Antagonist in Literature: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Debbie Notari

Debbie Notari received her Bachelor’s degree in English and M.S. in Education Literacy and Learning for Grades 6-12. Debbie has over 28 years of teaching experience, teaching a variety of grades for courses like English, Reading, Music, and more.

The antagonist is the opposing force to the protagonist in a given story, and can be presented as tangible or intangible. Analyze characters and forces in several famous works that demonstrate the role and purpose of antagonists in literature. Updated: 10/13/2021

Definition of Antagonist

The antagonist is the opposing force in a story. It could be a human enemy, or it could be non-human, like an animal or something less tangible, like fear. The antagonist plays an important role in story development. Think about a favorite movie you like to watch. If there is conflict in a story or movie, it's because there is some sort of antagonist. The protagonist in the story is seeking resolution; the antagonist resists such resolution, but all good stories need antagonists.

The antagonist is in direct conflict with the main character in a story, or the protagonist. The protagonist usually undergoes some significant internal change in a story, but not always. However, because the protagonist has been in conflict with the antagonist, his or her character grows. Without antagonists, stories would definitely be less interesting.

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Examples of Antagonists

Let's take a look at examples of antagonists in some familiar literary works.

First, we will examine the character Jack in Golding's famous dark novel Lord of the Flies. Because we are only examining certain characteristics of antagonists, we will not go into too much detail as far as the entire plot of the story. In Lord of the Flies, a group of adolescent British boys crash lands on a deserted island. Although the island looks like a tropical paradise, it soon becomes clear that it is the complete opposite. Golding wishes to refute the idea of the noble savage, i.e., that environment alone corrupts an individual. He wants to illustrate the mysterious struggle of the potential of evil within human beings.

The protagonist, Ralph, is fairly democratic. He wants to meet in groups, vote, and make decisions. His antagonist is Jack, who is the exact opposite. Jack is like a dictator who wishes to control everything and everyone, often cruelly. Due to the nature of their ruling styles, we see the conflict almost right away. In the end, Ralph is frantically hiding from Jack because he knows Jack will kill him if he gets the chance. In the end, the antagonist causes Ralph to come of age; he loses some of the innocence he had before his conflict with Jack.

Next, let's take a look at The Old Man and the Sea

The second antagonist we'll examine is entirely different from Jack. In fact, it is a group of sharks. In Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea, we see Santiago, a very old, poor fisherman battling the largest marlin he's ever caught. For some days, the marlin drags Santiago around the ocean, but Santiago never relents. At first glance, it seems that the marlin is the antagonist, but Santiago feels kinship with this great fish. In some ways, the marlin represents Santiago and his struggles.

But before Santiago can get the marlin home to sell at the fish market, the great fish is attacked by sharks - more than once! Santiago even punches one of the sharks, which is impressive. The sharks eagerly bite and eventually devour the marlin, leaving nothing but a ghastly skeleton for the other fishermen in the village to see. In some ways, the sharks represent the extreme poverty and difficulties Santiago has faced in his lifetime.

For another example of an antagonist, we can look to Macbeth

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