What is the theme of "The Lottery" and what true events mirror the central action of the story?
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Jackson's "The Lottery" is very much a scapegoat story that reflects the terrible behavior and cruelty humans are capable of when that behavior is sanctioned by one's neighbors, by the majority.
The story most directly suggests pogroms to me, events that were common in Europe before and during WWII. The Nazis weren't the only ones who killed Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals during WWII. Anti-semitism was common in Europe. A pogrom is a spontaneous uprising against a minority, rather than a big-government master plan to eliminate a minority. It is a kind of riot against one's neighbors who are different from oneself. Cruel acts are invariably performed by individuals seemingly not willing or capable of performing these acts on their own. Joined to a mob, however, the mob mentality prevails and persecution results--the scapegoats are eliminated, as in "The Lottery." The minority suffers at the pleasure of the majority, for the sake, it is thought, of the majority.
There are several themes that run through Shirley Jackson's classic short story, "The Lottery." One concerns long-standing traditions. The mysterious lottery is one example. Despite the terrible conclusion of each year's selection, the townspeople blindly accept that there will be another; yet, no one can remember how it was started. The black box that contains each citizen's name is another example. Another theme is that of man's cruelty toward other men. What appears to be a peaceful town suddenly turns ruthlessly violent at the end. Another theme is that of gender. This society is male-dominated, and the women are even subservient to their young male children.
"The Lottery," published in 1948, seems to reflect the horror that occurred to innocent Jews who were put to death during the Holocaust. The rise of Communism and the power of the House Un-American Activities were both gaining strength at that time. Shirley Jackson's story eerily parallels the Joe McCarthy Communist witch hunts that would begin just a few years later. The finale of "The Lottery" is also reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts of several centuries past.
The previous thoughts were well conceived. I would add that the most basic theme of how the individual can be targeted by the community is a powerful reality brought out in the story. Tessie is the target of her community's brutality and stones. The idea of everyone in a given setting identifying one person as a target, as the recipient of all others' cruelty, is a very haunting and petrifying state of being in the world. It is one of those moments where individuals read it and seek to establish some foundation that the reality just absorbed is an absolute evil that has to represent the very base of what cannot be tolerated. Certainly, anytime a person or group of people are seen as Tessie was, it represents a event take from the central action of the story. For example, when one reads about the systematic persecution of a group of people while others watched, participated, or simply did nothing, I think that there could be a great deal of linking to the narrative Jackson tells. On a smaller, but equally compelling level, would be when individuals are silenced by the majority, when their voices or experiences are negated by the whole and not acknowledged. In these situations, one sees Jackson as a mirror of our very worst.
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