Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

I’ve been writing a lot lately, an activity that invokes the need to read. Reading prompts inspiration and reminds me of craft. It also gives me a break from the lives of the characters that haunt my existence. So I’ve decided to add to the many partially finished books in my home (one per room I think) by working through my favorite collection of short stories, none other than The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor remains one my favorite authors of short fiction. Not only did she understand the southern United States, revealing the Gothic idiosyncrasies and deformities of the region, but she wrote with such honesty that she was able to create a clear and unique visage of both the region and American life in the first half of the twentieth century. I plan to reread the text cover to cover, reflecting on what I may.

To begin with, I have chosen my favorite O’Connor piece, something to wet the pallet and excite the reader. This story, “The Life You Save May be Your Own,” tickles every fancy that is the south: religion, deceit, the fear of God (something far different that religion at its core), trust, hospitality, and the ghosts of the Civil War past that seem to linger on every corner. I think the above list could extend on and on, but should suffice for now. The following will spoil some of the piece, but will leave enough out to allow the read to be a pleasant and fulfilling experience worth undergoing.

The story focuses on the interaction between three characters: The Old Woman who lives on a decaying farm, her daughter Lucynell Crater, and the aptly named Mr. Shiftlet. Shiftlet is a tramp by trade, a traveler not living off the land, but living off of others. He moves from place to place seeking shelter and sustenance, doing so under the guise of innocence and lacking a left arm. Instantly, the reader confronts Christian imagery that will resurface throughout the text—is this deformed man representative of a hidden evil, something shifty and dark sneaking up to destroy The Old Woman’s paradise or is he just a decrepit man in need of help? O’Connor avoids being covert in her description, describing Shiftlet in a less than trustworthy light: “He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly” (O’Connor 145). This man hides himself as he avoids answering questions, he wants to appear innocent as he pontificates about mysteries life, yet, at the same time, he exudes a vibe of distrust, a secrete knowledge that extends deeper. Shiftlet basks in his duplicity: “’I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain't lying? How you know my name ain't Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it's not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama’” (147). He avoids being anyone while attempting to encompass everyone at the same time. Something is amiss. Such distrust is further presented when Shiftlet strikes the pose of a cross against the setting sun: “He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross” (146). A deformed cross, a deformed, secretive man, each reference a creature of sin, something to be feared, yet The Old Woman misses said truths.

The Old Woman sees the man as an opportunity as well. Just as she is pegged as an easy mark, Shiftlet is pegged as a tool for her. Some things might get fixed, some work done, some company had: “he began on the roof of the garden house while Lucynell, the daughter, sat on a rock and watched him work. He had not been around a week before the change he had made in the place was apparent. He had patched the front and back steps, built a new hog pen, restored a fence, and taught Lucynell, who was completely deaf and had never said a word in her life, to say the word ‘bird’” (150). The biggest problem she faces, the problem she needs to fix, comes in the form of her daughter. A girl of near thirty, she appears to be just around fifteen. She too represents the grotesquely disabled and deep down this is a story about disability. Shiftlet lacks an arm, The Old Woman teeth and street smarts, Lucynell her wits and the ability to hear. Everyone must confront their overwhelming faults, the decay of their society, the failure of their morals. Lucynell is no different. While in the body of an adult, Lucynell is far from it and fully dependent on a caretaker, something that burdens the mom, forcing her to imagine a life without her precious daughter, or with the addition of a man: “She was ravenous for a son‑in‑law” (150). Lucynell could be a tool to acquire land, wealth, fame, but not an object of desire, even for the sinister minded.

This search, the need for a home, a place to belong, and someone to take care of that very domicile, drives the piece. The Old Woman passes her daughter off on a man that doesn’t want her, offers her up for a home, for a farm, for a just fixed car and the price of a honeymoon. Each are to receive mutual gain, but a shifter must shift, must move on, and Shiftlet does just that, expressing his need to go, before taking his unwitting bride on a honeymoon into the storm: “Mr. Shiftlet's smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire. After a second he recalled himself and said, ‘I'm only saying a man's spirit means more to  him than anything else. I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost’” (152-153). On this trip, at a roadside diner, Lucynell is abandoned, left to her own devices asleep at the counter. Shiftlet declares her a hitchhiker, and no longer worthy of his attention. Ironically, it is here she finds someone that can look past her faults, it is here, as her newlywed husband prepares to walk out the door, that Lucynell is finally seen to be an angel: “‘She looks like an angel of Gawd’” (154). It is here Lucynell exits, but Shiftlet, devil incarnate, drives on, pushes towards Mobile, racing a storm, a cloud of darkness that engulfs him, showering him with sin, revealing his true nature.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

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