Most people derive enormous benefits from living in a community. From communities, we gain so many of our most important values and traditions. They keep us grounded and greatly facilitate the vital process of socialization. Yet at the same time, communities, especially small ones, can be sites of oppression and mindless conformity, places where individuals deemed not to belong are singled out for ill-treatment and where communal traditions can actually be harmful rather than beneficial. In the kind of community depicted in “The Lottery,” this attitude is taken to extreme lengths in an annual human sacrifice ritual carried out to ensure a good harvest.
Each year, a villager is chosen by way of a lottery to be stoned to death as a sacrificial victim. It's the kind of thing we might have expected from more primitive societies thousands of years ago. But what's particularly frightening about this ritual is that it's taking place in an ordinary, small American town in the twentieth century.
Even so, the dynamics of the ritual are exactly the same and the end result is identical. The community is the source of moral values for its members, but in this case, those values are warped, murderous, and thoroughly evil. The lottery is carried out every year without critique, demonstrating the extent to which peer pressure and tradition can serve to stifle dissent and desensitize individuals to cruelty. In the never-ending struggle between society and the individual, it is society that is emphatically the victor in "The Lottery."
“The Lottery” is forceful illustration of the point made by Sir Max Beerbohm in Zuleika Dobson: that you cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind legs, but by standing a flock of sheep in that position, you can make a crowd of men. It is an eerie fact that everyone in the story is on approximately the same moral level. There are no heroes and no villains. There is a victim, Tessie Hutchinson, but she is just as enthusiastic about the lottery as everyone else until it becomes clear that it is she who is to be pelted with stones. One might argue that Old Man Warner is a little worse than the others in his blind adherence to tradition, or that Mr. Summers is particularly culpable, since he seems to have authority, which he chooses not to employ in the service of common humanity, but these are hair-splitting distinctions. Essentially, the community is like a flock of sheep.
Beerbohm’s friend, Oscar Wilde, also made a highly relevant observation when he said, in a letter from Reading Gaol, that most cruelty is simply stupidity. We tend to think (and literature may well be much to blame for our thinking) that evil is something done by villains, who get up every morning determined to cause havoc in the world. Far more harm is caused by people ignorantly and thoughtlessly doing what they have always done, and there is no older custom in the world than scapegoating.
The moral lessons of “The Lottery,” therefore, are that evil comes of conformity, and that the worst things we do are often things so familiar to us that we do not even trouble to think of them in moral terms or question their value.
The primary message of Shirley Jackson's celebrated short story "The Lottery" concerns the dangers of blindly following traditions. In the story, the entire community gathers in the town square to participate in the annual lottery. During the lottery, the head of each household draws a slip of paper from the ominous black box. The family members of the person who draws the slip of paper with the black spot on it must each draw from the black box. The unlucky family member who draws the black spot is brutally stoned to death by their family, friends, and neighbors.
The community forgets many aspects of the lottery's ritual, and the violent ceremony has superstitious origins which associate the sacrifice of an innocent citizen to an increase in the harvest yield. The community continues to participate in the senseless violent ritual simply because they have always held the lottery. Ignorant traditionalists like Old Man Warner support the ritual and believe that the community would descend into chaos if the lottery were to stop. The meaninglessness of the ritual, its superstitious origins, and the senseless brutality underscores Jackson's primary message which concerns the dangers of blindly following traditions. The moral of the story is that simply because something has always been done does not mean that it is beneficial and should be continued.
One key theme of "The Lottery" is the danger of tradition and blindly following along. The characters in the story simply follow the tradition of the lottery because that is all they have ever done. They don't quite recall how the lottery started. They don't recall all of the original ceremonies. They just perform it as best they can because it has always been done.
An important character to note here is Old Man Warner. He proudly declares that he has survived 77 lotteries. When some of the younger village members bring up the idea that some other places have given up their traditions regarding lotteries, Warner states: "There's always been a lottery." Clearly just because people have always done something justifies its existence in Warner's eyes.
Certainly the villagers must believe murder and violence are wrong, for the village seems a nice, safe place. The villagers seem rational and peaceful enough too. Yet when Mrs. Hutchinson's 'wins' the lottery, the entire community doesn't hesitate to turn on her. No one - other than Hutchinson herself - seems to question what is happening, even-though one must assume that Hutchinson, as part of the community, has helped stone to death previous lottery winners.
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Something else that the author is pointing out is that we need to be aware of the danger of tradition for tradition's sake. Just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean that there is not a better, more efficient, more humane way of dealing with the issue. As times change and technology, etc. advances, our procedures, techniques, and reasons for doing things in a particular way or at a particular time of year should be re-examined.
Certainly this was brought up several times in the story--mostly by the younger members of the community who even cited other towns which had done away with the Lottery altogether. However, the older members countered the proposals with the equivalent of "Poppycock and Balderdash! We have always had a lottery and we always will. It's the way we've always done it. Those other towns are without backbones." And so, the lottery took place and everyone, including the reader, is shocked into speechlessness.
One moral in this story has to do with the nature of violence. Violence can occur anytime, and there is no rhyme or reason to it. The most mild-mannered person can be capable of vicious acts.
This story shows a community of seemingly average, peaceful citizens who participate in a horrific ritual of violence and death voluntarily. The village is shown to be a collection of nice, hardworking people who are appear to be like many typical communities, yet they have a tradition that singles out an individual to be brutalized and killed. These people spend much of their time as neighbors and friends, yet their ritual requires/allows them to randomly choose a person as the target for their cruelty, and it is carried out without conscience or grief.