What is the significance of Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery"?

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Controversial because of its grisly ending--some readers cancelled their subscriptions when it first appeared in the New Yorker in 1948--Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" has gone on to be anthologized many times over in high school textbooks. Briefly, it tells the story of a group of ordinary and convivial villagers who assemble one fine summer morning to engage in an ancient tradition accompanied by a half-forgotten ritual. It requires the townspeople --divided by the official conveners of the rite into households and families--to draw paper lots from a black box somewhat the worse for wear. A housewife, Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson, draws a paper ballot marked with a black dot, whereupon her erstwhile neighbours and friends close in around her and stone her to death. The power of this short fiction gem lies in the uneasy juxtaposition of homespun and horror. But from this tension rises the author's point. When rituals are uncoupled from the reality they signify--when rite becomes rote--then they descend into violence. In other words, the dead hand of tradition deals out death. A necessary, if bloody ritual sacrifice, meant to restore cosmic fertility, has become desacralized and an excuse for pointless bloodletting.

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The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is about a small town in which its inhabitants have maintained an ancient practice that began with their ancestors. This ancient practice is “the lottery”. In this lottery, the name of a person is drawn from a peculiar box. The event is led and conducted by the town’s elders. The end of the lottery occurs when the person whose name gets drawn gets stoned to death.

Nobody in the village ever questioned the rationale for the lottery, and that is precisely what brings out the depth of its meaning:  The stagnant state of mind that prevents our mental development and leads us to aberration.

The fact that the villagers continued to carry on with a tradition that was outdated, morbid, and made no sense, is indicative of stagnation, ignorance, and lack of common sense. Not questioning the status quo and preserving traditions that serve no purpose are also indicative of a mentality that resists change. Resisting change is conducive to philosophical, psychological, and physical extinction. The lottery, therefore, represents social and psychological stagnation.

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When we think about the significance of any work we have to consider the importance of the message that the author is trying to convey. In this short story, it is clear that what Jackson is doing is challenging our preconceptions and ideas and turning the mirror of what happens in the story on to us by examining the role tradition has in our lives and how it can lead us to engage in practices that are cruel and inhumane.

Old Man Warner is a crucial character to examine in this regard. He, more than any of the other characters, represents the forces of tradition that are against change, even when change is clearly to be preferred. Note what he says about other villages that have abandoned the practice of the lottery:

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.

Note the arguments for maintaining the stasis. According to Old Man Warner, any form of change is wrong and is equivalent to taking humanity back to "living in caves." Also note that the tradition of human sacrifice is linked to good crops. Thus Jackson severely challenges us by making us think of what inhumane practices we carry on doing, year in and year out, under the banner of "tradition." Perhaps, she suggests, we are not so far away from these bloodthirsty villagers than we think.

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