Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” was published in the 1950s and is set in the American South. It tells the story of Shiflet, who comes across a mother and daughter, and who quickly agrees to marry the daughter, and who then betrays her. The story in a way is about the fleetingness of human relationships.
Shiflet, who is passing through town, agrees, for a sum of money to marry the mute Lucynell. They go into town and get married and then drive off, leaving her mother behind, for their honeymoon. Shiflet has no intention of going anywhere with Lucynell and we she falls asleep, he leaves her in a diner. But Shiflet is not a psychopath. He feels badly, as if the whole world is without meaning. He may have no moral compass, nor have ever loved Lucynell, but he certainly does not think he is anything special.
If anything his actions tell him he is not fit for this world as he has no real connection to it. He passes a road sign that suggests he drive safely: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” But his own life is worth so little, he thinks. The world is rotten. Later he picks up a hitchhiker who seems to confirm this to him. He realizes he is alone in the world, with nothing to his name, and he exclaims: “Oh Lord! Break forth and wash the slime from the earth!”