Cultural Analysis Of The Lottery By Shirley Jackson

What is tradition and what does it mean to continually follow that said tradition daily, monthly, or even yearly? “Tradition is an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”. Traditions are passed on from generation to generation, playing a significant role in defining who a society is and what that society believes in. There are many works of literature that demonstrate the role of tradition in a variety of societies. One such example is “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, in which a community participates in a rather morbid tradition with very little understanding. I believe that this short story illustrates the significance of tradition within a community and the power that tradition holds over people, sometimes causing them to blindly follow without considering the consequences.

In “The Lottery,” the author portrays a vivid image of a small town of roughly three hundred people coming together for what seems like a celebration. One might infer that the ‘winner’ of the lottery would be ecstatic but that is not the case here. Selecting the winner is random in the same way as a normal lottery, but the prize is not something coveted since the ‘winner’ must face a gruesome death. In this annual tradition, gone on longer than anyone can remember, the townspeople gather together in a way that doesn’t automatically make one think that something detrimental is going to happen. The townspeople greet one another and the children run around happily collecting stones. From the youngest child to the oldest citizen everyone seems to know exactly what to do. This tradition represents a shared experience that binds the community members with one another, as traditions usually do. Although Jackson never fully addresses the reason behind this tradition it is clear from the actions of the community that The Lottery holds great significance for the people. Even the smallest details like the box used to hold the slips of paper seem to be vitally important to this tradition. “The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago… there was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here”. The fact that such care was shown with even the smallest of details illustrates just how much this town values this tradition. Other parts of the ritual had been abandoned over the years which opened the door for some changes like using slips of paper instead of chips of wood because they fit into the box much easier. Interestingly though, while some were open to these changes, very few seemed to question the rationale behind the lottery itself.

Based on Jackson’s description, the reader can gather that this small village is made up of mostly farmers and their families. “The faded house dresses” of the women indicates that these were mostly poor or working class individuals. Because of this, they likely had very few times where they were able to come together and entertainment options were probably limited. These factors may explain why few were brave enough to question this ritual despite the ghastly ending. This tradition had been carried on so long that it seems more powerful than reasonable and rational thought. Some statements point to the belief that this ritual somehow influences crop production “Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’. First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns”. Everyone who gathered together on that June day knew what the outcome was going to be: someone was going to be killed at the hands of their family, friends, and neighbors. Despite this shared knowledge, everyone in attendance seemed to just blindly follow the rules which have been laid out before them. Each male or appointed leader of the family obediently takes his slip of paper as his family’s name is called, some showing signs of nervousness, others wishing to hurry the process along. “Good-natured Tessie actually desires to come to the lottery, going as far as to run to it”. When one person dares to hint at giving up the tradition of the lottery, the suggestion is quickly shot down. “‘They do say,’ Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, ‘that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery.’ Old Man Warner snorted. ‘Pack of crazy fools,’ he said”. Even though the oldest citizen didn’t quite know the full purpose behind the lottery he continues to implement the importance of this practice and ridiculed anyone who dares to question this treasured tradition.

Further evidence that the consequences of this ritual are not fully recognized can be found in the way the boys make a game of collecting stones. “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones”. Even as the youngest Hutchinson child reaches into the box to draw his paper his mood is described as light. “Davey put his hand into the box and laughed”. Old Man Warner took pride in his 75 year participation in the lottery. From these details one would not imagine that the prize that awaits the winner is not really a prize at all. The villagers seem so accepting of this practice without truly understanding the purpose of the tradition. It is hard to imagine how these people live and work with one another each and every day but show little or no resistance when coming together to murder one of their own. Even as the heads of each household drew their slip of paper no objections were raised until Tessie speaks up when it pertains to her family. She only protests that the process isn’t fair because she does not believe her husband has enough time to draw, she does not mention that the overall practice is wrong. Her cries for ‘justice’ are met with strict reinforcements to ensure that the rules laid before them are followed. Even her own husband orders her to ‘shut up’. This entire scene further illustrates how the townspeople are bound by the rules and regulations enforced by the ritual and they cannot or choose not to see a need to break the tradition.

Jackson’s work, “The Lottery,” provides a dramatic example of a society that allows cultural influences and tradition to become the primary force in their lives. I believe that this short story illustrates the significance of tradition within a community and the power that tradition holds over people, sometimes causing them to blindly follow without considering the consequences. Even though the makeup of the community suggests that there are plenty of youth who could have potentially come up with better ways to accomplish the community's goals, no one has the courage to break this most heinous tradition. The annual lottery is treated with reverence, almost like a community-wide celebration. Those who dare to challenge it are quickly shut down. This society, for unknown reasons, decides that a yearly cruel sacrifice is worth maintaining tradition that began long, long ago. One cannot help but wonder how different our society would be if great explorers, scientists, and leaders never challenged the accepted shared beliefs of their time.

16 December 2021
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