Was "The Lottery" always that way (where in story), and what does it say about contemporary practices?

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jseligmann eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here's how it was in the past:

at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. 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, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.

Yes, it was more ritualized then, more like a ceremony, and a lot more solemn. The lottery is still the same in terms of what and how it is done, and certainly the result is the same. Some of the old trappings have slowly faded into legend, but the point is this: it was done in the past, it served those people well enough, so it is good and should not be abandoned.

At some point there is talk in the crowd that some other town was thinking of giving up the lottery. The reaction of an old timer is quite telling:

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 hat 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. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."

Here's the same idea as The Lottery:

The Five Monkeys

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water. After awhile, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, if another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs.

Why not? Because that is the way it has always been.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well, we do not know if the lottery had "always" been done.  However, we do know that it had been going on for a very long time. As you can see from the quote below, even some of the stuff used now (which was not original) has been in use for a very long time.

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.

I'm not sure what you mean by contemporary practices -- if you mean how the lottery is conducted in the time of the story.  If so, the lottery has been changed in a few ways even in this town.  They don't use wood chips anymore.  Instead they use paper.  So minor things like that have changed.  Some villages have actually stopped doing the lottery altogether.

epollock | Student


The ritual traces of the lottery are mentioned in paragraphs 5, 7, 13, 32, and 49. It would appear that elements such as the jingle, and the former use of wood chips in the lottery, suggest an earlier, more formalized procedure. One can see common contemporary examples of anachronistic rituals,such as touching wood, throwing salt over one’s left shoulder, dreading the breaking of a mirror, or fearing a black cat crossing one’s path. A readers should be able to supply many other residual superstitions. The casual way in which the town went about the lottery suggest a powerful and dramatic conclusion.