What is the theme of "The Lottery?"

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Lottery," there are contrasting themes of tradition and randomness.

The primary tradition in the story is the lottery itself, a yearly ritual performed by the community to decide who will be sacrificed. As readers, we are horrified by this idea, but the point that Jackson is trying to make is that people become accustomed to certain ways of living—even those that are horrible.

This is an easy point to understand when looking at history. Think, for instance, of how many Americans used to own slaves and thought of this practice as perfectly acceptable. They were able to do so because it was the only way of life they had ever known; they did not have the hindsight that we possess today. Most likely, the people of the future will look back on us today and be horrified in a similar way by our behaviors.

What is interesting about the people in "The Lottery" is that they complicate their deeply ingrained tradition by utilizing randomness. The randomness comes in the form of the lottery itself; the lottery ensures that the person who is sacrificed is chosen arbitrarily. In other words, it is a hardened tradition that is paradoxically contingent upon the random. Or at least it seems that way.

If we look carefully at the story, we find that the tradition may not be as sacred as the town officials initially lead us to believe. For instance, we are told that "much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded" and that, this year, "Mr Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations." By giving the reader these details, Jackson makes us ask: How sacred is the ritual if town officials are able to change things according to their own discretion? Also, how random is this ritual? Could town officials be cheating by removing their own names from consideration?

Ultimately, all of these things are left unresolved. But by asking these questions, Jackson urges us to think about our own habits and traditions from the position of an outsider.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the main themes in "The Lottery" is the cult of tradition. People do things out of habit on a daily and even yearly basis. Habits become rituals which can become traditions. When social institutions (such as a church, government, or company) establish traditions, they become rituals. After so much time has passed, people find it difficult to part with tradition, no matter what it is.

There are whispers in the crowd from people who've heard that other towns are no longer doing the lottery. Of course, the oldest villager, Old Man Warner, the one most steeped in tradition (and a stubborn lack of common sense and morality), scoffs at the idea of no lottery.

"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 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.

Old Man Warner never gives a reason why the lottery is performed. He just says it's always been. In this case, a tradition such as this ritual is not performed to honor a worthwhile historical event or some cultural figure. For these people, the ritual is done for its own sake. It is a mindless adherence to a ritual and it is a cult of tradition.

Some traditions should be celebrated. But traditions and rituals which do harm should obviously be dropped. This seems like an obvious point to make, but there are traditions and/or traditional beliefs today that some people think are harmful. For example, some people think that the "traditional" notion of marriage is between a man and a woman. However, many people believe that this tradition needs to change to include same sex marriages. Those who oppose same sex marriage use religious doctrine and procreation as their arguments, but they also tend to use the empty argument: "That's the way it's always been."

Here is another example. Some people think that the Confederate flag is offensive, but many southerners feel that it is part of their tradition.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial