People often behave in a certain way not because they want to or think that they should behave in this way because it is the right thing but because they experience the pressure of people around them. The nature of this pressure is curious: it is not that people who find themselves in such situations are forced to do a particular thing, and they still seem to have a choice, but the crowd exercises great power over them, and their will becomes weaker. It is rooted in human nature to be exposed to the pressures of the crowd, and it makes a person vulnerable in front of many people who are waiting for him or her to act expectedly. Under this vulnerability, people violate their principles and may do something of which they will eventually bitterly regret. Valuable reflections of these pressures are two short stories: “Salvation” by Langston Hughes and “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. By reflecting on them, one can see how these pressures come from expectations, how people under these pressures realize that they are expected to do a wrong thing, how they finally make a decision at some point, and how they are transformed through this experience.
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First of all, it should be recognized that the most powerful tool of the crowd’s pressure is the expectation. In “Salvation,” a little boy is expected to feel Jesus in his heart, get up from the mourners’ bench, and approach the altar to show that the “young lamb” (Hughes 42) has joined the flock of which the Savior is the pastor. Many people around him sing and call upon him to get up and come to the preacher. His aunt is crying by his side. He is the last child sitting on the bench, as all the other children are already by the altar, and therefore, he is the only one who is not “saved.” Similarly, a white police officer in Burma from Orwell’s short story is surrounded by about two thousand people who are looking at him with a rifle in his hands and expecting him to shoot the elephant who has gone mad (although at the moment the elephant is peacefully eating grass outside the road). The police officer thinks that, if he does not shoot, the crowd will laugh at him, and he discovers inside himself the feeling that his “whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (Orwell 292). The little boy does not want to approach the altar before he gains a truly religious experience, and the police officer does not want to shoot the elephant, but both are expected to do so—in the first case, by people who are dear to the character, like the boy’s aunt, and in the second case, by people in front of whom the character cannot lose face.
It is noteworthy that both characters think that what they are expected to do is not the right thing. The little boy was told for a long time that, in the church, Jesus would come to him, and he would feel Jesus in his heart and mind in the form of light. He is waiting for the light and the sensation of the divine presence, and he is sure that he has no right to get up and approach the preacher before the feeling seizes him. The police officer thinks of other things that he can do instead of shooting the elephant right away—he can approach the animal and see whether it is actually dangerous, or the fit of madness has already passed. Besides, he compares killing a working animal to “destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery” (Orwell 291). Finally, he does not want to kill the elephant because he is “squeamish” (Orwell 292) about it, especially with large animals.
However, both characters do what they are expected to do despite realizing that they should not do it, and it is particularly interesting to look closer at the point at which they make the decision. When there are only two boys left on the mourners’ bench, one of them finally gets tired and says, “Goddamit, I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved” (Hughes 42), so he does. People keep praying, singing, and moaning. Now the entire congregation is waiting for the last boy to get up. But he remains serene, which is a brave thing because he is sure that Jesus will come to him at some point. But as it is getting late, he becomes ashamed and caves in. The police officer thinks about approaching the elephant, as it “was clear to [him] what [he] ought to do” (Orwell 292). However, he realizes that there is a possibility that the crowd will laugh at him, which is unacceptable. And right after thinking that the crowd may laugh, he lies down on the road and aims at the elephant, giving the crowd the show they want to see.
Both experiences transform the main characters of the two short stories. The little boy, who was convinced that Jesus would come and was waiting for the miracle of feeling the light inside, becomes gravely disappointed and loses his faith. He cries at night because he had to lie to his aunt and all the people in the church, and also because he did not see Jesus despite waiting so much, and he says, “I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me” (Hughes 43). The police officer, upon being exposed to the pressure of the crowd to which he surrenders, reflects on the nature of the colonists’ rule and develops an understanding of “the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East” (Orwell 291). He learns that a white man becomes a tyrant after he becomes a prisoner of his inferiority: when “natives” see a man with a gun, they expect him to fire it, and if he does not, they think he is weak and laugh at him. The main character understands that he shot the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool” (Orwell 294). Although nothing is said in the short story about his future, it can be assumed that the experience makes him stronger—most importantly, stronger than his inferiority.
After experiencing the pressures of the crowd, the characters do something that they think is wrong, and a question that should be asked upon reflecting on their surrenders is—would they do it again? After realizing how humiliating it was for him to lie about feeling Jesus, will the little boy lie the next time? After seeing the elephant die in terrible agony, will the police officer do something cruel again just because he is expected to do it? Those questions are not answered in the short stories, but there are two options: the pressures of the crowd have either made the little boy more cynical or more honest; they have either made the police officer weaker or stronger. From such experiences, one can learn to either yield to pressures more easily or resist them more bravely.
Hughes, Langston. Autobiography: The Big Sea. University of Missouri Press, 2002.
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Orwell, George. Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays. Harcourt, 1950.