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A shocking realization comes to the reader at the end of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson: the community have not been drawing for any prize or reward in the traditional sense. Instead, lottery has the ancient meaning:they have drawn lots. What is amazing is that the people--even Tessie Hutchinson's husband--have mindlessly followed a superstitious custom of making someone a scapegoat for some reason that they do not remember, if they knew at all. Their callous and savage behavior is underscored with Jackson's line:
The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Old Man Warner, who stauchly adheres to tradition no matter what the tradition is calls out, "Come on, come on, everyone," and the others hurry, ignoring Mrs. Hutchinson's pleas for reason,
It ain't fair, is isn't right."
What happens at the end of the story is that all of the nice villagers (who have been hanging out together, chatting and getting ready for their traditional lottery) pick up rocks and start to use those rocks to kill one of their neighbors. They start throwing rocks at a woman (Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson) who, a moment ago, was part of their community.
This is why this is such a horrible story. It is terrible because these otherwise normal people can turn in an instant and become killers just because it is traditional and it is expected.
What is spine-chilling in Jackson’s ending is the matter-of-factness with which the ritual is carried out. Each June the townspeople assemble to murder one of their neighbors. The discrepancy between ordinary, civilized, modern behavior and the calm acceptance of something as primitive as human sacrifice gives "The Lottery" a terrible power.
As a matter of course, even the small son of the victim is given some stones to throw at his mother. That is perhaps the most horrifying detail of all.
The story’s very outrageous ending raises questions about unexamined assumptions in modern society. Do civilized Americans accept and act upon other vestiges of primitive ritual as arbitrary as the one Jackson imagines? Are we shackled by traditions as bizarre and pointless as the lottery in Jackson’s story? What determines the line between behavior that is routine and that which is unthinkable? How civilized in fact are we?
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