As essential element in literature, especially that which focuses on narrative, is conflict. You can access more detailed information on this document called “Conflict in Literature”.

What is conflict?

Conflict is “…the struggle between opposing forces that provides the central action and interest in any literary plot.” (Oxford Tutorials, Glossary of Literary Terms)

Most people think of conflict as only existing between people. But the term can be applied to many different “forces”. Characters also face internal conflicts, which means they’re struggling with some force within themselves (see the Macbeth example below).

The term “opposing forces” could be applied to any two forces, be they human or otherwise.

Here are some examples of conflicts in novels, plays and other genres:

  • A classic example of conflict is between the Montague and Capulet family in Romeo and Juliet. 
  • Macbeth’s mind is thrown into turmoil when he is contemplating the assassination of Duncan, a man whom he likes and has shown him kindness. His desire for power is in conflict with his sense of loyalty.
  • In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher faces challenges everyday because of his unique behaviour (on account of his Asperger Syndrome). The conflict here is between Christopher’s way of thinking and the daily tasks that he must complete. There are other obvious conflicts in the novel. e.g. between Christopher’s parents; Christopher and obstacles in the way of discovering the truth;
  • In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Odysseus faces many obstacles as the spends ten years trying to get home after the Trojan War.

You can read more about definitions and examples of conflict here.

Claude Lorrain’s painting of Odysseus departing from the Land of the Phaeacians.
image from wikipedia. 

What is the importance of conflict in literature?

One of the most important ways in which a conflict influences a literary work is through its impact on the plot. Imagine a story where the protagonist never faces a challenge? The super-hero has no villain to defeat; the boy meets girl and they live happily ever after; the car chase ends after the first corner. You could imagine these plot-lines would be very dull.

Conflict can impact a literary work in any number of ways. Some of these include:

  • Adding tension, drama, action and/or excitement to the plot.
  • Revealing character
  • Conveying a central theme

How do we analyse conflict in literature studies?

There are numerous ways to go about analysing conflict in works of literature, so this is simply a guideline.

Firstly, you need to identify conflicts that exist in the plot. You can do this as you read/view the work, or it might make more sense after you’ve finished reading/viewing the work in its entirety and then go back to identify those conflicts that you felt were pivotal to the story.

Once you’ve identified a range of conflicts in the work (it’s rare to find only one), try to determine which you think are central to the story.

Now you need to find evidence and example of how that conflict is portrayed throughout the work. Look for quotes, events and other details and make notes of these.

Next, think carefully about, and make notes on, reasons why conflict is important. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does conflict in the work influence my interpretation of its meaning?
  • What does the conflict in the work reveal about central characters?
  • What is the relationship between conflict/s and theme/s?
  • Is the conflict resolved by the end of the work? If not, why has it been left unresolved?

Remember that the study of literature is primarily about developing the ability to interpret works in order to extract meaning, as well as being able to use evidence to support your interpretations of the meaning of a work. So the more in-depth you understand the conflict and the more evidence you have to support it, the better.