The Life You Save May Be Your Own


Flannery O’Connor

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Flannery O’Connor's The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, to Catholic parents. When she was 15, her family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, and her father died of lupus a year later. She attended Georgia State College for Women and then, in 1946, the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she got to know other major figures in Southern literature such as Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle. She published her first book, the novel Wise Blood, in 1952. That same year, she was diagnosed with lupus and returned to the family farm in Milledgeville, where she wrote, attended Mass, raised peacocks, and maintained a wide correspondence, including with writers like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. A Good Man Is Hard to Find, her first short story collection, was published in 1955. Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, followed in 1960. She died in 1964 of complications from lupus. Her last two short story collections, Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965) and The Complete Stories (1971), were published posthumously, with the latter winning the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction.
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Historical Context of The Life You Save May Be Your Own

O’Connor was active between 1945 and 1964, or from approximately the end of World War II to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This was a transformational period for America, politically, socially, and economically. The post-WWII economic boom was largely fueled by the manufacturing industry, which built on earlier models of assembly line labor to create a robust middle class. However, many groups—African Americans, women, rural Americans living far from industrial centers—were left out of the boom. Additionally, people with disabilities had few legal protections. Disabled children were not guaranteed the right to public education until 1975. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which outlawed discrimination based on ability and required public spaces to be accessible, was only passed in 1990. In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon for children with developmental disabilities to be institutionalized from a young age. These institutions—also called asylums—often had harsh or unsanitary living conditions, and many families would choose not to publicly acknowledge their disabled relative.

Other Books Related to The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Flannery O’Connor is best known as a writer of the Southern Gothic, a regional genre that emerged in the 20th century out of earlier gothic literature, dark romanticism, and Southern humor like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is another example of the Southern Gothic that deals with disabled, deaf-mute characters. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932) are also major works in Southern literature. O’Connor was a great admirer of Faulkner, once saying that “the presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” O’Connor also knew prominent members of the Southern Agrarian movement, including its de facto leader Robert Penn Warren, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his novel All The King’s Men. O’Connor was also heavily influenced by Catholic thought, especially Thomas Aquinas.
Key Facts about The Life You Save May Be Your Own
  • Full Title: The Life You Save May Be Your Own
  • When Written: 1955
  • Where Written: Milledgeville, Georgia
  • When Published: 1955, in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and later in The Complete Stories in 1971
  • Literary Period: Southern Gothic, Christian Realism, Contemporary Literature
  • Genre: Short story, Southern Gothic
  • Setting: A remote farm in the South
  • Climax: Shiftlet abandons Lucynell at a roadside diner
  • Antagonist: Shiftlet is both the protagonist and the story’s most villainous figure, struggling ineffectually against his own sinful nature
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Child star. Flannery O’Connor had her first brush with fame at age six, when Pathé News, a major newsreel company, filmed her with her trained chicken.

Cartoon origins. In college, O’Connor was active as a cartoonist, drawing dozens of humorous comics for the school newspaper. She even submitted some of her cartoon work to magazines like The New Yorker, and critics have argued that these early works preface some of the themes of her later writing.