The Philosophy of Conflict in Literature
When it is asked that we name the elements of literature, rarely is conflict the first and immediate answer to that question. Often readers recognize that which is easily discerned in most literary scenes, which are the characters and the settings; sometimes they readily identify the story first, the plot, as the overarching structure necessary for all narrative works. All of these components are equally imperative to create engaging literature; every element essential for composing great stories of any medium and prose.
So to ask why conflict does not stand out, or why it matters any more than the characters, the tone, or the plot itself, is a task for a writer greatly unappreciative for glossaries and their examples. Does this question need this exposition, something for justification? There is no point or answer to give, but instead curiosity, for going lengths to exploring that idea, that nature of conflict glorified in texts carried throughout literary history. Is the inquiry then that of a philosophical nature, when it should be asked not why the story requires conflict, but why the reader’s? Literature being a long, ancient medium of history and art, has kept us in close association with ourselves as humans, prepared from the opening of the pages to catch the reader by the reins, and guide them in a difficult place full of human thought and expression. Inevitably, the writer will shout “Conflict!” in bold words, and we may not know what to think or feel, except to press forward, to discover for ourselves what becomes of that tale at the end of the book. For this reason, the question of “why conflict?” is examined.
Conflict in Literature
At once the ground should be leveled, there should be an understanding of what conflict means in the literary sense, at least defined first. For conflict carries some connotations that betray a brash and honest meaning, that it is violent and destructive, something implicitly undesirable to come to terms with. It is important to understand conflict as the abstract notion for what it is in literature, as an element; most interpret the meaning quite generally, and definitions are often intertwined and simple to comprehend within this context:
“It is a literary device used for expressing a resistance the protagonist of the story finds in achieving his aims or dreams… a discord that can have external aggressors or can even arise from within the self. It can occur when the subject is battling his inner discord, at odds with his surroundings or it may be pitted against others…” 1 (“Conflict”, 2010).
“A struggle between opposing forces in a story or play, usually resolved by the end of the work. The conflict may occur within a character as well as between characters.” 2 (DiYanni, 2017).
This device acts as the pivotal engine in the movement or progression of storytelling, and vital to grabbing the attention of the audience as they become invested in how events in the plot transpire. Yet the concept itself is broad in scope, and not only is it critical to disassociate its meaning from linear, established forms, but to consider multiple when exploring its many uses throughout literature. How many “types” of conflicts exist is subjective, and it changes as our perspective of how the nature of conflict manifests in stories, in the ways we discover unique and dynamic forms. Classic forms of these are nicely put together under the article “Conflict in Literature”, establishing “man” from the stance of the protagonist, and identifying opposition in different mediums, such as man, nature, society, and self 3 (Fleming, 2016). This also elaborates on other forms not commonly recognized in literary tropes, and from these ideas one could suggest there is more available to us than is presented. These forms are not exclusive either, as the presence of multiple plots and characters ideally include more than one type of conflict within the structure of a plot, allowing us to recognize there is potential development and depth in creating these interesting situations and events.
Explaining the function and role of conflict in narration would be enough, for its own sake, and establishing its meaning in literature cements our understanding of the topic. However, capturing the essence of this device on mutual terms serves little else but to exclude ourselves, to grasp the concept in whole for itself, so that its relationship to literature will be fruitful in learning about humanity’s fascination with the novelization of struggle and conflict. In part of resolving this question, it will be advantageous to explore philosophical and literary examinations pertaining to the nature of humanity, and if they should reveal a relation to conflict under similar dispositions.
Conflict in Philosophy
Some philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, have an atmosphere of controversy surrounding their legacy, brought about from their works challenging cultural and societal values, and introduce to us unique perspectives on these philosophical topics. In general context, conflict maintains its role as a difficult subject in existentialism, as some regard it as a condition plaguing human purpose, a hindrance of attaining societal virtues as a species, with wars and human suffering a major contribution to (or consequence of) this fault. Yet our enchantment with this sort of perfection may be part of complacent morality, that in moral absolutism there are inherent sources to derive our sense of purpose to become that which is often ideal for us, that we are meant for becoming something better. For others, this may too be the source of inspired opposition to these claims, that it could not be true that we are meant to obtain that ideal “goodness”. This problem draws from recognizing human’s capacity for evil, that in our nature we are considerably flawed and troubled, unable to overcome ourselves being contingent to what is called a meaningless existence; conflict often acts as an obstacle to understanding our place in the world.
