Applying a School of Criticism of Schilb and Clifford Analyze “The Lottery”
After reading Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” several times over the many years, this story has many meanings beyond simply the words on the pages. These are left up to the speculation of the reader for the most part, which lets each individual come up with his or her own opinions to fuel an argument. I feel that much of the symbolism revolves around religion, in particular Christianity. To take the story at face value would nearly be an exercise in futility, for then the reader would be missing the deeper meanings found in the delicate symbolism that Jackson places throughout the tale.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a story of an unusual town caught in a trap of always following tradition, even when it is not in their best interest. Jackson uses symbols throughout the story that relate to the overall theme. This helps the reader clearly understand her main message. Jackson uses setting, tone and symbols to convey a theme to her audience. By doing so she creates significant connections to the theme using old man Warner and the black box as examples. Old man Warner plays a key role in Jackson’s story “The Lottery”, as he is one of the main symbols. Mr. Warner is the oldest man in town and has participated in seventy-seven lotteries. He represents the tradition of the lottery in his town. The younger generations in town tell him that other places have stopped holding lotteries. He thinks they are a “Pack of crazy fools” (254) for wanting to stop the lottery. He believes by retiring the tradition that “They’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves” (254). According to Mr. Warner, the lottery is the only thing keeping society stable. As a man of superstition he thinks that a human sacrifice is the only logical answer for insuring that their crops are good, seen in the line “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (254). Mr. Warner accepts the way things are because this is the way they have always been. Changing tradition would be disastrous in his eyes. The other main symbol in “The Lottery” is the black box. Unlike old man Warner, the black box represents the absence of tradition. This is because the box itself has not been passed down, rather it has only been the ideas and rituals that were passed through generations. Only pieces of the original box remain. In the beginning of the lottery the villagers used wood chips instead of paper. Over the years the small details of the lottery have been lost and all that remains is the true intention of it. The villagers are blindly following a ritual that has lost most of the tradition, and only holding lotteries simply because there has always been one. The theme in this short story is that blindly following tradition can be very dangerous. This is shown to the reader through the bizarre ritual of murdering innocent people just because tradition says so. The town has become so immersed in this tradition that they fail to see the damage it is creating in their society. Old man Warner is a perfect example of this because in his eyes there is nothing wrong with the tradition of the lottery. He is so committed to the tradition that he believes the village will return to a much more primitive time if they stop holding lotteries. This is very ironic because the tradition they are following has been passed down through generations, the idea of human sacrifice for success in their crops is a very primitive way of thinking. Mr. Warner does not question this tradition and would easily kill someone simply because the tradition of the lottery is all the justification he needs. The black box can also be related to this because it is seen to hold very traditional values, but in reality it is the opposite. The box is falling apart from years of use and is only made from a piece of the original black box. The villagers base their loyalty with the box on nothing more than stories that it is made from pieces of the old one. This goes to show that the villagers are blindly following tradition just because it has always been done this way.
The plot of the story depicts a two hours lottery in a small town which finishes with a ritualistic death ceremony of stoning the unlucky participant as a sacrifice for ensuring a better harvest. At the beginning of the short story, the village children walk around collecting stones. Mr. Summers who runs the lottery mixes the slips of paper in a black box, checks if everyone is in place and invites the heads of the families to draw the papers. When it clears out that Bill Hutchinson gets the unlucky slip, his wife Tessie starts protesting saying that her husband had not enough time for making his choice and the lottery is not fair. Then, each member of the Hutchinsons family selects a slip of paper, and Tessie draws a slip with a black dot on it. Then, the villagers throw their stones into Tessie as a part of their death ritual. The fact that Tessie does not question the rite itself, but protests against the choice of her family emphasizes the idea of adherence to tradition as the major theme of the short story. The rite is regarded as sacred and the idea of doubting it does not occur to anybody. When Mrs. Adams admits that the ritual of the lottery has already been abandoned in other villages, Warner as the eldest man in this community answers that giving up the rite can cause only troubles. “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves” (Jackson 14). Justifying the death ritual with the fact that the lottery has been always held in the village previously, Jackson discloses the theme of parenting when in one of the final episodes, a woman puts a stone into a child’s hand, fostering the tradition of violence and lotteries searching for the scapegoats to be stoned. Regardless of the indignation raising in the readers’ minds, after decoding the symbolic meaning of the depicted lottery rite, everyone can recollect the situations from personal experience and world’s history in which modern the community selects a scapegoat to be discriminated.
On the whole, the main theme is how traditions that lose their meaning due to human forgetfulness can cause dreadful consequences to occur. In relation to the theme, the "Old Man Warner" is a symbol of tradition. Throughout the story, he laments on the dwindling traditional values of the new generation. This is evident in his statement about them when he says, "Pack of crazy fools Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them," indicating that he thinks the lottery is a good idea simply because it is tradition. He lasted through seventy-seven lotteries in which tradition was upheld with supposed circumstance. He could not understand the younger generation's lack of traditionalism.
Hattenhauer, Darryl. Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic. State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. Mankato: Creative Education, 2008. Print.
Murphy, Bernice. Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Publishers. Print.