6 February 2010
Moral corruption results from mankind’s need to satisfy their selfish desires. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates sought out to explain why we do what we consciously know is not the moral ideal. Aristotle defined moral weakness as a person who, "knowing that what he does is bad, does it as a result of passion." In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mrs. Crater and Mr.Shiftlet’s actions reveal what truly causes a person to act immorally, which in their case are material possessions.
From the beginning, it is clear that Mrs.Crater is seeking to lure Mr.Shiftlet into her home so she can gain his services. At the beginning of the story she says of her daughter, “…she’s the sweetest girl in the world. She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, and feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up for a casket of jewels” (226). At first Shiftlet is seen as a handyman for free labor around her property, but later she realizes that he is someone she could easily pawn her daughter off to. She speaks highly of her daughter to Shiftlet as if she is priceless and off limits to him, yet that isn’t the case. She is really trying to make her more appealing to him. After Shiftlet fixes the roof, patches the steps, builds a new hog pen, restores the fence, and teaches Lucynell to speak, Mrs. Crater has a sudden change of heart. All of the sudden, Mrs. Crater is all too willing to give her daughter up to this strange drifter in exchange for a few deeds. She sits on her porch and ultimately auctions Lucynell off to this stranger. She says in trying to convince Shiftlet, “you and her and me can drive into town and get married…you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world. You don’t need no money” (228). At this point it is obvious that Mrs. Crater is a fraud, willing to have her daughter marry this itinerant man. Lucynell is nothing more than an object to be traded. Mrs. Crater satisfies her selfish needs of fixing up her home and ridding herself of caring for her disabled daughter. This is immoral in that the daughter does not have a say in what is going on. By going forth with this plan, Mrs. Crater is not only morally weak but corrupted as well. While Shiftlet appears initially unconcerned about money, he is soon inquiring about the automobile, as well as cash for the wedding. Given the gradually increasing interest he shows in money and Mrs. Crater’s automobile, Shiftlet clearly has alternate motives for what he is doing. When Mrs. Crater agrees to pay for the paint for the car, the narrator says, “Mr.Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire” (228). O’Connor uses the phrase, “weary snake” in order to let the reader that there is something deceptive behind that smile, and Shiftlet has ulterior motives for what he is doing. It becomes quite evident when Crater abandons Lucynell at the diner, and continues on with the automobile. At times it is quite mind bottling to imagine why a Shiftlet does what he does. Tim O’Brian says of a good story in, “On the Importance of Mystery in Plot”, “A good plot does not tie up the loose ends of the future in a tidy little knot…The plot mystery of life-what will happen to us, to all of us, to the human race-is unresolved and must remain that way if it is to endure as a compelling story” (2230) From the beginning, it is apparent that Shiftlet is looking for meaning in his transient life. He had the opportunity for redemption by marrying Lucynell and experiencing redemption. Instead he throws away this opportunity and continues down the wondrous path that he had been walking all along. This leaves the reader baffled by his actions. Matter of fact, it seems as if Shiftlet can’t validate his actions either, for he says ironically on his way out of town, “Oh Lord,…Break forth and wash the slime from the earth!”(230) It is quite interesting that he would say such a thing knowing he has just done an inexcusable act. He entered the Craters’s lives as a lonely wanderer, and he leaves it the same way. The love he has for material possessions, bars him from being morally just. Matter of fact it keeps him living a life devoid of significance. American writer, Eudora Welty says, “The real dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion that has set it going. The emotional value is the measure of the reach of the story” (2214). O’Connor’s characters are morally corrupt in that they callous, remorseless and spectacularly self-centered. It is most evident that Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater are willing to use and abuse others to satisfy their selfish needs. They have no regard for others and will stop at nothing to satisfy his needs. Their actions evoke not only disgust but disbelief. The idea that they would choose prize cars and money over human relations stuns the reader and makes the story even more compelling. He and Mrs. Crater are fully aware of what they’re doing and the potential consequences, yet they don’t care. Therefore they are morally weak.
DiYanni, Robert. Literature:Reading Fiction,Poetry,and Drama. 6th ed. Boston:McGraw Hill.2007 O’Brian, Tim. “On the Importance of Mystery in Plot.” DiYanni 2229-30 O’Connor, Flannery. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” DiYanni 223-31 Welty, Eudora. “The Origin of a Story.” DiYanni 2213-14