The protagonist in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is Mr. Shiftlet. This man encounters an older woman and her daughter; both named Lucynell Crater. Their first conversation is very awkward, but the reader can interpret the characters. Mr. Shiftlet is a one armed man who left home at a young age. Lucynell (mother) is an older widowed woman who is independent and protective of her daughter. The younger Lucynell (daughter) is a deaf girl with a mental handicap. She is intrigued by a man working around the house and follows him around all day.
He seems to be a respectful man to these ladies, but he is in need of validation that there is some good in this world. Mr. Shiftlet could have used Mrs. Crater’s hospitality and marriage proposal as a chance for him to change his outlook on the world, but he has alternative motives. He develops this strong misanthropic view of the world after he leaves his mother as a child, and he now has the chance to find grace and a new life with Mrs. Lucynell Crater's offer. Mr. Shiftlet appears to be a good man at first glance. He looks to be an honest noble nomad who does not have any money, but does not seem to be the least afflicted by it.
He is disenchanted by society and even says “’ [n]othing is like it used to be, lady’…’the world is almost rotten’” (O’Connor, pg 53). He makes the audience believe that he is a decent man trying to find some good in this world. So, why would a man who is disgusted by the way people act, contribute to his theory instead of trying to make the world a better place? He makes mention that the problem with the world is that no one takes the time to be patient and nobody cares about the issues, but thankfully he is not one of those people and he took the time to teach Miss Crater the word bird. He is a dishonest man.
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In reality, he is not the man that he is pretending to be. He is a deceitful individual who is taking advantage of their hospitality and kindness in order to milk anything he can out of both Lucynells. Mr. Shiflet was tempted by the Ford vehicle in order to deceive the mother and daughter. There are a couple of signs that Mrs. Crater should have seen in order to discover the foreshadowing of her daughter’s abandonment. He was much more interested and curious by the car that before he introduced himself properly to the ladies he asked a question about the Ford. Whenever he finally does introduce himself he does it like this… “‘Name Tom T. Shiftlet,’ he murmured, looking at the tires” (O’Connor, pg 53). A real respectful person would have given them direct eye contact and shook their hand. He would not have murmured, but would have said it straight, with a strong voice, and seem interested. The one armed man works hard to gain Mrs. Crater’s trust. She allows him to fix a couple of things around the property in order for him to sleep in the Ford outside. The nights he spent sleeping in the car gave him time to plan how he was going to get a way out of the life that he had been living, and how he was going to get away with the Ford.
The work days would pass and she is more and more impressed by the way he is able to work with only one arm, and the attention that he gives to her sweet daughter. Mrs. Lucynell is blinded by all of this because she also had alternative motives for allowing Mr. Shiftlet to stay with them. She wanted to believe that he was a good man worthy enough to marry her daughter. She was more than willing to allow him to work on things around the house in order for her to observe the relationship between her daughter and him. After she agrees to pay for the parts needed to fix the car, Mrs. Crater is certain that they should be married.
She is completely unconcerned with the fact that he is most occupied with the car than anything else. Mr. Shiftlet was becoming suspicious of her intentions and found a way to manipulate the entire situation is his head for his selfish benefit. Mr. Shiftlet has earned the older woman’s trust so well that she will offer him whatever in order for him to marry her daughter. He tells her that he cannot accept that offer because Miss Lucynell is undeserving of the poor man that he is. He tells Mrs. Crater that he was not raised to believe that a man could support a family without any money.
And that made him seem like an even nobler man to the older woman. She has to convince him that she does not know any better about these nice things that she deserves, and to top it all off she offers to pay for the wedding, honeymoon, and to pay for the truck to be painted. Upon hearing all of this the text reads…“In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire” (O’Connor, pg. 61). That is a clear physical indication that the evil is coming out of the man. The grin on his face should have been a huge sign to the older woman, but she was extremely overjoyed about the deal she had just made.
Mr. Shiftlet had the biggest opportunity to be saved by grace. He had a great chance in front of him to be a hardworking man and a great husband for Lucynell. The reason he had not been married before was because of his argument that he had not found an innocent woman. Who is more innocent than the sweet daughter of Mrs. Crater? She knows about no evil in the world. She can clean, cook, be a good wife for Mr. Shiftlet, and she will inherit the house and the land when her mother passes. He had the perfect situation laid out in front of him so that he could live a better life than he one he knew before.
He is given the prospect to believe that the world is not rotten and he could be the start of change that he wants to see on this earth. His moral compass should direct him to be a better person. He should not want to take advantage of a woman and her daughter after the hospitality and kindness they have shown him. But Mr. Shiftlet is too terrible a man that he will not let anyone get in the way of his true intentions and he does not care who he affects in the process. To leave your newlywed bride asleep in a strange town one hundred miles away from the only home she has ever known is heartless for even the worst of misfits to do.
There is an indication of remorse of what he has done. The text states “[h]e is more depressed than ever as he drove on by himself” (O’Connor, pg. 64). But no, he is more depressed because he is alone once again. And because he is selfish and no longer wants to be alone, he picks up a hitch-hiker. The hitch-hiker is a young boy who did not even have his thumb up for a ride, but Mr. Shiftlet picks him up anyways. The young boy is silent in the car and does not make eye contact with the man. He can see through Mr. Shiftlet and knows that he is a bad man.
The boy does not care to hear about the man’s mother and how she was the best mother anyone could ever have. He was so fed up with the man’s conversation that he yells at Mr. Shiflet “…go to the devil! ”(O’Connor, pg. 66). Then he jumps out of the moving vehicle into a ditch. The man should have stopped to help the boy or at least been concerned with his safety. But no, Mr. Shiftlet is too evil of a man to be busy with no one but himself. Mr. Shiftlet is such a terrible person, he was too rotten to be saved by the grace of the Craters. He was given an opportunity to “…’wash the slime from this earth’” (O’Connor, pg 66).
The very thing he prays for at the end of this short story. Yet, no, he is unaffected by the damage he has just done, and continues on his nomadic life on to the next city. In the car he had to lie, cheat, and steal to get. It is not that God is not answering Mr. Shiftlet’s prayers for this world to be a better place, but it is Mr. Shiftlet who has been ignoring God and answering his chances to be saved by Him.
- O'Connor, Flannery. "The Life You Save May Be Your Own. " A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Orlando: n. p. , 1955. 51-66. Print.
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