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“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by O’Connor

Author’s name: Flannery O’Connor

This author has published a number of short stories apart from two novels. Her writing slants towards a compulsive Southern Gothic tradition with a strong narrative pace and most of her writings are based on old Southern styling. The readability of her works derives from the fact that she combines moral aspects of living with common nuances of everyday life in a very simple, straightforward and yet striking manner. This story also is an illustration of O’Connor’s talent and her understanding of human situations which she portray with vivid details that are results of her experience gleaned from the life on earth.

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Through this story the author sends strong vibes that, despite the fact that each person is striving for his own fulfilment; he is also a victim of fate and providence, from which there is no escape, or liberation.

The speed through which the characters in this story move through life without caring for, or considering their own destiny, is the central theme of this story.

The inevitability of impeding death and its meaning has the signature of Flannery O’Connor across it.

The research hypothesis is to examine the reasons why Flannery O’Connor is such a popular American writer and has cast a deep and abiding influence on contemporary American literature. Further, in the context of this story, the critical aspects of the narrative, the opening evolution, and execution of the plot and overall

structuring of the story line are critical aspects that need to be focussed upon.

Family personal influences

Her writings depict her devout Catholic upbringing and her conviction in strong Christian beliefs provides faith and moral vigour to her positive characters. O’Connor, who took her religion as seriously as she did her writing, called them the stories about original sin.” (Flannery O’Connor). The discipline, mental peace and tranquillity that one derives from practising faith are evident from her writings. “She taught him his first prayers at her knee, she gave him love when no other would, she told him what was right and what wasn’t, and she seen that he done the right thing.” (O’Connor).

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Events in the story

However, in many of her stories, including this one, it is seen that the undercurrents of humanity and selflessness do not surface and often the grotesque and the innocent are combined to form fresh social equations. This story portrays an amoral drifter, who, by dint of his skills, gets a wife, money and a smooth getaway; but eventually gets trapped in a tornado after he abandons his newly wed wife and tries to move alone into a big city in search for another fortune.

Aspects of critical analysis

Despite her young age, O’Connor’s stories depict a sort of maturity and deep insight besides illustrating vivid experiences regarding the pathos and ethos of human existence. “She possessed a keen ear for southern dialect and a fine sense of irony and comic timing; with the combination of these skills, she produced some of the finest comedy in American literature.” (Literature: Flannery O’Connor). In the instant story, “The life you save may be your own,” she analyses the relationships between an old lady, Mrs. Crater, her mentally retarded daughter Lucynell, and the visit of a tramp-like figure, Mr. Shiftlett, a drifter and iterant carpenter looking for any kind of work. Although Mrs. Crater did not favour him initially, because of the fact that there were no male hands at her place and her house needed repairs, she keeps him without paying money but instead providing food and allowing him to sleep in her car.

The practical aspects of Southern American life of her time is well portrayed in the story – especially through the effective use of dialects and a string of conversations that take place between the drifter and the old lady. Although the old Mrs. Crater is worldly wise and she knows that no body would like to employ a drifter in those parts, particularly one who is one armed, and not particularly handsome. “Finally, Mrs. Crater gets fed up with Shiftlett’s resistance and says, “There ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.” (Short Story Reviews). Thus, considering the benefits of having access to an automobile and free dwelling, and the fact that jobs were scarce, Mr. Shiflett decides to camp at Mrs. Crater’s place for some time.

It is seen that the author, O’Connor, has made intelligent use of human failings and farm life in her work, in which the elements of human benevolence, charity and altruism have deep undercurrents of selfishness and ambition.

In the story, although Mrs. Crater’s professed aim was to have a handyman around, her fundamental motive was to get her cretin daughter married to someone who would be ready to accept her. As an anxious mother, this is but natural and O’Connor has been quite right to introduce this element into her story, not only to provide an impetus for her actions but to underline the basic human maternal instincts of seeing her child safely ensconced in somebody’s care and protection. Being old herself, it was but natural that the care of her daughter was uppermost in her mind, and Mr. Shiflett, with all his shortcomings, physical deformities and even mental depravities, seemed to be the ultimate (and only) choice under the given set of circumstances.

