In the story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, why are the townspeople holding the lottery? 

In the story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, why are the townspeople holding the lottery?

 

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The townspeople are holding a lottery this year because there has always been a lottery at this time of year since time immemorial. Nobody seems to know why the lotteries are held. Even Old Man Warner, the most enthusiastic advocate of tradition, does not seem to know what this annual lottery is all about.

Old Man Warner snorted. "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.

Warner brags about having participated in the annual lottery seventy-seven times. He is the oldest person in attendance and should have some faint recollection of hearing about the meaning and purpose of this event. The saying about "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon" suggests that this ceremony dates far back to the times when human sacrifices were made to fertility gods or goddesses to insure having good crops. That was probably the real original purpose of this lottery many centuries ago. Shirley Jackson wants to illustrate how superstitions get carried on for countless generations although their original purposes have been forgotten. 

The people are holding the lottery, not because they want it to produce something beneficial to the community, but because they are afraid of what might happen if they gave it up. They don't want to test it. Mr. Summers suggests that this drawing is something the people feel they must go through even though they are afraid for themselves, afraid for their families, and afraid of the bloody orgy in which they will have to participate. Mr. Summers is in charge of the lottery. He announces:

"Well, now." Mr. Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work. Anybody ain't here?"

Everybody knows that a man named Clyde Dunbar is not in attendance because he is laid up with a broken leg. This suggests another reason that the people hold the lottery every year. Attendance is mandatory. Being sick is no excuse for not showing up. Each person figures that if he or she must attend the lottery, then nobody else should be able to get out of attending. There is strong group pressure holding this awful thing together. The children are all being taught that they must participate and how to participate. Davie Hutchinson, who is only about two years old, is being indoctrinated by Joe Summers' assistant Mr. Graves.

Read the study guide:
The Lottery

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