What is the definition of great literature? Certainly, there are as many answers to that question as there are respondents. A work of art that rises to the level of “great” often influences and sometimes irks us. It makes us think and, most importantly, makes us care—about the story and the characters. Novels that survive the test of time have one main ingredient that lesser works often do not: Conflict.
No matter how much we love our own complication-free lives, we crave trouble and woe in the stories we read. The more turmoil the book’s characters experience, whether within themselves or with others, the more hungrily we devour its pages.
Naturally, well-loved works must contain other attributes, such as an intriguing storyline and beguiling characters, as well as the ability to mould prose in a captivating way.
Without human conflict, however, the most perfectly-crafted story will fall flat.
Imagine Wuthering Heights without conflict. I first read this novel at the tender age of eight, not entirely understanding its finer nuances, but entranced nevertheless. Over the years, I have read this story several times, and its themes never get old. A mother lode of conflict populates its pages: the main characters’ love-hate relationship with each other, as well as their hostility to nearly everyone and everything around them. Even the harshness of the landscape creates conflict, creating an aura of isolation that impacts both the physical and mental health of many of the novel’s inhabitants.
War is the most all-encompassing of humankind’s conflicts and creates a backdrop for a number of literary treasures. Just the story of the American Civil War or the tale of Scarlett O’Hara would have resulted in a blockbuster full of adventure and conflict. By melding the two, Margaret Mitchell crafted a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and enchanted millions of readers.
Despite our hunger for literary discord and friction, we are usually only satisfied when the conflict is resolved. We yearn to see the star-crossed lovers find their way to each other and cheer when the bad guys get their due. We love happy endings, and unremitting conflict is unsettling. It is also tedious —much like a tale where circumstances are always rosy and characters never find themselves tested by unrequited love, controversy, or misfortune.
What of great works that fail to deliver such a conclusion? Jay Gatsby’s death can hardly be characterized as a gratifying finale to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, particularly to readers who sought an ending that put him permanently in the arms of his beloved Daisy Buchanan. That is not to say that conflicts were not resolved. Gatsby’s clashes with Tom Buchanan come to an end, not to mention the internal discord Gatsby struggled with throughout the story.
Is there such a thing as a story with too much conflict?
No doubt, each of us has our own opinion on this question. I would venture to say “no”, with the qualification that the story must otherwise engage and entertain. If I had to pick a novel that most closely fits into that category I would suggest Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
This blood-soaked version of how the American West was won was so brutal that I pledged several times to set it aside permanently. I kept going back, though I’m still not sure why. All I can say is that the story drew me in despite its minimalist plot and a landscape strewn with characters seemingly without sympathy or humanity. The essential—though by no means the only—conflict was between the nameless Kid and the Judge. Though both characters did their share of killing, the Judge despised the Kid for not enjoying it more.
The resolution? A decade after leaving the Judge and his remaining cohorts, the Kid meets his nemesis in a bar. The insinuation is that the Judge follows the boy out and kills him, though this is never clear. The Judge goes on his merry way, pronouncing his own immortality.
Not exactly a triumph of good over evil, but effective just the same. Though the ending left me feeling somewhat cheated, I’ll admit the conflict was resolved—though I would have preferred the Kid to be the victor.
As much as we love our favorite literary characters, we demand quite a lot from them. We want them to make us laugh, cry, fret and worry. We want them to fail, though not irredeemably. Most of all, we want them to reward our support and patience by pulling themselves out of the muck and triumphing over the many foibles that make us human. Mostly, we ask that they do not bore us.