Blind Following of Traditions
Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, brings into play the theme of blind rituals to show how the blind following of traditions may cause destruction to mankind. The short story highlights the evil nature of mankind manifested under the cloak of traditions and rituals. The most significant theme of blind following is accentuated time and again through the setting and symbolism of the story.
The setting of The Lottery fully corroborates the theme. The author uses the setting to conjure up the mood and to prognosticate the opposite of what is expected to follow. The story sets out with a description of apparently cheerful surroundings. Jackson creates such a setting by introducing the activities of villagers. Children are shown to have broken into boisterous play and their talk still of the classroom while men and women flock together to discuss farming taxes. They also gossip about other aspects of life. The date of the story is June twenty-seventh which has symbolic overtones which alerts us to the season of the summer solstice with all its overtones of ancient ritual. (Nebeker) The story focuses on the annual tradition of the lottery.
Despite the happy-go-lucky sort of environment of the town, the setting of the story fully evinces the cruel acts that mankind can commit under the pretext of tradition and rituals. The story revolves around the misguided belief that if the villagers sacrifice one of their own to what readers are led to believe is a Rain God, then they will have good crops the next year. They believe that if they do not do this, then they will regress to hard times. (Tibbett)
Q1: How does the author make use of symbolism to reinforce the theme of blind following of tradition?
The story is replete with symbolism as the names of the characters are symbolic. The names of the characters such as Summers, Graves, Warner, Delacroix and Hutchinson all serve to bring out the true nature of them. Mrs. Delacroix’s name means cross in Latin and thus hints at the sacrificial killing of Tessie’s. Masquerading as the true friend of Mrs.Hutchinson, it is he who in fact encourages others to stone Tessies. Her punishment is symbolic in the sense that it reflects the tendency of people to adhere to the ancient notion of making scapegoats in order to purge the sins of community.
Mr. Summers’ name symbolizes life but he takes charge of the lottery and instead of giving a lease of life to the winner of the lottery he announces death. Graves is the man who carries black box and the three-legged stool and his name symbolically means death to Tessie Hutchinson. The residents of the town consult him for he has an authority to decide whether whose grave will be dug next. Old Man Warner is another symbolic name as he warns the villagers against the impending dangers of truncating the yearly ritual.
Ironically enough, Old Man Warner belies the established notion of aged men as being wise by displaying his ignorant and superstitious tendencies. He adheres to the tradition as blindly as other members of the society without showing an iota of wisdom.
The names of all the major characters in the story supply an implication that each character hides their inherent evil nature through hypocrisy. Tessie Hutchinson’s character also gives readers an insight into the focal theme of the story. Her name serves as an embodiment and allusion to the historical martyr known as Anne Hutchinson. Anne Hutchinson was a willing martyr who laid down her life after being ostracized. The introduction of Tessie Hutchinson in the leads compels the reader to treat her as a kind-natured and respectable human being. At first, she jokes with a friend about her forgetting the date of lottery. Tessie shows her true colors when she instead of trying to protect her married daughter demands her stoning as well apparently in an attempt to increase her potential chances of survival. She, indeed, is an epitome of how evil may infest the soul of a mother allowing her to endanger her child’s life.
The symbolic black box is also crucial in understanding the significance of the theme. The introduction of the black box quickly alters the mood of the people and overall atmosphere of the town. The black box stands for the evil acts committed in the past and for those who are about to face execution. The box being black in color is a universal symbol of death and evil. The villagers show their unflinching commitment to observe the ritual after they refuse to create a new box. They do not bother to change the box as it would suggest change in status quo.
Jackson certainly suggests the body of tradition …which the dead hand of the past codified in religion, mores, government, and the rest of culture, and passed from generation to generation, letting it grow ever more cumbersome, and indefensible” (Nebeker). The entire ritual of lottery appears as a cow being rapidly kept alive by the people driven by their own mischief.
