Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953)

Lucynell Crater and her daughter Lucynell Crater, who’s 30 but whose mother will lie and say is 15 or 16, live in a paid-off home somewhere in rural Alabama. One-armed Tom T. Shiftlet (not the name) sidles up to the porch one day, sizing up Mrs. Crater quickly: she has some money, she’ll let him live and eat on the property in exchange for carpentry work but not money, and eventually she begins pushing her deaf-mute daughter on him, hoping he marries her. “Lady,” he tells her, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man.” At least he warned her: he lies. Then again, so does she. And both do it in such good humor. They’re both angling. He really wants that car sitting unused. Not the woman. But the woman, the daughter, is the conduit to the car. The daughter Lucynell learns to say bird, thanks to Shiftlet. It’s the hinge. “Mr. Shiftlet already knew what was on her mind,” meaning the mother’s mind.  Next: marriage. He agrees. But he bargains for money to take her to a hotel and feed her, his version of a honeymoon, or so he lets Mrs. Crater think. She agrees to give him $17. By then he’s fixed and painted the car. The couple leave after a wedding that leaves Shiftlet dissatisfied:

The last line says it all. He drives off with younger Lucynell, a character lumped in there to contrast Shiftlet’s shiftiness with her purity, and otherwise more of a device than a character. His spirits fall with every mile: she was extra weight. She falls asleep at a diner. He tells the guy at the counter she’s a hitchhiker and leaves her there. He picks up a young boy who wasn’t hitchhiking but carrying a suitcase, then starts sounding sinister, or preachy, to the boy as he reminisces about his own mother, “an angel of Gawd.” The boy jumps out of the car. Shiftlet drives on and prays: “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth.” The title of the story was a sign on the road, about being careful. O’Connor doesn’t just have Shiftlet paint the car: she paints every scene in varied shades, her colors suggesting various symbols. But the symbolism can leave me feeling like that boy in the car: happy to leap out.

Kenyon Review, Spring 1953

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