LITERARY TERMS & THEMATIC ELEMENTS
EILAND'S ONLINE ENGLISH CLASSES
Art courtesy of Janet Preslar, FrActivity
Conflict is the primary problem or dilemma in a story. There are three kinds, commonly
called man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self.
In man vs. man, the conflict is between two specific characters. The conflict is usually
overt, but is often rooted in an important underlying difference in philosophy; symbolically,
these characters often have a conflict in principle that leads to the immediate confrontation.
Man vs. nature/environment is a two-fold conflict. First, it is the conflict of a character
versus outside elements, specifically nature itself. Again, the conflict here is often symbolic,
usually of other conflicts, especially within the character. Second, the conflict also refers to
man-made environments, specifically society itself. In this we have a distinction between man vs.
man and man vs. society in that the former is one person pitted against another; in the latter the
individual is pitted against a unified, personified society.
Man vs. self is the most important of the three conflicts. It is the conflict within a person
over a specific problem. This creates ambivalence: the inability to make a decision. The two
specific sides of the internal argument must be identified in order to understand this conflict.
In the following discussion (and you thought it had already started) we will discuss conflict
by applying it to a story most of us are familiar with: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"
the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation from a curmudgeon to a true believer in the
goodness in humankind. He encounters, and we through him, the conflicts in all their
permutations. Furthermore, we also encounter the repeated themes the author presents in this
story. They include the following, among others:
- we are responsible for each other;
- generosity has rewards;
- redemption is always possible.
- Man vs. man:
Ebenezer Scrooge has conflicts with most every individual he encounters. It is the crux of
the story: a man so embittered against humankind as to despise each one of its members singularly.
He feels his employee is stealing from him by asking for Christmas day off, that beggars are
whining wastrels, that even his nephew is attacking him with his exhortations of "Merry
- 'Nephew!' returned the uncle sternly, 'keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it
'Keep it!' repeated Scrooge's nephew. 'But you don't keep it.'
'Let me leave it alone, then,' said Scrooge. 'Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever
- The root of this conflict, and the other man vs. man conflicts, is an argument of
philosophies. As far as the matter concerning Cratchit goes, Scrooge feels life is to be
endured...that a holiday is an excuse for sloth. He takes it as a personal affront that he
will lose the day that should have been devoted to work. Furthermore, he sees the confrontation
beggars as assault. As for Scrooge's conflict with his family, the nephew feels camaraderie and
festivity are to be shared, as well as goodwill. Scrooge feels no goodwill; the nephew wants to
spread his over-abundance of it. Scrooge wants to keep to himself; his nephew wants to draw him
- Man vs. nature:
It seems Scrooge has no conflict with nature; everyone else is noted as being affected
by the cold especially. But as usual, the man vs. nature conflicts are symbolic: in this case,
of Scrooge's heart.
- He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the
dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry
weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon
its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him.
The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only
one respect. They often 'came down' handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
- The author shows us the symbolic nature of this weather...how Scrooge himself seems to have no
temperature fluctuation, as his mood doesn't seem to fluctuate other than varying degrees of
irritation. Later we see a foreshadowing of his conflicts to come.
- It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in
the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping
their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but
it was quite dark already -- it had not been light all day -- and candles were flaring in the
windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came
pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of
the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down,
obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.
- The darkness, the fog, the smears, all point to obscurity and lack of clarity...the same things
Scrooge will encounter himself.
We also see man vs. society embodied in the two men who, in the Christmas spirit,
entreaty Scrooge for alms on Christmas eve, fully expecting him to comply. Instead they are
shocked as Scrooge explains his problem with society.
- 'I wish to be left alone,' said Scrooge. 'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen,
that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people
merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who
are badly off must go there.'
'Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'
'If they would rather die,' said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus
population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that.'
'But you might know it,' observed the gentleman.
'It's not my business,' Scrooge returned. 'It's enough for a man to understand his own
business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good
- This conflict is distinguished from man vs. man in that these two men represent society's
pressure to conform...in this case to a particular mood at a particular time of year...
and Scrooge's response is directed at society, not just the two men who are its spokespersons.
- Man vs. self:
The man vs. self conflicts are myriad in this story, and in one of them we see Scrooge's
life as a child: abandoned, forgotten. He has learned from his conflicts with others to
withdraw and thereby not be victimized. This is the heart of this story: Scrooge fights his
intense will to justify his life...and to rationalize what has happened to him...against his natural
inclination, as a human, to want to be happy.
- Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over,
and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and, the more he
endeavoured not to think, the more he thought.
Marley's Ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature
inquiry that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its
first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, "Was it a dream or
- We are shown his change...his resolution of his inner conflict...and thus all the other conflicts,
when he chooses the decision to embrace life.
- 'Spirit.' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, 'hear me. I am not the man I was. I
will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
'Good Spirit,' he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: 'Your nature intercedes
for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an
- The resolution of the conflict ends the story...surely a determinate ending.
As you can see, the various conflicts of this story not only drive the plot, they also create
the underlying themes. Most stories will use conflict in this dual purpose, grabbing the reader's
attention AND delivering the message. Being able to identify these conflicts can often lead to
discovering those themes.
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: January 24, 2007