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English, French, and Math Support: Common thematic conflicts in literature

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Common thematic conflicts in literature

A theme is the main perspective or deeper meaning of a literary work. A theme is an opinion about a subject, as expressed by the author. For example, an author could write about the subject of marriage, and, within that subject, develop the theme (his or her message) that marriage is a foundation of society. Conversely, for the same subject, an author could develop the theme that marriage is a crumbling institution.

Note that a theme is not the same as a thesis. For the purposes of most academic papers, a theme is the author’s message. A thesis is your opinion about the author’s message. Always consult your teacher’s instructions. For more information, please see the writing guide's Essay writing: Thesis statements page.

Often, an author may show conflicts between or among themes. Any one theme could also be developed individually.

This tip sheet describes five themes and their possible conflicts.

The list below describes examples of themes and common conflicts in these themes. Note that these are examples only. The examples could have different explanations, depending on how the author develops his or her message.


Social development

Possible conflict > Civilization vs. savagery

Possible main ideas: Civilized people could be shown as able to control their emotional, physical, sexual, and material urges and drives; savage people could be contrasted as unable to show similar control. If people are considered to be weak, greedy, and self-centered, it would require effort to be strong, generous, and selfless. People who succumb to their savage desires are temporarily satisfied, but will eventually suffer for their weakness.

Examples of how this type of theme could be developed include:

  • being lost in the wilderness,
  • dying for honour,
  • resisting temptation,
  • blurring the lines between humans and animals, or
  • being strong and resilient.



Possible conflict → Individual vs. Society

Possible main ideas: Characters who have personal desires or goals that do not match those typical of their society are seen as “different” or “individualistic.” These characters could feel torn between their desire for personal fulfillment and their sense of duty. Pursuing individual interests would result in some repercussion or consequence from society, but following societal expectations might result in personal dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Examples of how this type of theme could be developed include:

  • rebelling, being isolated,
  • feeling smothered,
  • being labeled,
  • equating humans to puppets or sheep, or
  • rejecting traditions.


Possible conflict → Natural identity vs. Constructed identity

Possible main ideas: A character changes some or all aspects of their identity in order to gain social acceptance, avoid persecution, or escape some past trauma. Such characters often struggle to conceal their true identities, or find it increasingly difficult or undesirable to do so.

Examples of how this type of theme could be developed include:

  • Masks or costumes,
  • theatre/acting,
  • lying,
  • facades,
  • darkness and light,
  • inside and outside, or
  • chameleons.



Possible conflict → Free will vs. Fate or destiny

Possible main ideas: person has free will if their future depends on their own actions and decisions. Conversely, destiny is something over which no one has control; their future will be the same regardless of what they try to do. Characters may be blamed or punished for making decisions, even if they felt unable take any other course of action. The presence and influence of a higher power (God, karma, etc.) is accepted or rejected by characters, with varying results.

Examples of how this type of theme could be developed include:

  • choosing a particular path, often against one that was expected by society;
  • suffering punishments,
  • comparing or contrasting adulthood to childhood, or
  • portraying the weather as an uncontrollable force.


Natural order

Possible conflict → Justice vs. chaos

Possible main ideas: The universe is either based on a system of natural justice, which means that honesty and virtue are always rewarded and deception or evil are always punished, or the universe is chaotic, and there is no such system. In a just universe, characters who work hard or suffer terrible tragedies can reasonably expect to find happiness, and villains will eventually suffer for their wickedness, because nature loves balance and will restore good and evil to equal levels. In a chaotic universe, justice is not natural and must be achieved through human intervention. This means that punishments must be administered by people taking revenge, the rule of law, and/or the repentance of wrong-doers.

Examples of how this type of theme could be developed include:

  • court trials,
  • images of scales or other symbols of balance,
  • vengeance, or
  • freak storms.


