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Published: Tuesday 29th of October 2013
In 1948, Shirley Jackson wrote a short story entitled “The Lottery” which described a quaint fictional town where a tradition known as “the lottery” is carried out once a year. Ms Jackson’s story rose to become one of the most famous American short stories of all time and is still celebrated as a staple of American literature today. At first, the story received a largely negative response from is readers which surprised the publication The New Yorker which put it up in their newspaper. The Union of South Africa also banned Ms Jackson’s story from their nation, but it rose to be highly popular overall.
Within the story, contemporary American life is described and centres around an annual ritual called the lottery. Within the small village, all the locals are excited and nervous as children collect stones at the time of good harvest. Old Man Warner uses the proverb “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” to describe the time of harvest. The story suggests that many people in the north have given up the lottery tradition and others are considering it.
The lottery in itself starts with Mr Graves making paper slips and a list of families in the local area. Once these slips are complete, they are put in a safe place and stored overnight. When the lottery begins in the morning, townspeople gather round and slips are collected until every family has one. As people get slips with a black spot, this certifies that that person’s family has been chosen. Rounds are played until individual members of the family play to select a marked slip after which these slips are released into the wind to spread out and fly away. Horrifically, the lottery tradition ends whereby Tessie, the member of the family who drew the slip, is stoned to death as she remarks on the unfair nature of the tradition.
The plot isn’t too difficult to understand but you don’t realise what’s happened until the end. Why did Shirley Jackson put together such a horrifying story and what is she trying to say with it? There are numerous themes, motifs and symbols throughout the story that makes it compelling and a classic piece of American literature.
Jackson introduces the lottery as a harmless and quaint tradition which doesn’t lead the reader into thinking what comes next. The theme of tradition runs deep in this story. Everyone is preoccupied with the tradition and the strange little black box in which slips are placed into. Jackson challenges people’s outright deep respect and tolerance for traditions and paints an outlook on conservative principles. You can read that the characters in the story know little about the origin of the tradition but try to preserve it nonetheless. This blind faith in the tradition leads people to do unquestionably bad things, yet because the tradition is practised with such calibre, people feel powerless to change it. It is as if people will not question the nature of their actions as traditions provide all the ultimate justification for making decisions.
Another key theme is that of random persecution. What has made the popular housewife in the story, Tessie Hutchinson suddenly worthy of killing? No one is safe from violence and persecution, even the children can be killed. Persecution is random and the innocence of Tessie isn’t even an aspect that can help reverse the tradition. Jackson makes a compelling parallel between today’s society, where people can be persecuted randomly for no good reason, or bizarre reasons. Although it is a rather extreme case in the story, random persecution is happening every day, on all sorts of grounds, from racism, sexism, religious differences or geographical differences. The characters in this story kill Tessie because they are expected to do this just like many people in society are indoctrinated to persecute others and are expected to do so. The theme of persecution being random in real life is a core to this story.
The iconic motifs of The Lottery run deep in this masterpiece of literature. Family bonds are an evident motif in the story, with family life being detailed throughout. The workings of the lottery and the long lists are needed to be drawn out in relation to family life. Many things centre around family relationships but the relationships ultimately don’t matter in the end.
Societies are entirely bound to rules and their intricate nature. All throughout this story, rules are commonplace. The readers learn about the rules of the ritual, the rules for creating lists, who should draw paper slips first, where people should stand in line and so on. There are also rules that have been forgotten and abandoned which Jackson has created to make a point about the randomness of the Lottery act and the place for rules in society.
Two main symbols in the story exist to provide a deeper meaning to the story, the black box and the lottery itself. People are incredibly loyal to the black box and you can tell that they place meaningless attachment to this object as they are unwilling to mend it or have it replaced. This helps strengthen the idea in the story that this is the way traditions are and it’s how things have always played out. The lottery must take place in this way and so people must be loyal to this black box, its use and its preservation. Jackson makes a compelling point relating to materialism. Why should people hold this particular black box as such an important item where there is no logical reason to do so? Many of us cling to material things and traditions pointlessly.
The act of the lottery itself is a key symbol which represents an idea and cultural framework that has been passed down from generation to generation. Even though the act is bizarre, illogical, immoral and cruel, people are willing to keep the tradition alive for tradition’s sake. It is so much of the culture in the town that people cannot question it. This presents a dialogue that is faced in today’s society whereby we are often not allowed to question culture, yet perhaps we should transcend culture. Jackson makes an extreme example of the problems that culture can bring and reminds us that we should question and criticize any traditions and culture for the good of society.
Jackson leaves the purposes for the lottery as a mystery to the reader and for good reason. Although there are some hints that it perhaps could be a tradition related to harvesting, it is important that none of the characters really know why this tradition is being carried out. This story makes the point that reason and logic are trumped by culture and tradition. Jackson wants to reinforce the idea that people can do outrageous and cruel things that go against human nature just because other people are doing it too. Even not knowing why people are doing something doesn’t matter as long as the traditions are there to follow. The absurdity of the ritual and the nature of superstitious beliefs are present throughout the story and in today’s society. The story is a stunning piece of literature because it relates to so many aspects of modern human society today and puts our logic and reasoning behind modern day choices into question.