In Shirley Jackson's celebrated short story "The Lottery ," the nondescript community participates in a violent, senseless ritual every June, which results in the brutal death of a random innocent civilian. Despite the meaningless nature of the lottery, the community continues to participate in the annual ritual because...
In Shirley Jackson's celebrated short story "The Lottery," the nondescript community participates in a violent, senseless ritual every June, which results in the brutal death of a random innocent civilian. Despite the meaningless nature of the lottery, the community continues to participate in the annual ritual because they are committed to blindly following tradition. Although the citizens are strict adherents to tradition, a few aspects of the lottery have changed over the course of several generations. Jackson writes that the original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost and the community uses a shabby black box to hold the slips of paper. Despite Mr. Summer's pleas for a new black box, the community insists on using the deteriorating old back box during the ritual.
The lottery has also changed over the years with the introduction of paper slips instead of wood chips inside the black box. Originally, the wood chips were placed in the box when the community was significantly smaller. However, the community continued to grow and had to use slips of paper, which would fit much easier into the black box. The community also stopped swearing-in Mr. Summers before the lottery and the official no longer performs the tuneless chant to begin the ritual. Mr. Summers no longer performs the ritual salute when each citizen draws from the box, which used to be part of the traditional ceremony.
In addition to the minor changes, the citizens no longer listen to Mr. Summers explain the rules of the lottery because they are so familiar with them. Despite the changes over several generations, the citizens remember to use stones to brutally murder the unlucky citizen who draws the black spot. The primary message of Jackson's short story concerns the dangers of blindly following tradition and Tessie Hutchinson becomes the unfortunate scapegoat when she draws the black spot.
Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery includes a number of passages that suggest changes in how the ritual has been carried out over the years. How long, exactly, this barbaric practice had been around is uncertain, but the town’s oldest citizen, Old Man Warner, at one point alludes to this being the 77th time he has participated, obviously indicating that the lottery is at least that old. Over time, Jackson’s narrator notes, certain aspects of the lottery changed or evolved. The first such change mentioned involved the black box inside of which are the slips of paper. As the narrator notes, “The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born.” So, we know from this sentence that the black box has been in use for many decades, and the narrator mentions the lottery’s administrator, Mr. Summers, had suggested replacing the black box with a newer one, only to find resistance from those protective of the ritual’s traditions. Jackson’s narrative does note, however, that the black box “grew shabbier each year,” and that, “by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side . . .”
Another change implemented over time with how the lottery is conducted involved the aforementioned slips of paper. Originally, the narrator states, chips of wood “had been used for generation.” These wood chips, however, became increasingly inadequate as the town’s population grew—another way the ritual had changed over time: more people involved as the town’s population expanded. The wood chips were too bulky for the black box, so the slips of paper were substituted.
As Jackson’s story progresses, more changes are noted, as in the following passage from The Lottery:
“. . .at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this p3rt of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.”
Finally, Jackson’s narrator mentions the change in the way the population listened to Mr. Summers’ recitation of the lottery’s rules: “The people had done it so many times that they only half listened to the directions: most of them were quiet.”
The lottery underwent a number of changes over the course of many years. Its essential purpose, however, remained intact. The lottery’s purpose is vague, but Jackson’s story has been interpreted as an indictment of mankind’s tendency to blindly follow traditions and rituals without question. It is interesting that The Lottery was published in 1948, only a few years after the end of World War II and during the revelations of the mass hysteria and its destructive consequences that were incited and exploited by Adolf Hitler. The lottery, it seems, exists solely because it always has, irrespective of function or rationale. One constant about the lottery, however, is noted by the story’s narrator: The villagers “still remembered to use stones.”