What Is the Conflict in "After" by Francine Prose?

Dr. Willner uses the excuse of protection to implement totalitarian rules.
... Siri Stafford/Lifesize/Getty Images

In "After," Francine Prose creates a dystopian society in which students lose their civil liberties in the name of security. The title refers the story's taking place after three students shoot up nearby Pleasant Valley High School. The proximity of the shootings prompts Central High School to bring in a grief and crisis counselor, Dr. Willner. Prose relates the story through the point of view of Tom, a sophomore at Central High.

1 Main Conflict

The main conflict stems primarily from the antagonist, Dr. Willner. The grief and crisis counselor takes over as principal and uses his power to restrict the students' liberties. Students have to pass through metal detectors to enter the school. Willner then implements a strict dress code that even outlaws the color red. Students endure random drug tests and have to watch patriotic television shows on the school bus. Willner's harsh measures aim at student control; dissidents simply disappear. Ultimately, Dr. Willner enacts draconian safety measures and severely punishes anyone who doesn't comply.

2 Safety vs. Freedom

The theme of judging which is more important, safety or freedom, poses an ancillary conflict. The characters spend a lot of time considering the line between sacrificing personal liberties and protecting a community. Indeed, the plot leads readers to question how fear makes people give up personal freedom. It also raises the issue of how much, if at all, schools should be allowed to place limits on students' individual rights. Because security normally increases after a catastrophic event, Millner justifies his harsh safety measures by claiming they are to protect the students from another school shooting. The conflict doesn't manifest until measures become repressive enough that students begin questioning where their freedom went.

3 Person vs. Self

Another problem is people's seeming complacency in the face of Millner's increasingly totalitarian rule. For one, none of the adult characters in the book feel comfortable confronting him. At first they agree with the need for safety, but eventually comes a point in which they are just buckling to authority. Concerning the protagonist, Tom is discomfited when his friend, Becca, admits to creating graffiti that questions the whereabouts of some of the disappeared dissidents. His discomfort stems not only from the fact of her crime, but also because he acknowledges that he likely didn't have similar courage for protest. The varying reactions to one man's infringement on students' rights leads the characters to look into themselves and evaluate what they find.

4 Power

Conflict arises from the power that Dr. Willner is granted and expands upon. He initially operates under a humanitarian guise, addressing an assembly of students with the promise that he will not allow the tragedy of Pleasant View to repeat. He warns, though, that some "privileges" will disappear. At first the adults give him the authority and power to enact the changes. By the time the changes become extreme, he has already engaged in a subtle campaign to effectively brainwash the town. He sends letters home to the parents with carefully worded phrases that they eventually parrot. The conflict explores how one man can make a successful grab for power by coming into a tragic circumstance and promising protection.

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.