What is the purpose of the lottery in the village? Why do people continue to participate?

The purpose of the lottery in the village is unclear, although it is implied that there's a superstition that if the lottery is not held, crops will fail. People continue to participate because it is something they have always done, or perhaps out of the irrational belief that not doing it will lead to negative consequences.

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In Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," the nondescript rural town holds an annual ritual at the end of each June, where the community gathers in the village square to participate in the lottery. On the 27th of each June, the head of every household draws a slip of paper from the ominous black box until someone chooses the slip with the black spot on it. That family then draws additional slips from the black box until someone chooses the black spot. This unlucky family member is brutally stoned to death by the entire community.

The exact purpose of the lottery is ambiguous and even the citizens are not aware of its meaning. Old Man Warner briefly comments on the lottery’s origins by saying, "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon" (5). Warner's comment indicates that the lottery's origins center on a superstitious belief that sacrificing an innocent citizen will increase the harvest yield. This irrational belief underscores the senseless, illogical nature of the ritual.

Warner also expresses the belief that if towns were to discontinue the ritual, everyone would go back to living in caves and chaos would immediately ensue. It is this belief that Jackson illustrates is the primary reason people continue to participate in the senseless ritual.

Jackson's underlying message concerns the dangers of blindly following tradition. Essentially, the citizens refuse to stop participating in the lottery because of their irrational fears. They continue holding the lottery because they feel compelled to adhere to the tradition. Instead of questioning the ritual, exploring its origins, or challenging tradition, the inflexible, intolerant citizens continue senselessly murdering innocent people on an annual basis. Simply put, they continue the lottery because it has always taken place and has become a tradition.

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Ostensibly, the lottery is to determine who will be sacrificed in a pagan harvest ritual. It now seems to survive on inertia. Most villagers can't remember why the lottery is held, and the original props used for it—the box holding the slips of paper, etc., as well as the formal steps of the lottery ritual—have been long lost. People seem to participate reflexively, out of habit.

Some villagers mention that other towns are giving up the lottery. To the older citizens of the village, this is heresy. "There's always been a lottery," says Old Man Warner, who is participating in his 77th lottery. He blames the young citizens for wanting to end it: "Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for awhile."

To the elder villagers, the lottery represents progress, and is vital for the village to survive. The author hints that the lottery is a harvest sacrifice by quoting Old Man Warner: "Used to be a saying about "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.'" Without it, Warner says, "we'd all be eating chickweed and acorns." But the author does not reveal the results of past lotteries nor whether the sacrifice (stoning the loser to death) has always resulted in good crops.

A reasonable assumption would be that there have been years of good harvests and years of poor harvests, despite the lottery. Readers could infer that if the harvest was good, villagers would attribute it to the lottery sacrifice. But if the harvest was bad, the villagers did not make the complementary conclusion that the sacrifice did not work. In this way, it has become a time-honored tradition that no one dares question.

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Upon first glance, there doesn't seem to be much purpose for the lottery. The people in the story seem to remember there was once a reason for the lottery, but the system has been going on for so many years that nobody seems to remember the original purpose of the lottery.  

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.

The above text shows the people of the town are struggling to remember the procedures of the lottery. That seems to indicate that they also forgot the original reason for the lottery.  

Old Man Warner is the best source of information regarding the lottery's original purpose because he lived through many of them.  

"Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery," Old Man Warner said as he went through the crowd. "Seventy-seventh time."

There is a brief moment when Old Man Warner hints at a likely reason for the original lottery.  

"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.

Those lines indicate the original purpose of the lottery was a ritualistic sacrifice in order to secure better crops. Stone a person to death, and the rains will come. The rains will provide a good crop season.  

The people continue to participate in the lottery because they always have. They are blindly following a tradition for the sake of following a tradition. Old Man Warner's quote, "There's always been a lottery," tells readers that he thinks the idea of giving it up is ridiculous. Other people disagree and mention that other towns have stopped the lottery, but, unfortunately for Tessie Hutchinson, the lottery tradition continues for at least this year.

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By the time of the story, the purpose of the lottery is lost in history. Years ago, every community apparently performed a lottery ritual, complete with swearing-in, a chant and salute, and a formal recognition given to each person as s/he came forward to draw from the black box.

Perhaps, at one time, the entire process was seen as an offering of one person's life to the gods on behalf of the entire community. Perhaps it was a primitive form of population control. Perhaps it was seen as a means of resolving conflicts by ensuring that disagreements would never escalate to a serious degree.

At any rate, by the time of the story, the lottery serves no purpose but to fulfill the unquestioned tradition that required it. The people acccept it as an important procedure that must be followed according to the history from which it has drawn, not requiring any rational reason for its continuation.


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