The Lottery


Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines tradition as, an inherited,
established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a
religious practice or a social custom) and the handing down of
information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from
one generation to another without written instruction. If we are to go
by the latter definition , we can understand how traditions are easily
lost. Have you ever played the game telephone? You whisper something in
someone's ear and they whisper it in another person^s ear until it
finally returns back to you and normally what is returned isn't even
close to what you originally whispered into the first person's ear In
Shirley Jackson's short story ,"The Lottery" ,the main theme is how
traditions that lose their meaning due to human forgetfulness can cause
dreadful consequences to occur. Jackson uses a lot of symbolism to show
this. The story is set in a small town, ^on the morning of June
27th^(272). It opens with false innocence , using the children building
a rock pile, tricking the reader into a disturbingly unaware state.
The reader almost expects the Lottery to be something wonderful since
the "normal" lottery has the winner getting a prize of a large amount
of money or possesion. Even the story alludes to the innocence ,
explaining how the the town also holds ^square dances, teenage club and
the Halloween program^(273) in the same spot that the lottery is held.
In "the Lottery" we discover that the town-folk use a lottery, to pick
a "winner" to stone to death. The winner is picked using a black box
that has been around for ages, and has even been ^rebuilt with parts
supposedly from the original black box^.(273) Within the box are slips
of paper, enough for the entire town. On one slip of paper is a black
dot for the one lucky winner. Black has always been a symbol for death,
and the color of the box and dot are no exception to this rule. One of
Merriam-Webster^s dictionary definitions of black is ^marked by the
occurance of disaster^ . The black dot on the slip of paper
identifies the lucky winner of the lottery-the person who will get
stoned to death. No-one in town really knows exactly why it is a
tradition although they have some vague ideas. Old Man Warner alludes
that it was once said "lottery in June, corn be heavy soon".(276)
Ironically, even the oldest member of this village doesn^t even
remember the real reason behind the lottery. Although ^The villagers
had forgotten the ritual and lost the original box, they still
remembered to use stones" (278). Do people just pick and choose which
part of a tradition they want to keep?

On the eighth paragraph of ^The Lottery^, the character Tessie
Huchinson, comes rushing to the square because she ^clean forgot what
day it was^(274). This shows how easily a person can forget things. It
also alludes to the murderous ritual when Tessie exclaims ^wouldn^t
have me leave m^dishes in the sink^. Why would anyone who is
participating in a lottery have to worry about dirty dishes, unless the
prize was something dreadful. Tessie appears to not take the ritual
seriously, possibly because of the amount of people in the village or
the fact she has been desensitized to the violent ritual. It can be
assumed that Tessie doesn^t know very much about the history of the
tradition because the man who is ^the official of the lottery^,(274)
Mr. Summers, doesn^t remember the history either.

Mr. Summers, the official of the lottery, doesn^t know that there is a
^perfunctory tuneless chant ^(274) that he was supposed to sing during
the lottery or a ^ritual salute^(274) that he was supposed to use when
addressing each person who came up to the black box. The unnamed
villagers who remember some bits of history about those forgotten
aspects of the ritual, aren^t even definite about the accuracy of
their beliefs. Some believe that the ^official of the lottery should
stand^ a certain way when he sang the chant, other believe that he
should ^walk among the people^(274). No-one exactly remembers the hows
and whys of the tradition, most have become completely desensitized to
the murderous rituals. In paragraph two, the children are so
desensitized that they are actually enjoying themselves while they are
collecting rocks as a sadistic prize for the lottery^s winner. Although
they are very young they remember some aspects of the ritual. Bobby
Martin stuffs ^his pockets full of stones^ (272)as if it were money and
not a murder weapon. Three of the villagers children ^eventually made
a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it
against rids of the other boys.^(272) The children know that they are
supposed to use smooth round stones to kill the winner but they do not
know why nor do they seem to care. Because the adults have forgotten
the traditions history ,the children know even less and they are
desensitized to murder , thinking it^s just another fun holiday like

In modern times we can see a reflection of ^The Lottery^ in Christmas.
Christmas was originally intended to celebrate the miracle of Christ^s
birth, but over time Christmas has become more commercialized and
associated with pagan beliefs. Since many parents have forgotten the
true meaning of Christmas, many children misinterpret Christmas as a
^gimmie^ holiday rather then a holiday commemorating the virgin birth
of Jesus. We cannot entirely blame this on human forgetfulness without
addressing the issue of hypocrisy. People hear what they want to hear
and choose what rituals to keep for traditions .

The townspeople could have changed the tradition or even investigated
the history of the tradition. They, the townspeople, had an active role
in the murder of Tessie and cannot blame their actions on forgetfulness
but rather on hypocrisy. When Mrs. Delacroix was selecting a ^stone so
large she had to pick it up with both hands^,(278) she could have
stopped and questioned the ethics of ^the Lottery.

Forgotten traditions can be extremely dangerous as Shirley Jackson
points out in her short story. It, the lottery, could have taken place
in any small town across America. Any one of us can forgot something
important about a tradition that could eventually lead to dreadful
consequences . The simple game of telephone proves that we are just
like those townspeople, forgetting the original words but continuing
on as if the words we know are the original.

Works Cited

Jackson , Shirley ^ÓThe Lottery^Ô The Bedford Guide for College Writers Bedord-St. Martins 1999

Jackson, Shirley ^ÓThe Lottery^Ô Http://


^ÓThe Lottery^Ô Dir. Daniel Sackheim 1996 (Made for T.V.)


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