Merriam Webster defines a “thank-you-ma’am” as a bump in the road. Every short story and novel plot contains a bump in the road for the main character. This “bump” often prevents the character from getting some desired thing. The bump in the road is the conflict, an essential element in fiction. More than one conflict can also be found in novels and stories with well-developed, round characters such as Roger and Mrs. Jones. Round, dynamic, and multidimensional characters deal with complex problems and respond with multiple emotions.
Conflict is the obstacle, barricade, or impediment that thwarts a character. Four types of conflict are man vs. man, man vs. himself, man vs. society, and man vs. nature. Classic stories that capture the complexity of the human condition often focus on more than one conflict. Let’s take a closer look at each type of conflict.
Fiction has plenty of examples of these adversarial relationships: Batman vs. the Joker, Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Roger vs. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones in “Thank You, Ma’am.”
One classic example of this conflict is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Hughes’s short story, Roger reveals his internal conflict when he’s in the apartment of Mrs. Jones. He sees that “the door was open. He could make a dash for it down the hall. He could run, run, run, run, run!” Yet, this magnetic woman has some hold on him.
Roger tries to steal a purse, committing a crime against Mrs. Jones. Roger has broken society’s rules, and so the conflict of “Thank You, Ma’am” involves man vs. society. While Roger expects to go to jail, Mrs. Jones never reports the crime.
A number of formidable forces of nature can be in conflict with a character: It might be a mountain to scale, a fish to catch, or arctic cold to survive. However, this conflict is not apparent in “Thank You, Ma’am.” Can you think of a story you’ve read in which a character encounters a force of nature?
The plot of Langston Hughes's story follows a linear plot pattern found in a great deal of fiction. It is best visualized by Freytag’s Pyramid. Among the literary terms you’ll need to know are the parts of Freytag’s Pyramid.
Theme is perhaps the most important literary term to understand. Themes are underlying messages about life and human nature; they are big ideas an author wants to pass on to you. What is tricky about themes is that sometimes they don’t stand out but only emerge after careful analysis. Understanding the theme of a literary work is an “aha” moment that gives you deeper insight into what an author is trying to say.
Themes are the abstract concepts or universal truths found in all good literature, including the works you read in this lesson. The theme of “A Noiseless Patient Spider” is that lonely souls want desperately to make spiritual connections. Although you only had a glimpse into the production of Our Town, the Stage Manager’s revelation that the paperboy will die in World War I indicates that Wilder’s play deals with the brevity of life.
Attention and kindness can alter the course of a life. Compassion, empathy, and generosity can be transforming.
Now that you have completed the section that discusses terms of fiction, look at the list of terms found in this PDF. Use your software’s highlighter or other tool to mark the ones you need to review further.