Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Flannery O'Connor: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

I have a lot of “favorite” Flannery O’Connor short stories.

Flannery O’Connor’s short story, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," is included in The Complete Stories
This story is somewhat haunting, possibly because O'Connor freely borrows key images from a number of her other stories. For example, the image of the car as a vehicle of freedom and justification is used in Wise Blood (with its main character Hazel Motes noting that a man with a good car doesn't need salvation); and the notion of Catholicism as a dismissible un-advanced and "old" religion by a character who hasn't the patience to think deeply about spiritual things is used in The Displaced Person and other places. And, as is common, the story includes a widowed woman  with an invalid adult daughter who is unmarried. (It's interesting how often O'Connor uses this image since she was a physically afflicted, unmarried adult daughter living with a widowed mother. It's self-deprecating, perhaps, and brings recognition of her own need for grace to the forefront of her stories.)

I’ll try to explain my on-going response while reading the story. I read the story in two sittings: I started it in the morning and completed it the next evening. This story didn't settle easily with me: it took some thinking before it was "satisfying."

Back to the visceral response: As I began to read the story, I realized that I didn’t know it, which was a nice realization because I’ve re-read so many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, I can’t remember all that I’ve read. I was pleased that to be reading something new. As I got into it, I wanted the story to get along. I wanted it to make progress. I had the impatience common to her characters. Also, as I read,  I found that I didn’t care for the two main characters, Tom Shiftlet (which appropriately rhymes with Shiftless , and he is a scoundrel) and Lucynell Carter, the widow-mother who owned the place that Shiftlet happened upon.

I didn’t like Shiftlet and I didn’t care for his long-windedness, although that’s a usual characteristic of Flannery O’Connor characters – they cover their brokenness by talking a lot about their all-knowing perspective on the world.

I didn’t like Lucynell Carter because she was scheming and selfish. Clearly she thought highly of herself by giving her daughter the same name, Lucynell Carter.

Sidenote: I think that I wanted the characters to be more humorous. Like the Grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard To Find, I wanted characters that made me laugh. None of the five characters in this story entertained me. I thought that they were uncomfortably odd.

Shiftlet is physically broken. Although he has skills, he is a carpenter and he fixes Lucynell’s car later in the story, he is a one-armed man, who early on in the story stretches out both arms in a way that signals the redemptive nature of where the story is headed: "He swung out both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross." But the image is lost on Lucynell and her daughter:
“The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists.”

The story goes on with Shiftlet making references to deep things that disturb his thinking and that Lucynell thinks are plain foolish. For example, Shiftlet talks about a surgeon in Atlanta who had “taken a knife and cut the human heart” and “studied it like a day-old chicken.” Shiftlet is correct in concluding that the motives of the heart are beyond science. And he makes a reference to European monks who sleep in coffins, a reference O’Connor borrows from a James Joyce story, “The Dead,” but again the reference is lost on Lucynell who responds that “they wasn’t as advanced as we are.”

Later Lucynell has Shiftlet marry her daughter in a civil ceremony. But, although it’s "legal," it’s not satisfying to Shiftlet even though it “satisfies the law” as Lucynell tells him. Shiftlet responds that “it’s the law that doesn’t satisfy” him – which expresses a deeper spiritual need that he is currently not aware of.

There’s so much more to the story that I won’t cover here. Shiftlet immediately abandons his legally new wife in a cafĂ© called The Hot Spot – where he feels more uncomfortable, and later he picks up a boy (note: good deed to cover up guilt and sin), a hitchhiker, who quickly recognizes Shiftlet as a moral liar and calls Shiftlet’s bluff on his waxing and jumps out of Shiftlet's car in disgust. (Hint: The boy becomes the vehicle of grace in the story.)

I like reading Flannery O'Connor stories because they're like a mirror to the soul. I find it impossible to read these stories and not to think about how authentically or in-authentically the characters live their lives. Thus, these stories prompt me to think about deeper issues in my own life.

I hope that you’ll read this story. If so, let me know how you respond to The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

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