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Robert Frost's persona in "The Mending Wall" speaks of the dangers of blindly following tradition, in this case the tradition of maintaining a stone wall between his neighbor and himself when, in reality, no wall is needed. When the persona sees his neighbor, he comments that:
"I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors." (l 39-46)
Frost's persona has a neighbor who believes what his father has told him: Good fences make good neighbors. Although this rhythmic saying, this ancient aphorism, sounds pleasant and does have some significance when considered in light of neighborly relations, no such sense is present here. The stone wall is erected and repaired only because the neighbor's father and, by implication, his grandfather and so on had built such fences. The tradition of stone fences is suggested to be a meaningless tradition, one continued by a neighbor clutching a stone in such a way that he resembles "an old stone savage." This concept of meaningless, primitive tradition and the savagery it evokes is the subject not only of Robert Frost's 1914 poem but also the subject of some controversial literature later in America. On June 26, 1948, American short story writer Shirley Jackson brought a storm of controversy to The New Yorker, a well established literary magazine then and now, with the publication of her short story, "The Lottery." Jackson's shocking tale serves as an expose of meaningless tradition, suggesting that the result is a primitive savagery.
On a literal level, the story is very easily understood; it is very basic. On June 27th in an small American village, one with no name given, the citizens, about 300 of them, gather for a public festival, much as they would for a Halloween program or a square dance. However, this seemingly and deceptively innocent tradition on June 27th includes a drawing or lottery where the winner, Tessie Hutchinson, is stoned to death by . .. well, by the losers.
The story presents itself almost as a fable about the traditions of an American public, a public that has forgotten the origins of such traditions. And as a perverse fable, Jackson's story should reveal a message about humanity. It does. Jackson's story speaks of the darkness of human savagery, a darkness that evolves or devolves from meaningless action, action without thought. In fact, "the story thus takes the stance that humanity's inclination toward violence overshadows society's need for civilized traditions" (Griffin 2010).
Since the tale is like a fable, it should be replete with symbols to support its message about humanity. Jackson's time setting of the tale is one of the very few specific details of the story. The story takes place on June 27th, and Jackson has the reader know through exposition that some towns start on June 26th due to the amount of time that some lotteries take. It is an unlikely coincidence that The New Yorker published the story on June 26th and that the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere begins around the same time, i.e. the story begins just as the summer season, the season of growth, begins. In more ancient societies, the season of growth and its abundance determined survival for all the people in agrarian villages. Continuing that symbolic thought, the lottery in this town is conducted by a man named Summers, his name symbolic of the season of growth.
Then, the other townsfolk begin to appear with their names bearing symbolic significance in this dark fable. Here comes Delacroix, a combination of two French words, meaning "from the cross" or "of the cross." Delacroix appears in the second paragraph of the story, but the third person narrator advises that the towns people had bastardized the name; "the villagers pronounced this name Dellacroy . . . " (Jackson 262). They have symbolically, in mispronouncing the name meaning "from the cross," moved far from the intentions of the cross and the traditions of Christianity.
Even their focus on the pagan summer solstice suggests a removal from the true traditions of Christianity, from the true understanding of the cross. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, gave his life to purify mankind for all sins so that man could gain access to eternal life, so that his soul would not perish; it would continue to thrive. Likewise, the villagers, in a perversion of this Christian thought, sacrifice a person's life each year so that their crops will grow, so that enough corn will grow to feed the village for the coming year. In fact, their aphorism recalled vaguely by even the eldest among them is revealed in what "used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon . . . ' " (Jackson 266). In suggesting the ultimate perversion of biblical intent, it is Mrs. Delacroix who throws the first stone - one so large that she has to use two hands, that large stone itself an emblem of a primitive society and its warlike conditions as suggested by Mr. Martin's last name, a form of Mars - the pagan god of war. Those stones, too, were introduced almost as characters in the exposition when the children were gathering and piling them in the town square.
The villagers, in their perversion of the Christian tradition of suffering and sacrifice, have reverted to the ancient ways, the pagan ways of the stone men. They have clearly forgotten the significance of tradition. The lottery box, a symbol of the very tradition that is being barbarically kept, is itself in disrepair. The black box was in use long before old man Warner, the eldest of the citizens, was born; it was in poor condition and in need of being replaced, "but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box" (Jackson 262). The villagers kept the box, a symbol of tradition, although they had forgotten its original purpose and the lottery's original rituals. The baseless thinking of the villagers is something that Jackson speaks to in the story since she "has a strong underlying antipathy to village life and the narrow village mentality"(Bellman 2010).
Black is generally associated with evil in literature, and the fact that the black box is in danger of falling apart speaks of the symbolic significance of the lack of understanding tradition, for without understanding, tradition loses its structure and it too begins to fall apart. The lack of meaning in the pagan tradition is made even sharper when the narrator advises in the story's denouement that "although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones" (Jackson 266). Something about the primitive nature of stones as weapons is embedded in the cell memory of humanity as is something dark, as dark as the black box, something that compels man to evil in spite of Jesus' sacrifice to ensure the continuity of goodness and peace on earth. In spite of the traditions of Christianity, the history of the village as a microcosm of a world habitually at war suggests that "although civilized people may no longer hold lotteries, Jackson's story illustrates that society's tendency toward violence and its tendency to hold onto tradition, even meaningless, base tradition, reveal[ing] our need for both ritual and belonging"(Griffin 2010).
And the last villagers, the last losers, to throw their stones at the lottery winner, at Tessie Hutchinson, were Steve Adams in the front of the pack and Mrs. Graves beside him. It is then both symbolic and ironic that Adams, symbolic of the first man and his original sin, stands beside Mrs. Graves, her name a symbol of death - the punishment for that sin. And the winner? Tessie Hutchinson? Her name is both an allusion and a symbol. Tessie Hutchinson's name may be an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, who rebelled against the American Puritans in their strict dogma that dictated tradition in religion, ironically a strict dogmatic tradition that the American Puritans left England to escape in New England (annehutchinson.com). Then, in another dark irony, the New England becomes much the same as the old England. Then, the allusion to a woman who sacrificed herself to the Puritan code of punishment for her individual beliefs speaks of the impossibility of escaping dark, ignorant tradition. Ignorance, Jackson seems to suggest, perpetuates itself in the heart of the village of mankind.
Tessie Hutchinson's name is symbolic, too; she represents the harvest, the dark harvest of the ignorance of man. "Tessie" means "harvest", and she is truly the winner of the lottery. She escapes, through death, the ignorance of mankind to an everlasting joy that comes from the cross, de la croix. Her name symbolically suggests in this dark fable that the harvest of ignorance is pain and suffering.
Shirley Jackson's story is simple in its text, just as Robert Frost's poems are simple in their diction; however, both are deceptively simple. Both poets often speak of the dark nature of man. Jackson's story seems to be a cautionary tale; a tale that warns of the dangers of forgetting purposes of tradition, that warns that even if the elders - the Warners among us - can't recall tradition, then new religions for new ages must be forged, for the ancient ones are lost in the darkness of ignorance, a darkness that comes in moving away from the cross.
And in that darkness dwells danger. Jackson's warning mankind of that danger has been clear enough for this "perversely inspired writer to warrant a respectable place for her[self] in twentieth-century" American literature (Bellman 2010).