This story may well be one of O'Connor's most humorous stories. Even though the story as it now stands appears to focus on the attempts of two equally unscrupulous characters to gain an advantage over the other, O'Connor, through the use of color imagery and somewhat obvious symbolism, manages to make the story more than merely a humorous tale. Yet it is the humor, ultimately, which first catches the attention of most readers.
Some of O'Connor's humor is similar, at least in part, to the tradition of such Old Southwest humorists (1835-1860) as Johnson J. Hooper and George W. Harris. Hooper's Simon Suggs and Harris' Sut Lovingood are both similar to O'Connor's Shiftlet. This is especially true in Shiftlet's "swapping session" scenes with Mrs. Crater. These swapping session scenes are also reminiscent of the Armsted-Snopes exchanges in the fiction of William Faulkner. Each of the major characters in O'Connor's story is aware that he, or she, has something that someone else craves, which slowly increases the apparent value of the offer until the final bargain is struck. Thus, Mrs. Crater gains, so she thinks, something to fill the void which exists on her farm (a son-in-law), while Shittlet gains, so he thinks, his heart's desire (an automobile).
The basic plot of the story is very simple. One evening, near sunset, Tom T. Shiftlet (shiftless or shifty) arrives at the desolate and bedraggled farmhouse of Mrs. Lucynell Crater (emptiness or void) and her nearly thirty-two-year-old, deaf-mute daughter, also named Lucynell. During a conversation which allows each of the major characters to size one another up, Shiftlet, who spies an old automobile which he desires, agrees to stay on the farm in exchange for food and a place to sleep. Shiftlet is delighted to be able to sleep in the car, commenting to Mrs. Crater, "the monks of old slept in their coffins," to which she responds, "They wasn't as advanced as we are." Mrs. Crater, in making her offer, sees Shiftlet as someone who at the least will make repairs around the place and who, at best, is a potential husband for her daughter. Within a week, Shiftlet has made numerous repairs around the place, has taught the deaf-mute daughter to speak a single word — bird — and, to a certain extent, has gained the trust of Mrs. Crater. He then turns his attention to the real object of his affection, the car.
Mrs. Crater, sensing an opportunity to obtain a husband for her daughter and a handyman for her farm, doles out money for a fan belt while extolling the virtues of a wife "that can't talk . . . can't sass you back or use foul language." To make her daughter appear even more attractive, Mrs. Crater even tells Shiftlet that the girl is only sixteen or seventeen. When Shiftlet succeeds in resurrecting the car, much to the delight of Lucynell, who, sitting on a crate, stamps her feet and screams, "Burrdttt! bddurrddtttt!" only to be drowned out by the sound of the car, he begins to sense victory and to play Mrs. Crater for all he can get. Mrs. Crater, "ravenous for a son-in-law," offers a mortgage-free farm with "a well that never runs dry" and a warm house in winter; in addition, she will even pay for paint for the auto. Shiftlet, now triumphant, extracts honeymoon money from her — first, fifteen dollars; then, seventeen-fifty — and the bargain is struck.
On the following Saturday, Shiftlet and the daughter are married while Mrs. Crater acts as witness. Leaving a somewhat distressed Mrs. Crater at the farm, the couple begin their honeymoon. Reveling in the joy of his new possession, Shiftlet drives the automobile toward Mobile (surely, an intentional pun on Shiftlet's goal), with his sense of contentment marred only when he thinks of Lucynell, the deaf-mute wife sitting next to him. About a hundred miles from the farm, he stops and abandons the sleeping Lucynell at a diner called The Hot Spot, telling the counter attendant that she is only a hitchhiker and that he needs to "make Tuscaloosa," a destination in the center of the state while Mobile is on the coast, at the extreme south edge of the state.
Perhaps somewhat depressed by his actions, and somehow influenced by the road signs which announce, "Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own," Shifilet, feeling that "a man with a car had a responsibility to others," stops and picks up a young boy who is hitchhiking. Evidently convinced that the boy has run away from home, Shiftlet begins to extol the virtues of his "old mother" whom he supposedly left. As Shiftlet becomes more eloquent, warming to the new role which he has created for himself (advisor to the wayward and misdirected), the boy, in apparent disgust and perhaps sensing Shiftlet's hypocrisy, condemns all mothers in general and leaps from the slowly moving car. Briefly shocked, Shiftlet offers up a short prayer and then races an approaching shower into Mobile.
Since this is one of O'Connor's shorter stories, it provides an excellent opportunity to examine in some detail the techniques which she developed in order to provide an anagogical level of meaning to her stories. Drawing on the definitions laid down by the medieval interpreters of the scriptures, O'Connor noted, "The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation." After continuing her discussion, in which she considers two other kinds of interpretation used by the medieval commentators — the allegorical and the topological, she continues, "one they called anagogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it . . . was also an attitude toward all creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literatures."
O'Connor regularly uses color imagery, analogies, and traditional symbolic techniques to create the double vision which she considered so important to her fiction. If one examines those elements as they are used in this story, it becomes, as we have said, more than a humorous tale; it becomes a comment on at least one of the ways by which man may separate himself from the Divine order of things.
