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“And they lived happily ever after.” This picturesque phrase can hardly be described as a typical ending to a Flannery O’Connor work. In a ‘standard’ O’Connor piece, one can expect to find several allusions to religion, sardonic situations, and demented characters. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” exemplifies a perfect example of O’Connor’s writing style. This story describes the opposite of a fairy-tale by bringing irony into the situations of the nurturing mother, the beautiful, innocent young woman, the hero who rescues the woman, and the romantic setting in a fairy-tale kingdom.
Flannery O’Connor’s works are often thought of as grotesque, fanatic, or sarcastic. Many critics believe such style comes because of her misery in life. At the age of ten, her father dies of the disease she will be later diagnosed of. She lives a lonely life on a secluded farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Though she does not exemplify a cheerful and optimistic person at all times, she makes personal triumphs through her writing and awards. She keeps a great deal of courage and brightness during her life-time. Though she welcomes many guests to her house, writes corresponding letters to friends, and experiences happy moment, she remains a rather serious intellectual. Her diagnosis of lupus has an effect on her manner of lifestyle but not her writing-style. One cannot conclude Flannery O’Connor writes about such grotesque subject matters because of her own misery and self-pity from being diagnosed with lupus; rather, as a Catholic and a uniquely gifted writer, she is fascinated with such controversial topics. If she were personally upset and distraught over her illness, she would make no effort to explain why such matters are of interest to her. She collects such letters and publishes them in a book. In one particular letter, O’Connor answers the question of why she writes about such topics. She clearly states, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness […]” (F. O’Connor 90). By saying this, everything in her writing falls into perspective. As a dedicated Catholic, she centers her life on Christ, who is the Truth and the Light. When doing this, one is more able to see the black and white subject matters in life. Seeing the good and the bad, O’Connor conscientiously writes about the unpleasant because of her modern conscious which is fascinated with grotesque topics. Her ability to see such defiant themes comes as a sort of gift she receives as following the Christian faith. O’Connor says, “My own feeling is that the writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable” (F. O’Connor 68). The grotesque, the perverse, and the unacceptable are topics of nearly all of her published works. Each character, every setting, and all themes deal with distasteful issues and situations one could not imagine. Her perception of dark and evil comes directly from the Bible. Her unpleasant characters seem to have such traits as being:
[…] lovers of their own selves, covetous, proud, boasters, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. (2 Tim 3: 2-5)
Men of this description become the characters in O’Connor’s stories at one point or another. When one, such as Miss O’Connor, knows the right and wrong of the world, yet still chooses to write on topics such as mentioned, it is because it “[…] gives an added dimension in which to work” (W. O’Connor 70). An author has little to work with when the characters are ideal Christians in a setting such as a ‘Bible Belt’ town in the South. O’Connor realizes for any variance and conflict, or for anything to take place at all in her stories, the characters must have trying experiences. As one philosopher, Heraclitus, states, “The way up is the way down.” O’Connor takes her characters through all earthly ugliness so that one may gain insight. As one professor writes:
There are no shortcuts to beauty or to insight. We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potencies of being-in-the-flesh… The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather, it contains many shapes, and byways and cleverness and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. (Quinn 110)
O’Connor’s peculiar detail is not used in vain. Using individual attention to every fictional element included in her stories, she utilizes the ugly to contrast the beauty. She may use the liars to exemplify the truth. O’Connor’s brilliant insight comes after the painstaking and somewhat ruthless challenges the characters go through. What may seem grotesque serves its purpose for one to see the ties between the natural, earthly, and the living compared with the supernatural, heavenly, or dead. So rightly, “None of her characters is sentimentalized, for she sees the potential evil in all human beings, and she is constantly aware of the incongruities in human actions” (W. O’Connor 70-71). Why would one lessen the amount of conflict taking place in the story? O’Connor sees the prospective outcome of each situation to bear a bit of information to help one gain insight to the ending. Her themes and morals often tie to the Catechism such as the Original Sin, Christ’s salvation, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Her character Tom L. Shiftlet, a lesser villain compared to other O’Connor monstrosities, subtly compares to mercy, salvation, and the resurrection. Hence, her writing of grotesqueness of characters and her allusion to religion are written because of her unique mind, fascination with carnal sin, and her overwhelming conscience of Catholicism. The smaller details of her works are often a projection of her self-image, subtext, or comedic irony. O’Connor uses the finite, amoral, and grotesque characters and setting so one may more fully comprehend the truth or the moral conscience at an optimum level. Once the reader has a glimpse of the evil in the world, he will more easily understand the good, the light, and the truth. As critics often find innuendoes to Christ’s life, one can confidently conclude such writing style directly relates to Miss O’Connor’s firm belief in Catholicism.
