What is the theme/ the central idea of "The Lottery"?

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pirateteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Lottery" has several themes throughout its short story dealing with violence, cruelty of human nature, victim and victimization, and even classic gender roles.  However, I've always felt that the central theme deals with the dangers of blindly accepting actions as just custom or tradition.

In her story, Jackson details a normal June day that could easily happen in any city in the country.  The people pause from their daily routines to take partake in the annual Lottery.  While the reader doesn't know the background of the lottery, they follow the townspeople as they gather in the center of town and prepare.

As they set up the black box, the narrator pauses to comment on it.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

Here were see our first sign of tradition and custom without any real reason.  The box is old, and not even the original box, but no one wants to upset tradition and change it.

As the lottery continues, the town begins nervously talking and the reader sees some younger people considering changes to the system, while the older citizens are upset about any changes.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up 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 hat 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. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."

In the end of the story, the town continues with it's traditional lottery, and another member of their town "wins" and is summarily stoned to death.

This leaves the reader to think about their own customs and traditions.  Do we know the why behind everything we do? 

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another central idea or theme of "The Lottery" is that of gender roles. Specifically, Jackson highlights the different view and treatment of men and women. In the second paragraph, for example, you'll notice that the boys are the first to gather piles of stones while the girls are sidelined, talking amongst themselves. The boys, therefore, are subtly characterized as the natural leaders and organizers of this ritual.

In addition, when Mrs. Dunbar volunteers to draw for her husband, Mr. Summers asks if she has a boy to do it for her. In this society, then, young boys are valued more highly than adult women, which is symptomatic of a deep-rooted sense of patriarchy.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this theme is the fact that the winner of the lottery is Tessie Hutchinson. Notice how Tessie is characterized in the story. She is late, for example, and heartily complains about being the winner. By making Tessie the scapegoat of this story, Jackson makes a wider point about the treatment of women in society—particularly those who dare to speak out against patriarchal traditions.

The fact that Tessie is powerless to stop herself from being stoned is also important because it suggests that women will never have the same power or influence as their male counterparts.