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Ever since societies have adopted the ability to communicate they have used this ability to tell stories. Literature is a reflection of a community's daily life, aspirations, or even fantasies. Now, one can find themselves completely immersed in a culture simply by picking up a book. This capability enables readers to see the similarities and differences in literature through how the author constructs the different elements of literature. While at first many works may appear only different, through analyzing one element at a time, readers can understand how they are connected. When considering Shakespeare's play Othello, Langston Hughes' poem I, Too, and Ernest Hemingway's short story Hills like White Elephants one can utilize the literary element of conflict to compare and contrast these works. Also, the reader can connect the works regardless of the differences in the author, time period, or by which the work was created.
Conflict is the central issue in literature, it moves the story along. While in plays and novels there may be several conflicts in short stories there is normally just one. Generally, conflict can be broken into two categories; external and internal. Internal conflicts will involve man versus self. While in external conflict a reader will see, man versus man, man versus society, or man versus nature. The type of story being told will dictate how the conflict will be resolved (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 1269)
Internal conflict, as the name such suggest, will occur within a character. When the protagonist is challenged with issues of morality, desires, personal values or beliefs he must confront and resolve them alone. Clues to the character's inner strength can be gained by seeing what issues they are faced with and how they solve them. Almost all characters will be afflicted by an internal conflict in literature to add a sense of complexity or believability. Often, a character will face an inner struggle along with the external conflict.
When a character faces external conflicts, he is dealing with problems in the world. An external conflict will occur when character's face issues such as community, nature, government and other characters. External conflict manifests itself as man versus man, man versus nature, or man versus society. The most fundamental type of struggle is man versus man. The characters may have differing religious, societal, or moral views. Also, the characters may dislike each other for reasons of envy, greed, hate or many other reasons. This form of external conflict occurs when a character struggles against another character. While in man versus society the character must struggle against their culture or government. Lastly, man versus nature, conflicts occur when a character, or characters, finds themselves at odds with forces of nature. In every case, however, the existence of conflict enhances the reader's understanding of a character and creates the suspense and interest that make you want to continue reading.
William Shakespeare's play Othello begins with Iago telling Roderigo that he is upset that he has been passed over for a promotion to lieutenant for the attractive young Cassio by his commander Othello. Iago vows to get revenge introducing the first conflict in the story. Iago in his anger tells Roderigo to inform Brabantio, Desdemona's father, that she has run off to marry Othello. Iago knows that Brabantio will be angry to hear this because Othello is a Moor. The reader now understands that Othello's conflict is also with the society, because he is a Moor. After confronting Othello, Brabantio takes him to the Duke who has given orders to Othello to sail to Cyprus to stop a Turkish invasion. The Duke is convinced that the love between Desdemona and Othello is true, even though they are different. He grants permission for her to accompany Othello to Cyprus; her father feels betrayed. Though consent has been granted, one must consider the internal conflict that Othello is facing. Othello knew that everyone in his community was condemning his relations because of his race. This made him feel insecure in his relationship with Desdemona who must hear the things that people are saying. Upon arrival to Cyprus they discover the Turks are gone. Iago coaxes Cassio into getting drunk and has Roderigo lure him into a street fight. Othello strips Cassio of his rank for this behavior and Iago received his revenge on him. Then Iago setting his sights on Othello decides to make him believe his wife is unfaithful. He persuades Cassio to beg Desdemona to plead with Othello to be reinstated as a lieutenant. Then Iago implies to Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are lovers. Fooled, and mad with jealousy, Othello promotes Iago and asks him to help him murder his wife and former lieutenant. Iago takes on of Desdemona's handkerchiefs and places it inside of Cassio's room. Cassio unknowingly gives the handkerchief to Bianca, his mistress. After seeing Bianca with the handkerchief Othello is convinces Cassio and Desdemona are lovers. Although it is out of character he yells at his wife in front of others. Roderigo was talked into attempting to kill Cassio by Iago. It goes wrong, and Cassio injures Roderigo, but Iago is able to stab Cassio in the leg. Othello hearing the commotion believes that Iago is successful in killing Cassio. He then goes returns home, to murder Desdemona. At the same time, Iago "finds" Cassio and blames Bianca for stabbing him. Iago then kills Roderigo and sends Emilia, his wife, to Desdemona because wants Othello to be caught. After reaching Desdemona Othello kisses her, wakes her, and calls her a cheater again. Then he smothers her while she is crying and saying that she loves him. Emilia walks in and Desdemona revives for a moment, saying that she is innocent and that Othello is not to be blamed. Emilia defends Desdemona's innocence, when others including Iago enter the room. She realizes that her husband, Iago, is behind what happened. After realizing what happened Othello attempts to kill Iago. But Iago kills Emilia and runs away; overcome with guilt Othello kills himself. Iago is finally caught and taken away (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 1455).
