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The town's culture is structured around the annual ritual, even though its origins are based on an outdated, superstitious belief.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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 3, 2021
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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 Old Man Warner, evidently a big believer in traditions, no matter how outdated, archaic, or cruel they are, reports that there used to be a common saying in regard to the lottery: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 2, 2021
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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 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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