Man vs nature is one of six types of conflict in literature and film. The man vs nature conflict involves a protagonist’s battle against the formidable and unpredictable nature of … well, nature.
This conflict is often used by authors who will use concepts around survival, humanity’s place in the cosmos, and the human spirit of exploration and pushing the boundaries. However, often, the conflict between man and nature is also posited as a metaphor for our inner struggles and conflicts.
One of my favorite examples of the man vs nature conflict motif is in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” a true story about Christopher McCandless, a young adult who leaves his conventional life behind to venture into the Alaskan wilderness, where he challenges himself against the elements.
Man vs Nature Conflict: When to Use It
At its heart, man vs nature is a conflict between an individual’s will and capability versus the uncontrollable and often harsh conditions of the natural world.
This type of conflict can manifest in many different ways in an author’s writing. For example, it may be an exploration of the battle for survival in a remote or ‘alien’ environment; or, a struggle against a natural disaster or dystopian future where nature is taking back over the cities (like in the Will Smith movie I am Legend).
The core obstacle or ‘challenge’ in these plotlines is usually physical survival against the forces of nature that are beyond human control.
These conflicts often contain a message of how humans have the remarkable ability to adapt, persevere, and find meaning in the vast world that dwarfs us all. They may also put forward messages about resilience, adaptability, respect for the natural world, and the insignificance of man when pitted against the awe of nature.
Man vs Nature Examples
- “The Old Man and the Sea” (Ernest Hemingway): This novel revolves around an old Cuban fisherman, Santiago, who struggles against a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. Hemingway’s tale of man vs nature focuses on Santiago’s unwavering determination and respect for the marlin, even as he battles it.
- “Life of Pi” (Yann Martel): In this book, Pi Patel finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The majority of the novel concerns Pi’s struggle to survive in the face of natural elements and coexist with the wild creature.
- “Into the Wild” (Jon Krakauer): This non-fiction book tells the story of Christopher McCandless, who abandons civilization to live in the Alaskan wilderness. The narrative explores his struggle to survive in the face of extreme natural conditions, highlighting the brutality and indifference of nature.
- “Gravity” (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón): This movie depicts the story of medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, stranded in space after her shuttle is destroyed. Her fight to survive against the harsh conditions of outer space exemplifies a man vs nature conflict, albeit in an unconventional environment.
- “The Perfect Storm” (Sebastian Junger): This book recounts the real-life ordeal of the crew of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat caught in a massive storm at sea. Junger’s detailed exploration of the crew’s struggle against the power of a ferocious storm personifies the relentless and unforgiving forces of nature.
- “Hatchet” (Gary Paulsen): This novel tells the story of Brian, a young boy who survives a plane crash only to find himself alone in the Canadian wilderness. With nothing but a hatchet his mother gave him, Brian must learn to survive against the elements, wildlife, and his own fears.
- “127 Hours” (Directed by Danny Boyle): This film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who becomes trapped by a boulder in an isolated canyon in Utah. He must battle dehydration, exposure, and ultimately make a horrifying decision in order to survive.
- “Moby Dick” (Herman Melville): The epic tale of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale, Moby Dick, highlights the relentless and dangerous nature of the sea, as well as the destructive power of obsession when pitted against an uncaring nature.
- “Wild” (Cheryl Strayed): In this memoir, Strayed narrates her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail following a series of personal tragedies. Throughout her journey, she confronts physical challenges, wildlife, and extreme weather, embodying the man vs nature conflict.
- “The Martian” (Andy Weir): This novel tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney who gets left behind on Mars by his crew, thinking he died in a storm. Watney must overcome numerous hurdles, including growing food on a barren planet and surviving harsh Martian conditions, underlining the conflict of man vs the harsh, unyielding Martian environment.
- “The Road” (Cormac McCarthy): This novel follows a father and his young son as they journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape, battling against the harsh elements, scarcity of resources, and other survivors. The entire book is a struggle against nature transformed into something desolate and deadly by cataclysm.
- “Jaws” (Directed by Steven Spielberg): In this film, a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, leading a trio of men to fight back. The struggle against this fierce predator underlines the man vs nature conflict.
- “The Revenant” (Michael Punke): Based on a true story, this novel follows frontiersman Hugh Glass, who is mauled by a grizzly bear and abandoned by his companions. He must survive his injuries, the harsh wilderness, and winter weather in his quest for survival and revenge.
- “Into Thin Air” (Jon Krakauer): This non-fiction book by Krakauer himself details his experience in the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, in which several climbers died due to a storm and severe conditions on the world’s highest mountain. The account showcases the unforgiving harshness of nature at its most extreme.
- “All Is Lost” (Directed by J.C. Chandor): In this film, an unnamed man, played by Robert Redford, is sailing alone in the Indian Ocean when his yacht collides with a shipping container. With his navigation equipment and radio disabled, he must rely on maps, a sextant, and the currents to survive.
- “Call of the Wild” (Jack London): The novel is set in Yukon, Canada during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush and follows Buck, a domesticated dog who is stolen from his home in California and sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. He must learn to adapt to survive the harsh environment, illustrating the classic struggle of man (or in this case, animal) vs nature.
Other Types of Conflict in Literature and Film
The man vs nature plot is one of the most common, but it’s also often blended with the other types of conflict, and blending them allows you to create interesting, engaging, and compelling storylines.
Below are all six types of conflict. I’ve separated them into two categories – internal conflict (defined as psychological conflicts within the protagonist) and external conflicts (defined as conflicts between the protagonist and something outside of them).
- Man vs society conflict is when a character is pitted against the larger forces of culture, tradition, or societal norms. This type of conflict can arise from struggles with government institutions, social constructs such as gender roles or class divisions, or battles for freedom and justice within a community.
- Man vs nature conflict occurs when a character is struggling against forces of the natural world. This might involve survival in extreme environments like mountains or deserts, fighting off wild animals, or coping with natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods. Man vs nature conflict explores themes of human vulnerability and our relationship to the natural world.
- Man vs technology conflict is when a character faces off against machines or technological systems that have become too powerful or threatening in some way. This type of conflict often explores themes of dependence on technology, the disruption of social norms by advanced machines, and the potential dangers that come with relying too heavily on artificial intelligence.
- Man vs man conflict involves one character pitted against another character. This type of conflict can take many forms including physical confrontations, verbal battles, competition for resources or power, or ideological differences. Man vs man conflict is a staple element in many types of stories and can add tension and excitement to a plot. It also explores themes such as betrayal, trust, loyalty, and justice.
- Man vs destiny conflict is a type of conflict in which a character is struggling against their fate or the hand they have been dealt in life. This type of conflict may involve grappling with a prophecy, feeling trapped by social norms or expectations, or trying to escape an inevitable outcome. The character may feel powerless to change their circumstances and may struggle with feelings of despair and hopelessness. Man vs destiny conflict raises questions about free will (aka human agency) and the role of fate in our lives. Sometimes it is also considered an internal conflict.
- Man vs self conflict is when a character struggles with their own inner demons, flaws, or limitations. This type of conflict may arise from an internal struggle with morality, identity, or personal beliefs. The character may be grappling with a decision between right and wrong, battling with their own fears and doubts, or trying to reconcile conflicting parts of themselves. Man vs self conflict delves into questions of personal growth and transformation, exploring the inner workings of the human mind and spirit.
The man vs nature plot often uses the elements of nature as a way to develop the protagonist’s identity and emotions. I personally like plots that use the battle against nature as an allegory for the character’s inner turmoil, where the physical plot and the psychological plot mirror one another, and each one pulls the plot forward in unison.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]