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There was a time in the history of the United States when all of its citizens were religious in mind and heart. Even in the present age, the majority of Americans can still be considered religious because they believe in God, and they are connected to a church, congregation, or synagogue. However, the present intensity of devotion and strict adherence to religious laws and traditions are nowhere near the lethe vel exhibited by pious men and women centuries ago.
Stories about migrants from Europe who came to this land seeking a place to practice a more serious brand of Christianity fill history books. Tales about the exploits of the Puritans are sometimes difficult to believe. But one thing is for sure, believers in that era allowed their religion to affect every fabric of society.
This high level of devotion was made evident in works of art and literary works. There were writers who used their talent to inspire others to the will of God. There were also writers who used their talent to question the level of fanaticism that has created more harm than good. Shirley Jackson belongs to the latter group.
The story did not have a clear beginning as far as conventional stories go. The ending came abruptly, demonstrating a mastery of the short story genr,e that can be comparable to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The story talks about the lottery. The purpose of a lottery is to pick a winner. The participants are immersed in the lottery experience that for a moment, the readers are made to think that there is an amazing prize waiting for the lucky winner.
The author also convinces the readers that the lottery is an important part of the lives of the villagers. But it is important for a different reason. The lottery is part of a tradition that stretches back to many generations. Just before the, climax, a major clue has been revealed – th,at the prize for being picked the winner is something that must be dreaded by all.
It turns out that the lottery is a mechanism used to punish the guilty and to appease the gods. There is no clear indication which religion is practiced by the people. But the use of the lottery alludes to a famous story i,n the Bible when Jonah’s ship encounters a storm; the crew decides to draw lots to determine who among the passengers has drawn the ire of the gods.
The purpa ose of the lottery is revealed by Old Man Warner when he made a quick reply to the idea of abolishing the lottery, and he said: “Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’” (Jackson, p.1). It is a religious tradition comparable to the practices of pagans – to assure of a bountiful harvest. This explains why the villagers are willing to kill a person that they have known for a long time. They cannot afford a drought or any form of the pestilence that can endanger their crops and their livelihood.
The story is devoid of other important details, but the author specifies the exact date and exact location. The year is unknown, but it is clear that it is at the height of the summer season when flowers are in bloom, and the sky is clear. The town square is the venue for the annual event. All the villagers have to stop what they were doing in order to gather in the town square. The lottery is facilitated by Mr. Summers who happens to be the most influential member of the community.
It is a fact that it is much easier to describe what happened to the characters in the story rather than to describe the characters “Analyzing characterization is more difficult than describing the plot, for the human character is infinitely complex, variable, and ambiguous… anyone can summarize what a person in a story has done, but a writer needs considerable skill and insight into human beings to describe convincingly who a person is” (Arp & Johnson, p.161).
In The Lottery the challenge is made more difficult because of the little background information regarding the key players.
To have a grasp of the characters of the story, it is important to remember that there are two types of characters: 1) flat and 2) round (Arp & Johnson, p.162). Flat characters are those that the author did not develop fully by providing only enough information so that the story can commence. Round characters, on the other hand, are given more detail and the author develops this character so that the reader can easily sympathize with him or her.
In Jackson’s The Lottery is contented to use a host of flat characters. Not much has been revealed except the way they look and if they are married or not. No significant information has been given to provide a clue as to their beliefs, fears, and desires. The closest that could come to this description is Mrs. Hutchinson and she is arguably the main character. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that she shares equal status with Mr. Summers.
There are other important characters like the husband of Mrs. Hutchinson. The children also played an important role especially Davy Hutchinson and Bobby Martin because they highlight the reason why the lottery has to be abolished. Although very little is known about the characters, one can argue that the heroine is Tessie Hutchinson because she is a victim of a cruel religious tradition.
She is also a sympathetic character because at the beginning of the story the author said that she almost forgot about the lottery because she was extremely busy doing house chores. Aside from her being a dutiful wife, she is also a sympathetic character because she was murdered by a system that does not establish guilt but merely an excuse to sacrifice a life to appease the gods.
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The black box symbolizes tradition. The author provides more details about the box as compared to the characters of the story. The author said that the box has been passed on from generation to generation. The black box mirrors how the villagers tried to adhere to religious traditions and how they desperately try to hold on to it even if it is falling apart.
The piles of stones symbolize judgment. But the presence of children symbolizes innocence. When the author juxtaposes these two symbols she is able to paint a picture of the foolishness of traditions and dogma. The lottery as a religious mechanism has destroyed the innocence of the children for they too were made to experience the horror of death. In a small village of 300 people, the children are familiar with Tessie Hutchinson and when they threw the stones their lives were never the same again.
Theme and Meaning
The story has religious undertones even when the author did not make explicit references to a church or synagogue. There is no mention of any deity in the story because the author understands the mindset of her readers. She knew that even without a detailed description of the village and the religious beliefs of the people, the readers can quickly grasp that the lottery is not a game but a ritual similar to the inquisition in medieval times.
The lottery is nothing similar to its modern counterpart except of course the fact that it is a mechanism to select and isolate a person from a group of individuals. In the modern version, the winner gets to pick a prize but in this case, the winner earns a death sentence.
Other writers use their talent to inspire people to be more faithful to a certain creed or belief system. But Shirley Jackson uses her talents to question the imposition of rules that endangers the lives of the innocents. In this case, it is not only the life of the lottery winner but the lives of the children forced to witness a barbarous act.
The meaning of the story can be found in the interpretation of the message that the author wants to convey to her readers. Many are in agreement that the hidden lesson in the story is the need to resist the negative impact of a herd mentality where the power of the mob rules over reason.
Social scientists explain the phenomenon by saying that “The townspeople blindly adhere to community traditions regardless of their destructiveness; when some townspeople begin to question this practice, noting that a nearby town discontinued the lottery, an older man comments, ‘We’ve always had a lottery’, reflecting blind adherence to status quo community norms” (Beach et al., p.135).
Secondly, the lesson of the story is the need to question the relevance and benefits of blindly upholding traditions when in fact it does not guarantee life but death.
Arp, Thomas & Greg Johnson. Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.
Beach, Richard. et al. Teaching Literature to Adolescents. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2006.
Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. Classic Short Stories. 2007. Web.