We had some great discussion yesterday about the last act of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” I had planned to write today about that portion of the story; yesterday’s comments provide an excellent way to start. You can go back and read the back-and-forth, which was very insightful. Meanwhile, I’ll start with Chris’s first comment in the thread:
One thing you didn’t mention, and I am still a bit mystified over, is the presence of the boy/hitchhiker and how Mr. Shiftlet, seemingly out of nowhere, opens up to him about his mother, and then receives that stinging insult. The boy seems more symbol than real. He’s in and out, almost like a deus ex machina. I also found this line interesting: “A cloud, the exact color of the boy’s hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sky…” Again, more symbol than real?
I’m not sure I would use the word “symbol” to describe the boy, though he’s certainly not a full-fledged character. Chris makes an important point when he notes that the looming thunderhead (clearly a symbol of divine judgment) is the color of the boy’s hat. That detail draws a clear connection between the boy and the judgment of God and suggests, it seems to me, that the boy somehow speaks for God in the way that, say, the textbook-flinging girl in “Revelation” speaks for God when she passes judgment on Ruby Turpin. The boy appears and disappears the way that angels so often do in stories. Chris has suggested that the boy’s sudden appearance and lack of context might mean he’s a symbol–a perfectly reasonable assessment. I’m suggesting that it could also mean he’s an angel, bringing a message from God. If you’re bothered by the idea of an angel referring to two mothers as a “fleabag” and a “stinking polecat,” well, so am I.
But consider this possibility: Mr. Shiftlet’s deepest problem is that he thinks he is his own Jesus. Look at this description of the man as he stands before 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.” A crooked cross? That kind of imagery isn’t accidental. Later, when he has gotten the car running, “He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.” Only God, of course, can do that. Mr. Shiftlet’s gnomic pronouncements, empty though they may be, are modeled after the speech ways of a cult leader or messianic figure.
Mr. Shiftlet is determined to be his own Savior. His self-seriousness is comical, but it also represents serious soul-danger. He embodies a specifically twentieth-century American brand of self-sufficiency, with its commitment to self-improvement and self-confidence and hustle and, ultimately, the mobility represented by his longing for a car.
If indeed Mr. Shiftlet believes himself to be his own savior, then the boy hitchhiker’s insult takes on a whole new significance, especially in light of the fact that O’Connor was a devout Catholic. By saying that Mr. Shiftlet is the son of a stinking polecat, the boy is saying that he is decidedly not the Son of Mary. Mr. Shiftlet cannot save himself or anyone else. Like the rest of us, he is born under the curse of Original Sin.
When the boy jumps out of the car, Mr. Shiftlet is left to ponder these things alone. The experience confirms his belief that the world is rotten (the story’s original title was “The World Is Almost Rotten”). A question worth discussing is whether or not Mr. Shiftlet includes himself in that assessment. These sentences leave some room for interpretation:
Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. “Oh Lord!” he prayed. “Break forth and was the slime from this earth.”
Bryana Johnson commented yesterday that this episode gives Mr. Shiftlet “an opportunity to show us that he is fully aware of his own rottenness…But although he is acknowledging that he is sickened by the state of the world, and by the evil he is a part of, he doesn’t ever appear to have any intention of doing things any differently than he always has.” The gesture of breast-beating would suggest that perhaps Mr. Shiftlet does understand his own rottenness and feels some guilt about it.
Bryana’s reading is reasonable, but I read it slightly differently. I’m not convinced that Mr. Shiftlet ever understands that he is as rotten as the rest of the world. The idea that the world’s rottenness threatens to engulf him suggests that he still sees that rottenness as being outside him (in my reading of the sentence, anyway). He steps on the gas to leave the world’s rottenness behind him, but in the process he outruns the storm that washes things clean. I’m reminded of Hazel Motes’s belief that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.
What do you think? Could the runaway boy in overalls be “a angel of Gawd,” or is this a case of over-reading?
We still haven’t gotten around to the boy in the diner and his declaration that Lucynell the younger is “a angel of Gawd.” What do you make of that scene?