People of the town are so ignorant and narrow-minded that they refuse to change old-fashioned traditions, ideas, rules, laws, and practices. The villagers continue to uphold the ritual of lottery year after year because, as one of the villagers puts it, “We have always had a lottery as far back as I can remember. I see no reason to end it.” In other words, the point is that they are not willing the change the traditions they have always followed. “We’ve always done it this way. Why change now?” In reality, the champions of status quo have always manipulated the philosophy of tradition following. For example, it was used in 1776 to retain slavery while until 1919 it was used as means to rob women of their right to enfranchisement. Similarly, it was also used to justify racial divide.
The willingness of the boys to carry out the brutal activity of stoning in the name of tradition clearly shows how tradition has passed on from generation to generation. The name of Jackson's victim links her to Anne Hutchinson, whose Antinomian beliefs, found to be heretical by the Puritan hierarchy, resulted in her banishment from Massachusetts in 1638. While Tessie Hutchinson is no spiritual rebel, to be sure, Jackson's allusion to Anne Hutchinson reinforces her suggestions of a rebellion lurking within the women of her imaginary village. Since Tessie Hutchinson is the protagonist of The Lottery, there is every indication that her name is indeed an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter. She was excommunicated despite an unfair trial, while Tessie questions the tradition and correctness of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife. It might as well be this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and stoning by the angry mob of villagers. (Oehlshlaeger)
The man is not yet so advanced that he still won't hesitate to perform acts of violence if it is acceptable to the general populace. There is the "monkey see monkey do" complex, which is also illustrated. And I could go on for hours about gender roles and power. However, I still chose to attack the most obvious theme in The Lottery which is social conformity, because I think that it is a relevant topic, even by today's standards. In The Lottery each individual that could work (men) were supposed to do so with fervency and vigor. Working hard was expected, as was the acceptance of other social norms; to be noncompliant with these standards made one an outcast, and in this case the scapegoat. Tessie Hutchinson, who became the sacrifice in this text, is representative of those who have broken away from tradition and been persecuted for it.
Obsession with work is apparent from the very beginning of The Lottery. The spare moments prior to the ritual of the lottery is spent discussing things about work--tractors and planting and taxes. These are the daily issues that concern working men of the village. It is also indicated that their laughs are substituted with slight smiles; almost as if they are afraid to reveal themselves as having any fun. The boys of the village are the same. Mimicking the actions of their fathers, "their talk was still of the classroom...reprimands." They too, are tentative about play or other leisurely activity. The narrator tells us that "the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them." I ask myself why any child would be anxious about the end of school. Upon further investigation into the text, I make the hypothesis that laziness is somehow related to the lottery in this story. Coincidentally, the two families which contribute the least amount of work (Dunbar and Watson) are the families that everyone thinks will get 'the black dot'; or is it that they hope one of these two families will get the formidable slip of paper? "Well, now...guess we better get started...go back to work," remarks Mr. Summers. What the statement really says is: "let's get back to toiling even harder so next year you won't have to worry." The ideology of work is an omnipotent presence in this village; so much so that the residents fear it--that they won't work hard enough.
While this way of thinking seems incomprehensible to us, it was an accepted practice, which was not to be questioned in this particular village. The people of the town accepted and embraced human depravity for so long that they no longer knew why. "But no one liked to upset even as tradition as was represented by the black box," the narrator explains. Although the people weren't exactly sure why they continued the traditions of the town, they did so nonetheless, because everyone else did. It was this social conformity that caused Tessie Hutchinson to be the victim in this story. Because she didn't agree with the rules and the customs of the lottery; this led others to conceive that she didn't agree with the lottery itself. Like easily lead automatons Tessie Hutchinson's friends and family declared war on her body with stones. Had the lottery been an election rather than a selection, Tessie probably would have been the elected candidate for the stoning anyway, because of her rebellions against the lottery and societal roles. I find Tessie to be symbolic, almost biblical, because she a victimized due to her non-conformist beliefs. She goads her husband, arrives late for the town's most important annual event and lastly makes remarks which are disparaging about the lottery. If the gender role-reversal didn't get her then the blasphemy against the sacred event (lottery) would have. Tessie Hutchinson was bound to be the scapegoat in this story, because she represented what the town did not want--change.
