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A Character vs. Society conflict occurs when a character goes against the laws of their society, a tyrannical government, or an unfair community mindset. Usually the protagonist is an altruistic or idealistic individual who sees injustice and wants to correct it for his or her world.

Character vs. Society

Most Character vs. Society conflicts involve some sort of dystopian or tyrannical society which must be overthrown or weakened in order to restore basic human rights such as freedom of speech and thought. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins is a perfect example of a society that finds hope in Katniss Everdeen’s rebellion against the status quo during the Games events. While some characters are successful in overcoming these kinds of conflicts in their own stories, many are not; however, they expose the fraud, hypocrisy, or weaknesses of the ruling powers through their stories. This discrepancy or weakness is important for the reader to see, usually to understand a key theme or message the author may be trying to suggest. Character vs. Society can also be known as Man vs. Society in different types of literature.

Sometimes a Character vs. Society conflict deals with a social justice issue or an unfair law in their society. Many modern Young Adult Fiction novels deal with protagonists facing contemporary issues, including gender identity, abortion, gay rights, and immigration. However, sometimes a Character vs. Society can simply be one character speaking up against a group idea, or a group attitude. A well-known example is Atticus in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird taking on an unfair justice system and system of prejudice in order to properly defend his client Tom Robinson, an African American man on trial for the rape of a white woman in southern Alabama in the 1930s. While Atticus knows that he will lose the case, he also understands that the details of Tom Robinson’s trial will bring the people of Maycomb pause, which is a step in the right direction.

Usually, the protagonist’s attempts to resolve an unfair law or a tyrannical government is always in the hopes of changing a community’s mindset. The protagonist hopes that by restoring order, or basic human rights, that the community will find peace and help to reconstruct their world based on this new understanding. The protagonist is not always blameless or perfect, but they almost always have a higher moral compass than other characters in the story, like Atticus.

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Character vs. Society Examples

In the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Ralph attempts to maintain and restore order to a chaotic group of boys after a plane crash on a deserted island. However, Jack and his gang do not want to listen to Ralph, and they begin to make trouble, eventually resulting in Piggy’s death. Ralph rises up against the cruel methods of maintaining order that Jack and his group of friends are trying to establish, in spite of the danger to himself. The boys turn on Ralph, and chase him to the edge of the beach, where he finds a British Naval officer and rescue team, ending their ordeal.

Winston and Julia rise up against the government of Oceania and Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. While they are ultimately double-crossed by O’Brien and the shopkeeper Mr. Charrington and their minds are re-programmed to love Big Brother through torture and breaking of their spirits, the reader does see the dangers of a totalitarian society by the end of the novel. The total control in speech, thoughts, and lifestyles exercised by Oceania over their citizens is truly frightening. Winston’s loss to this government machine at the end of the novel is heartbreaking, but it’s also a compelling argument for making sure that our society protects an individual’s basic human rights.

Holden Caulfield’s stream-of-consciousness narrative in J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye reveals two important things that he is disgusted with in his society: phonies and children’s loss of innocence. Holden’s disdain of phony girls, the boys at his prep school, and actors in movies highlight that he values truth very highly (even when he can’t help himself from lying sometimes). He also views the innocence of children as something that should be protected; he sees change as a threat to children and to his own sense of security. While Holden does not set out to change the world around him, he does reveal the problems within the world, while also revealing the problems within himself which are wrapped up in the grief of his brother Allie’s death.

In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, Celie finds her voice and stands up against her abusive husband Albert once she meets and falls in love with Shug Avery, a singer. When she finally leaves Albert after discovering that he’s been hiding letters from her sister Nettie for years, Celie discovers that she is a very talented seamstress. Later, when Shug runs off with another man, Celie finds herself content in her world, instead of afraid of it like she used to be. This newfound strength allows her to make friends with Albert and live a quiet, peaceful life until her sister returns.

Throughout T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, Merlyn is continually trying to teach Arthur to think for himself and create a new kind of kingdom. Eventually, Arthur decides that the way that kings have been ruling over their people, waging wars for sport or spite and never for Right—always for Might—is not the way that he wants to rule over England in the future. He establishes a code of chivalry with the Knights of the Round Table, and he establishes a code of civil laws which takes Right out of the hands of individual and puts it into the hands of the people.

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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