FLANNERY O’CONNOR, THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN
A SHORT STORY REVIEW
Flannery O’Connor was author of the week for my Wednesday Short Story Review group. The Story under consideration was The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor. Click on the link to read it.
O’Connor’s metaphors and character descriptions are so vivid they jar the mind. Her writing is energetic and barbed with such naked honesty it initially struck me as rude or written by a rube but nothing could be further from the truth. O’Connor is a literary force to be reckoned with, to be studied, and to be honored for her motivations are sacred, her sentence structure exquisite and her allegorical plots clearly evident.
The old woman “was about the size of a cedar fence post . . ” Mr. Shiftlet’s “face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with the features just balanced over a jutting steel-trap jaw.” These descriptions have wallop and somehow manage to appear both sophisticated and simplistic at the same time.
Her stories appeal to us on many levels and although they can be read for the story alone they have a depth that can withstand being dissected. This story has heart but the heart isn’t what interests O’Connor. What she is trying to reach runs deeper than the heart. Her stories are tentacles that wrap themselves around our very souls. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a warning to the reader. If we are like Mr. Shifty Shiftlet, we will die a moral death even while we live and like him we will drive or run faster to get away and wash ourselves in the cleansing rain but we will never be clean. We will never be whole.
When I study the architecture of the story I see three distinct sections. One is the setup, when the man comes, two takes us through till he drops off the girl at the Hot Spot and three is his realization of his own failure. He had an opportunity to change but didn’t and so the story circles back to the beginning when he arrived saying that “the world is almost rotten” and ends with his cry to God to “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” He had a chance and he blew it. He doesn’t have the moral strength to see his own failings and will continue to do the same thing over and over until the end of his days. He tells us who he is from the beginning. Old Mrs. Crater doesn’t see it. She is too entranced with her own self-interests. She wants a man around the place and she is willing to pimp her beloved daughter to get him. Shiftlet is nothing if not honest. He tells us exactly what to expect of him and then proceeds to do it.
There are other levels too but I think the most important is allegorical or religious. Call it grace. Flannery O’Connor could have written the bible. When I first started seeing the Christian allusions I thought I might be overanalyzing the
story. I do that sometimes. I clearly saw Lucynell as the eye of God. She was watching Shiftlet and her mother the whole story. She watched and saw everything.
I read an essay by O’Connor about her peacocks. She had forty or fifty of them. They appealed to her because of the Greek myth that explains why the peacock has so many eyes on its tail. The God, Zeus, cheated on his wife, Hera, with Io. Hera found out and Zeus turned Io into a white cow to protect her. Hera insisted he give the cow to her and she hired Argus, a giant with a hundred eyes, to watch Io and keep Zeus away. To counter, Zeus hired Hermes to kill the giant and bring him Io. Hermes was successful. Hera was devastated to see Argus dead so she put his hundred eyes on the peacock’s tail as a memorial to him. The peacock is also an ancient Christian symbol.
Christians adopted the symbol of the peacock to represent immortality. This came from an ancient legend that the flesh of the peacock did not decay. It is also associated with the resurrection of Christ because it sheds it[s] old feathers every year and grows, newer, brighter ones.. If the peacock is portrayed drinking from a vase it symbolizes a Christian drinking the waters of eternal life. In addition the ” multitude of eyes” upon its stunningly beautiful fan tail, suggested the all seeing eye of God.
When we first meet the young Lucynell, she is wearing a blue dress like the Virgin Mary. Later, on her wedding day, she wears white for innocence. The girl “had long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.” The two adults, contestants in a battle of manipulative wills, eye each other up and the girl watches them, watches like the eye of God, like the eyes of the peacock.
This story has at its center Shiftlet. He has the ability to shift. He has free will and he is acutely aware of it. “He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame.” He says he likes the simplicity of life in the country but the car is a temptation to him, a temptation to keep running. He is a carpenter. So was Christ. He can do things with his hands, an ability given by God. I’ve often thought when I made something and it turned out well that God had a hand in it. I felt God was creating and using me as an instrument. I’m not the only one to feel this. Many others have also and including Flannery O’Connor.
In 1946 and 1947 when O’Connor was a student at the Iowa workshop, she kept a prayer journal. The journal, published in 2013, was held for fifty years after her death. In it she prayed, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story.” There is an excellent review of A Prayer Journal by Marilynne Robinson in the New York Times.
“A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.” A similar line appears in O’Connor’s essay on peacocks. They roosted in her uncle’s fig trees infuriating him. Someone would have to go out and chase them off with a broom.
So I wasn’t overanalyzing the story. The Christian motifs and allusions are riff throughout and they are beautifully stated. The Catholic Monstrance used in rituals appears to be a golden sun/moon with the host at its center. It is
Shiftlet is aware that he has a choice in life. “‘I’m a man,’ he said with a sullen dignity, ‘even if I ain’t a whole one. I got,’ he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, ‘a moral intelligence!’ and his face pierced out of the darkness into the shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.” Does he believe this? I think so. This story is his Waterloo.
I think I’ve pointed out enough Christian references in the story. I might bore you so I’ll let you find the rest. In the final section of the story the boy startles Shiftlet when he says, “You go to the devil!” The boy is right and that is precisely where Shiftlet is going. Unfortunately he doesn’t realize it. He cries out to the Lord, to his Lord. He doesn’t believe he is at fault. To him the boy was slime. “‘Oh Lord!’ he prayed. ‘Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!'” The girl, Lucynell, is back at The Hot Spot Restaurant and will most likely be raped before she gets back home to her mother. The mother will go for help in a few days. She will hike out until she runs into someone. By the time she gets to the sheriff, a week will have passed. We can hope for kindness but I wouldn’t count on it. Poor Lucynell.