How do the symbols in "The Lottery" compare to the ones in A Farewell to Arms?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In reviewing the symbols of "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson, and A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, the motif that both stories share is that of death—and the unfairness of death.

Depending upon the opinion of readers and reviewers, different elements of each story take on symbolic significance. Generally, we can find symbols in studying images that are used repeatedly by the author.

A symbol is:

Any object, person, place, or action that has a meaning in itself and that also stands for something larger than it does...

We are generally familiar with symbols even if we don't realize it. A dove is symbolic of peace. A rose is generally symbolic of love, and differently colored roses have their own symbolic meanings as well. For many years, lions have been symbolic of power, snakes are symbolic of evil, red is symbolic of passion or blood, and white is symbolic of purity. Symbols surround us in literature, art, music…life.

Michael Ferber, author of A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, points out two symbolic meanings for rain, but only one would reflect its significance in Hemingway's work.

Of the many symbolic aspects of rain…[we look to the] obvious developments of rain's real effects: rain as suffering or bad luck…

"Rain" is identified in several sources as a symbol in A Farewell to Arms. The story begins with rain and ends—with the passing of Catherine—with rain. The death of thousands of soldiers from cholera is accompanied by pouring rain. So it would seem that rain is symbolic of death and tragedy.

There are several symbols in Jackson's "The Lottery," including the lottery itself, several character's names, and the black box. The black box symbolizes the tradition (however horrific) that has been carried on in this town for as long as anyone can remember, and beyond. It is from the box that the names of families are pulled, leading eventually to death. The box is also black, a color long symbolic of death.

While the symbols are very different, what they have in common is their association with death: not a noble death, but one that is unfairly visited upon the "innocent." Hemingway's Catherine and Henry see the war as something that kills good people, robbing them of everything—happiness, love, security, and ultimately, life. Similarly, in Jackson's short story, the lottery also robs good people of life: there is no good reason for this long-held practice, and the victim (Tessie Hutchinson) is guiltless. It is in this way that the symbols are similar.

Additional Source:

Michael Ferber. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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