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Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is an alarming parable that explores the concept of senseless violence whilst featuring many other prominent themes. The short story revolves around an annual lottery that a village holds to ensure that “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (6). Appallingly, the winner of the lottery proceeds to be stoned to death by their friends and family. The foremost theme in The Lottery is tradition, stressing the need to question senseless rituals instead of blindly following them. Jackson also uses the “scapegoat” archetype as a theme when Terri Hutchinson is sacrificed to erase the rest of the villages’ sins. A similar archetypal situation of death and rebirth is also illustrated in the short story. Lastly, the subject of violence and the human capacity for evil is exposed as The Lottery questions the villagers inherent need to collectively murder someone each year. Jackson uses a variety of literary elements such as symbolism and archetype to express these themes, creating an exceptionally compelling story.
The theme of tradition in The Lottery explores why practices such as the stoning ritual of the lottery are accepted by the village simply because “there’s always been a lottery” (6). Amy A. Griffin describes the evolution of the inhumane ritual, explaining: “At one point in the village’s history, the lottery represented a grave experience, and all who participated understood the profound meaning of the tradition. But as time passed, the villagers began to take the ritual lightly. They endure it almost as automatons – “actors” anxious to return to their mundane, workaday lives… But why do villagers cling to tradition when they no longer find meaning in the ritual? Carl Jung posits that even if one does not understand the meaning, the experience provides the “individual a place and a meaning the life of the generations” (188). The villagers therefore feel compelled to continue this horrifying tradition (44).
The black box used in the lottery is a significant symbol of tradition in the short story. Each head of the household draws a slip of paper from the ancient box, which epitomizes all of the evil and cruel actions that have taken place, as well as the killings that will continue until the tradition is stopped. The fact that the community refused to do something as simple as creating a new box because, “No one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (2) exemplifies the villagers fear of breaking traditions.
Old Man Warner, the oldest man in the town also symbolizes the tradition that is present in the short story. He has seen seventy-seven lotteries that were upheld ceremoniously and is outraged about talks of ending the ritual – “Nothing but trouble in that… pack of young fools” (6). Similar to the other three hundred members of the village, Old Man Warner only reason for murdering someone once a year is because it has always taken place. Jackson uses a variety of symbols to express the dangers of following rituals blindly, illustrating how evil practices or ideas are accepted without rationale simply because they are considered tradition.
In The Lottery, Jackson utilizes archetypes to build on themes such as the scapegoating that takes place when Tessi Hutchinson is stoned to death. Carl Jung describes archetypes as “complexes of experience that come upon us like fate” (30), and this can be experienced through rituals such as the annual lottery, which was conducted like a square dance or club meeting. The archetype of “life-death cycle” also supports the theme because the village kills someone so their crops will grow healthy. As Griffin states in her critical essay, “the picnic-like atmosphere betrays the serious consequence of the lottery, for like the seed, a sacrificial person must also be buried to bring forth life” (44). In The Lottery, this sacrificial person is Tessi Hutchinson, a woman who was living sinful and not surprisingly had the fate as the village’s scapegoat. Tessi Hutchinson arrived late to the lottery and sarcastically tells the village “Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you?”(4) The villagers feel justified in killing their scapegoat; by stoning one sinful person each year, they are able to cleanse themselves and have good crops. When all the men open their slips of paper the women begin guessing who will be sacrificed, “‘Is it the Dunbars?’ ‘Is it the Watsons?’ (7). Their speculations demonstrate that they believe the people living in sin will be selected – Clyde Dunbar’s wife had to draw for him, and the Watson family had no father to draw for them. Jackson reflects upon society’s need for a scapegoat – by sacrificing someone like Tessi Hutchinson, the villagers see it as a deserving punishment, justifying murder.
The theme with the strongest presence in The Lottery is society’s tendency toward violence. Even though the stoning is a brutal act, what makes it so horrifying is the fact that the village is portrayed is very peaceful and civilized right until Tessi Hutchinson is stoned to death by friends and family. During the lottery the children “broke into boisterous play” (1), while the men were “speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes” (2) and the women “exchanged bits of gossip” (2). Jackson makes it evident that the villagers are desensitized to the violence of their ritual. “The whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner” (1). Individuals in the community are afraid to go against the lottery and instead participate in gruesome killings of innocent members of their village before going home to eat lunch, feeling more relief than remorse. Griffin states, “the base actions exhibited in groups (such as the stoning of Mrs. Hutchinson) do not take place on the individual level, for here such action would be deemed murder. On the group level people classify their heinous acts simply as ritual” (45).
Even though the ritual has become meaningless to the villagers, the violence is still the only thing they can remember for certain. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (9). “The Lottery” powerfully examines the capability of violence in human beings. Mrs. Delacroix and Mrs. Hutchinson seem to be very good friends, nevertheless when Tessi Hutchinson was brutally being stoned “Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands” (9) to help kill her friend. Another example of this is Mrs. Hutchinson’s son Davy being given a few pebbles and expected to help murder his mother. Furthermore, it is only when Tessi Hutchinson becomes a victim of the violence that she starts to oppose it, yelling “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (9). Jackson conveys a shocking picture of senseless violence in humanity and instills the idea that society is accepting of violence until it becomes personal.
The Lottery explores numerous universal themes such as the destructive nature of following traditions, scapegoating, and the acceptance violence through a variety of literary elements such as symbolism and archetypes, consequently creating an exceptionally compelling story. It stresses the importance of questioning the motives for doing something as opposed to blindly conforming. The Lottery also openly explores the innate need to hold onto traditions and society’s need for “civilized rituals”. It demonstrates not only why society has always required a scapegoat, but also how human beings are able to justify almost anything in order to feel no remorse. The short story raises many questions regarding destructive rituals of mankind, and the acceptance of violence in everyday life. The themes that are present in The Lottery are exceptionally thought-provoking and will remain relevant and universal forever.
Griffin, Amy A. Jackson’s The Lottery (Critical Essay). The Explicator, 1999.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery, The New Yorker, 1948.
Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton UP, 1968
Kosenko, Peter. A Reading of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. New Orleans Review, 1985 http://www.netwood.net/~kosenko/jackson.html
Nebeker, Helen E. The Lottery: Symbolic Tour de Force. American Literature, 1974
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