In "The Lottery," why do the townspeople participate in the lottery?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a very good question. In fact, it might be said to be the principal theme and question of Shirley Jackson's famous story. Why do the townspeople continue to participate in this gruesome lottery year after year when they should realize they are acting only under the influence of the grossest kind of ignorance and superstition?

The story is apparently set in the heartland of America. Since the lottery is intended, like some ancient Aztec ritual involving human sacrifice, to assure a good corn crop, it would seem to be taking place in the "Corn Belt," which runs from eastern Nebraska, through Iowa, and into Illinois. Most likely the exact location of this small town is in Iowa. An unusual feature is that these people seem so isolated from the rest of America. The story seems to be set in the present, but the townspeople seem to know nothing about the outside world. They are like the inhabitants of H. G.Wells' story "The Country of the Blind" who are completely isolated in their valley.

There are indications that some of the townspeople are just beginning to consider the possibility of giving up the annual lottery.

The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, "I hope it's not Nancy," and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.

Why does she have to whisper? She is a young girl. If the lottery is ever abolished, it will be the young who will have to take the lead. Old Man Warner represents authority and tradition. He won't even listen to rumors that people in other towns have already given up their lotteries.

"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 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.

This last observation by the oldest citizen is one of the most telling points: There has to be a lottery because there has always been a lottery. The townspeople continue to participate because they have been indoctrinated as children to believe that it is necessary for the common good. As the children become adults, they pass on their superstition to their own children, who accept it on trust, and this continues for generation after generation. Change comes slowly because these people seem to be so isolated, even though they are living in the middle of the United States. This is one of the strangest things about Shirley Jackson's story. She does not attempt to explain why her characters are so cut off from more enlightened ideas; she just assumes this as a "given."

Old man Warner is strongly in favor of the lottery because he has participated all his life and has never drawn the losing slip. It makes him feel immortal.

"Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery," Old Man Warner said as he went through the crowd. "Seventy-seventh time."

If the lottery were abolished, what would be the point of his having risked his life all those years? What else would he have to brag about?

Tessie Hutchinson, on the other hand, sees the terrible wickedness and stupidity of the lottery when she happens to draw the slip with the black spot on it.

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

Why do the townspeople participate in the lottery? Shirley Jackson is asking us the same question.