What Is Conflict?

In literature, conflict is an event, circumstance, person, or personal characteristic that stands in the way of a character’s pursuing a goal, even if that goal is simply survival. Without conflict, many argue that there could be no forward-moving plot in a narrative. Certainly, the plot would not be very compelling if a character never met with opposition or challenge.

Think about movies that you might have seen. Very early on into the plot of every film, there is what the film industry calls "a main event" that challenges the ordinary lives of the central character. This event forces the character to take action — to battle alien forces, to become a better parent, to get a college degree, to stop a catastrophic event, to get that perfect guy. Whatever person, place, or event that stands in the way of the character’s achievement of this goal is the conflict.

How Do You Identify Conflict in Writing?

There are three main types of literary conflict:

  • Man against man is a conflict that develops when an antagonist or society as a whole thwarts the main character’s progress. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Bob Ewell’s lies and ignorance prevent Atticus Finch allowing justice to prevail.
  • Man against nature is when the conflict is a force of nature that threatens destruction. For instance, in Jack London’s story, "To Build a Fire," the freezing cold of the Yukon is a force that threatens the main character’s survival.
  • Man against himself, the third conflict, is the only internal conflict of the three. In Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard lives trapped in a conventional marriage and divided within herself. Learning that her husband is dead allows her to feel free, and her inner conflict dissolves. When she finds out her husband is alive after all, she dies because she cannot return to the state of living a lie.

In the Kate Chopin story above, there are actually two conflicts. Not only is the character in conflict with her own desires; she is in conflict with a society that told women they had to marry in order to be secure. Many narratives have more than one conflict, though there is usually a conflict that is more important, or dominant.

Examples of Conflict

1. In Romeo and Juliet, the conflict is between Romeo and the Capulet family, or man against man.

2. In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the conflict is between Tom Joad and the drought conditions of the Great Depression. The conflict is two-fold, man against man and man against nature.

3. In Faulkner’s story "Barn Burning," the conflict is between Sarty and his father, Abner Snopes. A secondary conflict is man against society, represented by the wealthy familes whose property the father destroys out of spite.

4. Although Ahab does battle with the white whale, the primary conflict in Moby Dick is man against himself since what destroys Ahab is his relentless quest.

5. The conflict in The Hunger Games is man against man, Katniss against repressive government forces.

6. The same conflict exists in another dystopic novel, Orwell’s 1984, between Winston Smith and the Party of Oceania.

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