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The question of whether something is right or wrong lies within a person’s conscience. However, when certain rules are constructed and are then enforced, followed and have been carried on since they were created, how does one know whether it is right or wrong? This question can be asked about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, a short story in which inheriting death through means of the random draw of a slip of paper once a year happens, with no exceptions. Although the purpose of Jackson’s creation of this short story is deciphered in numerous ways, truly a theme of hers that is methodically placed in “The Lottery” is tradition. A lottery has been the tradition for centuries in small towns beforehand, perhaps even as early the days of the Pilgrims. Jackson’s story features a small town community and depicts the horror that others have faced and the rest have been riding along with all their lives. The lottery in this small town, in unity with other small towns as readers can infer, make the sacrifice of one lucky “winner” each year so that their crops and agriculture may prosper. Maybe no one has made a fuss because it is seemingly fair, as every person’s chance to be drawn and called up is equal and the same. However, one has to wonder; why has nobody in that community stood up to the unwritten rules of stoning an innocent and unlucky person to death? Do the people of the community enjoy the participation? Is the lottery a way of life or merely a tradition that no one has broken and nobody wants to break? In the opinion of an editor, “This town, having performed such a terrible act for so many years, continues on with the lottery, with no objections or questions asked, and the main purpose being to carry on the tradition” (Voth).
In Jackson’s “The Lottery”, the “winner’s” name is drawn, and her name is Tessie, and directly following, she protests. The man who is drawing looks on instructs the small crowd then, saying, “All right, folks. Let’s finish quickly”. Some were even chattering excitedly and hurriedly as they gathered up stones to peg Tessie with, saying, “Come on, hurry up.” Jackson depicts the scene even further, portraying the people of the town reaching out into the mind of their innocent young children, “The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson few pebbles”. Obviously little Davy is a toddler, only able to hold pebbles in his teensy hands, which shows the extreme extent the town holds their traditions and how serious they take them. They obviously show no emotion towards the killing they are so casually carrying out, and as said before, they are even hurried to “get it over with”. A character mentioned previously by the name of Old Man Warner in Jackson’s short story feels that ending the lottery would be foolish, saying, “‘Nothing but trouble in that,’ Old Man Warner said stoutly. ‘Pack of young fools'”. It seems nobody has an opinion about the lottery with the exception of Old Man Warner, who is strongly opposed. One must wonder why he is the only one in the story with a voice. One can only assume that it is probably because he has survived and went his whole life through the lottery drawings. The only person who shows any contesting to the drawing of the name is Tessie herself, and she only shows opposition when it is her name that has been drawn. Every one of the townsfolk is in a rush to get the whole thing over with, simply so that they can each go on and resume their lives and every day activity.
The traditional and seemingly normal ways of an everyday, average, small town is perfectly represented by the descriptions she gives of the setting at the beginning of the tale. This is depicted in the story as the narrator speaks, “The whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.” Furthermore, Amelia Tibbett writes on the theme of “The Lottery”, “That is how insignificantly unimportant they make you feel about the event, that it is just a brief event that will be had, but should not disrupt the other necessary events of the day, especially the noon meal. Even the fact that the boys are collecting rocks is made to seem nothing more than child’s play” (Tibbett). The perfect example for this statement is when Jackson depict’s two of the village’s boys in their activity, “Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-The villagers pronounced his name ‘Dellacroy’ – eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the rids of the other boys.” Tibbett concludes saying that at this point, it is not apparent or hinted to the audience that the pile of pebbles will serve purpose in anyone’s demise; it is a seemingly harmless act of play by the boys (Tibbett).
Tessie acts as both a living sacrifice and saint to the townsfolk by being sacrificed to a rain god or god of some kind that the people hope to please to uphold the prominence of the land and good crops to come for the year. The fact that she is a willing participant in the lottery of the town makes her accountable to sustain the tradition when her name is drawn from the black box. For this, in essence, the people of the town see her as a savior, a heroine, and it also cannot be denied that they are also for the fact that their lives are spared for yet another year. Had they not wanted to live any longer, they obviously had a way out by sacrificing themselves in Tessie Hutchinson’s place. Tessie wished that her name had not been drawn when the time came, however. She engages in friendly, almost optimistic conversation with the other women who are standing nearby, however her attitude changes immediately when her name is called, even shouting that the drawing was not conducted fairly (Wohlfeil). The townsfolk are grateful to her death whether she died in vain or not, simply because her demise hopes to bring them an unquantifiable amount of goods to their soil.
All in all, it is the folklore of the lottery that makes the murder an informal task to carry out by otherwise ordinary people. The ritual of randomly choosing a life seems fair to the people; the brutal act of an inhumane manslaughter is justified through tradition. The people of the town don’t seem bothered or disturbed by their heinous acts of cruelty, and if they are, they never oppose the idea. The town is set in its ways, no matter the cost, because as long as the ritual continues, they will continue to be fed and live thriving lives. Everyone, including the young children of the town, will continue to participate in extreme ritualism of their counter-culture society. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson can be summed up in one simple and well-known phrase: Old habits die hard.
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