Overcoming obstacles

Possible conflict → Loss vs. triumph

Possible main ideas: Characters face some significant personal loss and must find a way to compensate for it in order to survive. Theft, rape, death, natural disasters, war, illness, and isolation are common forms of loss. Characters experience triumph through, for example, strength, faith, ingenuity, humour, and/or love. In other words, characters can transform victimhood into victory.

Examples of how this type of theme could be developed include:

  • violation or emptiness,
  • climbing,
  • scars healing,
  • repairing buildings or windows,
  • becoming healthy,
  • phoenixes,
  • spring, or even flowers growing on rocks.

Practice identifying themes

For each synopsis below, anticipate one or more themes that the text might explore. List possible conflicts related to the theme, and explain how the theme and conflict relate to the main idea(s).

1. Oedipus the King is a play in which a young baby (Oedipus) is taken away to be killed because an oracle foretold that Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother. Through a series of events, the baby survives. As a man, Oedipus learns of the prophecy, and takes measures to ensure that he does not murder his father and marry his mother; however, by the end of the play, this is exactly what happens.

Themes _____________________________________________________________
Conflict _____________________________________________________________
Main idea(s) _________________________________________________________


2. Breaking Bad is a television series that explores a high school chemistry teacher’s transformation to a heartless drug lord. After he is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, Walter White decides that the only way to ensure the financial security of his family after his death is to apply his knowledge of chemistry towards producing high-quality crystal meth. As he manages to earn more money and gain more power, Walter’s focus turns from the well-being of his family to satisfying his hunger for power.

Themes _____________________________________________________________
Conflict _____________________________________________________________
Main idea(s) _________________________________________________________


3. Robin Hood is a legend in which the son of a wealthy father becomes irritated with the selfishness and greed of England’s powerful elite. Recognizing that unfair taxes and fines have been levied against the poor, Robin Hood steals from rich landlords and redistributes the money among poor peasants. Accordingly, the sheriff pursues Robin Hood and his gang of accomplices, all the while ignoring the human rights abuses inflicted upon the King’s non-royal subjects.

Themes _____________________________________________________________
Conflict _____________________________________________________________
Main idea(s) _________________________________________________________


4. The Scarlet Letter is a novel about a young woman named Hester Prynne who has had a baby outside of wedlock. To punish her, her conservative Puritan community forces her to wear a large red letter A on her clothing, as a way to mark her as an “Adulteress”. Meanwhile, the father of the baby keeps his identity a secret from the community, but punishes himself in private to absolve himself.
Themes _____________________________________________________________
Conflict _____________________________________________________________
Main idea(s) _________________________________________________________


5. Great Expectations is a novel that begins with an escaped convict persuading a poor young boy named Pip to help him break free from the shackles around his wrists and ankles. Out of fear, Pip obeys. Years later, Pip receives notification from a lawyer that a mysterious benefactor has agreed to pay for Pip’s education, so that he may become a distinguished professional instead of a blacksmith. Pip agrees, but later discovers that the man funding his education is none other than the sleazy convict. The convict toiled and saved to provide for Pip, simply to prove to the world that despite his low class, he could foster the development of a gentleman.

Themes _____________________________________________________________
Conflict _____________________________________________________________
Main idea(s) _________________________________________________________


6. 419 is a novel about the scamming of a Canadian family by a Nigerian con artist, and the efforts of a man’s daughter to reclaim the lost money. After her father’s car is found at the bottom of a ravine, Laura Curtis learns that her father likely killed himself so that his family could collect a life insurance policy and avoid the crippling debt he caused by sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to a man he met online. The scammer operates from Lagos, Nigeria; a city which is largely run by wealthy Euro-American oil companies that have irreversibly destroyed the natural beauty of Nigeria’s Delta region, as well as the moral character of many Nigerians who profit from this destruction. Laura travels to Nigeria in order to confront her father’s scammer and reclaim his money for her now-homeless mother, but she must also confront the danger of challenging anti-Western, power-hungry oil profiteers.

Themes _____________________________________________________________
Conflict _____________________________________________________________
Main idea(s) _________________________________________________________

Common thematic conflicts in literature -- Printable format

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