What point is Shirley Jackson making about certain kinds of rituals and traditions in her short story "The Lottery"?
Shirley Jackson's much-anthologized short story "The Lottery" is a particularly traumatic transaction between reader and text. Through its narrative, the reader is relentlessly and finally compelled to ask the hitherto taboo question: 'How much is our society also laced with mindless, but brutal traditions?' To do this Jackson first lulls the reader into assimilating the pleasant, even prosaic behaviour of a nameless small town. On a benign early summer day the villagers have paused in their affairs to participate in a traditional lottery:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.
As it unfolds, the narrative - as if creating a tapestry - stitches in more and more apparently innocuous details. But at a certain point, earlier for some, later for others, the reader begins to realize that winning the lottery is not the lucky event one would expect. Inexorably the reader has been brought into the circle of townspeople who pick up stones to execute the unwilling winner of the lottery, Tessie Hutchinson. At the same time, the reader recalls that details overlooked have been preparation for the acceptance of ritual sacrifice. This was alluded to, but dismissed in an earlier reader/text transaction when Old Man Warner, the village's outspoken redneck opines: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." The reader, in some consternation, realizes that he or she has become an unwilling participant and victim of an age-old ritual of scapegoating, now moribund, where only the bloodlust remains. Herein lies the reader's trauma which constitutes an essential part of the meaning of the story.
One of the central themes of this excellent and chillingly brilliant short story is the way that traditions and rituals can control us and how blind adherence to them can cause us to commit horrendous atrocities. If you read through the story again carefully, this theme is best presented through the character of Old Man Warner, who acts in the story as the bastion of tradition and blind adherence to what has always been done, and suspicion of any form of change. One of the most telling remarks he makes is in response to Mr. Adams, who says that there are some villages who are talking about giving up the practice of the lottery that still has such importance to their village:
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 anymore, 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.
Thus speaks the voice of tradition, who equates any form of modernisation or change with a step backwards to the dark ages when men lived in caves. His "petulant" voice at the end perhaps suggests how ridiculous this approach is, and yet it is enough to ensure that the village keeps practising the tradition of the lottery and thus they commit a barbaric crime that all are involved in for the sake of tradition. Thus Jackson turns the story on us, asking us to think long and hard about why we do what we do, and if we have a similar slavish adherence to something that has actually dulled our moral values and causes us to commit a crime against humanity.