The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery - Shirley JacksonIn The Lottery by Shirley Jackson we have the theme of acceptance, family and tradition. Set in a small village in New England the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on in the story (the second paragraph) the reader realises that Jackson is using foreshadowing. The stones that the young boys are collecting and placing in a pile, though this appears to be relatively harmless, they are in fact to be used in the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson at the end of the story. There may also be further foreshadowing in the third paragraph of the story. The children, when they are being called by their mothers, have to be called four or five times. They appear to be reluctant to participate in the lottery. This may be significant as it suggests that the children are aware of what is going to happen (the stoning) and may be afraid to participate.

The first paragraph of the story is also interesting. Though some readers might feel the information being provided by Jackson is unnecessary or irrelevant (in light of what actually happens in the story), the benefit of the information is that it grounds the story. It gives it a sense of normality. We have the date and Jackson also describes it as being a normal sunny day. This is significant as it again suggests that what is going to occur is normal (if not accepted). There is nothing unusual, the reader finds that the lottery is popular, nearly all the villagers are in attendance, Jackson even going as far as to name some of them. This again suggests that the tradition of the lottery is not only popular but it to also accepted, everybody has turned up.

The reader is also aware that Old Man Warner is the oldest person in the village. This may be important as Jackson may be using Old Man Warner (and his age) as symbolism not only for the acceptance of the tradition of the lottery but he may also represent its advocacy (support). When Mr Adams tells him that in some villages they no longer carry out the tradition of the lottery, that they have stopped it, Old Man Warner tells Mr Adams that the people who do that are a ‘pack of crazy fools’ and a ’pack of young fools’. This may also be important as by calling the people in the other villages, crazy and young fools, Old Man Warner may be suggesting that through the loss of the tradition (of the lottery) the people in the other villages have not only become fools but they have lost their wisdom. It is possible that Old Man Warner is associating wisdom to the tradition of the lottery.

There is also a sense of irony in Old Man Warner’s calling of the people in other villages crazy and young fools. Not only does he believe that by giving up the tradition of the lottery that the village will be returning to living in caves (or going backwards) but the reader also learns that Old Man Warner believes in superstition (‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’). He also tells Mr Adams that without the lottery, that the village will be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. If anything Old Man Warner and his blind adherence and acceptance of tradition suggests that he may be the fool rather than those who have decided to stop the tradition of the lottery.

Jackson also uses further symbolism in the story. The black box can be seen to represent tradition. It is an old battered box, with parts of it believed to have come from the original box. The villagers do not want to change it, they like the tradition of the lottery and wish to keep the box as it is. There is also other symbolism in the story which may be important, the lottery itself and its rules represents an adherence to tradition, of not questioning things. The lottery also acts as ironic symbolism. It is expected that when someone participates in a lottery, that they win something. This is not the case in the story, the opposite occurs, they lose their life.

Jackson also delves into the theme of family and the male dominated hierarchy that comes within a family’s structure. The reader is aware that it is up to each man to pick the piece of paper first, women don’t appear to be allowed to do it. Also in the case of the Watsons, Mr Watson is not available (possibly the winner of the lottery the previous year) and rather than his wife picking the piece of paper, it is left to her son Jack to pick the paper for both of them. It is also interesting that Tessie not only forgot it was the day of the lottery but that she was washing the dishes before she arrived. Again this suggests that the female in the village has a particular role in the family. Also it is left to the boys at the beginning of the story to collect the stones. It is also significant that when Mr Hutchinson and Tessie’s children discover that Tessie is the one who is to be stoned, they show no loyalty to Tessie. It is possible that Jackson is suggesting that the tradition of the lottery is more important to Tessie’s family than saving Tessie.

It may also be significant that the only person who appears to question anything in the story is Tessie and she ends up being the one who is stoned when she picks the piece of paper with the black dot. It may also be important that Tessie is the only member of the village who arrived late. She had forgotten about the lottery. By having Tessie arrive late Jackson may be suggesting that Tessie does not hold the lottery in the same regard as the other people in the village. It also suggests that she is not tied down to tradition and again there is a hint or trace of irony that it is Tessie who ends up getting stoned.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Lottery by Shirley Jackson." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

2 comments

  • ” It gives it a sense of normality. We have the date and Jackson also describes it as being a normal sunny day. This is significant as it again suggests that what is going to occur is normal (if not accepted).”

    Yes, this is what makes the story so much more chilling. The sense that things are peaceful and normal. Even the weather is bright.

    I liked your observations about Tessie too. I don’t remember noticing that when I read the story – that she wasn’t quite on the same page as everyone else.

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