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.

Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Is it read-worth? Let’s get real here: the reason why 90% of people read stories like Young Goodman Brown are because a class they are taking them requires them too. The writing itself is fine, but it can be hard to understand from a modern perspective. I enjoyed the piece, but don’t necessarily recommend it to others. However, you can find it here if you wish to read it. It’s completely free.

I mostly wanted to make a post about this short story because I found a very short essay I wrote that might help people better understand the story. Or at least pretend to. Not that I’m saying it’s a bad piece of writing, it’s very good, but most people don’t really enjoy reading stories like this.

SPOILER ALERT: My Young Goodman Brown Essay

Faith is the young wife of Goodman Brown. They’ve been married for only a short period of time, but he relies on her heavily as a symbol of all things good and pure. In the story, her faith in God strengthens his own. If she, his lovely wife, is not faithful, how can Goodman expect to be? However, she does not seem to feel the same way about Goodman. At the very beginning of the book, she questions what he is going to go do in the middle of the night. Why does he need to leave her? While he may love her as a symbol of all that is good, Faith does not entirely trust her husband and mentions that she also has questionable thoughts when she is left alone, particularly at night. While she may try to resist temptation and sinful behavior, and he believes she is the image of good faith and godly behavior, she isn’t entirely free of human weaknesses. She questions, she wants, and she struggles with the same challenges we all face. In the book, Faith may be used a symbol for Goodman’s own faith, but, as a character, she’s just another person. 

In the short story, Young Goodman Brown, Goodman Brown seems to lose the naive view he had of the people around him. In the beginning, Goodman assumes that all people are inherently good. He does not question his deacon, his governor, and he holds his wife, Faith, in extremely high esteem. They all are good God-fearing members of the community. However, when he leaves his house to meet with an old man in the woods, he loses all innocence he once had. The old man, who represents the devil throughout the story, tells him of how he regularly drinks with highly esteemed members of the church, advises the governor, and how he played a role in Goodman’s own family’s decisions. Goodman then finds that most of his community, who he labels witches and evil-doers, meet with this devil regularly. He even sees his own wife being tempted by the devil’s promises. As a result, when he finds himself waking up in the middle of the woods, his view of the world is irrevocably changed. Goodman does not trust the people around him. He doesn’t even love his wife anymore, fearing her to be doing the work of the devil. He has lost all innocence and, in a manner of speaking, has lost his connection with God by blocking out the love, blessings, and behavior of the people around him. While most people do lose a portion of their innocence at one time, Goodman shows what happens when you lose all innocence and all faith. 

Faith is perhaps the most important symbol throughout Young Goodman Brown. She represents Goodman’s faith in god – his goodness, purity, and ability to connect with others. When Goodman sees her being tempted by the devil, he loses all hope and emotionally disconnects from the church, his community, and his wife. If she is unable to be godly at all times, he has no hope for himself. 

What happened to Goodman Brown was both a dream and a reality. I believe the actual events that occurred were a dream that resulted from his fear of being in the woods, his actions being questioned by his wife, and his own budding sense of distrust. However, the lasting effect is the reality that matters. He wasted the rest of life distrusting the people around him, he lost all love for his wife, and he failed to connect with any of his children in a meaningful way. It does not matter if those events occurred as much as it matters that Goodman believes that they did. He wasted his life by believing that the people around him had given in to evil.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Is it read-worth? Yes, because it is a short read and it’s sexist attitudes are worth discussing. No because the mentality behind this poem has no place in today’s society.

Analysis of the poem

Lauded as a beautiful love poem from days gone by, To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell has no place in modern romance. The poem, written with the intent of seducing a young virgin, is simply outdated. Beyond that, in many ways it is offensive. Marvell does not love this woman, he lusts for her. The way he addresses her, the arguments he uses, and the ideas behind the words he speaks are offensive to modern women. While it may once have been considered a wonderful love story, it now comes across as creepy, sexist, and quite a bit ridiculous. 

Why? Because, simply put, his love poem is not a love poem. He insults her, reduces her to her body, and uses scare tactics to try to seduce her. In fact, even the first two lines are insulting: “Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime” (Marvell lines 1-2). Essentially, what Marvell is saying is that her modesty is holding them back. While he may appreciate her beauty, he does not like the one personality trait of her’s that he manages to mention throughout this poem: her modesty. While many women in this day and age are not modest in the same ways as historical women are, it is the only character trait of his “love” that he mentions the entire poem and, instead of mentioning it with adoration, he dissuades it with scorn. Her modesty bothers him because it prevents him from having sex with her and is, therefore, a flaw.

That sentiment would have been understandable, and somewhat acceptable, if it had been the only insult throughout the poem. However, the manner in which Marvell “seduces” the young lady should never be considered seduction. The first stanza in itself is not the largest problem; he spends it insulting her modesty and telling her that he’ll still love her forever. If he had left it at that, the poem probably wouldn’t be quite as offensive. Yet, he didn’t end the poem at the close of the first stanza.

Instead, he decided to use scare tactics to get her to sleep with him. He tells her, “Thy beauty shall no more be found; / Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound” (Marvell lines 25-26). Analyzed deeper, these words are a not-so-subtle reminder that beauty fades. She is beautiful so he wants to deflower her. If he deflowers her, he must love her. If she wants him to love her, she must remember that time moves quickly, her beauty will fade, and one day she will die. Basically, he means to tell her that if she dies without having sex with him, she’s going to lose her looks, no one will love her, and she’ll die alone. If that is his best argument for her falling into his bed, the entire poem needs to be rethought. 

