In Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," why does the village have a lottery?

In Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," it seems from something Old Man Warner says that the village has a lottery because people used to believe the lottery was linked to the success of the harvest. However, it now appears that the main reason the village continues to hold the lottery is that it is tradition and that people often cling to traditions because they are what the community has "always" done.

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The primary reason the nondescript village continues to hold the violent lottery concerns their blind adherence to tradition.

Old Man Warner symbolically represents the town's strict adherence to tradition, as he criticizes the northern villages for putting a stop to the senseless ritual. Old Man Warner comments that the citizens would want to go back to living in caves if they canceled the lottery and states, "There’s always been a lottery." Old Man Warner's comments suggest that the town's insistence on continuing the savage tradition stems from their fear of the unknown. Since the village was established, there has always been a lottery, and the citizens are afraid that their civilization might go to pieces if they change their fundamental tradition.

The town's culture is structured around the annual ritual, even though its origins are based on an outdated, superstitious belief. The citizens fear that trouble will arise if they cancel the tradition and continue to brutally murder an innocent citizen each year. Anyone who questions the tradition is abruptly silenced, which is the case with Tessie Hutchinson, who becomes the village's scapegoat after drawing the black spot. Overall, the town continues to hold the annual lottery because they are resistant to change, fear the outcome of forgoing the annual ritual, and are conditioned to blindly adhere to traditions.

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While the people of the village wait for Mr. Summers to begin the lottery proceedings, they talk to one another about the practice. Mr. Adams tells Old Man Warner that he has heard of another village in the north in which the townspeople are talking about giving up the lottery. Old Man Warner, evidently a big believer in traditions, no matter how outdated, archaic, or cruel they are, reports that there used to be a common saying in regard to the lottery: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” This makes it sound as though, at some point, perhaps in the distant past, the tradition of the lottery was linked via superstition to the success of the harvest, as though having the lottery would actually make the corn grow heavy soon. Of course, the reader would understand such a belief as superstition, and the fact that the saying has evidently fallen out of use makes it seem as though most people in the story understand that the logic is faulty, too.

Old Man Warner adds, “There’s always been a lottery,” as if to argue that, because this is the way the village has “always” done it, this is reason enough to continue holding the lottery. The reluctance of the villagers to “upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” used in the lottery would seem to confirm the idea that the village has a lottery because it is tradition, and people are often loathe to break from tradition.

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The reason why the villagers "have" to have a lottery is simply because the lottery had become a tradition that has been followed since the time of the...

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villagers' ancestors. As a result, the villagers have become so used to repeating this practice over and over that they do not even find anything right, nor wrong, with it. In fact, the villagers themselves may not know why they even hold a lottery, however, they do not question their automated response to it: that of doing it, for the sake of getting it done.

The villagers clearly represent that side of society which blindly obliges the repetitive monotony of unquestioned traditions and practices. People like this often do things without knowing why, and only because "the others" prompt them to do things. This is the basic message that Shirley Jackson intends to convey upon her readers: that humans have a great capacity for good on evil, and that this capacity can only be overcome by always questioning the purpose of our actions. When we stop questioning the purpose of our actions, and become automated, the chances of falling within the cracks of society, and even evil doings, are quite higher. Hence, the villagers saw nothing new, nor out of order, in the brutal stoning of Tessie Hutchinson.

A good example of the town's ignorance towards the practice of the lottery comes when the narrator tells us how the practice is so old that its symbolism has been forgotten throughout the years.

... some people remembered [that] there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. A tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year...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

Moreover, at the mere suggestion and questioning of the lottery, those who ask get a rude response, appealing to the lottery "always being there", and to how ridiculous the idea of stopping the lottery would be.

Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves . There's always been a lottery

However, nobody seems to ever question its origin, its purpose, nor its fairness. A further example of how the mentality of this villagers is quite limited is the black box. As they realize how old and beat down the black box is, many suggest a replacement. However, as the narrative says, this particular topic just "fades away" and nothing is "being done" about it.

Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the villagers merely practiced the lottery, but had not taken any steps to know what they are doing, nor understand the meaning and goal behind this practice. This is, indeed, a very scary and sad reality about many individuals and groups alike.

