Why are the townspeople holding the lottery?

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Jackson explores the dangers of blindly following tradition throughout her classic short story "The Lottery ." The unnamed community in Jackson's short story holds an annual lottery at the end of each June, where one unlucky citizen becomes the village scapegoat and is brutally stoned to death after drawing...

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Jackson explores the dangers of blindly following tradition throughout her classic short story "The Lottery." The unnamed community in Jackson's short story holds an annual lottery at the end of each June, where one unlucky citizen becomes the village scapegoat and is brutally stoned to death after drawing a slip of paper with a black spot on it. The lottery's origins are steeped in the superstitious belief that one innocent villager must be sacrificed each year in order to increase the harvest yield. Despite the irrational belief associated with the lottery's inception, the village continues to participate in the brutal, senseless ritual each year.

Older members of the community like Old Man Warner express their disapproval that neighboring villages have stopped holding the lottery and fear that everyone in their village will go back to living in caves if they stop carrying out the tradition. Warner's irrational beliefs underscore the senseless nature of the ritual. The sacrificial slaughter of an innocent civilian does nothing to improve the community and does not contribute to society whatsoever. The audience experiences sympathy for Tessie Hutchinson and acknowledges Jackson's underlying message concerning the dangers of blindly following tradition. Simply put, the villagers continue to participate in the lottery because it is a tradition. Some fear that ending the lottery will negatively impact the community but the majority of citizens carry out the ritual because it has always taken place.

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The town in this story continues to hold the lottery only because it is what they have always done.  These are a people who are terribly beholden to tradition, and they do not like change -- even change that seems small.  The wooden box used in the proceedings is in poor shape, and the man who runs the lottery has suggested that they make a new box, "but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box."  In other words, if the thought of exchanging the old box for a new one is too much of a break from tradition for the people, there's no possible way that they could ever consider changing the tradition of holding the lottery itself. 

Of course, one might imagine, each year, that there is one new objector: whichever person is chosen in the lottery.  Initially, Tessie Hutchinson has no problem with it and comes from her home as relatively cheerful as the rest (considering what they are about to do).  However, once she realizes that she will be the one to die, her tune changes.  "'It isn't fair, it isn't right,' Mrs. Hutchinson screamed [...]."  We might imagine that this is part of the tradition too: it seems only natural that the person chosen to die would suddenly find this lottery not to their liking.  Only the victim rises above complacency.  The story, then, really functions as an indictment of outdated traditions that benefit no one as well as the people who continue to uphold those traditions without critically examining their value (or lack thereof).

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The townspeople are holding the lottery in part out of tradition and in part, also, out of fear. The lottery has become so entrenched in society that it has become like a cultural cliche--it is done without thought or question. The connection with the corn and the harvest likens back to earlier civilizations (like the Mayans) who ritually sacrificed people in order to please the gods and to ensure the success of their crops. Readers would be expected to look upon these sacrifices as archaic and inhumane, as we would also be expected to look upon this lottery, and upon any inhumane practice that was performed more out of habit or ritual than thought or reason.

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In the Shirley Jackson story "The Lottery," the townspeople conduct the lottery annually out of tradition. Apparently towns nearby conduct similar annual events without question to the ethics or morality. The turn at the end of the story shows the real purpose of the lottery is not for a prize or a reward before a violent stoning of the holder of the marked ticket.

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The townspeople are holding a lottery this year because there has always been a lottery at this time of year since time immemorial. Nobody seems to know why the lotteries are held. Even Old Man Warner, the most enthusiastic advocate of tradition, does not seem to know what this annual lottery is all about.

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 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.

Warner brags about having participated in the annual lottery seventy-seven times. He is the oldest person in attendance and should have some faint recollection of hearing about the meaning and purpose of this event. The saying about "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon" suggests that this ceremony dates far back to the times when human sacrifices were made to fertility gods or goddesses to insure having good crops. That was probably the real original purpose of this lottery many centuries ago. Shirley Jackson wants to illustrate how superstitions get carried on for countless generations although their original purposes have been forgotten. 

The people are holding the lottery, not because they want it to produce something beneficial to the community, but because they are afraid of what might happen if they gave it up. They don't want to test it. Mr. Summers suggests that this drawing is something the people feel they must go through even though they are afraid for themselves, afraid for their families, and afraid of the bloody orgy in which they will have to participate. Mr. Summers is in charge of the lottery. He announces:

"Well, now." Mr. Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work. Anybody ain't here?"

Everybody knows that a man named Clyde Dunbar is not in attendance because he is laid up with a broken leg. This suggests another reason that the people hold the lottery every year. Attendance is mandatory. Being sick is no excuse for not showing up. Each person figures that if he or she must attend the lottery, then nobody else should be able to get out of attending. There is strong group pressure holding this awful thing together. The children are all being taught that they must participate and how to participate. Davie Hutchinson, who is only about two years old, is being indoctrinated by Joe Summers' assistant Mr. Graves.

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