What conflicts are found in Theodore Taylor's The Cay?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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A conflict is a struggle within a story. Often the struggle is between the protagonist and antagonist; however, there can be several types of conflict. It should also be noted that there can be internal and external conflicts. During an internal conflict, a character struggles against himself/herself either because the character has conflicting desires or conflicting natures, such as a good vs. evil nature. During external conflicts, the character struggles against something outside of himself/herself, such as against another character, against society, against nature, or even against fate.

We can identify both internal and external conflicts in Theodore Taylor's young reader novel, The Cay. One internal conflict arises when Phillip goes blind. His blindness creates a feeling of helplessness and isolation that Timothy tries to help him overcome. Once the pair go ashore on their cay, Timothy gets busy building a shelter and finding things to eat. He even gets busy making a rope out of vines. At one point, he tells Phillip he needs to start helping out with the work and tries to teach him how to weave mats for them to sleep on, but Phillip gives up in frustration, feeling absolutely helpless. His feeling of helplessness is due to the fact that he wants his sight back and wants to be able to do things easily as he used to be able when he could see.  Since he is having difficulty accepting his blindness and finding solutions around it, we see that Phillip is experiencing an internal conflict. It's the moment Phillip realizes Timothy is making him a rope to help him move around the island by himself that he starts to feel a sense of gratitude and bravery that enable him to overcome his internal conflict.

Many external conflicts can also be seen throughout the book. One external conflict concerns society's racism, which is a central theme in the book. When Phillip first meets Timothy, Phillip dislikes him, resists getting to know him, and thinks he is ugly--all due to the prejudices Phillip has been taught by his parents and society at large. Yet, Phillip owes Timothy his life; therefore, Phillip is conflicted concerning whether or not to accept or reject Timothy as a result of the influence of society's prejudices.  However, despite society's prejudices, the more Timothy strives to help Phillip, especially help Phillip become independent, the more Phillip grows to value Timothy. By the end of the book, after Phillip is rescued, Phillip is such a changed person that he no longer fits in with the society he once knew.

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