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Peer Pressure in Heart of Darkness, the Crucible, and Lord of the Flies
For most people, the pressure to conform begins before we are even born. Once the ultrasound images pass, our rooms, toys, and footed pajamas become gender-themed. In elementary school, we are systematically ranked in terms of name-brand versus generic binders and snacks. In high school, we carefully design our clothes and backpacks to achieve that effortlessly cool look. Let’s not even get started on what we do in college.
Despite being such a normal part of everyday life, there’s something inherently creepy about groupthink. Whether you’re a Borg, a Stepford wife, or just a nervous college freshman, everyone needs an occasional reminder why you shouldn’t 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.
First scenario: colonial Africa. The landscape is wild, the natives are unknown, and the Europeans are doing their best to screw it up. Enter Mr. Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A British ivory trader living deep in the Congolese wilderness, Kurtz is a charismatic, intelligent Type A guy who also happens to be a psychopath. Living in a unique twist in Into the Wild, Kurtz abandons European civilization, assembles a private army of indigenous and European henchmen, and sets out on a murderous rampage.
By the time our narrator, Charlie Marlow, finds him, Kurtz is decorating his private jungle fort with stuffed heads. 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 too has succumbed to Kurtz’s influence. While Heart of Darkness gives us an interesting look at one person’s power of persuasion, there’s also something to be said for the grand sweep of mob rule. Which brings us to our second literary classic.
Second scenario: Colonial America. The continent is vast, the colonies are small, and the pioneers are so uptight that the Church of England does not want them. Add in a reverend’s daughter and a mysterious illness and you have Arthur Miller’s Crucible, a play about the Salem witch trials. Beginning with an angry girl’s accusations of witchcraft, the story unfolds as the entire village turns against itself in an “eat or be eaten” fight to the death.
In the end, the winners are either the accusers or the (false) confessors, while those who try to keep their noses clean are summarily executed. What makes this more terrifying than Kurtz’s private army is the fact that witch hunting doesn’t require a mind; Combine ten parts society and one part fear and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Of course, the formula of mafia mentality works even in the absence of civilization. Just look at our third literary classic.
Third scenario: Desert island. The island is small, the tiny gourds are even smaller, and the chances of them being found are slim. When you combine all the worst parts of Heart of Darkness and The Crucible, the resulting horror story can only be William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the story of a schoolyard that is accidentally moved to an island in the middle of the Pacific. The boys polarize around the two strongest personalities, but since they probably still used nightlights in their former life, they’re not exactly immune to good old fashioned mass hysteria.
As the boys painted their faces, ritually slaughtered wild boars and waged war against each other, you begin to wonder if “youthful innocence” is a contradiction in terms. The story ends with the boys being discovered by civilized, grown men in the midst of a civilized, grown-up world war. You know, just in case you feel lucky for a moment.
Together, these three stories warn us of the corrupting influence of powerful leaders and mindless mobsters, social constructs and wild savagery, respectful adults and smelly pre-teens, hysterical girls and barbaric boys. In short, trust no one but yourself.
Which is the point.
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