A Guest Post by Jay at Bibliophilopolis: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor

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For my final Wild Card of Deal Me In 2016 (my Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here), the Two of Clubs, I am excited to have a guest post by Jay at Bibliophilopolis, the sponsor of Deal Me In.  I was fortunate enough to be involved in a reading group with Jay a few years ago and it was here that he introduced me to the wonders of the short story. Each July, the members of the group would choose a short story and we would read all of them and discuss them at our meeting. Up until that point, short stories had not been on my radar (much) but that’s all changed and its a change for the better. So without further ado, here’s Jay:

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I am honored to write a guest post for the Mirror With Clouds blog, which I have read “religiously” (heh heh – the card that fell to me was in his suit of “Catholic Stories”) since its inception years ago. By guest posting, I’m actually returning the favor for Dale, who wrote a guest post at my blog, ( https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/jack-cadys-play-like-im-sheriff-story-12-of-deal-me-in-2016/ ) for one of my own Deal Me “IN” wild cards. For me, I got the two of clubs in Dale’s 2016 iteration of the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge. I chose to write about a story by Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the most acclaimed Catholic author of short stories.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

I think I’ve written in prior blog posts of how often I am intrigued by a story’s title. I.e., What does it mean? or How was it chosen? Often I am unable to “figure it out,” but perhaps those instances are my favorites – those that are open to a reader’s interpretation. Was I able to figure out this story’s title? Let’s see…

“Everyone has his price,” as the old saying goes, but what would be your price to completely betray those who showed you kindness in a time of need? For Mr. Shiftlet, the dark protagonist(?) of this story, it’s $17.50 and a beat up old car that he’s got running again for an old lady and her simple-minded daughter, Lucynell.

The great Leo Tolstoy is credited with having said “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” I guess this story would fall in to the latter, although the stranger doesn’t so much “come to town” as just show up on the old lady’s doorstep looking for work. Once the old lady discovers Mr. Shiftlet is of some use with repairs around the house, she quickly begins thinking in terms of him as “husband material” for her daughter. For example, when talking of Lucynell to Mr. Shiftlet, the old woman insists “She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up for a casket of jewels.” This is classic “reverse psychology” you see – it turns out the old woman is “ravenous for a son-in-law.” For his next trick, Shiftlet even sets to work on getting the old derelict car of hers running again, succeeding against all odds.  This episode of the story served as a reminder to me that O’Connor was a true master of the simile:

“Late in the afternoon, terrible noises issued from the shed and the old woman rushed out of the house… With a volley of blasts it (the car) emerged from the shed, moving in a fierce and stately way. Mr. Shiftlet was in the driver’s seat, sitting very erect. He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.”

Another great simile was in the description of the daughter: “Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.”

Mr. Shiftlet is quickly “on” to the old woman’s plans for him, though, and plays it to his advantage, asking for money to paint the car and for an almost ‘dowry-like’ cash advance from the old lady before he’ll agree to marry Lucynell. Getting the paint job on the vehicle is the first step, and when the old lady finally agrees, O’Connor relates that “In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.”  As a reader, you’re not really sure what’s going to happen on the upcoming honeymoon, and those who aren’t experienced readers of O’Connor are likely quite taken by surprise by the scene that later takes place in a roadside diner…

This was a great – if unsettling – short story.  I don’t believe it’s available in the public domain, but any decent library or bookstore should have a copy of O’Connor’s short stories waiting to be checked out or purchased. I liked this one even more because it was full of the things I’ve come to expect and appreciate in Flannery OConnor’s stories.

But what about the title’s meaning? Well, once Shiftlet gets the resurrected car on the road he occasionally sees signs along the road that warn: “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.” I think Mr. Shiftlet’s philosophy on what it is like to be a man – as he explains to the old woman earlier in the story – may have something to do with it: “Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit. The body, lady, is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always…” His earlier likening a man’s spirit to an automobile adds a little more meaning to the ‘generic’ road signs he’s seeing, I suspect. But that’s just my guess on why she titled the story this way. If you have a different idea I’d love to hear about it.

Do you remember any short stories you have liked but were unable to understand why they were titled the way they were? Or are there any for which you’ve come up with a particularly good interpretation that you’re proud of? Have you read any of the great stories of Flannery O’Connor?  What did YOU think of them?

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Drive Carefully sign photo found at https://mysteriesandmanners.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/sacramentality-and-the-short-story/.

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2 responses to “A Guest Post by Jay at Bibliophilopolis: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor

  1. The story I’ve read recently that has a thought provoking title is Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. Aside from the fact that the story is about elderly people and the title is a kid’s song, I haven’t been able to come up with a really good explanation.

  2. Pingback: Another Anniversary Top Ten List | Mirror with Clouds

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