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Mr. Shiftlet: Definitely a Christ Figure

O'Connor, ''The Life You Save May Be Your Own'' -- Jerz: EL150 (Intro to Literary Study) "'Oh Lord!' he prayed. 'Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!'"

I totally agree with Mackenzie that Mr. Shiftlet is a Christ figure. Like the Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Christ figures don't always have to be good with Flannery O'Connor. In fact, I can sort of compare his abandonment of Lucynell to the Crucifixion. While it seems like he just leaves Lucynell to fend for herself, he actually leaves food for her and then leaves the person working at the counter to take care of her. It's kind of like when Jesus left mankind but still provided for them (by way of redemption and forgiveness). The waiter is kind of like Peter, when Jesus said to Peter, "Upon this rock I build my church," leaving instructions for mankind to be taken care of after he leaves. Also, Lucynell falls asleep before he leaves, just like when the disciples fell asleep the night that Judas betrayed Jesus. At the end of the story, "Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him," almost like he's taking on all the sins of the world. Water, often signifying baptism or redemption, occurs in the last paragraph when "fantastic raindrops" hit Shiftlet's car, symbolizing spiritual cleansing.
I feel like Mr. Shiftlet represents the need to let go. Repairing the car is like repairing his soul, so that he will be able to move on and leave everything else behind. He even says that "the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always." While it does seem terrible that he left Lucynell alone without a reasonable means to get back home, she also was being trapped by her mother, who didn't want her to ever leave or have a life of her own. In order to be free and spiritually at peace with yourself, you can't cling on to people the way that the old woman clung on to Lucynell. The title definitely seems to push this idea of taking your life into your own hands and not unhealthily clinging onto possessions or people. Like Jesus, Mr. Shiftlet weaned people off their unhealthy, possessive ways in order for their souls to grow. Then he just took off into the sunset, leaving mankind with a new perspective on life to deal with as best they could. The fact that Flannery O'Connor could make a character as unsavory as Mr. Shiftlet a Christ figure just goes to show how bold a writer she was. Go Flannery!

Comments (4)

MargaretJones:

I definitely agree that Mr. Shiftlet is a Christ-like figure throughout the story. However, I think it's bit of a stretch to compare this to the Crucifixion. Yes, Mr. Shiftlet left Lucynell with food and care, but he chose to leave her. Jesus did not choose to leave us, he had no option. And Jesus went through a lot of suffering -- I really don't think Mr. Shiftlet went through that much suffering. I mean I can kind of see you can relate these two together, but it's a bit of a stretch to me. However, I definitely see the Christ-like figure though.

I don't think Mr. Shiftlet was Christlike moment for moment. While he doesn't necessarily suffer in the way Christ did, he does seem to go through a lot of emotional pain after he's picked up the boy. It's almost like he didn't want to leave Lucynell, but felt that there was some reason he had to. It's the same kind of weird thing when the Misfit says, "It's no real pleasure in life" when he kills the grandmother. O'Connor creates these characters who do despicable things and yet seem driven to do it by some higher power. I also noticed something else. He says, "I got the best old mother in the world." A reference to Mary? And while Jesus certainly had an extremely pressing reason to go through the Crucifixion, it was certainly something he consciously chose to put himself through. There were many moments when Jesus could have avoided getting crucified but purposefully went ahead with his plan. So I don't know. I certainly don't think this story is an event-for-event allegory of the Crucifixion. But there just seem to be a lot of similarities to me.

Chera Pupi:

I really didn't see Mr. Shiftlet as a Christ figure AT ALL while I was reading. When I looked at your blog title I still didn't think he was a Christ figure. After reading your blog, I can kind of see how he is a Christ figure, but I agree with Maggie that it seems to be kind of a stretch. The other references that you pointed out Matt seem more convincing (his mother and the waiter) than the arguments for Mr. Shiftlet himself. I'm not sure where I stand on this one, but you definately got me thinking!

richard:

Of course Shiftlet is a Christlike figure, it's pounded into us repeatedly through his words and imagery -

He's a carpenter who fixes things well - like the Displaced Person (who is also a foreigner), he brings the car and other things back to life, he waxes philosophic about the heart and its mysteries, he forms a (crooked) cross in the sun (Son?), he actually causes it to rain!

My take was that it is blindingly obvious that he is a first draft of perfection, but like the Misfit, a flawed one. He talks the talk, but Jesus never said anything about the heart as a car or anything mobile - it was a mustard seed that grew IN PLACE, like a house, like the Kingdom of God.

Jesus may have been peripatetic, but he took his love with him and helped everyone.

No matter how you slice it, this man takes a deaf (he abandons the sick! Why didn't he heal her?) woman from an old woman (the weak, the oppressed!) and leaves her in a restaurant while he steals her car! Give me a break! He's a con man.

Note that at the start of the story, she asks what he's doing around here and what is the very next line? He's looking at the car. Then later he's staring at the gleam of the bumper when grandma is talking to him.

He's greedy and thinking of how to con the car out of them. He's a poet all right, but he's a bullshitter like the salesman in Good Country Folk, and a criminal like the Misfit.

"You shall know them by their deeds." And his actions are slime.

He seems conflicted, so I guess his problem is the sign: "The life you save.." - shows that the car is a symbol of human greed and selfishness of the spirit.

Like the Coca Cola in the Late Enemy, or in the other stories, the car is a symbol of modernity, new times. It's a machine, a product of reason alone.

He's no thug - he doesn't hurt her, but give me a break! If it wasyour daughter left in a restaurant, you'd be pissed. He's a jerk, selfish, a thief. He's just not like the Misfit who shoots an infant!

My take: there was only one Christ, and our Shiftlet is just like his name, shifty, restless, on the move and unwilling to plant himself like a mustard seed, unwilling to sit still.

A potential buttress for this interpretation is the fact that he left his own mom whom he says he loves.

The Misfit refuses prayer - he refuses spiritual adoption by granny - he is rebellious and enjoys it. Children are little greedy beasts in OConner's stories - every one of them. They are willful against the Gospel even unto their own death (see The River - where a 5 year old, clueless and still rebellious - takes the name, function, and sacraments of a priest to do it himself - he totally misunderstands the dependence upon God and DIES!)

So we have rebellious children - and that is sinful. Shiftlet is yet another iteration on this omnipresent theme of hers.

He's good and bad, he's a reviver and a selfish bastard, both. He's a philosopher and a coarse thief conning for a car.

We are all ugly and broken, and no one is exempt. Shiftlet is as ignorant of his own heart and his deeds as he is of others (his incomprehension at the end).

He loves his own mother greatly, yet still left her (god gave to me and I left her!).

The Child refusing the Parent - shows up again and again - recall Nelson refusing Gramps in the Artificial Nigger? (The irony of this story - is that the 3D sculpture of a racist black is more real than the repeated mutual imagery tying Nelson and Gramps together through the story - this sick racism actually HEALS the moral rift between Nelson and Gramps and the boy accepts the moral purpose of the trip - urban is bad, rural is good! And we know how virtuous country folk are in O'Conner's stories...)

Remember, he forms a cross relative to the real sun (to the real Son?), but it's incomplete, a fragment. It's the first thing he does before he talks. You shall know them by their DEEDS...

What say you?

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