The violence in The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is an appeal to both social order and tradition. Based on the narrator, “no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (Jackson 141). In what seems ironic, while the villagers seem to be preserving tradition, they barely remember the details, and the original box is already lost. The people entertain rumors about salutes and songs associated with the practice. However, little information about the start of the tradition or even its specifics. The only consistent thing with the tradition and the people keeping it is violence, an issue that stands out as a priority. Jackson writes, “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still used stones” (238). A literary analysis of the short story The Lottery is made through a tale that mirrors the inability of the villagers to differentiate between the thin line distinguishing fiction and reality. No matter the favored interpretation of the book, at the core of the tale is the human’s capacity to cause violence.
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The ending of the short tale is ominous, and specifically, it sums up the several dropped hints about the twist in the story from the beginning. In the beginning, children gather stones as they prepare for the tradition. At the start, the reader might mistake this for a game. The children are setting the stage for what the community does annually, murder. Tessie protests the game; however, Mrs. Graves and Mr. Delacroix tell her off as if the tradition was something less than her life on the line. The author’s other hint is the names Graves and Delacroix, which foreshadow the upcoming death and mean cross, respectively. Eventually, Tessie’s children reveal they have not been selected for the tradition, and both laugh and beam. The two are happy over the fact that someone else is meant to die. In such a short tale, the author takes the audience from an idyllic small town that awaits the beginning of an annual brutal practice to an entirely acceptable stoning.
On June 26 of every year, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Graves set two paper clips for all family members in the village. The ceremony takes place on the 27th, the listed names are drawn by the two, and the details are revealed. Each time the names are drawn, the villagers are nervous, and this time, the 300 individuals in the small town are not exempt from the worry; however, their excitement manifests with the grandchildren and children gathering the stones. To the elderly, gathering for the tradition represents an ageless practice where the unlucky must be stoned for the locals to have an outstanding harvest. As Jackson (236) shows, through the Old Man, “Lottery in June, corn is heavy soon” the people believe that unless one of them is sacrificed through the ritual, the remaining will not have good harvests. The death of one unlucky villager is the culmination of the ritualized affair, and the individual is stoned to ensure the town has its anticipated outstanding harvest.
Among the themes in the tale is how traditions can be meaningless and harmful to the people keeping them. The villagers participate in a bizarre annual ceremony that culminates in a violent murder, a ritual that suggests the danger posed by traditions. Before the audience understands the meaning of The Lottery, the villagers seem harmless in their preparation for the event. The ceremony reflects a tradition that appears endemic to small towns to create an intergenerational link among the families. The black box initially represents the villagers’ illogic loyalty to the tradition. The torn and worn box is a replacement for the original box and has been in use long before the oldest man in the village was born, Old Man Warner. The loss of originality and the blind adherence to tradition manifests in Mr. summer’s words, who frequently speaks to the villagers about the importance of making a new box. However, blind faith in the ritual makes no one interested in upsetting what the box represents in the tradition.
Once every family member is confirmed present, each is invited to draw the paper slips from the box. The torn and worn black box cannot be replaced since it is part of the ritualized affair and it is the responsibility of Mr. Sanders to run and mix the paper slips. Bill Hutchinson is this year’s unlucky participant, and he is why Tessie protests the ritual. She questions the state of Bill’s preparedness and claims Bill had no sufficient time to prepare for the ritual (Jackson and Homes 56). Tessie cries foul over Bill’s selection and screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (Jackson 143). Once Bill picks the unlucky slip, the villagers pick their paper slips, and Tessie Hutchinson draws the marked slip. For the individual with the marked paper slip, stones must be thrown at them based on the rite. Nonetheless, even with the protest, Tessie unsuccessfully questions the practice. The authority over the ceremony is not with the people, but they must follow the tradition (Franklin 34). No villager believes they can select the unlucky slip, so their selection is doubt-filled.
