Conformity happens when individuals align their specific beliefs, behaviors and attitudes towards a topic such as social issues, economic problems, religion and even human rights. Following the rules of a society can either be seen as positive or negative, though most societies function well, some have broken elements that need to be fixed. People that are directly involved with an issue may be too close to the problem and may not understand the significance of it.
The common theme of conformity happens in the two similar literature pieces that are short fictional stories, written by the authors Shirley Jackson and Ursula K. Le Guin. Both stories begin with an opening scene of ostensibly flawless communities with ordinary villagers. However, as the reader looks deeper into the communities’ rituals and traditions, they find that these places are filled with inhumane, barbaric and cruel people. The villagers that live within these societies would rather follow the status quo and conform than have individualism and integrity.
The story “The Lottery” written by the author Jackson, begin in a seemingly quiet country community a during the middle of summer. It is illustrated as a warm summer day with blooming flowers, the ground filled with green grass and harmony between the villagers of this community. The village is a normal place when first observed, however when you look closer into the villages traditions, it becomes apparent that the people within this community follow some questionable customs to have a healthy crop.
Once a year, they take one person from their village as a sacrifice through a lottery. The villagers within this community blindly follow the long-time tradition of stoning a person to death which was Tess Hutchinson, a scapegoat in the story. No one wanted to question the authority of this tradition because they were told if they didn’t have this sacrifice their crops would suffer.
However, there are some people who have different opinions such as Mr. Adams when he stated, “That over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.” (Jackson, 370). Mr. Adams seemed showed interest in giving up the lottery but did not state that the lottery was a bad idea, even though he may have felt this way. Instead Old man Warner called the people in the other village “Pack of crazy fools” for wanting to give up the lottery (Jackson, 370).
By him making this statement, it shut down Mr. Adams idea of his community giving it up the lottery because an elder who has more authority said that it was a bad idea. The people within this community all followed the authority of their village’s tradition, however, it seems if they didn’t participate in the lottery there would not be a repercussion to their actions. Instead of having individualism and morality for themselves, they all would follow one another in participating in the horrific act because they were felt that they needed to conform to what everyone else is doing.
It is discovered that Jackson came up with the idea of this short story when she was pushing her child in a stroller up a hill, while contemplating the morality of the American society. She wanted to express a theme of how there is always a scapegoat and how dangerous conformity can be to a society. She had wanted to highlight her view of the modern world as broken society and that it was broken because society would rather conform to authority then express individualism (Cleveland).
The next literary story is “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” written by the author Le Guin. The city of Omelas is illustrated as perfect place to live, a type of utopia where everyone was happy. Within this utopia, there was beautiful scenery, harmony between all inhabitants, endless foods, joyous music throughout the city and luxury for all who live there. Each year they would have “the Festival of Summer”, the villagers would ride horses, play games, have sexual pleasantries and delight in different foods.
Though, this utopian life style was not free, it came at the cost of harming another person. The narrator suggests that for everyone to live a happy life then they must treat a small child inhumanely as a sacrifice for their lifestyle and if they didn’t then their life style would not exist. Most of the villagers seemed to accept the atrocious action with little empathy for the child’s wellbeing, however, there are some who did not conform to this way of life. Instead they choose to walk away from the city into the unknown, they felt this would be a better life for them rather than conforming to their sadistic life style.
This story felt familiar, not only because it has similar settings, themes and imagery as “The Lottery” but also because it felt biblical. Le Guin may have touched on a religious allegory within this story, if the reader wanted to look at it from a different point of view. In a critical analysis essay it had been compared to Jesus Christ’s life. How he was the scapegoat for the sinners of the world, then sacrificed his life for our sins and died to save us (Collins).
One might argue that Jesus wanted everyone to follow his lead in morality instead of choosing a beautiful but sinful life. The symbol of the people walking away from Omelas could have also been symbolic of how Jesus died and went to heaven. The people may have walked away from the luxurious yet sinful life into the unknown, yet the author leaves the story open ended for the reader to decide if the people who left were suffering or ultimately better off in a heaven-like peace.
Overall, the stories’ themes were both touching on how societies tend to follow traditions or status quos to conform, even though they are not credible to all the members of the society. Some members benefit from the traditions by living in a wonderful utopian type land or by having food from their crops, however in both illustrations, someone had to either suffer or die for everyone else’s benefit. They thoughtlessly follow what they are told without question and do not outwardly express individualism, as a result, they have a lack of integrity for themselves and it causes threat to the safety of the other villagers. Both the authors were trying to portray this message within their stories and uniquely did this in their own ways.
They were trying to express that there is always a scapegoat to use, people tend follow what they are told to-do by an authority without question, even if it meant hurting another person. Although, I found it interesting that neither story identifies specific authoritative figures such as law enforcement, police officers or main leaders, instead they would each conform because everyone else was doing it. I feel both authors brought awareness to the message of how dangerous it can be to conform to the status quo, though they also portrayed that there is always another choice instead of following other’s footsteps.
For example, Le Guin used the title “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and with this title illustrates that there are some people who will stay in the city of Omelas but there are some who choose another path by walking away from the evil and cruel city, even if it means giving up a utopian lifestyle. This type of writing style offers allegory which leads readers think about the deeper and hidden details within the stories. While, both stories focus on conformity and physical harm towards a scapegoat, I felt the real message was that everyone should express their own views by having a unique moral outlook and that they should not always follow other’s views and actions because it is the easiest path or tradition.
- Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Human Experience, edited by Edwin Hill, 2015, p. 367-373.
- LeGuin, Ursula K. ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’ Utilitarianism, 2017, www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf. Accessed 25 November 2018. Originally published in New Directions, vol. 3, edited by Robert Silverberg, 1973.
- Cleveland, Carol. ‘Shirley Jackson.’ Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Roger Matuz and Cathy Falk, vol. 60, Detroit, MI, Gale, 1990. Literature Resource Center, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1100001373/GLS?u=tel_a_vscc&sid=GLS&xid=30beb9e9. Accessed 9 Dec. 2018. Originally published in And Then There Were Nine … More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985, pp. 199-219.
- Collins, Jerre. ‘Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.’ Short Story Criticism, edited by Joseph Palmisano, vol. 69, Detroit, MI, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420056511/GLS?u=tel_a_vscc&sid=GLS&xid=3dbf321e. Accessed 9 Dec. 2018. Originally published in Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 27, no. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 525-35.