Most of us would probably say that in life we seek peace, happiness, contentment, and tranquility. Many of us, in fact spend a considerable effort avoiding conflict in our lives. Someone yells at us and we walk away. The IRS asks for more money, and we site a check, rather than call a lawyer. Interestingly, the last thing we want in entertainment is peace and tranquility. “I hated that movie! Nothing happened!” we might say. Or after a football game that ends 64-0, we might confess that “I wish it would have been more of a contest. I felt like leaving at halftime.”
As an element in fiction, conflict is inextricably linked to plot and character. Conflict, the tensions in and between characters, propels the actions of the characters, turning individual actions into a plot. Characters respond to a conflict, often forcing other characters to act; then they react to those characters’ actions. Conflict becomes the force that creates the tennis match sensation in many stories. It is that tension that makes us sit on the edge of our chairs and ask “what next?”
Short stories, unlike novels, are noted for the sharp focus of the conflicts. Very seldom will a short story have more than two or three sources of tension. A novel, on other hand, can be a tapestry of overlapping conflicts between multiple characters and forces.
Conflicts exist in two major types: external and internal. External conflicts are often the most obvious. One character disagrees with another character, a father and son, a mother and daughter, a worker and boss, a cop and robber. Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Shopping” explores the conflict between a mother and daughter. Another kind of external conflict occurs when a character must fight society or large institutions. Stories that deal with racism and sexism have these conflicts. Ralph Ellison’s story “A Party down at the Square” illustrates conflict between Whites and African Americans, specifically how racism affects Whites. A third kind of external conflict exists when a character is in conflict with natural forces, such as cold, heat, rain, tornadoes, and the like. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is a famous example of a man confronting terrible cold, but Tomas Rivera “. . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” just as powerfully explores a family confronting scorching heat. A forth kind of external conflict happens when characters are confronted by forces they might call God or Fate. The Biblical story Job is a well-known example, as is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Elements of this conflict appears in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”
Conflicts also occur within a character. These internal conflicts are conflicts of self-doubt, self-hatred, fear, or insecurity. Characters may have pasts they want to forget. They may have done something they have difficulty forgiving themselves for. Some characters may desire something they feel has been denied them. Very often an internal conflict turns into external ones. For instance, a worker who feels insecure about job performance (internal conflict) may treat co-workers rudely, and they in turn begin plotting against the worker (external conflict). In the beginning of John Updike’s “A&P,” Sammy hates his job and the customers, but it is not until his boss, Lengel, enters the scene that the conflict becomes external.
But the important question is not so much what kind of conflict exists in a story, but what is the conflict over. In the long run, conflicts are about values, philosophies, views of what is good and what is evil. Generally, two characters may have conflicts over money, but that really doesn’t say that the conflict is about. Might not the conflict over what to do with the money–save it, spend it, spend it on what? This might lead us to understand that one character believes that anything can happen in the world and one needs to be prepared; the other character believes that one should have a good time when one can. So the conflict is really over issues of trust and safety, freedom and pleasure.
In interpreting a story, the key factor is how the conflict is resolved. Writers signal what they think by how the conflict is resolved, if they resolve it. We ask ourselves which side of the conflict wins, if any? For instance, if the unhappy worker overcomes the insecurities and wins favor of the co-workers, or if the worker is framed by the co-workers and fired, the theme of the story will be changed drastically.
The following excerpts from Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” present a portion of the developing conflicts between two wealthy widows, Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, in Rome with their daughters.
No doubt, Mrs. Slade reflected, she felt her unemployment more than poor Grace ever would. It was a big drop from being the wife of Delphin Slade to being his widow (1). She had always regarded herself (with a certain conjugal pride) as his equal in social gifts, as contributing her full share to the making of the exceptional couple they were: but the difference after his death was irremediable (2)
(1) Alida Slade has an internal conflict. She feels torn between her pride in her being the wife of a powerful lawyer and her lack of pride in herself as an individual.
(2) Also Mrs. Slade had an external conflict with Mrs. Ansley. Perhaps Ansley doesn’t recognize Slade’s superiority.
In the next paragraph we learn more about Mrs. Ansley’s internal conflicts.
Yes; being the Slade’s widow was a dullish business after that (3). In living up to such a husband all her faculties had been engaged; now when had only her daughter to live up to. . . . There was nothing left but to mother her daughter; and dear Jenny was such a perfect daughter that she needed no excessive mothering (4). “Now with Babs Ansley I don’t know that I should be so quiet,” Mrs. Slade sometimes half-enviously reflected (5); but Jenny, who was younger than her brilliant friend, was that rare accident, an extremely pretty girl who somehow made youth and prettiness seem as safe as their absence. It was all perplexing–and to Mrs. Slade a little boring (6). She wished that Jenny would fall in love–with the wrong man, even; that she might have to be watched, out-maneuvered, rescued.
(3) Reinforcement of her conflict over being a widow, not a wife.
(4) Mrs. Slade is conflicted over the fact that she wants drama in her life, but she is unable to provide that drama herself. She wishes her daughter would bring it to her as her husband once did.
(5) Mrs. Slade is a little bored by her good daughter.
(6) Mrs. Slade is envious of Grace Ansley, who has a brilliant, beautiful daughter.
In developing the conflict in the story, Wharton does not stop with Mrs. Slade’s conflicts, but immediately presents Mrs. Ansley’s thoughts.
Mrs. Ansley was much less articulate than her friend, and her mental portrait of Mrs. Slade was slighter, and drawn with fainter touches” (7). Alida Slade’s awfully brilliant; but not as brilliant as she thinks,” would have summed it up; though she would have added, for the enlightenment of strangers, that Mrs. Slade had been extremely dashing girl (8); much more so than her daughter, who was pretty, of course, and clever in a way, but had none of her mother’s–well, “vividness,” someone had once called it. Mrs. Ansley would take up current words like this, and cite them in quotation marks, as unheard-of audacities. No; Jenny was not like her mother. Sometimes Mrs. Ansley thought Alida Slade was disappointed; on the whole she had had a sad life (9). Full of failures and mistakes; Mrs. Ansley had always been rather sorry for her. . . . (10) So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope.
(7) Hints that Mrs. Ansley’s conflicts with Mrs. Slade are less forceful that Slade’s with Ansley.
(8) Mrs. Ansley is not conflicted about Mrs. Slade’s daughter.
(9) Mrs. Ansley does not feel the competition that Mrs. Slade feels. In fact she feels sorry for Mrs. Slade.
(10) Hints that conflict between the two women is one of perception, that both belittle the other.
These developments in the conflict occur very early in the story. As the story progresses, Wharton tells us much more about how these women view each other and their lives, and we learn that their conflicts go back to the early days of their acquaintance when they were their daughters’ ages.