March 5, 2016
During our Spring Break in 2015, Wendy and I were snuggled in a cabin in the Ozarks when she read to me “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor.
The title is taken from the road safety signs that once adorned roadside billboards across rural America. Ad man Robert S. Walstrom coined the phrase in 1931, and O’Connor borrowed it for her Southern Gothic tale.
O’Connor’s works examine life through the lens of her Roman Catholic faith and often feature grotesque and freakish characters. She once wrote:
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” tells of the intersection of desolate older Lucynell Crater and her deaf-mute daughter with the tramp Tom T. Shiftlet. The names hit you over the head: shiftless Shiftlet confronting the empty Craters. The color imagery is strong and clear: Shiftlet’s black suit, Crater’s gray hat, and the daughter’s “long pink‑gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.” Shiftlet paints a car green, but then adds a band of cowardly, sickly yellow.
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.
Flannery once wrote:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
A particularly strong figure at the start of the tale introduces Shiftlet:
He turned his back and faced 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.
Shiftlet’s opportunity for grace is heightened by additional Christ imagery, including his occupation as a carpenter. But when he sees a chance to acquire the car, “In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.” He squanders the offerings and the storm clouds build. He is cut off from the sun, and we know that means from the Son as well. His prayer that the Lord would “Break forth and wash the slime from this Earth!” is answered by raindrops pelting down upon his car as he races towards Mobile.
But this is a story with much more than stark imagery, for it is laced with black humor. There is the daughter following Tom about, babbling “Burrttddt ddbirrrttdt” and clapping her hands. There is the old woman offering a car for Tom to sleep in, and, when he says the monks of old slept in their coffins, her reply, “They wasn’t as advanced as we are.”
Wendy had read to me a story overflowing with symbols of all sorts, an evocative and harrowing tale of bartering, betrayal, and bluster. I responded over time with a few favorite stories by another master of imagery, Ray Bradbury. Those will be the subjects of the next installment of this series of posts on our Told Tales.