illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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What is the major conflict in The Devil's Arithmetic?

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The obvious major conflict of The Devil's Arithmetic is the Holocaust. Through the story, the protagonist, Hannah, finds herself transported into a period when the Nazi government was systematically imprisoning, enslaving, and murdering Jews like herself. The struggles and horrors of life in a Nazi concentration camp clearly provide conflict in the novel. Yolen centers her novel around this conflict to shed light on the lived experiences of the Holocaust for modern young readers.

However, Hannah also experiences a personal conflict that drives the story. As a modern American teenager, Hannah experiences an internal conflict between what she desires to be (current, cosmopolitan, independent) and her heritage. This also causes an external conflict between Hannah and her parents, who wish for her to embrace her history and her Jewishness.

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This great novel contains what I would call a "macro" conflict and a "micro" conflict.

The large-scale conflict to which author Jane Yolen refers is the Holocaust. This, of course, was the infamous system driven by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party which led to the death of millions of Jews and members of other minority groups in the 1930's and 1940's.

The "micro" conflict that takes place in this novel is our protagonist Hannah Stern's desire to live only in the present, which comes into conflict with her parents' desire to remember the past and the suffering endured by various members of their family.

It is only when Hannah is transported back to the world of a Jewish village in 1941 that she is led to understand the importance of the past.

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I would have to say that Hannah represents the crux of the conflict in Yolen's work.  She is a modern teen at the outset of the novel who is driven by a desire to be cosmopolitan and cannot understand the relevancy of her ancestors' struggle.  When she opens the door for the prophet Elijah, she enters into the major conflict of the work.  From someone who has no care about what it means to be Jewish, she becomes someone who is immersed in the middle of the Holocaust and must reconcile her prior feelings about her race with the realities that race faced.  I think within Hannah we see the crux of the conflict in the Holocaust, a setting where individuals had to choose between standing up for the trampled rights of others versus silence and apathy.  Just as Hannah endures this conflict, so did the historical victims of the Holocaust.  Her struggle ends up mirroring the struggles of her people.

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The main conflict for this book is the Holocaust. It is the unfair and deplorable treatment of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany. They are sent to concentration camps and killed via gas chambers.

If you are talking about the main conflict for the main character (protagonist) it is the fact she is not appreciating her Jewish ancestry and therefore is transported back in time to the Nazi era and becomes Chaya. The conflict becomes her struggle to survive, and ultimately... does she?

So depending on how you approach the novel, a historical context or for a character, there are two major conflicts. In some ways they secondary character conflict is obsorbed into the larger historical contextual conflict.

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