In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” The beautiful and innocent young woman of this story in no way exhibits the image of a wonderful enchantress of any typical fairy-tale. When one is told to picture the heroine of the story, he may think of a girl who “[…] ha[s] long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck” (F. O’Connor 623). Such angelic distinctiveness may be the only positive trait Lucynell possesses. O’Connor’s mention of a peacock is significant. She symbolizes peacock’s beauty as cherubic elegance. Or as one critic believes, “[…] the peacock symbolizes Christ’s divine nature […]” (Hyman 344). By placing this minute detail into Lucynell’s description, O’Connor alludes her characteristics to one who is heavenly innocent. Yet, since O’Connor creates no perfect characters, she projects her own negative self-image to balance Lucynell’s image. Therefore, because of this negative balance, Lucynell will never accomplish the feat of being the astonishingly beautiful and innocent woman who charms her way through life. The only person she ever charms is someone who does not have the pleasure of seeing her awake. As the newlywed couple sits in the diner, the young man comments, “‘She looks like an angel of Gawd'” (F. O’Connor 627). Would the boy remark the same way if he sees her out of her slumber? Most likely, he would observe a clumsy and obnoxious girl who cannot speak or compose herself in public. Lucynell may well be a beautiful young lady while she sleeps, but does not the beautiful heroine of the fairy-tale charm her way through life while she is awake? As opposed to the charismatic beauty of a mythical woman, Lucynell feels no shame or embarrassment as she strikes strange poses when complete strangers approach, nor does she attempt to mesmerize any man. She does however have the ability to run any possibility for marriage out the door. Who can fall in love with “[t]he big rosy-faced girl [who] follow[s] him around everywhere, saying ‘Burrttddt ddbirrrttdt,’ clapping her hands” (F. O’Connor 624)? The misfortune of Lucynell almost gives a feeling of sympathy as one understands that she will never become a beautiful and innocent heroine. Though Lucynell does not exemplify a character one wishes he is portrayed as, she remains the only link to innocence and salvation in the story. As one critic points out, “Thanks to her idiocy, Lucynell is as close to angelic innocence as a person can be […]” (Ragen 137). As undesirable as Lucynell’s innocence may be, one will be blameworthy if he betrays this type of divinity. Therefore, Shiftlet’s abandonment makes him culpable because he cons the trust of a nave woman. O’Connor also tries to warn every innocent young woman that she is vulnerable and may be taken advantage of by a deceiving man. For every woman, the reality remains that she may not ever accomplish the feat of being such a woman from a fairy tale. Only a handful of fictional women have been able to claim the victory of being a charismatic woman who men cannot resist. Though not to the intensity of Lucynell’s misfortune, every woman has flaws that keep her from portraying the image of the goddess-like belle. Since no such Venus truly exists, O’Connor creates the extremity of the opposite of an idol to foil the situation.
The mother of a story may be placed into two categories: the wicked stepmother or the nurturing mother. In this case, Mrs. Crater exemplifies the mother who does not fit into either category; she is neither neglectful nor encouraging. Lucynell Crater is the only character of this tale who has the conscience to choose between right and wrong, innocence or ambition. The mother has one goal in mind: to marry off her daughter to any man who will have her. As Mr. Tom L. Shiftlet arrives at the rugged farm, Mrs. Crater sees the one opportunity to have her daughter married. She attempts to begin a relationship between the two as soon as she finds the opportunity. Mrs. Crater insinuates to Shiftlet her desire to have him with her daughter by saying, “‘Teach her to say sugarpie,’ she said. Mr. Shiftlet knew what was on her mind” (F. O’Connor 625). Lucynell does not miss any chance she has to have her daughter with this man. Though both Shiftlet and Lucynell are rather perceptive, Lucynell ignores the fact that there are questionable characteristics in this prospective son-in-law. Mrs. Crater’s choice to choose bad over good stands as evidence that the right answer is not always the final answer. Would a nurturing mother look over the fact that her only daughter may be marrying a deceiver? The prospector only agrees to take the daughter away when bribes are thrown into the deal. As Shiftlet and the mother discuss marriage proposals once again, Mrs. Crater “la[ys] the bait carefully. ‘You can have it painted by Saturday. I’ll pay for the paint'” (F. O’Connor 626). The mother’s many attempts to have her daughter married to someone who will only enter the relationship if a rusty piece of metal receives a paint job exemplifies her lack of concern. Perhaps at her age, her only ambition in life is to see her daughter wed. Yet, why would any decent mother ignore the obvious lack of sincerity in a man to marry her innocent and nave child? Mrs. Crater still feels she has to convince Shiftlet of his good choice to marry her daughter. Driving home from the foreshadowed wedding, the mother says, “‘Don’t Lucynell look pretty? Looks like a baby doll.’ […] ‘You got a prize!'” (F. O’Connor 626). Her vain attempts to keep her daughter and Shiftlet happy cease as she lets Lucynell leave for her ‘honeymoon’. Though Lucynell Crater has followed her own ambition and has seen her daughter hitched, her only daughter will suffer because of her mother’s blind aspirations. Miss Crater exemplifies the type of O’Connor character who is “[…] vain, selfish creatures blind to themselves, dead to others, and desperately in need of grace” (Milder 419). Yet, while the possible grace of her daughter stands before her eyes, she remains blinded by ambition. Mrs. Crater’s choice to follow her own desires makes her useless to others. Many mothers say to their daughters, “I only want you to be happy.” Through her actions, Lucynell shows she never wishes this for her daughter by matching her up with a misguiding and two-faced man. By filling her own goals first, the mother shows that she would rather make herself happy before she would wish the same for her daughter. Mrs. Crater is “[…] involved in sin as the rest of humanity” (Ragen 137). Though this sin may not stand as the carnal sins mankind commit, she sins by way of pride, greed, and symbolic blindness. Mrs. Crater
As the handsome hero rescues the beautiful girl and whisks her into his arms, he stumbles on a fallen branch and drops the heroine into a mud puddle. The clumsy man has ruined the fairy-tale ending. In Flannery O’ Connor’s twisted tale, Tom L. Shiftlet ruins the fairy-tale in more detrimental ways than a single act of awkwardness. If one imagines the main male character of a fairy-tale, one would see a well-built, charismatic, and intelligent man with a smile that would melt the heart of any damsel in distress. One would least likely think of an angular hero with a “[…] smile [that] stretche[s] like a weary snake waking up by a fire” (F. O’Connor 626). This very description would immediately intimate one to think of a shady and devilish character, not quite the typical hero. From the beginning, Shiftlet tries to represent a Christ-like character. His actions such as holding up his arms to make a crooked cross and giving life to a car which has not run in fifteen years allude to major actions during Christ’s ministry. O’Connor specifically writes such suggestive terms so one may clearly see that Tom L. Shiftlet’s is so far fetched from the typical hero that his filthy faults lie far beneath the sly surface. As much as Shiftlet tries to gain the temporary trust of others, Shiftlet, like others of O’Connor’s ‘villains’ “[…] are versions of the pseudo-Christ as con man, easily betraying those who put their faith in them […]” (Asals 133) Within the thin, angular, and one-armed man lies a manipulative and scheming character, a man with no moral integrity. He knows for himself that he has no moral convictions. He attempts to convince Mrs. Crater and his own self that he does by saying he has “[…] ‘a moral intelligence!’ and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth” (F. O’Connor 624). Any true hero must base his decisions upon the virtuous desires of his honest heart. Without the knowledge of right and wrong, how can any man make correct decisions? This fact foreshadows that any acts coming from Shiftlet will be based on greed, lust, and carnal desires. One critic states, “Shiftlet is trying to save only his own life—while he is given the chance to at least improve Lucynell’s or Mrs. Crater’s” (Ragen 138). Although Shiftlet has one opportunity to perform Christ-like acts of service, he turns it down because of his selfish habits. What brings Shiftlet to the farm is the one thing he craves the most: a car2E The mother, having no intention of ever using the car again, uses it as bait to lure Shiftlet into a relationship with her ‘exquisite’ daughter. Shiftlet satisfies himself with the deal but does not keep to the agreements of keeping the car because he feels that the marriage was “‘[…] nothing but paper work and blood tests. […] It didn’t satisfy me at all'” (F. O’Connor 626). Shiftlet’s only satisfaction is found when he deceives and insults an innocent woman, steals a car, and prides himself on a pitiful act of assistance to a hitchhiker. In the end, all this ‘hero’ cares about is his own wants and pleasures. Only the ‘slime of the earth’ would create such discontent in other’s lives to suit one’s own lusts, certainly no hero. Shiftlet exemplifies O’Connor’s typical wicked characters. Shiftlet is a perfect projection of a hypocritical and perverse man who has an image of Christ and man. Because of O’Connor’s modern conscience, she finds it interesting to tie Christ and the devil into one individual and experiment with the outcome. Though Shiftlet is a lesser villain in comparison to other O’Connor’s characters, she makes a clear point that one cannot place his trust in the hands of a shady character without facing devastating consequences.
