What is Internal Conflict in Literature?

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  • 0:01 Confusion Within a Character
  • 0:53 What Is Internal Conflict?
  • 2:46 Examples of Internal Conflicts
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson highlights how a character in literature may experience an internal conflict and how this differs from external conflicts. You'll consider several examples and learn to identify internal conflicts.

Confusion Within a Character

In the classic novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, the main character, Guy Montag, is an unusual kind of fireman. In the futuristic world of the novel, his job is to actually burn books that are considered dangerous, archaic, banned objects.

One day, Montag does something completely forbidden. In the process of burning a home full of books, he finds himself taking one in secret rather than destroying it. What does it mean that he hides the book and smuggles it out? He's supposed to be burning all of the books he encounters, but somehow an inner impulse takes over.

This lesson looks at the internal conflict that this creates for the character in literature. We'll also use other examples from the novel to consider how internal conflicts differ from external conflicts.

What is Internal Conflict?

An internal conflict is a struggle within a character in which debates occur in their own mind about what to do or think. In the case of Montag, he will struggle with his actions and try to understand what it means that he violated his own sense of duty to burn rather than save books. In the process, his sense of what is right and wrong is altered.

The beliefs, emotions, and desires of a character all factor into internal conflicts. Usually, the character finds themselves conflicted between at least two goals. In this case, Montag is caught between doing his job as a fireman in his society versus exploring other possibilities for how to live.

Even when a conflict is primarily internal, there may be factors outside of a character that influence their internal experience. For instance, the expectations of Montag's society make his internal conflict even more heightened.

Other characters may have no way of knowing about an internal conflict since a struggle within a person may not be visible to others.

In the case of Montag, conflicts for his character are both internal and external. An external conflict occurs when a character clashes with some force outside of themselves. This outside force could be another person, society, the circumstances of his life, or even nature.

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