For most people, the pressure to conform begins before we’re even born. Once the ultrasound images come through, our rooms, toys, and footy pajamas become gender-themed. In elementary school, we are systematically ranked in terms of name-brand vs. generic binders and snack items. In high school, we carefully engineer our clothes and backpacks to achieve that effortlessly cool look. Let’s not even get started on what we do in college.
Despite its being so normal a part of everyday life, there’s something inherently creepy about group thinking. Whether you’re Borg, a Stepford wife, or just a nervous freshman, everyone needs an occasional reminder of why not to run with the pack. To call in the really big guns, here are three classic literary scenarios that might help you wave your freak flag high.
Scenario One: Colonial Africa. The landscape is wild, the natives are unfamiliar, and the Europeans are doing their best to screw it up. Enter Mr. Kurtz of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A British ivory trader living deep in the Congolese wilderness, Kurtz is a charismatic, intelligent type-A kind of guy. Who also happens to be a psychopath. Living out a unique twist on the Into the Wild, Kurtz forsakes European civilization, amasses a private army of indigenous and European minions, and goes on a murderous rampage.
By the time our narrator, Charlie Marlow, tracks him down, Kurtz is decorating his private jungle fortress with impaled heads. What’s worse, despite the fact that Charlie a) goes after Kurtz knowing what he’s capable of, and b) witnesses Kurtz’s insanity firsthand, his experience leaves us wondering whether or not he has also succumbed to Kurtz’s influence. Although Heart of Darkness gives us an interesting look at the power of one person’s persuasion, there’s also something to be said for the sweeping momentum of mob rule. Which brings us to our second literary classic.
Scenario Two: Colonial America. The continent is enormous, the colonies are tiny, and the pioneers are so uptight that the Church of England doesn’t want them. Add a reverend’s daughter girl and a mysterious illness to the mix and you’ve got Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play about the Salem witch trials. Beginning with one angry girl’s accusations of witchcraft, the story snowballs as the entire village turns against itself in an eat-or-be-eaten fight to the death.
In the end, the victors are either accusers or (false) confessors, whereas those who try to keep their noses clean are summarily executed. What makes this scarier than Kurtz’s private army is the fact that a witch hunt doesn’t require a mastermind; combine ten parts society and one part fear and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. Of course, the mob mentality formula works in the absence of civilization, too. Just check out our third literary classic.
Scenario Three: The Desert Island. The island is small, the wee tykes are even smaller, and their chances of being found are slim to none. When you combine all the worst parts of Heart of Darkness and The Crucible, the resulting tale of horror can only be William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a story about a schoolyard that is accidentally relocated to an island in the middle of the Pacific. The boys polarize around the two strongest personalities, but being that they probably still used nightlights in their former life, they’re not exactly immune to good ol’ fashioned mass hysteria, either.
By the time the boys have painted their faces, ritualistically slaughtered wild boars, and waged war on each other, you begin to wonder if “youthful innocence” is a contradiction in terms. The story ends with the boys being discovered by civilized, adult men in the midst of a civilized, adult world war. You know, just in case you felt happy for a second there.
Wed together, these three stories warn us against the corrupting influence of both influential leaders and mindless mobs, social constructs and wild savagery, respected adults and smelly pre-teens, hysterical girls and barbarous boys. In short, trust no one but yourself.
Which is kind of the point.