Man vs society involves the protagonist in a fight against the powers-that-be in the society surrounding them. It is one of six types of conflict in literature and film and categorized as an external conflict.
The man vs society conflict plotline is appealing to authors who want to draw attention to issues of social justice, challenge social norms, or explore the lives and experiences of the outcast, marginalized, and oppressed.
A famous example of the man vs society plot can be seen in the Hunger Games movies, where the protagonist, Katniss, leads a revolution against the authoritarian government that is oppressing her community.
Man vs Society Conflict: When to Use It
At its core, man vs society is a clash between an individual’s wants and needs versus what is expected from them by others and society at large.
This type of conflict can manifest in many different ways. For example, it may involve rebelling against unjust social hierarchies or standing up for one’s beliefs in the face of widespread opposition.
The core obstacle or ‘challenge’ in these plotlines tends to be societal pressures or prejudices faced by the protagonist.
But these conflicts also highlight how individuals can challenge and change society’s views for better outcomes or fight against refusal to stand up to what is wrong.
The messages that authors try to convey through the man vs society conflict in literature are often centered around themes such as individualism, freedom, morality, and justice.
When a protagonist stands up against societal norms or expectations, it sends a message that individuality is important and that there should be room for people to express themselves as they are without fear of repression.
Another message conveyed through this type of conflict is the importance of challenging authority when those in power use their position to oppress or discriminate against others. It emphasizes the need to fight for justice and fairness.
Man vs Society Examples
- 1984 (George Orwell): In a totalitarian society, the protagonist named Winston fights against a government that seeks to control every aspect of citizens’ lives, including their thoughts and actions.
- Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): In a society where people are genetically engineered to fit certain roles and never allowed to experience true emotions or passions, the protagonist John challenges the status quo and chooses a life of rebellion in search of authenticity over superficial happiness, with tragic results.
- Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury): A world where books are outlawed, Guy Montag rebels against his oppressive government by becoming an outlaw reader and joining forces with underground thinkers who preserve literature against censorship.
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood): This book (and subsequent film) depicts a dystopian society where fertile women have become surrogates for powerful men’s offspring because of declining birth rates due to pollution, Offred strives to regain her freedom while attempting to overthrow oppressive male supremacy.
- The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): Set in a post-apocalyptic world governed by “the Capitol,” Katniss Everdeen defies norms by taking her sister’s place as tribute in the games—an annual competition that pits districts against each other; it is televised nationwide until one team emerges as winners. Katniss uses the games against the capitol to inspire an uprising.
- Animal Farm (George Orwell): When the animals on a farm overthrow their human owner for control, they fight to keep their equal status, while some become corrupted and exploit others. The animal society in this film is an allegory for communism.
- Lord of the Flies (William Golding): After becoming stranded on an uninhabited island, a group of boys attempts to govern themselves, which rapidly turns into disorder and nearly fatal anarchy due to primitive savagery fueled by fear and power.
- The Giver (Lois Lowry): In a controlled community devoid of emotions or pain, Jonas, the protagonist, is selected to become the next receiver of memories. He discovers uncomfortable hidden truths about his society, shattering his beliefs and causing him to question his beliefs, and leading him to clash against the powers that be.
- The Trial (Franz Kafka): This novel portrays Joseph K’s indecision when he is accused by the ruling government agency for a crime, without knowing what he has done wrong. He is left disorientated, with juridical absurdity surrounding him within a dehumanizing bureaucracy.
- The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne): When Hester Prynne becomes pregnant outside of marriage in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 17th-century America, she is subjected to public shaming and religious punishments imposed on her by the ultra-conservative society.
- A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess): In a dystopian future that pits youngsters against the authorities, delinquent Alex is imprisoned and subjected to violent rehabilitation treatment causing intense internal conflict where fate steps in, leaving it impossible for him to reacclimate to society, with the conclusion leading to uncertainty.
- The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck): During the Great Depression, Tom Joad and his family uproot their lives when forced out by exploitative landowners and head towards California with thousands similarly migrating, where they face new challenges including police brutality and struggles to find work for better living conditions.
- The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger): Holden Caulfield navigates through society’s expectations, trying desperately not to conform while he attempts to make sense of death along with struggling against societal norms eventually undergoing his own realization allowing reflection on life’s intricacies.
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald): Through eyes of Nick Carraway as an observer, readers explore Jay Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle trying hard at social standing influenced by love for Daisy Buchanan displaying how wealth doesn’t equal happiness or fulfillment as it can deceive even the most passionate amongst us.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): Set during racial tensions circulating America’s South; Atticus Finch defends a black man under false accusations while dealing with prejudices operating within his town showcasing racial inequalities and posing moral questions before calling upon decision-making.
- Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut): Billy Pilgrim, a disillusioned soldier who is abducted by aliens, experiences flashbacks to his time during the Dresden bombing and struggles with society’s inability to reconcile trauma’s impact on mental health.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey): Randle McMurphy feigns mental illness to serve in an asylum where he challenges the psychotic nurse Ratched’s authority and attempts to bring humanity back into the lives of oppressed patients while ultimately retaliating against societal institutions that oppressed them.
- The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton): Set during social class distinctions in Tulsa, youth Ponyboy Curtis struggles against class-based stereotypes and societal expectations as he comes to terms with violence among rival factions causing bloodshed via gang culture prevalent amongst adolescents.
- A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh): In the upper echelons of English society, Tony Last falls into financial ruin when deceived by his wife Brenda; as he searches for meaning in his life amidst treacherously damaged bonds revealing codes governing social mobility premiering juxtaposed facets crystallizing the woes of higher classes.
- Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe): Okonkwo, an influential wrestler in colonial Nigeria tries hard not to succumb to British colonialism but fails as it causes a significant cultural shift within Ibo society resulting in tragedies caused by internal faction divisions along with enduring enslavement due to societal norms.
- The Road (Cormac McCarthy): A father and son face hostile terrain and dangerous gangs of cannibals as they trek to the coast in a post-apocalyptic world; where society’s expectations previously centered on morality, death, scarcity, self-preservation, and despair now potentially aiding amorality amongst general population.
- The Trial (Robert Whitlow): Criminal defense attorney’s faith is pushed to its limits when trying to defend former female drug trafficker being put on trial whose past life rising out of poverty posing challenges against societal standards for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
- The Power (Naomi Alderman): A fictional novel about women acquiring supernatural abilities that turn the tides after centuries of gender discrimination leading to movement fighting against patriarchy’s grip while causing shifts towards it within societies.
- The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin): Through narrative storytelling depicting two planets: one is capitalistic while other communistic following the perspective of physicist Shevek attempting to bridge disparity among them highlighting social divisions predicated by individualism/collectivism influencing metaphysical inquiry and scientific knowledge.
- The Circle (Dave Eggers): Mae Holland joins the fictitious Silicon Valley-based tech giant company named “the Circle,” where providing transparency through technology slowly morphs into socio-political power engulfment raising questions about privacy infringement as individuals try finding ways that stimulate their moral compass.
Man vs society conflicts inspire readers by encouraging them not to conform but instead strive towards being defined by their own beliefs and standing strong against oppressive systems. The author strives to get across messages that are deeper than just the story in the book itself, but reflect universal political values of right vs wrong. These plotlines can therefore create social awareness about issues surrounding race, gender identity, class differences, and so on.
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]