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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hess

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: A Story By O'Connor

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

In typical O’Connor fashion The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a story about grace and sin and the frailty of worldly morality. I will share my thoughts on the story, but be sure to comment or message me with your own thoughts.

Mr. Shiftlet is the protagonist of this tale who, at the beginning of the story, turns up at the home of an old woman and her daughter. After a short conversation about philosophical things, Mr. Shiftlet agrees to stay at the house in exchange for doing work fixing up the property. As the story progresses the old woman comes to admire Mr. Shiftlet and asks him to marry her daughter, a woman in her early thirties who may or may not be fully present mentally. Mr. Shfitlet agrees to marry the daughter after the old woman promises him money that he insists he needs to treat the daughter right. After the wedding, Mr. Shiftlet takes the daughter on a trip to Mobile in her father’s old car he fixed up himself. On the way there he leaves the daughter at a restaurant and continues on to Mobile by himself, taking the rest of the old woman’s money with him.

This short story works on many levels, touching several different themes, but I believe one central theme in the story is the need for a humble-self-acknowledgment of our inability to see the ugliness often hidden in our hearts, keeping us from living out the values we claim to hold. Mr. Shiftlet makes it clear throughout the story that he is above the world he believes, “is almost rotten." [1] He also claims that even if someone cut out his heart ‘“they wouldn’t know a thing about’” him. [2] However, Mr. Shiftlet’s actions at the end of the story reveal that he is no better than the rotten world around him. His actions reveal that the ugliness in his own heart was perhaps even hidden from himself. This lack of self-knowledge can be seen at the very end of the story when Mr. Shiftlet sees an approaching storm and he prays: “‘Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!’” but as he speeds off in his stolen car he races “the galloping shower into Mobile.” [3] This is what I take to be O’Connor’s sly way of pointing out Mr. Shiftlet’s belief that he himself has no slime to wash away.

Mr. Shiftlet is a foil for each one of us, revealing that every man and woman “‘is divided into two parts, body and spirit’” [4], two selves that war within us and keep us from doing what we know to be right. The way to redemption is something that Mr. Shiftlet never sees because he refuses to face the true reality of the ugliness in his own heart, a selfishness that takes him from place to place at the expense of others. In this story O’ Connor calls us to face those things within us that we keep hidden, even from ourselves, things that keep us from real connections with others. The story calls us to remember our inability to practice the values we claim to live by and to turn to the only One who can wash us clean of the slime of the world.


[1] The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, pg. 146

[2] Ibid, pg. 153.

[3] Ibid, pg. 156.

[4] Ibid, pg. 152.

If you enjoy reading short stories be sure to sign up for my email list below and I will send you a free copy of my short story The First Encounter straight to your inbox! You can also pick up a copy of my book The Bright Abyss by following the link here.

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