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The Lottery

Shirley Jackson

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Specific Details

Themes

The Danger of Blindly Following Tradition

The village lottery culminates in a violent murder each year, a bizarre ritual that suggests how dangerous tradition can be when people follow it blindly. Before we know what kind of lottery they’re conducting, the villagers and their preparations seem harmless, even quaint: they’ve appointed a rather pathetic man to lead the lottery, and children run about gathering stones in the town square. Everyone is seems preoccupied with a funny-looking black box, and the lottery consists of little more than handmade slips of paper. Tradition is endemic to small towns, a way to link families and generations. Jackson, however, pokes holes in the reverence that people have for tradition. She writes that the villagers don’t really know much about the lottery’s origin but try to preserve the tradition nevertheless.

The villagers’ blind acceptance of the lottery has allowed ritual murder to become part of their town fabric. As they have demonstrated, they feel powerless to change—or even try to change—anything, although there is no one forcing them to keep things the same. Old Man Warner is so faithful to the tradition that he fears the villagers will return to primitive times if they stop holding the lottery. These ordinary people, who have just come from work or from their homes and will soon return home for lunch, easily kill someone when they are told to. And they don’t have a reason for doing it other than the fact that they’ve always held a lottery to kill someone. If the villagers stopped to question it, they would be forced to ask themselves why they are committing a murder—but no one stops to question. For them, the fact that this is tradition is reason enough and gives them all the justification they need.

The Randomness of Persecution

Villagers persecute individuals at random, and the victim is guilty of no transgression other than having drawn the wrong slip of paper from a box. The elaborate ritual of the lottery is designed so that all villagers have the same chance of becoming the victim—even children are at risk. Each year, someone new is chosen and killed, and no family is safe. What makes “The Lottery” so chilling is the swiftness with which the villagers turn against the victim. The instant that Tessie Hutchinson chooses the marked slip of paper, she loses her identity as a popular housewife. Her friends and family participate in the killing with as much enthusiasm as everyone else. Tessie essentially becomes invisible to them in the fervor of persecution. Although she has done nothing “wrong,” her innocence doesn’t matter. She has drawn the marked paper—she has herself become marked—and according to the logic of the lottery, she therefore must die.

Tessie’s death is an extreme example of how societies can persecute innocent people for absurd reasons. Present-day parallels are easy to draw, because all prejudices, whether they are based on race, sex, appearance, religion, economic class, geographical region, family background, or sexual orientation, are essentially random. Those who are persecuted become “marked” because of a trait or characteristic that is out of their control—for example, they are the “wrong” sex or from the “wrong” part of the country. Just as the villagers in “The Lottery” blindly follow tradition and kill Tessie because that is what they are expected to do, people in real life often persecute others without questioning why. As Jackson suggests, any such persecution is essentially random, which is why Tessie’s bizarre death is so universal.

Motifs

Family

Family bonds are a significant part of the lottery, but the emphasis on family only heightens the killing’s cruelty because family members so easily turn against one another. Family ties form the lottery’s basic structure and execution. In the town square, families stand together in groups, and every family member must be present. Elaborate lists of heads of families, heads of households within those families, and household members are created, and these lists determine which member draws from the box. Family relationships are essential to how the actions of the lottery are carried out, but these relationships mean nothing the moment it’s time to stone the unlucky victim. As soon as it’s clear that Tessie has drawn the marked paper, for example, her husband and children turn on her just as the other villagers do. Although family relationships determine almost everything about the lottery, they do not guarantee loyalty or love once the lottery is over.

Rules

The lottery is rife with rules that are arbitrarily followed or disregarded. The intricate rules the villagers follow suggest that the lottery is an efficient, logical ritual and that there is an important purpose behind it, whereas the rules that have lapsed, however, reveal the essential randomness of the lottery’s dark conclusion. Mr. Summers follows an elaborate system of rules for creating the slips of paper and making up the lists of families. When the lottery begins, he lays out a series of specific rules for the villagers, including who should draw slips of paper from the black box and when to open those papers. When someone is unable to draw, the lottery rules determine who should be next in line. At the same time, there are ghosts of rules that have been long forgotten or willfully abandoned altogether, such as those for salutes and songs that accompany Mr. Summer’s induction as the chairman of the lottery. The fact that some rules have remained while others have disappeared underscores the disturbing randomness of the murder at the end of the lottery.

Symbols

The Black Box

The shabby black box represents both the tradition of the lottery and the illogic of the villagers’ loyalty to it. The black box is nearly falling apart, hardly even black anymore after years of use and storage, but the villagers are unwilling to replace it. They base their attachment on nothing more than a story that claims that this black box was made from pieces of another, older black box. The lottery is filled with similar relics from the past that have supposedly been passed down from earlier days, such as the creation of family lists and use of stones. These are part of the tradition, from which no one wants to deviate—the lottery must take place in just this way because this is how it’s always been done. However, other lottery traditions have been changed or forgotten. The villagers use slips of paper instead of wood chips, for example. There is no reason why the villagers should be loyal to the black box yet disloyal to other relics and traditions, just as there is no logical reason why the villagers should continue holding the lottery at all.

The Lottery

The lottery represents any action, behavior, or idea that is passed down from one generation to the next that’s accepted and followed unquestioningly, no matter how illogical, bizarre, or cruel. The lottery has been taking place in the village for as long as anyone can remember. It is a tradition, an annual ritual that no one has thought to question. It is so much a part of the town’s culture, in fact, that it is even accompanied by an old adage: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The villagers are fully loyal to it, or, at least, they tell themselves that they are, despite the fact that many parts of the lottery have changed or faded away over the years. Nevertheless, the lottery continues, simply because there has always been a lottery. The result of this tradition is that everyone becomes party to murder on an annual basis. The lottery is an extreme example of what can happen when traditions are not questioned or addressed critically by new generations.

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