Can we compare Jackson's "The Lottery"  to Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" in terms of theme?  

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" and Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" do share a similarity in theme, particularly in terms of questioning the Status Quo, and the tolerance of counterproductive social practices for the sake of obedience. There is also a similarity in that both stories show two very homogeneous societies that aim to maintain their unity through common practices that lead more to cause fear than to lead towards change. Furthermore, in the process of maintaining these traditions, both societies remain stagnant.   

In "The Lottery" we find a village which is blinded by the fact that they have maintained an old practice without even questioning its purpose, nor its rationale. The practice, which is to carry out a lottery in which the "winner" will be stoned to death, is narrated in the story as an everyday occurrence that, to this day, nobody has ever questioned- even as morbid and inhumane as it is.

The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; [...]in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

Hence, here we see how this practice gives the village a sense of homogeneous unity that leads them to be a part of a monstrous act only because it is tradition and custom.

In "Harrison Bergeron" the beginning of the story shows a similar tendency in terms of the population: Their aim is to be equal. So equal that they suffer the inhumane treatment of being "made" to become equal through a style of conditioning which is both cruel and senseless. For this reason, the two stories share a similarity in this aspect.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

We see that, being equal and continuing with the same traditions only leads to two outcomes: Rebellion, or servitude. In "Harrison Bergeron", the main character of Harrison breaks out of his servitude to become the ruler of humanity. This is a sign of implosion caused by oppression.

"I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook

In "The Lottery" Tessie does a lesser attempt that nevertheless serves the same purpose: That of trying to rebel against what is considered a rule. Just like Harrison, she slowly breaks down as her turn comes nearer:

You didn't give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn't fair.

In all, the two societies display a need for equality that is carried out by the keeping of practices that serve no purpose and aim to attain no goal. In the end, both main characters die, while a stagnant society remains alive and well.

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jpope1's profile pic

Jessica Pope | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

"The Lottery" and "Harrison Bergeron" are both dystopian stories that explore the negative consequences of mob rule. In both stories, individuals within the community fail to think independently and refuse to question their preconcieved traditions and beliefs. In both stories, the consequences of this blind obedience to tradition are tragic. Both stories normalize cruelty. In "The Lottery," community members accept the absurd ritual of sacrificial stoning in order to "ensure" a good harvest. The unlucky person is chosen randomly, and everyone participates in stoning him or her to death. In "Harrison Bergeron," anyone who has more strength or intelligence than normal must suffer under the burden of extra handicaps. The oppression of the many over the individual are presented as normal, routine and unquestioned. In both stories, the people most effected by the community rules are the ones who protest. In "The Lottery," Tessie - the woman who is chosen to be stoned - aggressively complains about the unfairness of the ritual. In "Harrison Bergeron," Harrison - a highly intelligent and ambitious man - rebels agains the system that relegates him to mediocracy. On final similarity between these two stories is their controversial reception. Many readers and critics alike were offended by "The Lottery." "Harrison Bergeron" was also very controversial. Many people believed that Vonnegut's work was a rejection of the ideals of social liberty and equality.
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