Jonathan, I am totally with you on Mr. Shifflet trying to save himself. The title was what brought that out for me, and the corresponding bill board of course. The life you save just may be your own. That’s a powerful lie and, for me, the point of this story. The man calls for redemption, miraculously receives it, and instead chooses the lie. Left to himself man always chooses the lie, even when the alternative is handed to him. It takes a spiritual awakening to receive God’s gift, and not everyone gets that grace.
Madeleine, my take on Shifflet was similar to yours, and I think that is further illustrated in what he says to the boy hitchhiker. I think Shifflet sees himself in the boy, and that he’s somewhat conscious that his choices have only resulted in, what is ultimately, an empty life. On some level he knows that, and he’s not satisfied, but he neither is he willing to give up his pride and efforts at self-salvation. So, he knows the “truth,” and even “evangelizes” the boy, though he’s a hypocrite for doing so.
Jonathan, I don’t know if this has been mentioned yet or not, but could we read Shifflet’s description of a mother as description of Mother Church? “She taught him his first prayers at her knee, she give him love when no other would, she told him what was right and what wasn’t, and she seen that he done the right thing. Son,” he said, “I never rued a day in my life like the one I rued when I left that old mother of mine.” Could FO be describing someone who consciously leaves the Church?
Interesting, Joe. The Mother Church, you say. That would not have occurred to me, but I think you could make a case for it.
As for the angel of Gawd, I am reminded of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Even if God should send angels to warn us of coming judgement, and prepare us to receive redemption, we will still run from Him if left to our natural selves. Shifflet ran from every angel- his mother, Lucynell the younger, the boy. I think it fits with the story to see them as messagers from God, whether or not they were really angelic. And as the parable predicts, their messages were delivered, and received, and no change was made.
It certainly seems like the boy hitchhiker is some sort of messenger, sent to give Mr. Shiftlet an opportunity to repent.
I wonder if Lucynell the younger is an angel in the sense that she stands in complete contrast to Mr. Shiftlet. He is pessimistic, self-sufficient, and like you indicated, seeking to be his own savior, while she is innocent and trusting. The world is almost rotten. Almost, because there are Mr. Shiftlets everywhere who trust in no one but themselves, but not quite, because of Lucynell. One must become like a child to enter the kingdom of God.
This is a good point Jessica, about Lucynell. It is interesting also that they are both damaged people–Mr. Shiftlet with his arm, Lucynell with her muteness and (I think) mental disability.
Lucynell the younger reminds me of the down syndrome I used
to work with at a group home for
mentally disabled. Very innocent, easy
going, hard working and loving. She is basically a child. I get the
sense that she gets a pass from any sin at all (original or committed). Like a child who has not reached the age of
accountability. I do not believe she is
an actual angel but that she has the
innocence of an angel.
Jonathan, I think your interpretation of the boy as an angelic figure is very interesting and perfectly legitimate. I wasn’t entirely sure he was a symbol either, but definitely, like you said, a mysterious character by virtue of his sudden appearance. And hey, if God can send “evil spirits” to people in the Old Testament to torment them, I’m sure he could send a spirit to call someone’s mother a “stinking polecat”.
On the Shiftlet as his own Jesus aspect, I thought of something else. He also makes the mute speak–he teaches Lucynell to say “bird”. Of course, this is really another twisted parody of the real Jesus, because she is not truly healed of her muteness.
Another interesting theme I am seeing her that would be worth further discussion is that of being childlike. Jessica points out in her comment below Lucynell’s childlike nature. Then we have the boy you pointed out calling Lucynell an “angel of Gawd”. But then of course there is the second boy, who seems much less childlike, but actually still seems to have a child’s ability to cut through the pretentiousness of adults and get to the real issue.
I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of Shiftlet (not sure I want to give him the respect of the Mr. title!) It is especially helpful since I am new to FO, and I would agree that he is in more trouble spiritually than The Misfit. He gives nothing of himself, not even anger (as The Misfit does), showing that he is willing to risk nothing and trust no one. He will not give himself to a place (paints the car, not the house), will not give himself to another (the marriage is only a legal thing; he will not even look at his bride), will not give himself to the washing of the coming rain at the end. It is tragic because there is no struggle anywhere in the story, only deal-making and a constant running away.