Any fairy-tale will experience mild conflicts and challenges to make the story interesting, but luckily most have a happy ending. Within any typical story, two characters find love and spread happiness to those around them. In O’Connor’s twisted version, the farm does not present a lovely setting where love will surely transpire. The rustic farm shows a slight shimmer of hope because of the view of the mountainous horizon, the only loveliness in the setting. Even Shiftlet comments on the beauty of the scene by saying, “[…] a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he would see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do” (F. O’Connor 624). The scenery may be the only source of divine light shown in the story. To contrast the situation and make the end come out even more insightful by going through the finite, O’Connor writes the beauty of the horizon so the setting in the ending scene will be all the more opposite. In the beginning, “The sun, birds, mountains, sky and moon all reflect God’s presence” (Edelstein 139). Whereas in most fictional stories the weather foretells the ending, this opening setting adds an extra twist to what will happen. The beauty of the horizon adds to the foil of the grotesque characters. With the mother attempting to wed her only hopeless daughter and a man trying to steal what he can get his hands on, the setting can hardly be described as peaceful and ‘like God made it’. Unlike nearly any other fairy-tale, this story ends without any type of hope. Just as beautiful as the setting begins, that is how hideous it ends. As soon as Shiftlet neglects Lucynell in the diner and prepares to leave, nature begins to show her displeasure. Shiftlet observes, “Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke” (F. O’Connor 627). Nature also represents the characters of the story. O’Connor ties Shiftlet’s darkness into every aspect of the story. One critic observes, “The story becomes a projection of his emotional state” (Hendin 349). The opaque storm front represents his subconscious’ build up of guilt. Like Shiftlet, the storm front prepares its coming calamity but gives fair warning which can be seen by anyone who looks closely. Perhaps the storm does not know how severe its own damage can be. Nevertheless, the storm’s peak will break with all its fury no matter how long it attempts to hold back. As Shiftlet drives on alone, “A cloud […] had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car. Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him” (F. O’Connor 627). Whether Shiftlet had a moral intelligence or not, he could still feel the guilt of his wrong doings, even if Mother Nature has to show him the punishment of his transgressions. One critic agrees by saying, “The storm suggests Shiflet’s quiet, affectless cruelty as much as it prepares for the rainfall to come” (Hendin 349). Even the storm-front is deceiving because it does not act like a typical storm breaking forth with wind and rain as it approaches. Shiftlet attempts to come in quietly and get all he can before he intends to break forth in a final stage of fury. As his own misery surrounds him, he wishes to flee from his surroundings, just as he had fled from his previous scene with Lucynell in the diner. Though this time, Shiftlet will take nothing with him: no young woman, no feelings of success, and not a shred of happiness2E In place of courage, honor, and valor, one finds deceit, disgrace, and dread. What fairy-tale ending leaves one with such discomfort and sickness? The setting brings the story to life, showing the cheapness, naivety, and irony of the story. O’Connor’s description of the dark storm coming upon makes one think of the symbolism of the sky. In the very beginning, the horizon shows a beautiful sunset at the end of a peaceful day. When Shiftlet arrives, the hope of the daylight begins to fade and the Craters must prepare to face the darkness of Shiftlet. In the daylight on the farm, one sees Shiftlet doing acts of kindness and service but when the darkness comes in, Shiftlet’s true desire of greed prevails. It was in the darkness of the night when one discovers Shiftlet’s devilish smile after he discusses the possible ownership of the car. By the end, O’Connor shows that the flashy pseudo-Christ qualities in Shiftlet have faded and the truthful darkness and evil prevail.
O’Connor’s moral is clear. In reality, fairy-tales do not exist. Every situation bears a fault that will hamper the characters from finding their surreal ending. Most commonly the bad will overcome the good. Whereas most fictional stories have characters who seek for other’s happiness, this story proves that selfishness, ambition, and greed will overrule Christ-like qualities of love, service, and honesty. As Flannery O’Conner warns, one will assuredly encounter adversity, dishonesty, or untrustworthiness that will keep one from his coveted fairy-tale life.
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