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 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.

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

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:

Man versus nature:

Man versus self:

Man versus society:

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 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 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.