Conflict is blood coursing through the aorta of literature. But what is the source of this violence? Many 19th century texts lie at the root of conflict. This conflict of identity happens off the page as well as on it.This conflict is realized through the author’s agenda. Writers use violence and conflict on the page in order to alter the reader’s subjective concept of identity and ultimately alter conflicts of identity off the page.
Identity as the fundamental cause of conflict is excitedly played out in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here the duality of human identity is presented. We see the marriage of opposites, the fusion of pretentious control with its antithesis, blind instinct, behavior almost entirely lacking in consciousness. This battle is archetypal, happening within the breast and mind of each man. The human consciousness of self demands the importance of a reputation, the recognition of an identity. Stevenson presents another, an under man, that exists beneath the pretense of identity. This “fiend,” or under man, is worse than any animal, in that Mr. Hyde was eagerly destructive. Hyde went so far as to bludgeon an innocent girl to death. Unlike nature’s symbiotic destructiveness, that occurs only as a means to survival, Stevenson’s “fiend” is blissfully destructive and for no apparent reason. Stevenson’s idea of man’s darker side is stark and frightening. The internal battle of identity that he presents is deadly.
Harriet Beecher Stowe presents the external and political conflict of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She argues that Christian identity and slavery are incompatible. The seemingly kind and “Christian” characters of Shelby and St. Clare are primary to this argument. Shelby separates and destroys Tom’s family as a means of financially rescuing his own. While St. Clare’s lack of action is responsible for Tom’s ultimate sail down the river to martyrdom. Stowe’s depiction of these seemingly “good and civilized” men had the power to persuade the Christian identity. The Christian defense of slavery had claimed that slavery benefited slaves because most masters acted in their slaves’ best interest by “civilizing,” “Christianizing,” and “providing” for them. The characters of Shelby and St. Claire undermine this fallacy. As Stowe strives to influence and control the nation’s Christian identity, she insists that the slave’s best interest is to obtain control over his own destiny.
Charles Dickens also endeavored to change the course of human behavior (ie identity). The conflict and violence that he presented in Oliver Twist was one of self-interest over community. Fagin, a self serving fence and pimp, tells Noah Claypole that “a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company.”(388 Dickens) In other words, the group’s interests are best maintained if every individual looks out for “number one.” This philosophy fails at the end of the novel, when Nancy turns against Monks, Bates against Sikes, and Monks against Mrs. Corney. Dickens is attempting to instill within the public identity a sense of charity and community.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It may appear to be a digression here, but I insist that this 20th century text where nothing much happens, is relevant. Beckett reduces all of these identity issues to their most fundamental form: the metaphysical realm of the Self. Waiting for Godot is a violent attack on the relevance of identity. Violent like a dream where the dreamer discovers her teeth have fallen into her hand. Time has a relentlessly destructive power over personal identity and achievement. In order to solve the ontological problems of personal identity we want to do something or be something beyond the grave. And so, we have the artist at work busily exchanging hats with the next artist like Vladimir and Estragon. The duality of human nature is played out by Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, stripped down to bare essentials, without the props, the monstrous costumes, or the “violent” plot events of our 19th century artists. Physical Estragon, or Gogo, just wants to leave and go somewhere and do something, but thoughtful Vladimir, Didi, must wait for Godot. Physical Gogo can not even put on his boot without thoughtful Vladamir’s assistance. Here is a new Jekyl and Hyde, a revision of human duality engaged in an identity crisis. A real yin yang, they are one in the same.
However, people want their stories to have hearts that beat with the blood of human experience. Philosophical pondering is not popular. People want to see a dramatization of sex and sweat and tears and dreams realized and dreams crushed. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” may indicate there is “nothing to be done” in the context of human history, nothing to be done which is not done in vain: Stowe, slaves are still being brutalized, Dickens, the greedy and despicable still make excessive use of orphans. There are losses and gains that come from trying to express the inexpressible. Like the identities that have gone before us we must act, if only for the present moment. Despite the unlikely possibility of originality we act. We act for century artists. Physical Estragon, or Gogo, just desires to help them look forward. We act with purpose and with anxiety of influence. We act to witness our identity. Conflict is the blood in the heart of our story. We embrace making new things out of old things. Alternately, we present our story with shame and pride. There is a comfort here, within the archetype, despite all inevitability, nothing can outweigh the present moment. Can we teach students to see? To hear? To communicate? We can begin by making the process explicit.