O’Connor has deeply sketched the character of a leprechaun, crafty and cunning, but not without human feelings. He has a grouse against the world, and needs outlets to vent it at different intervals. This time it has been at Mrs. Crater’s place. He has often talks about how bad the world is and the treatment it had meted to him. But, by repairing an old automobile, he reminds Mrs. Crater of the times she shared with her dead husband. It also impresses her about the helpful and responsible nature of Mr. Shiflett, who despite his failings remains a useful and determined person. She raises the question of her daughter’s marriage stating that nobody will be willing to fend for a wanderer. The demanding and selfish nature of women, imbued in practical ways of the world, entraps Shiftlett, who despite his rough and coarse exterior, comes across as an obliging person ready to help anyone in need, including the residents of the house in small ways.

Readers can infer that both Mrs. Crater and the drifter have ulterior motives – the tramp wishes to have the car, the mother wishes to settle off the girl. However, the story ends on a sombre note in that after abandoning the girl, the man drives away the car to a place called Mobile, and in all probability gets caught up in a tornado, which O’Connor describes as “two clouds appear the shapes of turnips descending in front and behind of him.“ (Short Story Reviews).

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Critical acclaim

It is seen that O’Connor belonged to a place which was known to produce good writers, and she was no exception herself. Her writings reflect her ability to write stories of “exceptional depth and subtle detail “which has been the hallmark of this story also. (O’Connor and Magee, P.vii). The beginning and ending are indeed critical parts for any story, and this becomes evident in this short story also. In this case it is seen that the story and the narrative is simultaneous and sets the pace of the story. Although the story is narrative all the way to its final stages, it is seen that O’Connor has dextrously bonded the story, the character and the settings together. Again coming to the endings, it is observed that ending in a way could be compared to the prognosis of ending of life of the author herself of a debilitating disease. “For O’Connor, the believer, however, death was not simply the bleak prospect of annihilation, nor was it even an irrevocable, final event; to her, it was not so much an ending as a rebeginning, the soul’s journey from life to afterlife, the sinner’s passage from earth to Heaven, to the Purgatory or to Hell.” (Bleikasten).

The next aspect about O’Connor’s work could be seen in the fact that, the symbolic aspects are that of the automobile that signals freedom, mobility and the state of being carefree and independent that are intrinsic parts of Shiftlett’s personality and attitude towards life. Although Mrs. Cater is fully aware of the essential nature of his personality, the irony lies in the fact that she allows her own cretin daughter to accompany him, which, while on one hand, depicts the mother’s concern for the 30 year old child, at another level, brings out her own urge and desire to be free and independent, like she was during the lifetime of her husband. The mother seeks to achieve through her daughter, what she has not been able to achieve herself; she does not insist that “Any man come after her “would “have to stay in the place.” (O’Connor).

The family aspects that influence this story can be discerned in the context of O’Connor’s own life. Her father died of lumpus when she was in her teens, and this tragedy influenced her later life and perceptions of life and living. Years later, she falls herself victim to the same disease that killed her father, and dies at the prime of her youth and career at a young age of 39 years. Her attitude to death has been her own life experiences, although this has only been obliquely referred to, in this story.

Conclusions

Through this story the author sends a loud and clear message that, despite the fact that each person is striving for his own fulfilment; he is also a victim of fate and providence, from which there is no escape or redemption. In Shiftlett’s own words, he “felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. “Oh Lord!” he prayed. “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” (O’Connor). The inevitability of impeding death and its significance has the signature of Flannery O’Connor.

Works Cited

  1. Bleikasten, Andre. Beginnings and Endings in Flannery O’Connor. The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 59, 2005.
  2. Flannery O’Connor. Answers.com. 2009. Web.
  3. Literature: Flannery O’Connor. The New Georgia Encyclopedia. 2009.
  4. O’Connor, Flannery., and Magee, Rosemary M. Conversation with Flannery O’Connor. Univ. Press of Mississippi. 1987. Web.
  5. O’Connor, Flannery. The Life you Save May be Your Own. 2009.
  6. Short Story Reviews: Flannery O’Connor. Patrick Davie. 2005.

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