When looking to Thomas Hobbes, it is his political and philosophical conceptions we see take on an interesting case with human nature. Through his classic work Leviathan, Hobbes wrote on the inevitable strife of political affairs, on the state of nature being one of constant conflict, and his theories concerning their resolutions through the sovereignty of the state. In aiming to describe man as member of this social construct, Hobbes depicts the conditions that man is naturally inclined, as part of a necessary condition of war between himself and all outside of him, in order to preserve himself in an environment that he must fight in to ensure survival 4 (p.75-78). His interpretation of man in this environment, in a perpetual state of constant battle against anything that threatens his livelihood, is a fascinating claim that relays to what is often disputed on the nature of humanity, where Hobbes asserts that inherent element within the common person to be a part of that eternal struggle to protect, to dominate and to anticipate dangers to his being. It aids us to utilize his definition, his depiction of this brutish agent in nature, in so far as establish the inherent value of conflict in his environment and situation, often strung as the necessary response that has been built into his biology and function.
Humanity desires peace, or rather that is typically what he wishes for, since Hobbes does offer a solution, a method of change to the matter that confronts the constant warfare that is present in ourselves. It is not the solution itself or his reasoning behind it that intrigues us, it has much more in part to the condition of conflict that has remained suitably unresolved, in spite of Hobbes theory that centralizes on the manner of which man settles in dealing with his natural disposition, unable to truly absolve himself of it. He begins to note with the absence of structure, or the true rationality behind the natural laws besetting man, these should ensue on their course of events:
“For the Lawes of Nature… of themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our naturall Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like. And Covenants… are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore notwithstanding the Lawes of Nature… if there be no Power erected… every man will, and lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men.” (Hobbes, p.105).
It is by this token one should consider that limitation in that Power, that while Hobbes would fortify behind this principle of structure, he identifies the tendency of man to revert to his primal conditions, in that without just cause to commit to law, every man is susceptible to his condition and those of his equals. It is worth reiterating then that humanity’s fundamental capacity, willingness, and loathing of his condition is not cured, but instead is buried; it is deterred in his desire not to admit himself to destruction against a power greater than himself, and is forced to bid with his passions in that he may preserve peace for himself. His inclination to wage war, his better nature imbued in conflict, is only restrained under guiding rules, secured by a force repressing that part himself that would seek to manipulate it for his own devices.
The idea behind Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan lends us a thorough view into this aspect of humanity, the necessary element of conflict, that we utilize not only in aims to defeat our opposition, but to preserve ourselves and our values, that we may yield in all endeavors. Yet conflict is a difficult concept to rally behind, and it imposes a reality that challenges certain ideals and morals, obscuring that what might be established as right and wrong with complex implications and suppositions. What then, does considering the basis of conflict in human nature, contribute in better understanding the conflict within literature, the story in the pages? Taking from these respective definitions we can build upon the crucial idea embedded in Hobbes’ work, and examine them to draw parallels in the way literature embodies our intimate relation toward the nature of conflict. Before that however, it is worth considering ways that others have opposed to this idea with their own explanation for our interest in plot.
Opposition to Conflict
To some, conflict is argued to be an irrelevant element to creating engaging literature, a part of questioning to what lengths this should truly portray the whole of humanity. A fascinating argument against the necessity of conflict within literature comes from a piece by a group named Still Eating Oranges, who expounds on the ways that a story can carry weight and meaning to individuals without the presence of conflict. In their article “The significance of plot without conflict”, they introduce an Eastern world concept called Kishōtenketsu, a Chinese and Japanese narrative form that is structured upon a pattern of four components: introduction, development, twist, and reconciliation (conclusion), and asserts this form contests with the element of conflict, in providing an example that supports this 5 (2012). It is important to consider this possibility, to find that conflict may not permeate in all literary narratives, and for stories not having to commit to such a notion, yet there are issues that are revealed in careful reading and observation.
One issue drawn from this article is its attempts to establish the element of conflict as a notion established in Western society, a medium that carries imposing weight as a traditional form in literature. Reflecting on Hobbes’ take on the manner of conflict within man, the idea is not exclusive to a particular culture, and is one that permeates in every aspect of a human’s life, even in ways they may not be aware of. Much of what dragged this article down, in spite the interesting theories, was the author’s innate voice uttering a distinct bias at certain points of the article, in particular:
“Yet, is there any truth to this belief?… No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity.” (“The significance of plot without conflict”, 2012.)
