Definition of Conflict

In literature, conflict is the result of competing desires or the presence of obstacles that need to be overcome. Conflict is necessary to propel a narrative forward; the absence of conflict amounts to the absence of story.

There are three main types of conflict identified in literature: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus self. Note that these standard classifications use “man” as a universal term, including women as well. Let’s take a closer look at these three definitions of conflict.

  • Man versus man: A situation in which two characters have opposing desires or interests. The typical scenario is a conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. This is an external conflict. Most thrillers and mysteries have this type of conflict, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
  • Man versus nature: In this type of conflict, a character is tormented by natural forces such as storms or animals. This is also an external conflict. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick by Herman Melville are examples of this type of conflict.
  • Man versus self: This conflict develops from a protagonist’s inner struggles, and may depend on a character trying to decide between good and evil or overcome self-doubts. This conflict has both internal and external aspects, as obstacles outside the protagonist force the protagonist to deal with inner issues. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an example.

Others have further identified more types of conflict, such as the following:

  • Man versus machine: A more contemporary type of conflict, this situation results from humans involved in a struggle with manmade machines. This is an external conflict. The Terminator series is an example of this type of conflict.
  • Man versus society: In this type of conflict, a character must take on society itself, and not a single person. The character stands at odds with societal norms and realizes the necessity to work against these norms. This is an external conflict. Conflict examples are John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.
  • Man versus fate: This situation results from a protagonist working against what has been foretold for that person. While this conflict was more prevalent in stories where gods could control fate, such as in ancient Greek dramas, there are still examples of this type of conflict in more contemporary literature. An example would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Common Examples of Conflict

Conflict is present everywhere in the world around us. We experience conflict on a daily basis, and it can be minor (a disagreement with a friend about where to have lunch) or major (countries at war). Here are some examples of conflict in the real world:

Man versus man:

  • Rafa Nadal playing Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final
  • Negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine
  • A divorcing couple trying to determine custody rights

Man versus nature:

  • Hurricane Katrina destroying a person’s house and livelihood
  • Trying to summit Mount Everest
  • A guard dog attacking a thief

Man versus self:

  • An alcoholic struggling to abstain from liquor
  • Someone attempting to get over an ex-lover
  • A stutterer preparing for a public speech

Man versus society:

  • Martin Luther King Jr. speaking out against segregation
  • Mahatma Gandhi encouraging non-violent protests
  • A loner struggling to fit in at school

Significance of Conflict in Literature

As stated above in the definition of conflict, all literature requires conflict to have a storyline. Most stories show a character arc from the beginning of the end, displaying development or transformation of the main character(s) nature or opinions. The majority of this development and transformation occurs due to conflict. Conflict challenges a character’s convictions and brings out their strengths and/or weaknesses, much as it does in real life. Note that conflict is not necessarily “bad” and often it is not obvious which side is right or wrong, just that it presents difficulties to the protagonist.

Most stories contain more than one conflict throughout the course of the plot, though often there is one overriding conflict that is lasts the duration of the story. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the main conflict is Frodo’s struggle to deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom, but of course there are numerous conflicts throughout the trilogy between warring parties and obstacles that occur along the way.

Examples of Conflict in Literature

Example #1: Man versus man

William Shakespeare’s play Othello represents a case of man versus man. There are other conflicts, such as the racism in the society, but the key struggles are between Othello and his confidant Iago. Iago is upset with Othello for two main reasons—Othello has promoted another man instead of Iago, and Iago believes that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. Iago therefore sets up scenarios in which Othello confronts insurmountable obstacles. Ultimately, since Iago wants to destroy Othello and his happiness, he and Othello are at odds in their desires. Othello, however, remains unaware that they are in conflict until it is too late, falsely believing that he is in conflict instead with his wife Desdemona and her supposed lover.

Example #2: Man versus nature

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is the tale of the eponymous hero who must defeat three monsters. These monsters include Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. The three monsters are not human and represent the fears that the Anglo-Saxons had about the natural world and its ability to destroy humanity. In turning the natural world into monsters that could be vanquished, the tale of Beowulf helped appease some of these fears.

Example #3: Man versus self

Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is a tragedy in that all of the main characters are deluding themselves about reality. Willy is the eponymous salesman, and patriarch of the Loman family. He and his wife are under the delusion that he is a well-liked and successful salesman and that his company is glad to have him. Unfortunately, when Willy tries to get a job promotion he is instead fired. While there are external conflicts in how Willy is treated, the main conflict is between Willy and the delusions he has. This comes out even more starkly when he begins to hallucinate and talk to himself. As is foreshadowed in the title, Willy cannot overcome his conflict with himself and commits suicide, believing that this is the only way he can lessen the burden on his family.

Example #4: Man versus society

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a futuristic dystopia in which the protagonist must confront the incredibly unjust world in which she is living. This society, which is set in the former United States of America, is a theocratic dictatorship in which women are subjugated. The protagonist, Offred, and other “handmaids” are actually concubines given to couples in the ruling class who are infertile. Offred finds out about a resistance network and does what she can to overthrow the ruling class.

Test Your Knowledge of Conflict

1. Choose the correct conflict definition from the following statements:
A. Two people who are angry at each other.
B. One character who is in the right and the other character who is in the wrong.
C. Obstacles that need to be overcome and/or competing desires.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the plot of George Orwell’s 1984: A man living in a dystopia begins to realize the extent of the ruling party’s power and the hypocrisy with which they rule. He tries to fight against the Party by educating himself and teaming up with a few other people to change the system.
Which type of conflict does this demonstrate?
A. Man versus man
B. Man versus society
C. Man versus self
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following plots represents a man versus nature conflict?
A. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: A man is shipwrecked and must build a life for himself on an island.
B. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: A woman is scorned by her village for having a child out of wedlock.
C. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding: A group of boys is stranded on an island and start to form a dystopian hierarchy.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. Note that while nature played a key role in shipwrecking the boys in The Lord of the Flies, the main conflict is between the boys themselves, not in fighting nature as a united team.[/spoiler]