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Reader’s Den

The Reader's Den: Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

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 92668A gravel road in Texas. Image ID: 92668Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" was originally published in the 1955 short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. Like many of her short stories, it centers around the appearance of a stranger on the horizon, (literally, in this case!) and that stranger's effect on the lives of others.

Lucynell Crater and her daughter, Lucynell, who can not hear or speak, sit on the porch watching the sun set, when a man appears in the distance. In this remote and desolate landscape, Mrs. Crater can see from a distance that the man is a "tramp" with one arm, and a slight figure. Long before he reaches her porch, she has judged him "no one to be afraid of," but as is often the case in O'Connor's stories, she turns out to be badly mistaken.

  • O'Connor immediately sets the old woman up as someone who thinks of herself as a good judge of people. As the reader, do you take any pleasure in the fact that she turns out not to be?
  • What do you think Tom Shiftlet is trying to say when he repeatedly talks about the human heart, and how doctors know no more about it than anyone else? Is he trying to convey some kind of spirituality? Or perhaps that there is no way of really knowing anything in this world?

 1206621Allen Plantation operated by Natchitoches Farmstead Association, a cooperative established through the cooperation of F. S. A. , Louisiana, August 1940. Image ID: 1206621

  • Tom asks a lot of strange questions of the old woman, but she is so focused on trying to snare him as a son in law for her daughter, that she doesn't stop to question his odd behavior. What do you think O'Connor is trying to say here?
  • How does the starkness of the setting affect the story?
  • Why does Tom marry and abandon the young Lucynell? Wouldn't he have been able to steal the car without doing so?
  • What is the significance of the hitchhiker Tom picks up? Why does Tom start telling the boy about his own mother, and why does the boy react the way he does?

Please post any comments, questions, or thoughts in the comment box below! Thank you for participating in The Reader's Den, and please join us next week, when we will be discussing O'Connor's "The Displaced Person."

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