We are also introduced to the narrative form that originates from Chinese and Japanese writings, and with the tone toward Western literary criticism, this undermines the author’s ability to elaborate on the distinct contrast of these ideas, when it is imbued with their own prejudice. However, it is also important to look into the narrative form itself, where it should be noted that while this narrative form, Kishōtenketsu, is described to be one absent of the element of conflict, the language used to define it is not different from that we have previously read. Here are certain ways the author attempts to distinguish this narrative form:
“Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest.” (“The significance of plot without conflict”, 2012)
“The basics of the story–characters, setting, etc.–are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.” (“The significance of plot without conflict”, 2012)
This structure is fascinating in design, and would seem to suggest there is an integral component that separates itself from what is classically recognized in literature. However, in reviewing the layout of this premise, there are certain key terms and phrases that would contradict the claim made by the author, particularly with how the third and fourth act pan out “contrast” and “disconnection” from the rest of the acts. Is this contrast any different from conflict by the definitions we have established? It appears to differentiate based on a lack of opposition that the story centers on, and that there is no centralized theme of forces colliding within the structure of the story, yet is that necessarily what is going on?
In tying back to some of the definitions, there is a certain point at which we explored the way that conflict imposes as an element within literature, and how it is does not fixate on any particular model. In the “Conflict” article, the definition provided is worded in a way that there is not a concrete or formal cast for which conflict is established, and we can pay attention to “…a discord that can have external aggressors or can even arise from within the self. It can occur when the subject is battling his inner discord, at odds with his surroundings or it may be pitted against others…” (2010). While the Kishōtenketsu model may not establish a particular form of conflict, does it necessarily portray through characters pitted against characters, or perhaps it enables a shift in narrative points or stages, in the way scenery or ideas contrast from one another to come to resolution? For that reason, it is worth considering how conflict could adapt to forms that are not traditionally connected, and to pull some new perspectives on the way that culturally humanity embodies and shapes the nature of conflict to our interests.
If literature requires this element, if good fiction needs to be driven by conflict, then we need to understand what it is we desire to see in these works, and what establishes quality and good taste with the audience. Often it is depicted as something that entices interesting events and plots; tension that draws readers to be curious about the way that the characters handle their problems and overcome obstacles. It would sound laughably wicked, in knowing we indulge in watching from afar the pain and struggle of others, be it they are fictional or not. But it is justified; many believe it would be unrealistic for us to be entertained by stories about nothing happening, that anything without conflict would simply be boring, and others say we can relate to those in suffering, for in those pages we can put ourselves in place of the characters in ways of experiencing their plight. As readers, we realize that empathy extends as a remedial weapon against that diluted canvas, driving to console our woes and grievances with newfound meaning, in the way we enrich the text with something that becomes familiar existentially with ourselves. So then, what does literature mean to us?
The writers of these great works masterfully craft with this element, to capture that brilliant spark that illuminates the pages, and leave a remarkable impression of literary genius. At certain scales the written form is compounded with traces of influences carried from doctrines and individuality, delivered to fruition from years of literary art and practice, with innumerable factors to consider the amalgamation of one such masterpiece. Far and wide of these classic works, conflict is consistent in their designs, and are yielded to the advantage of those who, to many others, often mirror sophisticated, intriguing depths to the potential and capacity of human nature. To us, it is a vital course to reflecting from our mistakes and our errors, to see the bitter nature of humanity captured in symbols, and give us something that becomes a metaphorical embodiment of humanity. Readers can see the way things change in the text, from the characters and the scenery, and recognize that innate force that drives these narratives with such gracious, sometimes uncomfortably means.
In literature, what is it we see? Philosophically, the question resonates with doubt, with a concern in the way conflict embeds itself the closer we look into the pages, in what we see in Greek tragedies and modern classics, all a pristine image of that same creature called humanity. But the stories speak as well, about what it means to recognize human error, to never forget what greatness there is yet to achieve, and how we all connect in the struggles we face in our day-to-day lives; how we all deal with the element conflict. Every story, no matter how it is told, is a living icon of our greatest resource, providing an invaluable, exciting way to reveal to us how life and fiction are, humorously, not at all much different.
- “Conflict.” Literary Devices, 2010. Web. Accessed Oct. 22 2017. <http://literary-devices.com/content/conflict> ↩
- DiYanni, Robert. “Glossary of Drama Terms.” McGraw-Hill Online Learning Center. McGraw-Hill Global Education Holdings, LLC., 2017. Web. Accessed Oct. 22, 2017. <https://highered.mheducation.com/sites/0072405228/student_view0/drama_glossary.html> ↩
- Fleming, Grace. “Conflict in Literature.” ThoughtCo., Nov. 20 2016. Web. Accessed Oct. 22 2017. <https://www.thoughtco.com/conflict-in-literature-1857640> ↩
- Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2004 ed. Accessed Oct. 25 2017. ↩
- “The significance of plot without conflict.” Still Eating Oranges. Tumblr, 2012. Web. Accessed Nov. 4 2017. <http://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict> ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.