Addressing concerns about the encroachment of modernity on tradition, as well as a fascination with the grotesque in its various permutations, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is an excellent example of the Southern Gothic style of writing. Originally assigned unflatteringly to early 20th century writers like William Faulkner, the Southern Gothic subgenre has endured, and its critical reception has softened into true appreciation of its characteristics. Like a dialect, it is both deeply idiosyncratic and representative of a larger cultural understanding of a place that sees itself differently than others do.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” originates with an outsider coming into the closed-off world of the Crater plantation, a universe consisting of the two Crater women, who have retreated into themselves, reinforcing their traditional heteronormative roles to the degree that they haven’t left their property in 15 years. The younger Lucynell is intellectually disabled, with the mind of a child, but is also referred to as “an angel of Gawd” late in the story, setting her as a “grotesque” figure, both strange and pitiable to a reader. In the literary sense, “grotesque” is a term that can refer to a figure as existing on the spectrum of real and unreal. It can also mean a figure that elicits both revulsion and sympathy, or a situation that is both terrible and funny. The interloper himself is grotesque as well, a man whose physical disability invites pity and scorn from the old woman, a reaction that will result in the most tragic sequence in the story.

Though there is no physical violence in the story, unlike some other O’Connor works, the faces that Shiftlet and the old woman show do not accurately portray who they are and what they want, resulting in emotional wreckage and betrayal. The old woman sells out her daughter for a promise that is half-fulfilled: a son-in-law who disappears. Shiftlet also betrays both women by parlaying a week’s worth of manual labor for a car that he uses to abandon them both. Thus the triad is fractured, with each of its members alone and unhappy. The Southern Gothic story rarely results in a happy ending, but rather presents the reader with a lens into a world that is messy, disappointing, and unfair. We are all getting through our days, it says, and we are capable of the most egregious cruelties, even if we must see ourselves as the pristine heroes of our own lives.