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Traditions Presented in The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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The universe is full of many traditions – tailgates before a ballgame, parades commemorating holidays, and trick-or-treating on Halloween. Why does society adhere to traditions? What is the importance of a tradition? Will society ever be content with its current progression? In order for any society to function suitably, there needs to be a foundation to base one’s actions upon. A systematic set of standards and principles for society to follow should always be in place as long as they do not contradict basic human rights. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a short story that depicts following traditions. In “The Lottery,” the small town is made up of an estimated 300 people. They are gathered around an old black box that desperately needs to be replaced, but the town choses not to due to tradition.

The whole town is present except for Mrs. Hutchinson. She shows up late forgetting that the date is June 27, the day of the lottery. The head of the house, being the oldest male, draws for each family. If their slip of paper is blank, they are deemed safe; however, if their slip of paper has a black dot, the family has to repeat the drawing process. The family member with the black dot on their slip of paper will receive the gruesome fate of being stoned to death. This tradition is kept alive because the villagers believe that a sacrifice is essential for the production of good crops. Jackson insinuates that the lottery is just another insignificant day to the village due to tradition; the process of the lottery only takes an estimate of two hours, and everybody continues with their day. Mr. and Mrs. Adams indicate that various surrounding villages are abolishing the lottery, but Old Man Warner fears that abolishing the lottery will regress the community to a cave-man style of living. Therefore, Old Man Warner does not want to interrupt tradition even though these procedures appear to be harming citizens. The leading tradition depicted in this short story is ritual sacrifice or capital punishment. This is demonstrated when Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned in exchange for the production of good crops.

Evidently, her shrieking indicates she opposes her own stoning and self sacrifice, leading the audience to question if this tradition is a form of punishment. Both ritual sacrifice and capital punishment are utilized throughout history.* According to Patrick J. Shields, author of Arbitrary Condemnation and Sanctioned Violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “The story itself shows the atavistic nature lurking beneath humankind’s civilized surface and leads the reader to examine such notions as scapegoating, ritual cleansing, gender, class structure, arbitrary condemnation, and sanctioned violence”. Many of these traditions go as far back as the Old Testament.

For instance, the sacrifice of lamb blood was necessary for the atonement of peoples sins. Animal sacrifice was practiced in earlier biblical culture, and human sacrifice was also practiced in ancient Aztec culture. Inhabitants of the twenty-first century view these ancient traditions of sacrificing humans and animals in utter disgust. This is because the concept of tradition has changed compared to ancient times; human and animal sacrifices were considered normal due to what tradition told individuals to do. Traditions are an embedded part of society and have permanent effects. They are apart of life- day to day. What happens if traditions are affecting one’s own human rights or dignity as shown in “The Lottery.” According to Defining Dignity and Its Place in Human Rights by Lucy Michael, “The concept of dignity forms a network of interconnected ideas related to worth and value particularly within legal and ethical discourse; it is a rich and meaningful concept…Fundamentally, dignity matters because it forms the foundation of civilized society; without it, serious abuse of people is more likely to occur”. If traditions are compromising one’s own human rights or dignity, they need to be changed. This usually occurs when people notice a tradition is being misused and take action to change the rules. Later generations begin to follow these actions until the tradition is erased from society. This process might take decades, even centuries, but it will eventually be terminated. A profound example of this would be slavery; slavery slowly decreased with the 13th amendment thanks to the individuals who noticed slavery was in complete contradiction with basic human rights. Another example is abortion.

According to The Trouble With Tradition by Graeme Reid, “Tradition need not be out of step with international human rights, norms and standards.” Abortion completely contradicts basic human rights, and it proceeds to rob the baby’s choice. Although abortion remains legal, its opposition is staring to rise. This practice became normal when one individual deemed this practice legal in Roe v. Wade. Nevertheless, traditions should be carefully constructed because their effects will last even after the tradition is terminated from society. According to Human Rights Need a Human Tradition by Gabriel Moran, “We are constantly encouraged to forget the past and look forward. Tradition is a resistance to that image, a reminder that the past is never wholly past and that the future is not here for the taking”. In order to cultivate a productive and improved future, one might say to forget the past and focus on the future; however, how can society create improved traditions if the past traditions remain ignored? Moreover, past traditions set the foundation for current traditions. If previous traditions are not acknowledged, society will be susceptible to repeat dangerous and unjust traditions.

Although the future is not “here for the taking,” the traditions that humanity instills now will affect future generations’ prosperity. As Gayle Whitter, notes in “The Lottery” as Misogynist Parable, “progress is an allusion”. This statement coincides with the concept that human nature will always seek improvement no matter how advanced traditions might be. It is for this very reason that progression is but an allusion. Society will never be content with its current traditions. Nevertheless, we should always strive to improve as long as the way that we improve is in agreement with our human rights. Progression should better mankind, and traditions should be put in place to maintain that progression.

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Traditions Presented in the Lottery by Shirley Jackson. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from
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