Agon is normally used to describe the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. The word has its origins in Greek theatre, especially comedy. In these plays, characters would debate one another, engaging in agons. The word was also used to describe how types of contests, like those related to athletics and music. These contests were often held at public festivals. Readers might also note the use of “agon” in the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist.”
Definition of Agon
The agon is the conflict between the two most central characters in a literary work. It could be a physical battle or a debate in regard to a specific ideology. Any kind of competition within literature, if it occurs between the antagonist and protagonist, can be referred to as an agon. The word is rarely used today, but it has an interesting history, as noted above, that makes it worth understanding.
Examples of Agon
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Cask of Amontillado” is one of Poe’s most famous short stories. It follows Fortunato and Montresor. The latter takes on the role of the antagonist, bringing the former, Fortunato, to his death. Fortunato has no idea what’s going on and willingly follows Montresor, someone he thinks is his friend, into the wine cellar. There, Fortunato is walled up and left for dead. The nature of the conflict is never clearly set out, but it’s clear that Montresor has some fundamental argument against Fortunato. He uses these lines:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity.
This is a very interesting example of an agon that exists between two characters and is resolved quickly before one character really realizes there is a conflict at all. Montresor is what is known as an unreliable narrator. This means that due to his emotional and mental state, readers can’t trust what he’s saying. Is there really something horrible in Fortunato’s past that made Montresor want to kill him? Or is Montresor simply acting on the impulses of a mad man?
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Misery by Stephen King
Misery is another interesting example of a story that initially contains a loosely defined protagonist and antagonist. It follows Paul Sheldon, a famous author, who gets into a car crash. He’s taken into the care of a woman named Annie Wilkes, who is his self-professed “number one fan.” Initially, it seems as though she’s a slightly obsessive, although caring woman who is willing to help the author recover while the roads are still unpassable.
But, the agon between the two develops when it becomes clear that she isn’t willing to let him leave. She purposefully re-injures him and keeps him confined to a bedroom until he rewrites his latest novel to suit her desires for the characters. Here are a few lines detailing Paul’s suffering at Annie’s hands:
The shuddering would not stop. The pain was like the end of the world. He thought: There comes a point when the very discussion of pain becomes redundant. No one knows there is pain the size of this in the world. No one. It is like being possessed by demons.
It takes Paul using Annie’s desire for another “Misery” book against her for him to finally find a way to get away from her. What’s interesting about this example is that neither character had a fundamental argument with the other until they were put together. Annie loved Paul’s writing, and Paul had no idea who Annie was. It wasn’t until Annie’s obsession and willingness to maim and murder became tied with her desire for a new “Misery” book that Paul’s agon with her developed.
Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle
In this famous series of detective stories, Doyle crafts one of the most famous examples of agon– between Holmes and Moriarty. The latter is a ruthless criminal mastermind who, despite featuring in only two stories, made an incredible impact on the literary world. He’s cast as Holmes’ greatest foe, and it takes all of the latter’s wit to try to defeat him. Here is a quote from The Valley of Fear in which Holmes is describing Moriarty:
The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every devilry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that’s the man! But so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his management and self-effacement, that for those very words that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerge with your year’s pension as a solatium for his wounded character.
It’s clear that Holmes respects Moriarty’s brilliance. Without that respect, he would be continually underestimated, and Holmes would have no chance to defeat him. Doyle created Moriarty in order to kill Sherlock Holmes, he later explained. But, the public was so obsessed with the characters that after The Final Problem, the author ended up bringing the character back.
Why is Agon Important?
Although the word “agon” is not commonly used today, its principles of conflict, contest, or struggle are an integral part of all literary works. Whether it’s a physical or more mental battle, there is an agon in every type of literary work. Below are a few of the various types of conflict, each of which can be defined by a specific type of struggle.
- Character against character
- Character against technology
- Character against supernatural
- Character against nature
- Character against themselves
- Character against society
A sentence might read: ”The agon between the two competitors has never been greater. Or, “did you read about the leaders’ agon? It’s still an unresolved conflict.”
Agonizing is defined as something extremely painful. It could be used to describe an experience one character is going through and as a way to emphasize the cruelty of one character to another.
Agon is a part of Greek classical tragedy. It is a contest of wills in which one opposes the others. Often, these contests appeared in comedies and were a formal structure of these plays. Sometimes, Greek authors competed with one another with their dramatic writings.
The protagonist is the hero of a particular story. They are on the side of good and are the person for whom the reader should be rooting. The antagonist is the person or force that stands in the protagonist’s way. For example, a small-time lawyer legally fighting against a company with an army of high-powered attorneys.
The root “agon” means to struggle or fight. It appears in the word “protagonist” as a way to allude to that struggle. It’s also mirrored in “antagonist” and “agony.”
Related Literary Terms
- External conflict: a type of conflict, problem, or struggle that takes place in a novel, narrative poem, play, or other literary work.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Dichotomy: create conflict between characters, groups, states of being, ideas, and more.
- Literary Argument: a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Actant: used in relation to the actantial model. This is a model that defines the roles of characters and objects.