Mr. Shiftlet is a man who doesn't know what he wants. Throughout the story, his views on life vary from righteous to self-absorbed. In the beginning of the story, he preaches to mother Lucynell about the evil of the world, citing how doctors can cut out a human heart and still know nothing about it. He claims that money holds no importance and that the simple life is the only thing worth merit. As he gains the trust of the Lucynells, he eventually marries the deaf daughter, Lucynell. Her innocence is all that the Mr. Shiftlet needs. Once married, Mr. Shiftlet shifts his view on life, abandons the girl at a café, and convinces himself that the automobile he reconstructed, is now his happiness. After leaving the café, he picks up a hitchhiker, obviously running away from home. Mr. Shiftlet returns to his modest view of life preaching about his mother and how he wishes he were still with her. Mr. Shiftlet's tendency to change his views is an example of O'Connor using symbolic names.
Characters themselves are also used a symbols in O'Connor's writing. Daughter Lucynell represents Jesus Christ. Not because of her disabilities, but because of her immaculate innocence and ultimate crucifixion. Lucynell represents all that is good in the world. In a sense, Mr. Shiftlet represents the cross she is hung on. When Mr. Shiftlet is first introduced, he is compared to a cross because of the stance of his disfigured body in the sun. He crucifies Lucynell when she is abandoned defenseless at the café. During the story, Mr. Shiftlet teaches daughter Lucynell to say the word Bird. Her character is set free like a bird, just as Jesus Christ freed us through crucifixion.
Many aspects of O'Connor's setting are symbolic. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, weather plays a major role in symbolism. At the end of the story, "There was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-cap tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car." Mr. Shiftlet is returning to an abyss of a life where he wants what is good for him, but what is good for him will not make him content. In O'Connor's work it is never sunny when the mood is depressing or raining during a joyous time. Weather plays a key role in both tone and in the objective O'Connor has in stressing her opinions.
Throughout the story, mother Lucynell emphasizes how all that is needed is on their chicken farm. A deep well, an innocent wife, and a car to sleep in are all a man needs. In the beginning, Mr. Shiftlet agrees with her. The chicken farm is the Garden of Eden. Gradually, Mr. Shiftlet becomes ashamed of his poverty as Adam did his nakedness. Mr. Shiftlet leaves paradise and abandons Christ to seek other means of satisfaction.
The plot is also symbolic. Different stages of the story contribute to the ultimate symbolic feel. Without the opportunities for Mr. Shiftlet's change of attitude, his name would have no symbolism. Without the leaving of the chicken farm, the gloomy weather on the horizon would not be so ominous. Without the abandonment of daughter Lucynell at the café, the life Mr. Shiftlet saved would not have been his own.
Flannery O'Connor is a master of symbolism. She uses every technique of fictional writing to incorporate symbols in her themes. Characters often have names that describe their tendencies. Characters also portray good and evil. The setting not only sets the tone, but also symbolizes the future's potential. The characters, setting, and plot serve as a window of opportunity for Flannery O'Connor to craft her symbols.