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We are not really told this.  However, I think the main reason is simply because the lottery is just a tradition.

No one really knows why it is held.  But when the people talk about places that have abolished the lottery, they think those places are dumb.  They don't have a reason -- it's just that this is what they're used to.  I think this is a major point Jackson is trying to make -- that people can get used to even horrible things and do them just because.

As for why it started in the first place, maybe it was once necessary to keep the population down to a manageable level.  Or it may once have been a sacrifice to bring good harvest "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon."

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In the story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, why do the townspeople participate in the lottery?

This is a good question. 

There are three reason why the people in the town continue the lottery. 

First, the people of the town have been holding the lottery for a very long time. In other words, the tradition of the town is to hold the lottery. This might not sound like a good reason, but in many places around the world tradition is extremely strong. Furthermore, within the story, the children are very much involved as well. This says that every adult there has participated in the lottery since they were children. From this perspective, tradition is even stronger. 

Second, there might be some agricultural/superstitious belief about the lottery. Old man Warner recount a little jingle: "Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." From this perspective, we can say that some people conduct the lottery, because they believe that there is some benefit to the community. 

Finally, even though the text does not say this explicitly, there is a sense in which the people are afraid of change. 

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In the story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, why do the townspeople participate in the lottery?

This is a very good question. In fact, it might be said to be the principal theme and question of Shirley Jackson's famous story. Why do the townspeople continue to participate in this gruesome lottery year after year when they should realize they are acting only under the influence of the grossest kind of ignorance and superstition?

The story is apparently set in the heartland of America. Since the lottery is intended, like some ancient Aztec ritual involving human sacrifice, to assure a good corn crop, it would seem to be taking place in the "Corn Belt," which runs from eastern Nebraska, through Iowa, and into Illinois. Most likely the exact location of this small town is in Iowa. An unusual feature is that these people seem so isolated from the rest of America. The story seems to be set in the present, but the townspeople seem to know nothing about the outside world. They are like the inhabitants of H. G.Wells' story "The Country of the Blind" who are completely isolated in their valley.

There are indications that some of the townspeople are just beginning to consider the possibility of giving up the annual lottery.

The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, "I hope it's not Nancy," and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.

Why does she have to whisper? She is a young girl. If the lottery is ever abolished, it will be the young who will have to take the lead. Old Man Warner represents authority and tradition. He won't even listen to rumors that people in other towns have already given up their lotteries.

"Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery," he added petulantly.

This last observation by the oldest citizen is one of the most telling points: There has to be a lottery because there has always been a lottery. The townspeople continue to participate because they have been indoctrinated as children to believe that it is necessary for the common good. As the children become adults, they pass on their superstition to their own children, who accept it on trust, and this continues for generation after generation. Change comes slowly because these people seem to be so isolated, even though they are living in the middle of the United States. This is one of the strangest things about Shirley Jackson's story. She does not attempt to explain why her characters are so cut off from more enlightened ideas; she just assumes this as a "given."

Old man Warner is strongly in favor of the lottery because he has participated all his life and has never drawn the losing slip. It makes him feel immortal.

"Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery," Old Man Warner said as he went through the crowd. "Seventy-seventh time."

If the lottery were abolished, what would be the point of his having risked his life all those years? What else would he have to brag about?

Tessie Hutchinson, on the other hand, sees the terrible wickedness and stupidity of the lottery when she happens to draw the slip with the black spot on it.

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

Why do the townspeople participate in the lottery? Shirley Jackson is asking us the same question.

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In "The Lottery," why are the people of the village willing to turn on their friends and neighbors because of a lottery?

Why these seemingly normal villagers would behave in such a brutal way points to several themes in the story. They participate in the lottery because it is a tradition in their community so old that no one can remember exactly when it started. They blindly follow this custom simply because they always have. No one thinks independently; no one challenges tradition; no one stands up against the majority. It is an example of "group think."

Once the stoning begins, another element enters the story. The people become a savage mob instead of a group of individual neighbors and family members. The psychology of the mob takes over; the mob functions as one entity after a victim has been identified.

The various themes in the story are explained in detail in the eNotes references shown below.

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