Many conflicts are introduced in Shakespeare's play. Of course, as a tragedy, the resolutions to the conflict occur far too late for the characters. For Othello, the internal conflict that he faced was his uncertainty of Desdemona's love, which was a direct result of the external conflicts. The external conflicts can be viewed as man versus society. In 1600, as a Moor in Venice Othello was constantly subjected to racism. Due to his high status of a military commander it mostly took place behind his back or in sly remarks. The antagonist, Iago, not only created lies to punish Othello because he was not promoted, he reminded Othello of the feelings that individuals had against his relationship to create doubt. Though this story is due to the conflict between Othello and Iago, Othello was unaware until it was too late that there was a conflict at all. The reader sees what is happening at all times creating a sense of frustration at Othello's actions. One can observe the response to the conflict that Iago created for Othello to have a better understanding of his character. Though he was a powerful and respected man he was truly insecure.
In poetry the reader will normally see an internal conflict like in Langston Hughes' I, Too.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.
(DiYanni, 2007, pg. 996)
The narrator of this poem is struggling with racism that was prevalent in that time. Although the narrator greets it with a very positive attitude with lines like, "But I laugh, and eat well." Uniquely, the narrator in this story is also facing an external conflict. It is a conflict with society. Society felt that he was unfit to sit at the table. He was told that he was not good enough to be seen at a dinner table. This is evident in, "They send me to eat in the kitchen. When company comes." Though the narrator faces these challenges he feels as though the resolution is soon to come.
Ernest Hemingway's short story Hills like White Elephants begins on a hot day at a train station in Zaragoza, Spain. The two characters in the story are sitting down drinking and looking out into the landscape. It is dry, sunny, and there are no trees. Jig describes the distant hill as white elephants because the sun makes them appear white. The characters in this story, Jig, and the man, simply identified as an American, are discussing her pregnancy. The man although he wishes to make Jig happy is struggling over the idea of having a child. The man does not see a child, but he sees the opportunities that will be lost. Jig on the other hand, desires to have a child and settle down. The man describes the procedure, "it's an awfully simple operation" and "not really anything." He declares that he wants things to be the way they were before, that they did not fight before the pregnancy. They go back and forth on the question of the child. Jig finally says that she will have the procedure "because I don't care about me." The man tells her that he does not want her to have an abortion if that is how she feels about it. After talking a little while longer a woman brings them two more beers and alerts them that their train will arrive in five minutes. The man then retrieves their two suitcases, marked by labels of the hotels where they have stayed. When he returns, he asks how she feels. She replies, "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine."(DiYanni, 2007, pg 563)
Both characters in this story are facing the external pressure of having a child. As stated before one can gain insight on characters by assessing how they handle different conflicts. The man while he clearly professes his love for the woman is unable to cope with the idea of losing his freedom. An internal conflict has arisen in him. Though he wants to make Jig happy the reader sees his apprehension to settling down as contradictory. At the same time, Jig, who wants to have a child with this man and wants to make him happy as well. No resolution is reached; they simply board the train leaving the reader to speculate what the decision will be.
Although these works span over three hundred years and the writers have significantly different backgrounds. Readers can still make many connections through analyzing the conflicts that the characters faced. The most evident is that all of the characters internal conflicts where due to external pressures. Othello faced scrutiny from his society due to being a Moor. Even though he was a successful military leader when his relationship with Desdemona was first discovered it created much distress for her father. The narrator in I, Too also faces the same scrutiny from the family of which he works. He is forced to eat in the kitchen when guest are inside the house. He is subjected to this simply because he is different. Also, they handle their situation in a similar way. While Othello is a great patron of Venice by his outstanding military service, the narrator speaks of singing America. Regardless of their treatment they refuse to turn their back on their new home. Othello's struggles internally because he is uncertain of Desdemona's love for him. This is similar to Hills like White Elephants where the reader can speculate the Man is uncertain of his future with Jig. The reader could suggest that the Man was not certain that Jig loved him and therefore, did not wish to have a child with her. When reflecting on Jig's position if she felt as though the man did not want her. The reader can connect her to the narrator's statement in I, Too, "They'll see how beautiful I am. And be ashamed." To Jigs, "I feel fine." For both of the characters it is evident that they feel that they are being treated as unworthy and though they are subjected to this they know that they will be able to move on with their lives.
While it is important see the similarities it is equally as important to understand the differences literature. In Othello is the only time a reader will be able to see the classic man versus man conflict. In that the antagonist, Iago, is striving to destroy the protagonist, Othello. In, I, Too, the narrator is the only character who is successfully able to cope deal with the external conflict. He meets the negativity with an opportunity to better himself and does not falter. He is the only character that successfully comes to a resolution of the conflict. Lastly, in Hills like White Elephants there is no resolution to conflict. The reader is left to infer what will happen to the characters (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 50).
Through careful and deliberate examination one can truly understand literature. Once certain works are understood the reader is then able to understand the literary elements, draw conclusions, make inferences, and then compare it to other works. Conflict is evident in all literature; it is what moves the plot along. It gives the reasoning behind the characters actions and through understanding how characters react to their conflicts the reader can recognize their morals, personality, and values. After considering conflicts Shakespeare's play Othello, Langston Hughes' poem I, Too, and Ernest Hemingway's short story Hills like White Elephants one can truly identify with the struggles that the characters faced, as well as, the societies in which they lived. Also, the reader is able to connect these works regardless of the differences in the author, time period, or genre.