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Themes of Humanism in Jackson’s “The Lottery” Story

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a mystic and enthralling story, shocking the audience with its ending. The story begins with a quite positive yet suspicious note. From the first lines, readers feel the tension and guess that something terrible is about to happen. Later they realize that they are right, and the horrible and unexpected event occurs at the end. With the help of symbols and other literary elements, the story reveals the themes of humanism, female discrimination, and paganism, emphasizing the changes in human values, beliefs, and attitudes that happen today.

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The theme of humanism and morality is the central subject of this novel. The story was issued in 1948, three years after World War II came to its end. People still had all those terrible images of murder and death in their memories, so the story serves as a slight reminder of these events and a new perspective on them. Ismael and Ali (2018) claim that Jackson’s ethical message was aimed to carry the readers back to the Holocaust and human inability to “save the helpless civilians confined in the Nazi camps” (p. 29). In Jackson’s story, the citizens are well aware of the horrible outcome of the traditional lottery but they do nothing to change it.

The static character of Old Man Warner is the greatest example of inhumane behavior in the short novel. He is “the oldest man in town” who has been participating in the lottery since birth (Jackson, 1948, para. 5). Despite his old age, Warner is still certain that the lottery is a good event, and those persons who try to cancel it are a “pack of crazy fools” (Jackson, 1948, para. 32). One can see that the man supports the lottery even though it leads to the death of an innocent person. Dwork and Van Pelt (2008) compare the lottery to the Nazis’ process of selection during the Holocaust, calling this process “the core and moral nadir of the horror of the Holocaust” (as cited in Robinson, 2019, p. 2). Jackson demonstrates that this process of selection was unreasonable, and people were tortured not for their sins or crimes but simply by chance. All these events emphasize the low morale and hypocrisy of human beings.

Besides, the story reveals the theme of female discrimination as well. Women are depicted as appendices to their husbands who have no rights and liberties. The following phrases from Jackson’s (1948) short story confirm this discriminative perspective on women: “as they went to join their husbands,” “Soon the women, standing by their husbands,” “the girls stood aside” (paras. 2-3). Women have no right to draw the lottery; they can only do it when their husbands are too old to participate there, and their sons are too young: “‘Horace’s not but sixteen yet,’ Mrs. Dunbar said regretfully. ‘Guess I gotta fill in for the old man this year’” (Jackson, 1948, para. 14). The word regretfully demonstrates that women had nothing against the fact that they had no rights in that men-dominated society.

Mrs. Hutchinson is the only character who seems to disagree with others and shows her negative attitude toward the lottery and female discrimination. The moment when she comes to the event later than everyone is symbolic. In such a way, the author wants to emphasize her disagreement and protest against this hypocritical tradition. Tessie Hutchinson is the only woman who dares to say that the lottery is unfair but, ironically, she is hit by stones to death. This finale of the story makes the readers think about their values and beliefs and reconsider the attitude to women as mothers, writers, or political figures. The modern writer Ruth Franklin says that “there’s a whole new appreciation today,” meaning that this story allows the readers to comprehend all difficulties and struggles women faced in the past (as cited in Hughes, 2016, para. 12). Such female writers as Jackson remind people about women’s achievements.

Finally, the topic of paganism is another essential subject of the story. Paganism is related to rituals and traditions that helped people support their belief in God. Syam and Syamsidar (2018) claim that villagers were obliged to participate in old rituals because they believed they “would save them from disasters” (p. 3). In the story, all citizens of the village take part in the lottery, and Mr. Summers even uses a list to ensure that no one misses it. Different components of the novel indicate that the lottery was a pagan ritual. For example, an old black box symbolizes the old tradition people are afraid of getting rid of because traditions cannot be broken. The stones symbolize pagan culture too, and the act of stoning someone is associated with the sacrifice of someone to God. By using all these symbols in her story, Jackson satires society, in which people believe in something and follow their beliefs blindly even if they understand that some of their traditions are unreasonable.

In conclusion, “The Lottery” is a multifaceted short story touching upon relevant and essential subjects. The themes of humanity, discrimination, and pagan bigotry will always excite the readers and make them think about the reassessment of values. Jackson’s story teaches the public to appreciate what they have today and encourages them to express their thoughts and fight for their rights regardless of anything.

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Hughes, S. (2016). Shirley Jackson: The US queen of gothic horror claims her literary crown. The Guardian. 

Ismael, Z. I., & Ali, S. A. K. (2018). Human rights at stake: Shirley Jackson’s social and political protest in “The Lottery.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 7(6), 28-36.

Jackson, Shirley. (1948). The lottery. The New Yorker. 

Robinson, M. (2019). Shirly Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Holocaust literature. Humanities, 8(35), 1-20.

Syam, E., & Syamsidar, R. (2018). The elements of paganism as reflected in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 175, 1-5.

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