The attitudes and behaviors evident in the villagers are an extended reappraisal of the sacred and doubt-filled practice. Despite the tradition being religious, lifestyle changes are making it fade fast. Mrs. Adams affirms this by saying the practice is being extinguished among the people and other villages; she admits it is already abandoned (Jackson and Homes 59). Mr. Warner cautions that trouble is bound to happen by abandoning the ritual. In his words, he says, “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves” (Jackson 141). Despite participating in the practice, Jackson further illustrates how the people mock the ceremony for a certain reason.
Another representation of the illogic loyalty the villagers have to the tradition is evident in the three-legged stool. The stool’s purpose is to support the torn, worn, and dreaded black box. From the narrator’s observation, the image portrayed of the three-legged stool is the “villagers kept their distance, leaving space between themselves and the stool” (Jackson 143). Despite acknowledging its presence, no one inclines to approach it. Due to fear, the villagers distance themselves from the stool, a mirror image of the tradition and its relationship. The fear-stricken villagers allow the stool to continue supporting the box, and the audience begins to understand the people’s relationship to the ritual. One detects a conflict between how the ritual is kept and the inability to confront the tradition due to collective fear (Franklin 37). The state of doubt and the fear of the people is evidence that none of them enjoys or likes keeping the ritual.
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Tessie’s late arrival at the ceremony is a clear indicator that not every villager focuses on the practice. Tessie’s arrival at the ceremony stands at odds with every other villager’s arrival. While she claims to have forgotten about the practice, had to rush, and arrived nervously and out of breath, the other villagers arrived at the square calmly and on time (Jackson and Homes 61). The women were chatting amongst themselves and then stood beside their husbands. The late arrival means to get to her family; the crowd must part to give way for Tessie. The angry crowd teases Tessie and her husband, Bill, as she makes her way to her family. On the 27th of every year, the single attention of all villagers is The Lottery; therefore, Tessie’s behavior appears unforgivable and seems inappropriate since it denotes change. By letting Tessie come to the ritual late, Jackson sets her apart from the rest of the crowd as she represents an entity that forgets about the ritual by performing her tasks.
The other themes from the tale are scapegoating and mob mentality. The villagers are blind to the tradition’s true meaning, and therefore, they follow through with it despite calling for its abandonment. Mr. Summers is the only individual aware of the ritual’s weaknesses and has been actively involved in modernizing the practice. The older villagers symbolize resistance to change since they insist on maintaining the ritual despite calls for change, yet they remain unaware of its lost value. To the latest victim, Tessie, the entire practice is unfair since it rids the town of the selected unlucky participants, and keeping it is unnecessary. Tessie tries to make the other villagers understand the lost significance of the tradition, but their ignorance makes none realize her plea. To them, the main reason for following through with the tradition is simple, “there’s always been a lottery” (Jackson 236). The level of ignorance manifests in the villager’s responses since they cannot even back to why they have to continue the ritual.
The Lottery symbolizes a human psyche paradox between compassion and violence, which is embodied in the unfair treatment of the unlucky participant. Despite the villagers forgetting why the tradition is kept, they remember to stone the unlucky participant at the end of the ceremony. Yet, all have this mistaken misconception they are preserving the tradition. An initial read makes the tale strike oddly with the audience; however, the story’s content can be explained in various ways. When Tessie cries foul of the selection and claims it unfair, the audience realizes there has been an undercurrent of violence and tension among the villagers who had been very nervous since they all wanted to win. With Clyde Dunbar being the only exception, every other member of society participates by throwing stones, even Tessie’s young son. The barbaric act by the villagers and the need for everyone to participate in the tradition translates to no one taking responsibility for the murder of the unlucky participant. The short tale mirrors the consistency in violence prioritized by the villagers, perhaps a reflection of every human.
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. 2017.
Jackson, Shirley, and A. M. Homes. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York, N.Y: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019.
Jackson, Shirley. Shirley Jackson: Four Novels of the 1940s 50s (loa #336): the Road Through the Wall. Library of America. 2020.