One of the main conflicts in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is internal. Internal conflicts arise within the mind of a character—they comprise some mental or psychological struggle. The reader sees such a struggle in Mr. Shiftlet, the one-armed veteran who wanders to Lucynell Crater’s doorstep. From the beginning, Mr. Shiftlet struggles with the realities he has encountered so far in his life, such as the way the world seems to revolve around money. He cares more about self-fulfillment than material gain, and yet, he does not feel fulfilled. At one point he speaks of the restlessness of the “spirit”:
"A body and a spirit," he repeated. "The body, lady, is like a house: it don't go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile: always on the move, always . . . "
Mr. Shiftlet is a restless soul who struggles to find a place in the world. He has traveled and had varied experiences, but nowhere is he happy. This is one of the main conflicts in the story.
There is also external conflict in the story. External conflicts occur between a character and an outside force, such as another character, nature, or society. In the story, we see Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater manipulating one another (man versus man). Mrs. Crater seeks to keep Mr. Shiftlet in her desolate home by marrying him to her mentally disabled daughter. Mr. Shiftlet expresses that he does not wish to marry her, but that does not stop Mrs. Crater from convincing him. She degrades his worth, telling him that “there ain't any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man." He does not respond to these words directly, but “[t]he ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet's head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.” Words like these demonstrate both the internal and the external conflicts of the story. They are literally words said to him in a conflict with an outside character, but they also add to Shiftlet's inner struggle—he cannot find a place for himself in the world, hence his drifting.
The external conflict is furthered when Mr. Shiftlet ends up deceiving the older woman. He leaves Lucynell at a diner after they marry and takes their car. The reader learns in this scene that Shiftlet “had always wanted an automobile but he had never been able to afford one before.” The car, which he noticed from the very beginning, was his primary objective after all. When Mrs. Crater is trying to convince him to marry her daughter, the following interaction occurs:
"And yonder under that shed is a fine automobile." She laid the bait carefully. "You can have it painted by Saturday. I'll pay for the paint."
In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet's smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire. After a second he recalled himself and said, "I'm only saying a man's spirit means more to him than anything else. I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost. I got to follow where my spirit says to go."
While Mrs. Crater is “baiting” him with a painted car, Shiftlet is plotting to steal the car. His theft is foreshadowed by his smile that “stretched like a weary snake.” He then concocts his plan to go through with the marriage to get it. In the end, he does get the car. However, he finds that this brings him no closer to solving his internal struggle. Mr. Shiftlet is no closer to fulfillment by the story’s end than he was at its start.