor can make, Mr. Shiftlet fixates on another “treasure” that he wishes to liberate from the clutches of Mrs. Crater, that is the old car interred in her shed.
In his quest to liberate his treasure of the old car and to satisfy Mrs. Crater who was “ravenous for a son-in-law” (O’Connor), Mr. Shiftlet convinces Mrs. Crater he has taken a personal interest in his work fixing up the farm, getting the old car to run and young Lucynell, even teaching her to say the word “bird” even though she has never said a word in her life. Working as the archetypical hero, Mr. Shiftlet strives to free Lucynell from the control of her mother. Mrs. Crater convinces Shiftlet that she is willing to release her daughter but only if Shiftlet is willing to stay on and take on the Crater farm and all there is within in the bargain. This includes, of course, the car that he is really after so he agrees to stay on, marry Lucynell and take on the farm with only one concession, his “spirit” (O’Connor) requires that he take his new bride off for a weekend honeymoon of sorts before he settled back into life on the farm. Mrs. Crater agrees and sets the wedding date for the upcoming Saturday.
After a simple ceremony in town on Saturday, Shiftlet returned to the farm to drop off Mrs. Crater and pick up the lunch she had made for their trip. It is in this scene at the Crater farm that the final wrenching free of the treasure (Lucynell or the car depending on whether you ask Mrs. Crater or Shiftlet). Lucynell, for her part, seems oblivious to what is happening as evidenced by O’Connor writing “Lucynell looked straight at her and didn’t seem to see her there at all.” So, it is that Mr. Shiftlet departs the Crater farm with Mrs. Crater’s two treasures as the triumphant hero of the story. However, O’Connor in her inevitable style throws in a last-minute curve to the happy ending when Mr. Shiftlet abandons Lucynell at a roadside café while she sleeps, tired from her ride in the car, and continues on his way with the true treasure he was seeking, the old car.
Even with the occasional intertwining of religious symbols and symbolism into this short story, the overriding theme for this writer is the underlying archetypal motifs which O’Connor uses to build the structure of the story itself. The archetypes of evil mother, hero and confined treasure or princess are part of a formula that has made great stories for many hundreds of years. These archetypical styles render a story that is both interesting to read and one that will endure in the memory well after it has been read because of the twists and turns that O’Connor uses as part of her signature style.
Clasby, Nancy T. “`The Life You Save May Be Your Own'” Studies in Short Fiction 28.4 (1991): 509. Academic Search Premier. Accessed February 18, 2017.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” The Kenyon Review website. https://www.kenyonreview.org/programs/resources-for-teachers/flannery-oconnor/. Accessed February 18, 2017.