The color imagery used in the story provides considerable insight into O'Connor's intentions. We note that Shiftlet arrives at the farm wearing a black suit and a brown hat. Black has traditionally been viewed as a symbol of physical death and of the underworld, while brown is associated with spiritual death and degradation. Gray, the color of the hats of Mrs. Crater and the young hitchhiker, as well as of the turnip-shaped cloud which descends over the sun at the end of the story, has been variously associated with neutralization, egoism, depression, inertia, and indifference. While the hat is the only item of Mrs. Crater's clothing to be described, O'Connor pays particular attention to the clothing worn by the daughter. The color imagery associated with her is designed to emphasize her purity and innocence, as well as to associate her with the divine. Blue, the color of her dress when we first see her, and of her eyes, is associated with heaven and heavenly love and has become the traditional color associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian art. The white of her wedding dress is, of course, usually representative of innocence and purity while the "pink-gold hair" may be seen as emblematic of the divine (gold) residing in the flesh (pink). Green, the color which Shiftlet paints the car, while emblematic of vegetation and spring, has also been considered suggestive of charity and the regeneration of the soul through good works. Yellow, the color of the band which he paints over the green, and of the fat moon which appears in the branches of the fig tree, is frequently used to suggest infernal light, degradation, betrayal, treason, and deceit. Finally, the sun, given a color only late in the story, is described as a "reddening ball"; red, normally associated with blood, passion, creativity, has also been adopted by the Church as the color for martyred saints. A careful examination of O'Connor's use of color will generally give an indication of the direction in which she wished to point the reaction of her readers.
In addition to her use of color imagery, O'Connor also provides a number of traditional symbols which help to clarify her intent in the story. Shiftlet arrives at the Crater farm at sunset, and Mrs. Crater finds it necessary to shield her eyes from the piercing sun in order to see him. Traditional associations of the sun with the eye of God or the wordplay of sun/son help explain O'Connor's use of sun imagery at both the beginning and end of the story. Standing with his good arm and his stump outstretched against the sunset, Shiftlet's "figure formed a crooked cross," an indication that, although in the light of the sun/son he may appear as a distortion of that most basic of Christian symbols, he is still created in that image. By the end of the story, however, he and his prayer are separated from the sun by the gray, turnip-shaped cloud, an indication that as a result of his egoism and his indifference, he has rejected the grace offered him in the form of the innocent Lucynell and a farm which he could tend. Grace, as you may recall from our discussion of it in the section on O'Connor's view of her writing, is the supernatural aid given to man which allows him new insight into his relationship with the divine scheme of things. Man, having free will, may, however, choose not to act on this new insight.
Shiftlet's interest in the mystery of life, his occupation as a carpenter, and his claim that he has "a moral intelligence" all suggest that in the first third of the story, at least, he is in a position to either accept or reject an offer of grace. By the end of the second third of the story, he has made his choice, and we are told that his smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire The final third of the story then is used to show the results of his choice, and we see him cut off from the sun/son, racing a shower into Mobile The car, which Shiftlet has likened to the spirit — "the spirit lady is like an automobile: always on the move, always" — becomes in a very real sense the coffin which claims his soul. Thus, the car painted green, emblematic of the regeneration of the soul through good works, is given a yellow stripe indicating that Shiftlet has betrayed his opportunity for grace.
That Lucynell is intended to function as the instrument of Shiftlet's salvation is made obvious by both the color imagery and the symbols associated with her. As the three ride into town for the marriage ceremony, we note that every once in a while Lucynell's "placid expression was changed by a sly isolated thought like a shoot of green in the desert." Even the description of "her eyes as blue as a peacock's neck" uses the color blue, associated with heavenly love. In addition, the peacock, in Christian iconography a symbol of immortality, is used in a simile to reinforce other symbols indicating her function in the story. Mrs. Crater's comment that she wouldn't give Lucynell "for a casket of jewels" illustrates the double-edged nature of O'Connor's imagery and the precision with which she tends to write. In regard to Shiftlet, Lucynell becomes the pearl of great price which Christ likens to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13:45 ("a merchant . . . when he found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it"). In regard to Mrs. Crater, she becomes the pearl which Christ describes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:6 ("neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet").
You might also note that O'Connor uses the word "casket" rather than "chest" or "box" of jewels, thereby echoing the coffin imagery associated with the car. This helps link Mrs. Crater with Shiftlet, both pursuing material goals and both surrendering the spiritual goal represented by the innocent Lucynell, actions which, from O'Connor's point of view, lead man to spiritual death. As Shiftlet and Lucynell are driving toward Mobile, she is described as picking the decorative wooden cherries from the brim of her hat and throwing them, one by one, out of the window. The cherry, in Christian art, has been associated with the sweetness of character derived from good works or with the delights of the blessed. Finally, according to the young counterman in The Hot Spot, "She looks like an angel of Gawd."
This analysis of the story relies upon a general understanding of O'Connor's point of view concerning her fiction. It is not, however, the only way that the story may be read. Some critics are entranced by the humor in the story and pay little attention to the color imagery and the underlying religious meaning which the story contains. At least one critic has suggested that Mr. Shiftlet was intended to represent a Christ figure, while others have seen him as a Satanic figure. Certainly the story has, as does all good literature, a rich enough texture to support a number of ways of looking at it. More importantly, however, one should remember a piece of advice which O'Connor gave a group of would-be writers: "when anyone asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully."