What does the black box symbolize in "The Lottery"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Lottery," Jackson says that the black box represents tradition, hence the villagers' reluctance to replace it, despite its shabbiness. The box also implicitly symbolizes death. This symbolic aspect of the box, however, comes more from its function than its form. Its blackness symbolizes death. The story that it was made with pieces of the original box, used when the village was first founded, symbolizes tradition. The shabby, decrepit state of the box shows that this tradition is outworn and useless, if it ever had a use. The way the box is employed in conducting the lottery, however, symbolizes something which might grandiosely by called fate or destiny, but is more accurately called dumb luck.

This dumb luck is the antithesis of both civilization and the American dream. Dumb luck decrees that individuals have no agency. If you are born to wealthy parents who care for you assiduously, you will be rich and happy without ever exerting the slightest effort. If you are born in the mud, you will die in the mud. Nothing you do makes the slightest difference. Nothing Tessie Hutchinson does makes the slightest difference before or after her name has been drawn. She is purely the victim of bad luck.

It is no exaggeration to say that the progress of civilization has been a history of warfare against this idea. We judge a society as civilized if someone who is born without any particular advantages, someone like Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln, can triumph by perseverance, hard work and talent. Although this is a mark of civilization generally, it is particularly vital in America, a land traditionally without hereditary titles and a stratified class system. The idea that your life or death depends merely upon the luck of the draw, rather than on anything you can influence by your own words or conduct: this idea goes against everything Americans of all political persuasions have historically revered, and it is this that is symbolized by the shabby old black box.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As stated in the previous answer, the black box symbolizes death. The color black is associated with death and mourning in the Western world. Most of the villagers fear the black box. Out of it, a death sentence comes. After it is placed on a stool for the ritualistic drawing of the lottery slips, we are shown the villagers' fear and awe.

The villagers kept their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool.

The box also symbolizes a superstitious ritual that has outlived its usefulness. The villagers now use a second box made out of pieces of the first, but even this one is starting to fall apart.

The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

All of this description symbolizes how outworn this ritual is.

The text is at pains to show that the villagers have forgotten much of the ritual. They change it when they need to: for example, they have replaced the original wood chips in the box with slips of paper. The box has no set home during the year but is stored with different people, including Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves, and Mr. Martin on his grocery shelf. This shows that the community as a whole is complicit in hanging onto this tradition, even as it grows more careless in maintaining the details of it.

The box, splintered, rebuilt, faded, and stained, symbolizes the way people will hang on to a destructive practice far too long. The villagers clearly could make a decision to change the central sacrifice that the box symbolizes into a more symbolic and less destructive ritual. We know this because they have changed other aspects of the ritual. Yet they go on mindlessly clinging to the most destructive aspects of a superstition. The story as a whole encourages us to look at what mindless rituals or destructive traditions we might want to get rid of in our own society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Lottery--Shirley Jackson

The black box in "The Lottery" represents tradition. According to the story, Mr. Summers often suggested making a new box, as the black box was shabby, but no one wanted to do anything. The reason for this is given; no one wanted to tamper with tradition. Here is what the text says:

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. 

Furthermore, we can see how much the people venerated the box, because the current black box was made with original pieces of the first one. Here is what the text says:

There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here.

The accent on tradition is important, because the village continues this ritualistic murder based on tradition. No one really knows why they continue the lottery. All they know is that they have been doing it for a long time. 

In addition to this point, the box also symbolizes death. When people draw from the black box, they are drawing more than a piece of paper. They are drawing to see who will die. In this sense, the black box symbolizes death. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial