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Traditions and rituals can be a force of nature. No culture or tradition is unchanging, as for the most part a lot of them have been around since the beginning of time and to mess with an ancient tradition can be viewed as disrespectful or a rebellion against it. Well, imagine a society of civilians following a tradition in which no one remembers when it even started, that has become so construed since it began, and over time it has become meaningless. In the timeless classic “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, the theme of tradition is abundant in the text and how the controlling power it has over those who follow them make people turn a blind eye to their unethical and immoral rituals. But to the civilians of this town this tradition of the ‘lottery’ designates a scapegoat to blame the sins on in the community, which is another theme that is explored throughout the entirety of the text. These two themes intertwine to create a more unified theme of how a tradition can be very powerful over people due to the belief of what can be a result of them.
It is the backbone of every culture, it is what keeps their beliefs and philosophies alive and it is what brings people together. Tradition. Societies can become so accustomed to them that they will participate in its rituals without even questioning the ethics or morals of the situation. A ‘black box’ was used in “The Lottery” to draw slips of paper from that would ultimately decide their fate. After this one day in the year, the box is put away and sometimes in different places. The narrator of the story states that “It had spent one year in Mr. Grave’s barn… sometimes it was set on a shelf in the Martin grocery and left there.” (Jackson 2). This box is a symbol of just how deeply rooted the tradition of the lottery is in the lives of the citizens, as they have grown with the tradition and don’t even think of stealing it to end the vicious cycle. The power the tradition of the box holds rules over the entire village. When there are even talks of replacing their sacred box in the story, since it is very old and worn down, it riles up the townspeople and brings discomfort about even the thought of such change. In an article written by author Patrick J. Shields titled “Arbitrary Condemnation and Sanctioned Violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”” he states how the villagers accepted this solution (the box) just because it has always been that way (Shields 417). This and the lack of wanting any type of change illustrates how much the black box represents tradition and the influence it has over the villagers. Just because this tradition of the lottery has always been around, it should be continued. This tradition has consumed their lives to the point that it controls them and their view on it, since many of the villagers do not know any other way of life.
Jacksons’ use of characters is also very crucial in keeping the theme of tradition and the role it plays apparent. Whether the character had a significant or a small part in the story, each revealed information about the tradition of the lottery. One of the most important characters was Old Man Warner. He was the most conservative of them all about the preservation of the tradition of the lottery. The narrator mentions how the black box that is used has been around since before he was even born, and he is the oldest man in the village. Being the oldest in the village, he sees it as his duty to make sure things do not change, especially the lottery. So, when he overhears that other towns have given up the lottery, he groans, “used to be a saying about “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” (Jackson 4). For him, the lottery is tied to an agricultural rationale. It can be inferred that the lottery takes place around a crucial time for vegetation. And so, without the annual ritual of the lottery, villagers believe they wouldn’t have much food to spare for the coming winter. Therefore, the lottery plays such a controlling role in the lives of the villagers because they are living in a farm town, and a healthy growth of crops is essential to the way of life in their town.
The belief of cleansing and purification is standard in most traditions. This scapegoat archetype is an ancient concept, which is present in the tradition of the lottery. A scapegoat was an actual goat that got sent into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people symbolically laid upon it to be sacrificed. The theme of having a scapegoat is displayed through Tessie Hutchinson as she was the symbol for it in the story. Civilizations will always point the finger at someone to blame everything upon. In an academic research paper titled “A Representative and a Scapegoat: Analysis of Tessie Hutchinson in The Lottery” written by scholar Fuyu Chen, he exclaims how “…whenever something unpleasant takes place, there must be someone to shoulder the responsibility for it. In the war, it may be a general; in a recession, it may be the Ministry of Treasury” (Chen 1023). When this lottery takes place every year, the singular name that is drawn takes on the responsibility that it comes with. But In this case, for the lottery, it may be your own family. In the story, Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife after the drawing and “forced the slip of paper out of her hand” (Jackson 7) to which it revealed the black spot. This encapsulates just how much society wants to be able to blame it on someone else, even if that means their own wife. Bill Hutchinson forced Tessie to show the other villagers that she had the slip with the black spot, thus designating the scapegoat. And so, the villagers, metaphorically speaking, place their sins on Tessie, execute her, consequently believing that their sins have been eliminated.
“The Lottery” teaches you that humans will blindly follow traditions, but that it is never too late to break away from them. The theme of tradition and the overpowering role it can play in the lives of citizens is apparent through the characters and symbolic figures in the text. The theme of designating a scapegoat in order to purify the community is also prominent throughout the text. “The Lottery” is truly a renowned piece of literature because it ultimately leaves the readers questioning the morality of others in our society as well as give us the courage to defy tradition.
- Chen, Fuyu. “A Representative and a Scapegoat: Analysis of Tessie Hutchinson in The Lottery.” (2012).
- Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, 1991. 291-302.
- Patrick J. Shields (2004) Arbitrary Condemnation and Sanctioned Violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, Contemporary Justice Review, 7:4, 411-419
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