And, at that, they need to be rethought by society as well. Similar behavior on behalf of both men and women in relationships have been exhibited. Using threats, insults, and other types of emotional manipulation to get someone to want to have sex is unhealthy behavior from a personal standpoint and a societal standpoint. Rape culture within the United States (and other nations) exists because poems like this give sexism and sexualization of other people cultural ground (“Rape Culture”). It tells people that this type of behavior is romantic when it is absolutely unacceptable and is, in actuality, degrading.

To be perfectly plain, To His Coy Mistress represents a lot that is wrong with people’s perception of romantic relationships. No one should ever use scare tactics to frighten someone into having sex. Furthermore, the idea that a woman is only worth something if she is still young and beautiful is insane. The way Marvell speaks to his potential lover is inappropriate, cruel, reinforces rape culture, and has no place as an emblem of love and romance. To His Coy Mistress is not a love poem – it’s a problem. 

Works Cited

Marshall University Women’s Center. “Rape Culture.” Womens Center. www.marshall.edu/wcenter/sexual-assault/rape-culture/.

Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poetry: An Introduction, 7th edition. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 79. Print

The Dual Storylines of Bored by Margaret Atwood

Is it read-worth? To be perfectly honest, almost all poetry is worth a read. Most poetry is short enough that it only takes a portion of time and each line is bursting with meaning. This poem is no exception to that rule. Bored is absolutely worth reading and, more than that, it’s worth looking into more deeply.

The Dual Storylines: An In-Depth Analysis

One of the greatest, and most terrible, characteristics of Bored by Margaret Atwood is the fact that it has the potential for a large variety of meanings. The words used are nuanced and, depending on how they are read and pieced together, multiple meanings can be derived from the one poem. Even the form of the piece, as a free-form poem without any stanzas, encourages readers to develop several different interpretations. The lack of separation between different sections of the poem allows the themes to blur together. It is easier to derive multiple meanings when certain ideas are not confined to a singular space or train of thought. This was extremely clever because it allows one piece to hold sway with multiple audiences, connecting them by one central theme of regret. 

These multiple storylines are somewhat different from one another. For example, Atwood could literally just be describing a boring day she remembers from the past. More likely, she could be describing her memories of time spent with her father doing chores. Atwood’s language, if applied to that meaning, suggests that she wishes she had appreciated her time with him more. On the other hand, the male character is not specifically defined to be her father. He could have been her lover. As a result, Atwood could be expressing that she regrets allowing him so much control over her life. She regrets taking the backseat and wishes she had asserted herself more. In either case, with either male figure defined as such, she expresses a sense of regret. She wishes she had lived her life to the fullest, had enjoyed each moment, and had defined her own course. 

To follow the first storyline, in which the male figure is defined as Atwood’s father, the poem is a happier, fond poem. She remembers doing chores with her father as a fond memory of him: “Why do I remember it as a sunnier, / all the time then, although it often / rained, and more birdsong)?” (25-27) She enjoyed spending time with her father. However, she simultaneously wishes she had enjoyed it more in the moment. She had spent their time together wishing she was elsewhere instead of recognizing its worth. She was shortsighted by failing to see the big picture, by failing to remember that one day her father would grow old and die, far before she would, and that time spent with him should be cherished: “… and then the graying bristles / on the back of his neck” (18-19). Her biggest regret in this story-line is not having the wisdom to appreciate her childhood. If she could go back, she wouldn’t have wasted their time together with boredom and would have, instead, enjoyed the little moments.

Yet, if you define the male character as her lover, the tone of the piece is completely different. While she still remembers the time spent with him fondly, as viewed in the line where she describes it as a sunnier time, she wishes she had made better decisions. Her short-sightedness, in this case, is more unforgiving and, if she could, she never would have stayed in the relationship or, vise-versa, would never allowed him to have so much control over her life: “Now I wouldn’t be bored. / Now I would know too much” (33-34). Atwood feels as if she were out of her mind for allowing him to make her decisions for her: “All those times I was bored out of my mind” (1-2). The lines: “Or sat in the back / of the car, or sat still in boats, / sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel / he drove…” suggests that she wishes she had moved past her mindless boredom and taken more control (8-11). He had controlled the direction of their lives. Her shortsightedness, her myopia, was failing to recognize that she had so little sway until it was too late, and they had both aged (14). At the end of the poem, she compares herself to animals to suggest the stupidity of such a decision: “… It [boredom] is for dogs or / groundhogs” (31-32). Dogs, usually characterized by obedience, and grounds, who are pests, are an apt representation for the way this made her feel. If she could go back and make different choices, the piece suggests that she would.

In any case, with either story line, the key idea is relatively constant. Margaret Atwood wishes she had appreciated life more. She wishes she had taken the time to enjoy the little moments and, at times, wishes she had asserted more control over her life. With her father, it would have gained his respect while also showing him that she cares and wants to put in effort similar to his own. With a lover, it could have changed the entire direction of her life. This familiar emotion makes the poem universally applicable – no matter the preferred or inferred direction of the story behind it.