In The Lottery, why did the lottery originally start for this town? If possible, cite the exact line from the story.  Explain both why it started and why they kept it going for so long. What does...

In The Lottery, why did the lottery originally start for this town? If possible, cite the exact line from the story.  Explain both why it started and why they kept it going for so long. What does it say about the townspeople and the ritual that black box seems to be the only remaining original item?

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akannan's profile pic

Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Part of the beauty in Jackson's short story is that she does not give any direct reason as to why the ritual takes place.  If she did, then it would contextualize the story.  It would remove its impact if she provided an explanation, a way for the reader to distance themselves from the narrative.  She simply presents the lottery as having happened for a long period of time, something that has been accepted by the townspeople.  It is only at the end when Tessie is savagely pummeled does the reader recognize the true horror of not questioning the world that exists around the individual.

The closest that Jackson comes to providing an explanation as to why the lottery takes place in the town is to suggest that it has become part of the rite of passage each year.  In the story's exposition, it is clear that the lottery is seen as a "civic activity," on the same level as "the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program."  The first mention of tradition emerges when the black box is discussed:

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.

The wording is important.  Jackson suggested that "no one liked to upset even as much as tradition as was represented by the black box."  The black box has occupied a sense of importance in the town, almost like a relic whose presence cannot be disrupted.  This affirms the idea that the lottery was seen as a traditional aspect of being in the town, something that was embedded in town life and not to be dismantled lightly.  Such an idea is further confirmed when some idle chatter takes place concerning the possible abolition of the lottery:

“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.”

Old Man Warner, the senior member of the town, speaks to how the lottery started and why it has continued.  The prosperity of the town has been linked to the presence of the lottery.  Old Man Warner conveys the idea that the lottery was and is perceived as essential to the town's progress.  The fact he resoundingly states that "there's always been a lottery" speaks to the importance of the lottery in the minds of the townspeople.  They have sustained the tradition for so long because of fear of upsetting the town's progress and the fear for rejecting something that is so embedded as a part of the town's culture.  

The town's unwillingness to challenge the premise of the lottery speaks to how conformity is a powerful force within individuals.  No one in the town wants to change the conditions around them.  They lack the courage to speak out against the lottery, and are unwilling to change.  It is for this reason that the lottery has continued for so long.  The perception of the lottery as both linked to the town's prosperity is a justification as to continue it.  Jackson does not give a direct reason as to why it started.  However, when Tessie's last words speak to how the practice "isn't fair" and "it isn't right," it becomes clear that the need to target specific individuals in the form of a scapegoat represents a particular aspect behind why the lottery started in the first place.  The town's refusal to change or inability to forge the path to demonstrate what can or should be represents why the ritual started and why it continues.

In this film representation of The Lottery we can see the townsfolk discussing how the lottery has been a longstanding tradition.

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rachellopez's profile pic

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

Posted on

The lottery has a long history in this and surrounding towns. The people who run it—in this town, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves—work hard to preserve the rituals that have been passed down from year to year.

It doesn't give an exact reason for why the lottery started, but it is said to be tradition. The townspeople didn't want to break the tradition, so it just continued to happen. The black box had been passed down and sort of represents the ritual of the lottery. It's been going on for so long, I assume it's the only thing left. 

In my opinion the lottery continues every year because of fear; fear of power and fear of tradition being broken, or change. 

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