What is the subject of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson?

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amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In "The Lottery," there is a small town of about 300 people. They are all gathered in the town square for a ritual. Every June, Mr. Summers draws names from a box and one unlucky person is stoned to death. They perform this ritual because it has "always" been done. We (readers) never get a full explanation as to why the ritual is performed, what its origins are, or what symbolism it holds. The ritual is therefore, without any explanation, absurd, violent, and immoral. It resembles ancient rituals where/when leaders sacrificed others to appease the gods. This story is sent in much more modern times which we can tell by the clothing (Mr. Summers "in his clean white shirt and blue jeans). This further begs the question: why do they continue with this ritual? 

During the ritual, Mr. Adams mentions that some towns have stopped performing the lottery. Old Man Warner replies that such a thing is foolish. Yet, the only justification he offers for the lottery is that "There's always been a lottery." Here we have the real subject/theme of the story: tradition for tradition's sake. Old Man Warner seems to think that if the lottery ceases to be performed, the society will devolve. It is ironic because the town's inability to stop the lottery shows their unwillingness to evolve. They continue to perform the lottery simply out of habit. This unwillingness to change and/or question authority and tradition is the problem. The lesson is that in order to evolve, individuals and social institutions must be willing to change, certainly when traditional practices are senseless and damaging to innocent people. 

This tale seems absurd because there is no good justification for this barbaric ritual. However absurd it sounds, it bears analogous resemblance to actual traditions which also hurt innocent people for no good reason. Consider that prior to the American Civil War, slavery was legal. Or, consider the proponents of same sex marriage are faced with the same justification of Old Man Warner: it's always been a certain way. This story is about the ethical need for a society to be willing to change; particularly in opposition to practices and beliefs which damage the innocent. Tradition for tradition's sake must be justified. If it can not be justified, it must be changed. 

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rachellopez's profile pic

rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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This short story is about a small town that has gathered for their annual "lottery", which has been going on for quite a while. You' think a lottery is good (yay money), when in fact this isn't a good lottery. When everyone has arrived, the head of the family (usually the male) draws a piece of paper from a black box. One of the sips of paper is marked with a black dot and whoever gets this is the "winner". Bill Hutchinson drew the paper with the dot, which resulted in his family each drawing another slip. Tessie, his wife, received the paper with the dot, and was then stoned by the villagers. Great lottery, huh? Why would they continue this lottery even if it was morally wrong? It's tradition, they said. This short story has a lot to do with ethics and morals (it's actually one of my favorite short stories).

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