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In the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, the author uses a morbid lottery system to symbolize issues of traditions in contemporary society. Through the use of symbolism embedded in the story in the form of a raggedy black box and the horrific lottery itself, the author illuminates the common problem of people mindlessly following warped and misconceived rituals rooted in tradition, and warns them about doing so.
The black box in the short story can symbolize age-old traditions and customs that people of all cultures have. Like all cultural traditions, the box is very old and nostalgic. Jackson even goes as far to describe it as being, “shabbier each year” (Jackson 1). This parallels the lottery tradition as a whole, as well as most modern traditions and cultural activities. Originally, the box presumably started off very clean with sharp edges and glossy paint. But like the box, traditions begin to fade and become distorted year after year it is passed down. Take Christmas for example. Christmas is very deeply rooted in Christian beliefs and originated as a day of celebrating the birthday of Christ. Nowadays, the new black box that was Christmas is a worn down, dull remnant of a box. Many now see Christmas as a time of the year to eat a lot of food, get free gifts, and storm the nearest stores for the best deals. This is exactly what the author is trying to show the reader; that most traditions today are mere husks of the original version, and to be cautious when blindly following them because they are “customary”. Similarly, the townspeople are reassured that the box was created with parts from the original black box, making them contempt with the process because it sticks to tradition. This easily parallels jack-o-lanterns in contemporary society. Originally, they were used to ward off evil spirits and provide light in the dark nights. Today, jack-o-lanterns serve no functional purpose except to sell more Hallmark cards. People justify spending money each year on these earthy gourds because they feel that it “stems from their heritage” and must be preserved at all costs. This is exactly what the author tries to warn us about; blindly trampling tradition in hopes of maintaining it.
The lottery itself also seems to be very symbolic of a procedure in daily life that civilians just come to accept. We see Mr. Warner, the head honcho; ridicule a northern village, calling them a “Pack of crazy fools” for wanting to abolish the old lottery tradition. (4) These people are bashed for having a very progressive viewpoint, rebelling against the unjust and irrelevant tradition. Today, this is quite reminiscent of the gay marriage issue. Many people feel rooted in traditional marriage between a man and a woman, and nothing else. When people come along that defy this conventional viewpoint, they are often mocked and belittled. We even see this in the short story too. When Mrs. Hutchinson is revealed to have the dot on her lottery, she immediately protests that, “It isn’t fair” (8). The townspeople quickly dismiss this plea and proceed to stone her to her death. Morally, these people have to realize that it is wrong to kill a person at random every year, but they don’t want to break tradition. This is very similar to religious sacrifices all throughout history. In religion, it is believed that a sacrifice of sorts will bring plentiful harvest for the year to come. This sounds awfully similar to Old Man Warner’s quote, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (4). In both instances, people were blindly following tradition because they did not seek change, even if it was for the greater good. Jackson recognizes this type of dangerous yet conventional thinking in the modern era and illustrates a potential dystopian outcome if we as a species do not learn to adapt our way of thinking.
It is quite clear how Shirley Jackson feels about people getting caught up in watered down traditions. Through the symbolism of the town’s black box, and the yearly lottery procedure, Jackson makes a very bold and cautious warning about the dangers of blindly following the crowd in cultural rituals.
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