What does “the black box” in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson represent symbolically? How are the traditions in this story both similar to and different from one modern tradition? 

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a classic story full of irony, which is of course one of the reasons it is so popular. We are introduced to a small, pleasant-enough town on a special day--the day they conduct the lottery. The atmosphere seems festive and the people seem happy to be in attendance, though there are many small foreshadowings along the way to indicate something different is about to happen.

The primary theme of the story concerns the mindless adherence to rituals, and that is symbolically represented most by the black box. The black box is the focal point of the lottery. At one time the ceremony was much more involved and intricate, but the only significant element of the lottery that has survived is the black box which contains all of the pieces of paper which the citizens will draw. 

The current black box is not the original one, though pieces from the old box have always been used to make the new one until the time of this box. When it gets too worn or dilapidated, it will no doubt be used to make the next version of the black box. Some have talked about replacing the black box; however, the unsurprising consensus is to keep it as is. Clearly they do not care about the actual box, at least based on how they treat it. 

It had spent one year in Mr. Graves's barn and another year underfoot in the post office and sometimes it was set on a shelf in the Martin grocery and left there 

Think of this box symbolically as representing the tradition which these townspeople do not really understand and no longer has any current meaning, yet they are unwilling to give it up simply because it has become a town tradition. 

No one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

Think of this box also as ridiculous loyalty to something that does not deserve it, either by its composition, its looks, or its function. Oddly enough, the people are extremely loyal to this box but do not care at all that they now use slips of paper rather than wood chips. How do they choose which of the lottery traditions to follow? Even the townspeople could not answer that question with any clarity or unity.

The lottery can be compared to all kinds of traditions, beliefs, and ideas--which are followed or believed simply because they have always been followed or believed. It is a rather silly example, but I think of the mother who always cuts the ends off the roast before putting it in the roasting pan to cook. When her daughter asks her why she cuts off the ends of the roast, the mother says she does it because her mother did it. When the daughter asks her grandmother to clarify the tradition of cutting off the the ends of the roast, the grandmother gives a very simple explanation: I cut off the ends of the roast because that is the only way it would fit in the pan.

Take any erroneous belief, such as the horribly inaccurate idea that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people, and you will find this same principle. Many who believe such lies do so because that is simply what they were taught and they have mindlessly believed it, never questioning and never doubting. Following a cult or a gang leader without question is similar, as is the adherence to certain radical terrorist beliefs. On a lighter note, how about celebrating a holiday such as St. Patrick's Day without any real connection to St. Patrick or any idea why he was ever important. Anything we do mindlessly and routinely is an apt comparison to the lottery. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When "The Lottery" was first published, people wrote Shirley Jackson asking the town where this ritual was practiced. Of course, many of these people were sadistic and wished to personally watch the stonings; for, there is something inherent in humankind which enjoys violence. 

One such practice that follows this sadistic nature of mankind is a Spanish one of the blood sport of goose head pulling, still conducted today. A goose with a greased neck is suspended from a horizontal pole held up by two parallel poles widely apart. Participants in this sport charge on horseback under the pole, attempting to wrench off the neck of the goose. He/She who is successful at ripping off the head is the "noble hero" of the day.

In another cruel Spanish ritual, a donkey is directed through the town with a heavy, drunken man astride him. As he passes spectators, the donkey is beaten and crushed by spectators. Traditionally, the donkey symbolizes a convicted criminal who was executed in the village, so people try to kill the animal. This "festival" is called Pero Paloand. This festival continues yet today, but animal protection organizations have, at least, managed to protect the donkey from not being killed.

The mindlessness of following tradition is exemplified in many ways yet today. One such way this is done in the United States in exemplified in the manner in which people vote, as, for instance, generation after generation often votes blindly for one political party mainly because doing so has been done traditionally in that family, despite the negative costs to them economically or socially now that the families are in different socio-economic circumstances and/or the political philosophy of their traditional party has changed. Certainly, these voters remind the reader of Old Man Warner's words, 

"Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery..."

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The Lottery

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