The Consequences of Conformity: An Analysis of The Young Goodman Brown, A+P, “Repent Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman, Harrison Bergeron, and the Lottery

Are they read-worth? Yes, of course. But I wrote this essay as part of an English course. The only reason I’m including it on this blog is for people struggling to come up for a similar consensus for an essay. It was hard to connect such a wide variety of different pieces. The essay does include spoilers for these pieces.

The Consequences of Conformity

Conformity is the creation of and adherence to established norms within a society and, while conforming to norms is required to some degree in order for civilizations to exist, true conformity can be very dangerous. This is because true conformity would require every person in a society to accept their current standards, laws, and lifestyle as the only acceptable version.  Essentially, true conformity would be described as an all-encompassing social impulse to be identical. Change would be impossible and a society that cannot easily change, or simply refuses to reexamine long-standing traditions, lifestyles, and laws, cannot succeed long term. The dangers of true conformity are shown in many pieces of literature, including The Young Goodman Brown, A+P, “Repent Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman, Harrison Bergeron, and The Lottery. Each literary work presents a different scenario in which readers are warned against true conformity. Human morals, the sanctity of human life, and the societies at large are in some type of danger because of true conformity. In order to succeed socially, politically, and spiritually, a level of individuality and personal separation are required. Because of the inherent nature of true conformity, civilizations with that characteristic cannot succeed nor can the citizens succeed in any type of emotional or personal way. 

This level of personal risk is particularly shown in A&P by John Updike. In this piece, the narrator, Sammy, discusses how he sees everyone around him as pigs and sheep: “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle…” (p something). The people around him, who failed to break out of their expected life paths, seem stuck in their positions. Their lives are unpleasant life sentences. Sammy dreads following the same path, but, for most of the piece, doesn’t seem to know how to escape the same bleak future. He thinks about his coworkers, who are doomed to working at the store for the rest of their lives, and hates the idea of adhering to that expected norm. In a society that is truly conform, he would be required to. His own personal choices and opinions would be irrelevant. Beyond that, his own opinions may be impossible. A very well-known dystopian novel, 1984 by George Orwell, describes a world in which even thoughts are policed in order to enforce true conformity with the law. If the same concept was applied to A&P in order to achieve true conformity within Sammy’s world, he would be doomed to live a life that he doesn’t even realize isn’t what he wants to do. True conformity would be next to impossible to achieve otherwise. 

This same concept of losing personal choice and opinions is shown quite well in Harrison Bergeron. Throughout this classic piece, a society is described in which true equality is achieved. People’s intelligence, attractiveness, and other individual traits are limited by the levels of intelligence, attractiveness, and so on that other people possessed. In order to create an equal society, everyone must be truly equal: “They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else… better looking than anybody else… stronger or quicker than anybody else” (Vonnegut 38). In order to obtain a society where everyone has conformed, similar patterns to what occured in Harrison’s world would have to be achieved. As a result, the people in such a society would be limited in regards to the ability to make their own choices in a similar way that the people of Harrison’s world were limited to sharing the same level of attractiveness, intelligence, and strength as “anyone else.” In a way, achieving true conformity would require true equality. Positive traits beyond average could have negative impacts on a society’s ability to obtain true conformity because they could create a sense of individuality and promote making independent choices.

However, the breakdown of individuality is not the only risk presented by the theory of true conformity within a society. Human morality could also be harmed. Why? Because true conformity would require blind belief in traditions, blind belief in the community, and the ability to give in, as a collective, to group pressure – immoral or otherwise. 

In The Lottery, the risks of blindly following traditions are clearly shown. As seen in the town’s lottery each year, blindly following and upholding anything can be dangerous. An entire community of people blindly followed a tradition of randomly murdering a citizen once a year out of the (senseless) belief that it made the community better than others. The people of the village even had a saying to represent this belief; older folks would go around saying “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” as if the yearly tradition of murdering a citizen was the reason for a good harvest (Jackson). Although the events described in this short story may be an extreme example, the thought behind it proves true. People who are willing to put one hundred percent of their faith in something without any evidence or even regard to morality can do horrible things. Plus, as a piece of literature inspired by the events of the Holocaust, the themes of this story have real life applications. The Nazis attempt to make a truly conform society of perfect people resulted in the deaths of millions. In order to obtain that idea of a  truly conform society, human morals had to be forgotten. 

