Friday, April 29, 2005

Are you Mr. Shiftlet?

Self-righteousness is a perilous thing. Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is a case study in the darkness to which sin can plunge a man, particularly the sin of thinking yourself more righteous than others. Bear with me as I describe sections of the story, examining Mr. Shiftlet, the main character--at the end, I will return to ponder whether we can really learn anything from his story.

He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.

Mr. Shiftlet is dissatisfied because he thinks he understands life thoroughly. We often run across people with an air of cynicism, of "dissatisfaction"--those who think they know everything. Here, Miss O'Connor has described that perfectly. And she proceeds to show exactly what happens when someone whose solipsistic view of reality prevents him from considering others, comes across something he wants.

"Are you married or are you single?" the old woman asked.

There was a long silence. "Lady," he asked finally, "where would you find you an innocent woman today'? I wouldn't have any of this trash I could just pick up."

So, Mr. Shiftlet is above being married to "trash he could just pick up." He sets himself above others, yet again.

Mr. Shiftlet's eye in the darkness was focused on a part of the automobile bumper that glittered in the distance. "Lady," he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump, "there ain't a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn't fix for you, one‑arm jackleg or not. I'm a man," he said with a sullen dignity, "even if I ain't a whole one. I got," he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the immensity of what he was going to say, "a moral intelligence!" and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.

This passage seems to me to be the heart of the entire short story. Mr. Shiftlet declares himself to have a "moral intelligence". His self-regard is almost palpable: with a "sullen dignity" and astonishment, he declares his great talents and wisdom. It's a pity that his "moral intelligence" doesn't allow him to make moral decisions.

On Saturday the three of them drove into town in the car that the paint had barely dried on and Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell were married in the Ordinary's office while the old woman witnessed. As they came out of the courthouse, Mr. Shiftlet began twisting his neck in his collar. He looked morose and bitter as if he had been insulted while someone held him. "That didn't satisfy me none," he said. "That was just something a woman in an office did, nothing but paper work and blood tests. What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my heart and cut it out," he said, "they wouldn't know a thing about me. It didn't satisfy me at all."

"It satisfied the law," the old woman said sharply.

'The law," Mr. Shiftlet said and spit. "It's the law that don't satisfy me."

Now, the law doesn't satisfy poor Mr. Shiftlet. He sets himself above other men, those who would make laws. But he gives no justification for setting such a high standard.

"Give it to her when she wakes up," Mr. Shiftlet said. "I'll pay for it now."

The boy bent over her and stared at the long pink‑gold hair and the half‑shut sleeping eyes. Then he looked up and stared at Mr. Shiftlet. "She looks like an angel of Gawd," he murmured.

"Hitch‑hiker," Mr. Shiftlet explained. "I can't wait. I got to make Tuscaloosa."

At this point, whatever sympathy I had for Mr. Shiftlet completely evaporated. Was marrying Lucynell the younger just a vehicle for getting the car? Or did his qualms about the "law" give way into conviction that they weren't married? Regardless, he left a deaf, nearly mute woman alone in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, asleep. The callousness is astounding, but perhaps not so much so when you consider all of his other statements of "moral intelligence" and self-congratulations.

"Son," Mr. Shiftlet said, "I see you want a ride."

The boy didn't say he did or he didn't but he opened the door of the car and got in, and Mr. Shiftlet started driving again. The child held the suitcase on his lap and folded his arms on top of it. He turned his head and looked out the window away from Mr. Shiftlet. Mr. Shiftlet felt oppressed. "Son," he said after a minute, "I got the best old mother in the world so I reckon you only got the second best."

The boy gave him a quick dark glance and then turned his face back out the window.

"It's nothing so sweet," Mr. Shiftlet continued, "as a boy's mother. 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."

The boy shifted in his seat but he didn't look at Mr. Shiftlet. He unfolded his arms and put one hand on the door handle.

"My mother was a angel of Gawd," Mr. Shiftlet said in a very strained voice. "He took her from heaven and giver to me and I left her." His eyes were instantly clouded over with a mist of tears. The car was barely moving.

The boy turned angrily in the seat. "You go to the devil!" he cried. "My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!" and with that he flung the door open and jumped out with his suitcase into the ditch.

Mr. Shiftlet was so shocked that for about a hundred feet he drove along slowly with the door stiff open. A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car. 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!"

This last section of the story almost makes you think Mr. Shiftlet has a heart. He stops and picks up a hitchhiker--is it because he's feeling guilty for reducing Lucynell to a hitchhiker just a few miles back? The boy he picks up must serve as a sort of reality-check--as he reacts violently to Mr. Shiftlet's platitudes, hurtling himself into out of the slowly moving car to get away. Is the boy, as some critics suggest, an instrument of Mr. Shiftlet's coming redemption? Mr. Shiftlet is profoundly shocked by the boy's actions, but is it the rottenness of the world, or his own rottenness, that engulfs him? We can only wonder if that shock led to a change in his heart.

So, stepping back from the story, and into reality, are we like Mr. Shiftlet? His primary fault, as I see it, is his self-righteousness. When things go wrong, like the marriage, or the hitchhiker, he immediately blames it on external things, like the "law" or like the "rottenness of the world." Not once does it occur to him, at least not that we can tell, that he might be at fault. When we behave in this way, as we often do, it is the duty of our brothers and sisters in the Church to admonish and attempt to correct us, as Bekah mentioned in a post just today. We're often blind to our own faults, particularly when we are as self-righteous as Mr. Shiftlet. Others must show us how we err, and likewise we must be willing to accept such correction.

All have sinned; all fall short of the glory of God. In the character of Mr. Shiftlet, we glance in a mirror back at ourselves, if perhaps a bit darker. It is this gift of reflecting the fallen world and the consequent hope of redemption from Christ, at which Miss O'Connor was so deft.


At 12:07 PM, Blogger BekahS. said...

What has stuck in my memory from that story is the scene where Mr. Shiftlet sticks out his arms like a cross, but being an amputee, his cross is incomplete. What striking imagery! Aren't we all incomplete on our own?

The cure to Mr. Shiftlet's condition is simple, but not easy. We are to cultivate a deep sense of humility. Think about all the great saints. Who is more holy than they? Yet they did not acclaim their own holiness, but regarded themselves as God's most humble and needy souls. Our Mother is the most clear example of this. Luke 1:28-29 "And coming to her, he said, 'Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.' But she was greatly troubled at what was said adn pondered what sort of greeeting this might be."

And her relative Elizabeth likewise, Luke 1:43 "And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"

I pray that the lord will help me cultivate the same spirit of humility.


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