Literary Analysis: Teaching Conflict with Short Stories
As I discussed in an earlier article, literary analysis is a vital part of the language arts curriculum. I hope you already encourage your children to read a wide variety of great literature, from novels and short stories to poetry and plays. To deepen your child’s understanding and appreciation of such literature, however, you will want to choose a few of these works to analyze critically. You can start this with very young children in early elementary grades and continue to hone these skills as your children grow. You will simply expect more mature responses (both oral and written) from your older students.
The Benefits of Studying Literature
Studying the component parts of great fiction not only increases a student's appreciation of it, but it also teaches them the nuances of the writer’s craft. While your child may not have designs on becoming the next John Steinbeck, he or she will certainly learn to communicate more effectively by studying Steinbeck’s works.
The previous article explored the roles of characters in fiction. Now we will look at the problem at the heart of the plot. The literary term for this problem is “conflict.” Identifying conflict in stories helps a student to understand the basic structure of the story and gives them insight into the choices the author made when developing the plot.
Why Short Stories?
While all literary forms should be explored in the language arts curriculum each year, the short story has tremendous value as a teaching tool, particularly for the busy homeschool mom. Short stories contain all the elements of larger novels. They use imagery, create interesting characters, follow a basic plot structure and explore one or more themes. And they do all this in a condensed format. When you dig deeply into literature it is essential that you read the same works that you assign to your child. If you have multiple children of varying grades you might find yourself overwhelmed with reading requirements. The short story is a quick read and thus solves that problem.
One more plus – many of these classic stories are now in the public domain. They are available right here on the web. I will include links to the stories that I reference. In addition, you will find great new writers that publish their stories online as well. There are many in the short stories section of this very website and you can do a google search to find more.
What is Conflict?
Conflict is a struggle between two opposing forces. As a literary term, “conflict” refers to the problem the protagonist must overcome. In every story the main character faces a problem or challenge of some sort. Without this conflict, there is no story.
Very young children easily grasp the idea of conflict in a story. When I introduce it, I give them an example. Suppose I were to tell them that the sky was blue and the sun was shining as a lovely lady and handsome man walked through the park. The End. Did I just tell a story? The children might find that a bit confusing. I told them something, but was it a story? They probably think that it doesn’t feel like one.
They are absolutely correct – it isn’t one. This is just a description of a scene. In order to consider this a story, they feel in their gut that something needs to happen. That something is a problem that the man and woman will have to work through.
At this point, you can ask your child to create a problem. They might imagine that a large dog steps onto the path, growling at the couple and blocking their way. Perhaps they think a thunderstorm rolls in with lightning and pouring rain. This is a great opportunity for your child to be creative and think up any number of interesting situations for these two people. Teach them that they are creating conflicts for the characters to resolve.
From there you will want to occasionally (certainly not always), ask them a few questions about the stories they are reading:
* What problem is the main character having? What is he struggling against?
* What might you do if you faced this problem?
* What do you think this character will do to solve his or her problem? (…you could follow up with why your child thinks the character will behave that way.)
Types of Conflict
There are five main types of conflict and as your children mature, they should begin to recognize and categorize the conflicts that they find in the books they read.
1. Man vs Self. This is referred to as an internal conflict. In this story the protagonist must do battle with his own fears, desires or doubts. A student who is tempted to cheat on an exam is engaged in the internal conflict of man vs self. In Star Wars Return of the Jedi Darth Vader faces an internal conflict as he struggles to choose between the dark side that he has long served and the good that his son Luke encourages him to recognize and embrace.
I suggest reading Rudyard Kipling’s short story Rikki Tikki Tavi for a great example of man vs self conflict. This is not the central conflict in the story, but it is an important one that develops the character of the mongoose. Rikki fights an internal struggle to remain calm and confident. He cannot let fear get the better of him or he will not win his battle with the cobras. In Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart man vs self is the central conflict as the narrator attempts to defend his sanity after committing murder.
2. Man vs Man. This and the other four types to come are all external conflicts. In these, the protagonist must struggle against an antagonist. This is the conflict in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible does battle with Syndrome. To go back to Star Wars there are many man vs man conflicts. You will see them every time there are light sabers drawn!
Characters do not have to be human to be involved in man vs man conflict. Rikki Tikki is about a battle between a mongoose and two cobras. While we already mentioned the internal conflict Rikki struggles with, the larger conflict that shapes the plot of this story is man vs man as the mongoose fights the two cobras.
Another good example of man vs man conflict is found in The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. The protagonist in this story is Rainsford and he engages in a battle of wits and brawn with the antagonist, Zaroff.
3. Man vs. Nature. In this conflict the main character must battle against forces of nature. Many young people have read Gary Paulsen’s novel Hatchet. In this book the boy, Brian, is stranded in the wilderness and must fight his natural surroundings to survive. He chops trees to create a shelter and learns to hunt the small animals around him to provide food.
A good short story with this conflict is To Build a Fire by Jack London. The protagonist foolishly ignored advice about traveling alone and now must fight for his survival in the bitter cold Yukon.
4. Man vs Society. The protagonist engaged in a man vs society conflict must struggle against the prevailing views of the community in which he lives. This is well exemplified in the movie Monsters, Inc. Here the main character, Sully, is in a battle against the prevailing belief of his community that human children are highly toxic. He discovers that a little girl has entered their world and finds that she is sweet, cute and definitely not toxic. He must battle his own society’s fears as he struggles to return her to her home.
Read Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. The society that Harrison rebels against is an interesting one. This story is sure to lead to a good discussion about the difference between people having equal value and people being the same. You can also discuss whether people should be rewarded for their efforts or for their actual accomplishments.
5. Man vs Fate. In this conflict the main character does battle with his some force so beyond his control that it is considered his fate. A great example of this is found in the children’s book Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. As new technology comes along, Mike’s wonderful steam shovel, Mary Ann, becomes outdated. Now her work is being done by electric or diesel shovels and she is no longer needed. Mike struggles to find a purpose for MaryAnn so that she can avoid being discarded in a scrap heap with the other steam shovels.
A more mature example is found in The Lord of the Rings. Here man and hobbit alike are facing their demise as evil has gripped Middle Earth. One small hobbit must fight against this fate and save mankind.
A good short story for this conflict is found in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. The Red Death mentioned in the title is a plague that has gripped the land. Prince Prospero and his friends attempt to evade the disease by locking themselves up inside the palace for a very long and indulgent party.
Working with Conflict
As you dig deeper into literature you will see that many works contain more than one conflict. There will be one major conflict that defines the overall progress of the story, but your children will quickly discover several smaller conflicts that add depth and richness to the work. As your children mature, you can assign an occasional essay in which they explore the role these various conflicts play in moving the plot forward or relate how the author develops the characters more fully as they struggle with the conflicts of the story.
As always, look for balance as you teach literature. The benefits of literature study are great, but if you insist on in-depth analysis of every book you assign for school then you run a real risk of killing their love of reading. So study stories closely sometimes, requiring written responses from your children, sometimes simply discuss the book around the kitchen table and at all times encourage reading for the sheer enjoyment of a good story with no analysis required.