What are the symbols in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are a few significant symbols in "The Lottery":

The lottery-

The lottery, held every June, is a ritual that the villages follow. It symbolizes what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil." In other words, people in the different villages have become accepting of this cruel custom and think of it as a routine without feeling any moral repulsion. Often, too, there exists in the human being, a propensity for violence, as well as what Emerson termed, "the opium of custom." Just because the lottery has always been conducted, Old Man Warner believes it should continue. When one man tells him that some places have stopped having their lottery, Warner grumbles that doing so is foolish for the simple reason that "There's always been a lottery."

The black box-

Suggestive of a coffin, the black box contains the slips which are drawn by the villagers to determine who will be stoned. Since it contains every name in the village, no one escapes the lottery. It is stored each year in a specific place and brought out for the annual ceremony; the box is much like certain religious boxes that contain a ceremonial item.

The three-legged stool-

The black box is always set upon the three-legged stool. 

Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, held it securely on the stool until Mr. Summers had stirred the paper thoroughly with his hand. However, much of the ritual has been forgotten.

The stool acts as a symbol of historical and religious trios such as the Trinity and the Three Fates. The use of this old-fashioned stool also underscores the idea of tradition.

The stones-

Suggestive of the barbarism of the lottery, stoning is an ancient method of conducting a cruel and slow death. The stones, then, may symbolize the innate cruelty of humans. For instance, Mrs. Delacroix is friendly toward Tessie Hutchinson as they wait to learn whose name is drawn. However, after Tessie is named as the victim and she complains, Mrs. Delacroix calls out, "Be a good sport, Tessie...." Then, when the stoning begins,

Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands....

The people of Mrs. Hutchinson's community are so entrenched in tradition they have lost their individual qualities and their senses.

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lentzk's profile pic

Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The white slips of paper symbolize equality among the villagers; all are susceptible to the dire fate of the lottery winner.  Even when Tessie protests her husband Bill's drawing of the marked slip, one of the villagers reminds her "All of us took the same chance."  Just as the black box portends death, the slips found inside represent the inescapable quality of death; none may escape, regardless of status or virtue. 

The three legged stool supports the ominous black box and easily represents the tradition of the lottery.  The narrator observes that the "villagers kept their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool."  While the villagers acknowledge the presence of the stool, none feel inclined to move closer; their fear distances them from the stool and the tradition of the lottery.  Even so, the stool still remains as it supports the dreaded black box; in this way, the reader can understand the conflict of the villagers keeping a tradition that nobody supports or enjoys versus their collective fear of removing it all together.

The stones symbolize death, but also the villagers' unanimous support of the lottery tradition.  Even as Tessie protests the drawing, the villagers collect their stones and move in to throw them.  In many ways, throwing the stones equates to the villagers casting their ballot in favor of the continued use of the lottery.  In the hands of both the old and the very young, the reader can determine that the lottery will continue to be an accepted tradition by future generations. 

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pirateteacher's profile pic

pirateteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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In "The Lottery" the black box itself is a symbol.  When the unnamed narrator mentions the box.  No one in the town remembers the original box, so the current box they are using, which is also old and warn, is a replacement box.

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. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

This old box represents the tradition of the lottery itself.  No one really knows how the lottery began, but they keep following through with it, because it is what has always been done.

Also, the lottery itself is a symbol.  It symbolizes the harsh traditions of our society, many of which we carry out daily without knowing why. People go through the rites the way most people wash their hands.  They do not know why they do what they do, yet they continue with the ceremony that results in the death of a friend and neighbor. 

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