What is the conflict in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird actually has two central plot lines and, therefore, has two central conflicts. The first plot line concerns the children's coming-of-age-story; the second concerns Atticus's decision to defend Tom Robinson in court, a decision that significantly influences the manner in which his children mature as they grow older.
The children's coming-of-age story involves many minor conflicts as the children encounter people and situations that influence their thinking. Many of these minor conflicts are character vs. character conflicts that reflect the children's fears. For example, the children enter into conflicts with Arthur (Boo) Radley and Mrs. Dubose, characters the children are afraid of. However, the central conflict in the children's coming-of-age story is best identified as character vs. self.
Scout is in conflict with herself because, being a tomboy, she wants to act like a boy; yet, because she is a girl, she also has feminine instincts. Her feminine instincts particularly surface when Jem and Dill begin playing the "Boo Radley" game. Scout hesitates to participate because she fears for their safety if they antagonize their neighbor Arthur Radley, whom they call Boo. Scout expresses her fears when she says in reply to Dill's question if she is scared, "He can get out at night when we're all asleep ..." (Ch. 4). As a result of her feminine instincts, that summer, she has to let the boys go off on their own and enact their boyishly foolhardy schemes while she spends most of her time with Miss Maudie. As the book progresses, Scout resolves her internal conflict by accepting the amount of courage it takes to be a lady, as demonstrated by her Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie.
Similarly, as Jem matures, he faces the internal conflict of being foolhardy vs. being a brave gentleman. He soon comes to learn that being brave isn't necessarily doing anything rash, like trespassing on the Radleys' property when he could get shot, but rather doing what he knows is right despite the odds of being able to complete his goal. Jem learns this lesson from his father's actions in defending Tom Robinson and from Mrs. Dubose, who fought against her morphine addiction despite the fact that she was on her deathbed. Jem learns what true bravery is from Mrs. Dubose when Atticus explains he wanted Jem to get to know Mrs. Dubose because he wanted Jem to see that courage is not "a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what" (Ch. 11).
In contrast to Jem and Scout's internal character vs. self conflicts in their coming-of-age story, the conflict in the plot line concerning Atticus's decision to defend Robinson can be seen as an external conflict. In defending Robinson, Atticus is acting contrary to the rest of the members of society, who automatically judges Robinson to be guilty due to their racial prejudices. As a result, Atticus and his children suffer a great deal of ridicule. Therefore, this conflict can be considered a character vs. society conflict. The children grow a great deal as a result of experiencing the conflict.