Everywhere we look there are people that are trying to define the type of people we are. Society sometimes pressures us into molding into these profiles. It can feel suffocating as we are putting on a mask to fit the pre-set social norm. In both personal essays Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell and The Joy of Reading by Sherman Alexie, the narrators face the struggle of trying to live life with the constant pressure of the mask. No matter what status, social identity, or race you hold, there will always be external pressures trying to shape you into the person society wants you to be. There are two ways to respond; put on the mask or break through it.
The personal essay Shooting an Elephant, Eric Blair, more famously known as George Orwell, details a day while he was working as an Imperial officer in Burma where he had to find an elephant that was on the loose. Working as a British officer, he was viewed as an outcast in the Burmese society. The elephant found itself behind a house enjoying some of the roadside tall grasses. As Orwell neared the elephant, he turned around to find a crowd of locals behind him waiting for him to shoot the elephant. Orwell had no initial intention of killing the animal, as it was displaying peaceful behavior at the moment. But as the crowd seemed to creep up on his heels, he felt pressure to shoot the elephant and gain acceptance from the locals. Orwell makes the claim that we all feel social pressures in order to fit the mold society has made for us. With the Burmans behind him he knew all he could do was as they wished and shoot the elephant in order to not look like a fool in front of them. Thus, he shot five bullets from his .44 rifle into the elephant’s head. Orwell explains that even he fell short of standing his ground and doing what he believes in and what he thinks is right. He realizes that what he did was wrong, and surrendered to the guilt he would feel for the rest of his life.
In The Joy of Reading: Superman and Me author and narrator, Sherman Alexie, describes how he fell in love with reading at a young age. But as he got older, he faced the challenge of being a smart, outspoken Indian in elementary school. One of the first books Alexie remembers reading was a Superman comic. He can’t tell you what villain Superman was fighting, but he does remember seeing a panel in the comic where Superman was breaking down a door. From reading comics and some of his father’s books, Alexie obtained a deep understanding of reading and writing. Although, there was a stigma at his school that the Indian children were dumb and underprivileged, while the white children smart and had enough money to get a proper education. After realizing that being smart was making him an outcast, he made a goal to normalize being smart and having dark skin. As an adult, Alexie goes into elementary schools and tries to help young Indian kids break through the stereotype of being dumb and in poverty, just as Superman broke through the door.
In both of these essays the author is sharing their real-life stories of dealing with societal pressures. In Orwell’s story, he is pressured by the local Burmans to shoot the elephant even though he does not want to. In Alexie’s piece, he is convinced he needs to act stupid in school to fit in with all of the other kids like him. At some point in most people’s lives, we feel these constraints trying to change who we are or who we present ourselves to be.
In Orwell’s essay, he sums this feeling up perfectly; “For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” In this quote the mask is the mold that society wants us to fit into. Just like in the two narratives, in life we have the choice as to how we respond to the mask that is heading straight towards us. We could be like Orwell and give in and put on the mask. When we put on the mask, we risk facing the guilt that comes from doing something against what we think is right. The other option is to be like Alexie; break through the mask and help others avoid it as well.
In the media there are several different “masks” that are creeping up on people of all ages, all over the world. When we look on any social media platform: Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc., there are always people posting their “flat belly” workouts and the diets they swear by if you want to lose weight. Some people even go as far to post photos of themselves or others with flat stomachs and skinny thighs, and caption them as “body goals!!” People of all shapes and sizes see these photos and can be easily discouraged that they don’t have the body or looks to be qualified as attractive these days. Sure, there is always going to be posters up on subway walls saying “you are perfect the way you are,” but what the media is constantly posting, conflicts with that. Different masks, like this one, can be seen everywhere, your job is to determine how you will respond to them.
When we face masks in life, it is important to stay true to our morals and what do what we think is right. So many people give into the mask just to feel accepted or liked in society. When we lose our true self, we lose one of the things that matters most to us, our identity. When we try to act, dress, or talk like someone else, we may regret that decision for the rest of our lives, like Orwell. But when we stay true to ourselves, we get the chance to help others reveal the real version of themselves to the world, like Alexie. Next time you are faced with a mask, what are you going to do?
- Alexie, Sherman. The Joy of Reading: Superman and Me.
- Orwell, George. Shooting an Elephant.