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Shirley Jackson’s Short Story “The Lottery” Essay

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Updated: Nov 7th, 2021

In Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” the story illustrates how people can get so completely caught up in following the customs and practices of their culture that they lose the meaning of the action. The history provided of the lottery within the story is sketchy at best as people begin gathering around a black box and organizing in a strict patriarchal hierarchy. The discussion of the lost original paraphernalia emphasizes the degree to which much of the original history has also been lost: “At one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery; a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year … but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse” (119). While there is a subtle hint that perhaps the lottery is tied up with ancient traditions of fertility and the harvest, this is as close to the history or usefulness of the lottery as the story gets. Although there doesn’t seem to be much of the original materials, practices or meaning of the lottery available to the reader, the degree to which people have become slaves to tradition is emphasized in the idea that the villagers themselves also seem unsure of the tradition. As the drawing gets underway, there is some talk in the crowd that there are other villages thinking about getting rid of the lottery. Mr. Adams brings up the subject to Old Man Warner who immediately scoffs at the foolishness of such new ideas. According to Old Man Warner, there has always been a lottery and this is, apparently, reason enough for it to continue. No tangible or spiritual reasons are offered for its continuation while it would seem the emotional attachment to a meaningless practice would be far outweighed by the emotional losses of mothers, daughters, husbands and sons as the lottery is played out. While people within the village have questioned the reasons for the lottery, they remain dedicated to its practice as the victim is finally selected. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (123) as Tessie is stoned to death.

Although today’s world is no longer accustomed to using physical stones as a means of beating a sacrificial offering to death, it remains true that people in the modern world continue to devote themselves to meaningless ceremonies and practices that can often have detrimental impact on the family unit or social relationships. Today’s world is increasingly globalized, meaning various people of different cultures and belief systems continue to come into closer contact with each other. As this continues to happen, individuals begin to understand that many of the things they’ve always taken for granted as a ‘natural’ way of doing things is not necessarily considered so natural in other parts of the world and forces us to begin questioning what makes us so sure that our way of doing things is the ‘right’ way. This concept is perhaps most evident in the arena of religious practices although it is by no means exclusive to this arena nor universally applicable. In encountering people of other beliefs, it is sometimes the case that the individual will adamantly defend their faith as the only one and true faith without ever having examined why they believe this to be so. In much the same way, there are people within the business world that have firmly held beliefs regarding how things should be done who find it difficult to question the efficiency or effectiveness of their efforts or to change the status quo. However, just like in “The Lottery”, there are a number of ways in which the traditional ways of looking at things are requiring a new approach. While there is nothing wrong with believing in a particular faith, it is important today to understand why you believe these concepts so that you are not sidetracked into some warped version of the original just as in the business world, when something isn’t working or could perhaps be done better, it is foolish and ultimately self-defeating to refuse to examine the issue and consider change.

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