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Conformity can stand out too

"Sameness doesn't present us with metaphorical possibilities, whereas difference--from the average, the typical, the expected--is always rich with possibility."
--How to Read Literature Like a Professor, page 194

While I agree that difference is always rife with metaphorical possibilities, I'm not sure if I'd agree that sameness never can be metaphorical. If a character appears to dress and act exactly like all of the other characters in her or his environment, that tells you a lot about that character's need to fit in and feel like she or he belongs in a certain group. Conformity can sometimes actually be more disturbing than deviating from the norm, as evidenced by The Stepford Wives. I guess in extreme circumstances, conformity can almost become a kind of deformity, if all individuality is stripped away and people become like robots. There's a lot that can be said about being average or normal in a work of literature. Because "normal" is defined by the expectations of the society the character belongs to, so characters can in a way represent the society they are a part of. That seems pretty metaphorical to me. I've got The Bald Soprano on my mind because Jen brought it up on her blog, so I'll use it as an example here too. All of the characters in that play seem extremely bizarre to us, but in the world of that play they are behaving as if their nonsensical conversations were as normal as could be. The characters are blandly named Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, Mary, and the Fire Captain, and none of them has any ostensible physical abnormality. The fact that they all appear to be conformists tells you a lot about the society Ionesco is depicting--a world devoid of all rational communication. The characters attempt to make sense using methods of communication that are accepted by the other characters in the play yet fail miserably in stringing together coherent thoughts. This is a very powerful way to use conformity. While deformity can certainly be used as a very effective metaphor for a character's inner characteristics or how that character fits into society, I think conformity can also be used to tell you the same things.

Comments (2)

Alicia Campbell:

I also blogged about this quote. I took a very different, more general approach to the ideas and impacts of sameness and difference, but I find your interpretation to be true as well. Normal is definitely relative. Perhaps there are trends or majorities of kinds of normal. But what's normal for the reader can be totally different from what's normal for the characters in a literary work. So I agree that conformity can definitely set a character apart in this sense.

Christopher Dufalla:

Perspective...everything comes down to perspective. What is conformity in one culture could be rebellion in another. Likewise, conformity can become disturbing and individualistic in and of itself. Sometimes the sameness of a certain group sets it apart so very much that it cannot be anything but an individual group. Take, for instance, a group of Steelers fans with painted chests during a December game (with true December weather...no mild Christmas). Certainly, Heinz Field is going to be packed with thousands upon thousands of Steelers fans, but in the freezing cold, those ten or so fans with painted chests become rather individual. While each one is a member of a small group of painted chest fans, they are part of the thousands of Steelers fans, and yet they are a group of individuals within conformity.

Perhaps that was a very stupid analogy that did not need to be made, but for some reason I felt compelled. Everything is relative: conformity, individuality, and norms.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 11, 2009 3:49 PM.

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