In the story, every year the people gather in the center of the village and participate in a traditional custom whose origins aren't clear. In fact somebody is put in the center of the village and is stoned to death. This seems a bit like ancient greek tragedy because to get good things people had to make sacrifices to the gods and as Old Man Warner says they should get good corn after having stoned somebody to death. Actually the only one who believes it is Old Man Warner, and for all the others the act of killing hasn't really any meaning, they just do it because they are supposed to and also because they are used to this strange custom. Something very well pointed out in the story is the insensitivity of the people in the village, which is very well shown when little Davy Hutchinson throws stones to his mother. Another trait of those people is a lack of self-confidence, because when the women talk between themselves they don't think of the lottery as a good thing ("Seems like there is no time between the lotteries anymore" Mrs. Delacroix said to Mrs. Graves) but they don't have the strength to talk against it. Anyway this is the best case, since most people seem not to think at all about it and they take the existence of the" lottery "for granted without having to find any reason for it. The reason why nobody really cares about the death of a human being is that nobody really evaluates the probability of being the one to get stoned. They even joke about the lottery as if it were a quite normal custom about celebrating something joyful, when they are actually celebrating somebody's death. "Clean forgot what day it was Mrs. Hutchinson said to Mrs. Delacroix who stood next to her and they both laughed softly." This shows how little their understanding about the consequences of the lottery is .In the same time it is ironic because the same Mrs. Hutchinson who was at first joking about the lottery at the end will be protesting against it strongly by saying" It isn't right ,it isn't fair" By this fact the author wants to show us the indifference of the people towards other people's lives. On the other hand the people not only are indifferent but they also seem to get some kind of enjoyment in throwing stones to an innocent person whose dark future is decided by a senseless, cruel lottery. "Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it with both hands.
This story shows how not only reasoning and sensitivity are human features but also not giving any importance to other people's lives and killing without a reason. People with the second kind of traits as well as the first ones have always existed in society and will always exist, but it's the society's duty to take out the traits which are dangerous and harmful to her.
Jackson brings to light how rituals can prove to be detrimental to the society leaving them insensitive to the atrocities they commit under the umbrella of tradition.
Critics criticize the very ambiguity of the story that allows it to fit in with so many interpretations at the same time . They point out that Jackson had ``preferred to give no key to her parable but to leave its meaning to our inference ' thus providing us with `a good deal of flexibility in our interpretations’. (Brooks, Warren )
Other commentators, however, analyze The Lottery as a modern-day parable as they argue that the elements of the story though often belittled by its critics are indeed consistent with the style and structure of New Testament parables. Generally, critics concede only that the story's meaning cannot be determined with exactness. While most critics note that Jackson did not want to assign a single meaning to the story. Some say that the characters being flatly drawn and the unexpected ending of the story is a sign of literary immaturity.
It seems as though Jackson is making a statement about the hypocrisy and unchallenged and uninterrupted following of tradition that embodies human evil. The lottery is set in a very mundane town, where everyone knows everyone and individuals are typical. Families carry the very ordinary names of Warner, Martin and Anderson. Jackson's portrayal of extreme evil in this ordinary, friendly atmosphere suggests that people are not always as they seem. She implies that underneath one's outward congeniality, there may be lurking a pure evil. (Voth)
All in all, the theme of adherence to tradition and established rituals is a recurrent one throughout the story. Jackson attempts to reveal the hypocrisy and brutality of a society that is known for its adherence to tradition. She implies that the tradition following may turn out to be the worst form of brutality and violence leaving the people insensitive to the suffering of others.
Tibbett, Amalia, Literary analysis: The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, retrieved from:
Voth, Lory, Analysis of The Lottery, November 21, 2005, retrieved from:
Brooks, Cleanth, Warren, Robert, Shirley Jackson: 'The Lottery, in Understanding Fiction, second edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959, pp. 72-6
Nebeker, E, Helen, The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force, in American Literature March, 1974
Oehlshlaeger, Fritz, The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson Meaning of Context in 'The Lottery'" 1988
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