And the runaway boy… Angel or mortal, he is sent to declare the truth that Shiftlet is no Son of Mary, as your anlaysis pointed out. He is definitely not there to wait for a response of repentance because he jumps out of the car! (The angel idea may be valid… Would a mere mortal jump from a car doing 30 mph unless he was being physically threatened in some way? Ha!)
Great analysis, Jonathan — I’m inclined to believe you are more correct than I was. 🙂
On the surface, Mr. Shiftlet appears to be, if not the quintessential hypocrite, at least a very good example of one. And it is the defining trait of a hypocrite to be much aware of evil — everywhere but in his own heart. Mr. Shiftlet almost seems to fit these qualifications. Especially here:
“Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf
him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. ‘Oh Lord!’
he prayed. ‘Break forth and wash the slime from this earth.’ “
But somehow he left me with the sense that he was aware of his own rottenness to some extent — and chose to ignore it. Whether this is because he chose not to look and thus talked himself into blindness, or because he simply didn’t mind living with the contradiction, (there are plenty of people like that 🙂 ) who can say?
And yesss to the Hazel Motes quote. It fits the discussion very well.
As I read this story, the word that kept coming to mind was “dimensionality.” Once I watched a NOVA special on String Theory, and it raised questions about whether multiple layers of presence might exist simultaneously. Being bound to four dimensions, we would be unable to pick up those realities which cannot be found in length, width, depth, or time. Imagine twenty dimensions surrounding you at this moment instead of four. Sixteen layers of being might very well intersect with our existence, but we haven’t the receptors to know them. (Think of how a bee sees a flower in contrast to human sight, though this example is still within the dimension of sight. Perhaps a better example would be George MacDonald’s _Lilith._)
In that regard, I saw three dimensions to this story. Pragmatic (the old woman), philosophical (Mr. Shiftlet), and the “is-ness” of true spirituality (Lucynell). Lucynell shows several signs of otherworldliness. She is piercingly colorful against the dirty grey of the rest of the story. She has eyes the blue of a peacock’s neck and hair of pink gold. She is ageless. Her hands are useless. When Mr. Shiftlet toys with flame, she scolds him. (Powerful image I won’t explore here.) Lucynell is also a fool, making those awkward errors a person makes when he/she does not make transactions in the consciousness of the common. She has not the ability to hear the world, and no voice to speak into it. She is in the world but not of it. She has no use for philosophy or pragmatism.
As is fitting, she is the fool of the story. (When receptors beyond philosophy or pragmatics have atrophied, anyone who doesn’t communicate on those terms is considered a fool.) The single word she mimics (“bird”) is an often-used symbol for the realm of the spirit, yet she is not even wordly enough to connect verbalization to a physical bird or philosophical symbol. She simply is.
The older I get, the more I realize I have missed “IS-ness.” We busy ourselves with ruminations, and regurgitations, and plans to do things. Yet there is something altogether different to the simple act of being. Spiritually, in particular.
Lucynell raises the same questions of multi-dimensionality that persons of innocence often stir inside me. Perhaps I am projecting because I am an idealist, but I can never shake the feeling that folks with such gifts point to an untapped realm that I am too busy, too educated, and too responsible to hear.
In light of all this, I adore Jonathan’s comments about Mr. Shiftlet’s attempts to be his own savior. The old woman does likewise. Each person is his or her own “Jesus.” The only person in this story unwilling to save herself (including the boy, which is why I see him an accidental prophet, not an angel) is Lucynell.
The life you save may be your own? What irony. As if saving ourselves were the goal. What if Lucynell, sleeping fool on the diner counter, is the story victor instead of the victim?
Wow. I love the three dimensions description. I agree with your last idea, too – I end the story feeling sorry for Mr. Shiftlet and for Lucynell’s mother, but not really for Lucynell. They’re both still lost, unable to see past their shallow worldviews. But Lucynell doesn’t have those hangups. And in the end, she’ll be fine.