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Studying ‘The Lottery’ By Shirley Jackson

1493 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

27/04/17 English Literature Reference this

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“The Lottery,” written by Shirley Jackson and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” are admittedly very different stories. Although both stories deal with murder in some fashion, they differ in almost all of the significant elements of fiction including character, plot, setting and structure. However, “A Rose for Emily” and “The Lottery” share an idea stronger than murder. In different ways, both short stories bring attention to the tragic effects of the outdated, seemingly senseless customs and traditions that occur within their societies.

In Jackson’s story the “lottery” is an inexplicable, violent happening that takes place once a year in an anonymous American village. No one in the village seems to know how or why the tradition started however they try to preserve it just the same. From the very beginning, Jackson explains just how “normal” this tradition has become in the village. “The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands” [CITATION]. Even the children have become accustomed to it. The disturbing civility and normalness the villagers have toward the barbaric practice is well understood, even after the actual stoning has begun. For example, Mrs. Delacroix, who seemed very friendly and pleasant in the beginning of the story, is the same woman who has no problem selecting a stone “so large she had to pick it up with both hands,” to murder her friend [CITATION].

Many aspects of the lottery have long been forgotten. The original black box is gone, a chant performed by the official of the lottery had been overlooked and a ritual salute changed over time. The only aspects of the lottery villagers had not forgotten or changed were the stones and the method of killing the unfortunate winner. “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box” [CIATAION].

The blind acceptance of this tradition has allowed ritualistic murder to become so engrained in this society that some fear civilization will return to primitive times if they abandon it. “‘Listening to young folks, nothings good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while . . .'” [CITATION]. Shirley Jackson’s characters in “The Lottery” easily kill for no other reason than they have always held a lottery to kill someone. “‘. . . 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. There’s always been a lottery'” [CITATION].

This story focuses on how the power of society over the individual creates a very destructive nature of tradition. Jackson creates a village in which people live according to heritage and custom, never stopping to think independently or to question their individual or collective behavior. Tessie Hutchinson is a victim of a cruel ritual and has no power to stop the events that determine her fate. If the people of the village had stopped to question the lottery, they would be forced to ask themselves why they are committing murder, but no one ever stopped to question it. Even Tessie Hutchinson acted nonchalant about it until her husband drew the condemned slip of paper. However, when Tessie did complain it was only about the fairness of this particular drawing, not the absence of any meaning behind it. “‘I think we ought to start over,’ Mrs. Hutchinson said, as quietly as she could. ‘I tell you it wasn’t fair. You didn’t give him enough time to choose. Everybody saw that'” [CITATION]. She even goes so far as to try and make her daughter and son-in-law “take their chance.” Although clearly upset at the situation, Tessie makes no effort to convince the village that the lottery is just barbaric foolishness, she would never have spoken up if someone else was chosen to be the scapegoat. Nebeker describes the “horror” of this¸ writing “man is not at the mercy of a murky, savage id; he is the victim of unexamined, unchanging traditions which he could easily change if only he realized their implications. Herein lies horror” [CITATION].

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner also showcases the idea that adherence to tradition simply for the sake of tradition is a very dangerous social force, albeit for different reasons. Unlike the characters in “The Lottery” that belonged to a village dominated by a bizarre groupthink mentality, Emily remained the only person in her rapidly changing community who steadfastly refused to break with tradition. Just like Mrs. Hutchinson, Emily’s life is sacrificed in the name of this tradition. Although Emily lives well into her old age, she has no actual life to speak of, save for Homer Barron, the man she poisons. Although Jefferson as a town is changing drastically, daily life for Emily Grierson was defined by the attitudes and customs of the antebellum South; customs which eventually led to her downfall.

According to Fang, one of these typical Southern customs is “patriarchal chauvinism” [CITATION]. Emily’s father had in a sense “robbed” her of her life. He had deemed all potential suitors not good enough to marry his daughter in order to keep her under his control. Emily eventually became so dependent on him that even after his death she could not let him go, his denial and control was probably the only form of love she knew. It took three days for her to give up her father’s body for burial. Faulkner writes, “We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” [CITATION].

“Puritanical womanhood” is a second tradition that helped to shape Emily Grierson’s fate. [CITATION] Fang argues that because the South was so strongly influenced by Puritan beliefs women were required to remain submissive, loyal, humble, and modest. Emily must retain her “noblesse oblige” at all times.

Another principle is the “conflict between community and individual” [CITATION]. Again, unlike the characters in “The Lottery,” Emily and the people in Jefferson have very unique personalities that can conflict with the social environment of the town. “When the two come into conflict, it surely will cause great confrontation and if the power of the community is strong enough, it often results the destruction of the individual” [CITATION]. This conflict between Emily and the townspeople is evident throughout the story. Emily stubbornly refused to pay her taxes, or affix numbers to her house when Jefferson got postal service. Emily’s house is described as “an eyesore among eyesores,” and Emily herself as “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” [CITATION].

The traditions of this society forced Emily to seclude herself in a sort of timeless vault, like an hourglass without the sand, and remain out of touch with the reality that constantly threatened to break through. The murder of Homer was not a violent act by a homicidal psychopath. It was Emily’s way to freeze time and prevent change. It was the only way she could be certain he wouldn’t leave her alone like her father did.

Although the brutal ritual described in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” focused more on the power of society over the individual, both stories share the idea that outdated traditions can have heartbreaking effects on members of a society. Both stories took place in a poisonous culture of social conformity, and in both stories people became victims of the ideologies, customs, and traditions of their societies. Tessie Hutchinson in “The Lottery” was an obvious victim. She became the scapegoat of a horrifying act of violence in the form of a barbaric tradition that was without merit, even to the eldest in the village. Emily Grierson in “A Rose for Emily” was a victim of old fashioned Southern traditions, namely “patriarchal chauvinism,” “puritanical womanhood,” and “conflict between community and individual” [CITATION]. As a direct result Homer Barron became a secondary victim, a scapegoat in his own right. Both stories bring about the idea that outdated traditions can have tragic effects if they remain dominant in societies in which they have no significance or value.

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