Additionally, once a truly conform society has been achieved, moral behavior would be hard to maintain. Throughout The Young Goodman Brown, Brown encounters a moral dilemma when he discovers that his entire town is making deals with the devil, becoming what Brown considered to be “evil beasts” instead of continuing on as decent men (Hawthorne p number). They are breaking with conventional, acceptable behavior and celebrating sin. While he manages to break free of the impulse to give in, others do not. That brings up an important part of a truly conform society: having to give into group pressure. To achieve true conformity, everyone would have to give in to any level of group pressure and, as seen in literature, group pressures are not always pushing for moral actions. Oftentimes, they are intentionally pushing for others to act immorally. If an individual is to truly conform, they would have to give into group pressure every time. 

Plus, is it even possible to obtain true conformity without immorality as a key component of the society? Good people can often commit horrible deeds, but is it possible for horrible people to commit to being moral human beings? The challenges of achieving true conformity are numerous, next to impossible, so to try to achieve true conformity alongside true morality would be insanity. This is furthered by the fact that some level of violence may have to be used in order to enforce conformity. In “Repent Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman, conformity with time laws can only be maintain through the use of violence. They would have “turned off” any citizens that couldn’t conform to the current laws, killing them (Ellison page number). By threatening the lives of citizens, laws were followed. Would true conformity be possible without that threat? Is it possible for the threat of death to be moral?

Beyond breaking down human morals or diminishing the value of independent choice, true conformity could create an overall inability to truly develop as a society and, in particular, as a person. Independent choices, and making mistakes as a result, is a key part of growing up. In The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost discusses how he chose to make different decisions than those around him and how he learned, and grew as a person, because of that: “I took the one less traveled by, / and that has made all the difference” (Frost lines 19-20). In a world defined by true conformity, Frost would not have had the ability to separate himself from the pack and make that choice. He would not have developed. On a larger scale, this could create a society of children. Independent choices define adulthood, and change the mind in so many ways. Without that ability, personal development and, as a result, societal development would be stunted. 

However, there are exceptions to this rule. In “Repent Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman, physical development of the society is maximized. By strictly enforcing time constraints on people, and forcing conformity upon them as a result, this world managed to maximized daily physical production. Their production levels were insanely high. Yet, that came with developmental dangers as well. Even delays of a couple minutes had huge impacts on the greater system: “…in a society where the single driving force was order… it was a disaster of major importance” (Ellison page number). If delays of even a couple minutes can offset this system, it is difficult to say it is an incredibly developed system. Unsteadiness is not a high-level development. Plus, the nature of the people operating this system are stunted as a result of the strictly enforced laws. They fail to form lasting bonds with each other, particularly romantic ties, and are willing to sell each other out for very little to no self gain. 

Yet, while the risks of true conformity are high, it’s almost impossible to obtain true conformity in reality and the act of conforming in itself is not an inherently negative action. Many works of literature show quite clearly why conforming is so positive. In We Real Cool, it is shown that rebellion can have terrible consequences. The young people who act so rebelliously in this poem are known to die young and fail to integrate themselves into society. They always tend to “die soon” (Brooks lines 9-20). In The Young Goodman Brown, failing to conform call cause self-ostracization and can cause people to live unhappy lives. In The Lottery, it is shown that conforming does not come with the same risks as true conformity. Change is possible and does often occur in societies where people do conform with most, if not all, societal traditions. Many communities within this short story forget their former brutal traditions are all the better for it. The risk of true conformity is an entirely separate reality than the act of conforming. To some degree, conforming is entirely necessary for society to exist. 

WORKS CITED

Abcarian, Richard, Marvin Klotz, and Samuel Cohen, eds. Literature: The Human Experience. 12th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s 2016.

Ellison, Harlan. “Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.” Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen, pp.374-82

Updike, John. “A & P.” Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen, pp. 92-96.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. “Harrison Bergeron.” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1961.

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