“It Is A Fearful Thing . . .”: On O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

There is a lot of acquisitiveness in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”:  Old woman Crater longs to acquire a husband for her simpleminded daughter, Mr. Shiftlet aims to acquire the old woman’s car without paying for it.  Mrs. Crater lets Mr. Shiftlet stay and earn his bread on her property, intending to play matchmaker for the moneyless man and Lucynell, the daughter; and, indeed, there is a marriage.  But the marriage means nothing to Mr. Shiftlet.  He wishes to abandon the daughter (who has a child’s mind).

Though a miscreant, Mr. Shiftlet is not below feeling regret or even remorse.  The “tramp” who shan’t be starting a family begins to sentimentalize family (motherhood, anyway) to assuage a bitterness he experiences.  But bitterness all too easily gives way to despair.  After a hitchhiking boy—Mr. Shiftlet gives him a ride in the car he stole—insults the man’s mother, he feels “the rottenness of the world . . . about to engulf him.”  It is a rottenness with which Mr. Shiftlet knows he is united, and it triggers in him a thought about the indignation of God.  It is worth asking whether Mr. Shiftlet is on his way to salvation in this Christian story.  Perhaps so, but what is conveyed beyond a doubt is that, as Hebrews 10 tells us, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

English: Portrait of American writer Flannery-...
English: Portrait of American writer Flannery-O’Connor from 1947. Picture is cropped and edited from bigger picture: Robie with Flannery 1947.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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