What is the thesis of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"?

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The thesis, or theme, of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is that mindlessly following tradition can be destructive. Villagers in this story, fearing change, cling to a superstitious tradition of human sacrifice that has no real value.

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The thesis—or, more precisely, the theme—of "The Lottery" presents tradition as a destructive force in a community. In this story, the residents of a New England village cling to a tradition of annual human sacrifice. At one time, presumably before the advent of modern science and presumably when life was harder for the new settlers, the villagers fell back on the superstitious belief that they would have a good harvest if they selected and stoned to death one member of their community each June.

While the origins of the custom are lost in history, we know the tradition dates back to well before the birth of the oldest villager. Though the villagers must now know by the mid-twentieth century that there is no logical reason to maintain this custom, they do so anyway.

The story is chilling because this tradition has been so normalized. Children are let out of school and gather piles of stones on a beautiful day, as if this community killing is a happy and festive occasion. Tessie Hutchinson goes along with the lottery until she is chosen as its victim, at which point she decides it is unfair. This points to a second theme of the story: it is important to stand up to cruel practices, because you could easily become the next victim.

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What is the central idea in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson?

Shirley Jackson issues a warning to be an independent thinker in her story “The Lottery.” Everyone goes along with the lottery merely because it is a tradition. No one ever thinks about what is really happening—each year they are killing one of their loved ones.

People gather on what seems to be an ordinary sunny day: the men discuss crops and taxes, the women gossip, and the children “broke into boisterous play.” There is no indication that anything terrible is about to happen. The lottery is an annual tradition, with specific rituals observed. It happens on June 27, Mr. Summers oversees it, a specific box is used to hold the slips of paper. The box is falling apart, but although people talk about replacing it, “no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.” The town is heavily influenced by custom. No one evaluates the true purpose and the effect of the lottery.

In fact, the purpose of this particular tradition should be discussed so that people would see the ritual for what it really is: sanctioned murder. The narrator hints at the original purpose with Old Man Warner’s saying: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” If indeed the lottery was originally put in place as a sort of sacrifice to the gods for a good crop season, why is it now continued? Anyone who questions it is immediately dismissed. Another town that might abolish the tradition is considered to be a “pack of crazy fools” because “there’s always been a lottery.”

Tessie is excited about the lottery, just like everyone else, until she wins. Then she is hit with an epiphany: this tradition is not such a good one after all. But it’s too late, and her pleas of “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” go unheard. In fact, her young son Davy is part of the crowd that stones her. The children are not exempt from this barbaric ritual, which Jackson hints will continue as long as people hide from free thought.

Jackson’s message is this: think for yourself instead of blindly following tradition. People are afraid to think about why the lottery is continued, perhaps because they fear what they will learn. Juxtaposing the neighboring town, which considers breaking free of custom, with people like Old Man Warner, who fiercely adheres to ritual, highlights the ignorance of not thinking for oneself.

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What is the central idea in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson?

The central idea of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" concerns the dangers of blindly following traditions. In the short story, a community gathers in their town square to participate in the annual lottery. The citizens draw slips from an ominous black box, and whoever picks the slip of paper with a black spot on it is stoned to death by their family, friends, and neighbors. Tragically, Tessie Hutchinson "wins" the lottery and is violently stoned to death by her community members. This barbaric tradition is horrifying, senseless, and outdated. The fact that much of the ritual involved in the ceremony is forgotten (the beginning of the lottery is apparently connected to the superstitious belief that an innocent person's blood will increase the harvest yield) emphasizes Jackson's message concerning the dangers of blindly following traditions. Traditionalists like Old Man Warner believe that stopping the lottery would be ridiculous. Old Man Warner even refers to the northern villages that have put an end to the tradition as a "Pack of crazy fools," which is ironic; to us, the northern citizens appear progressive and rational for stopping the barbaric tradition. Tessie Hutchinson's senseless, horrific death at the end of the story highlights Jackson's message about the dangers of blindly following tradition.

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What is the central idea in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson?

There are, I'm sure, differing opinions on this, but most people see the central idea of "The Lottery" as the idea that blind adherence to tradition and to authority is a very bad idea, for individuals or for communities.  This is a story in which people participate in a ritual that ends in the certain death of one of their own, and no one in the story even knows why! Yet they all happily follow Mr. Summer's instructions, to the bitter end.  I have read that Jackson had Nazi Germany in her mind as she wrote this story, as an answer to the question of how in the world people could live within a few miles of a concentration camp and be completely unaware that Jews, Gypsies, and many others were being slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands. The story does to some degree explain this, but its theme is really universal, telling us that even in the loveliest and most innocent-seeming of villages, there is a price to be paid for not questioning tradition and not thinking for oneself.  

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What do you think Shirley Jackson is driving at in "The Lottery"?

Jackson is driving at a couple key themes.  One of the main ones is simply the danger of conformity.  Look at how the villagers are perfectly willing to abandon their individual daily activities to unite for such a violent tradition/ceremony.  Old Man Warner personifies this theme well.  He comments how there has always been a lottery and there should always be one.  He simply follows the tradition because it has always been in place.  Mrs. Hutchinson did so too, until it was her turn to face the consequences of winning the lottery.  When this happens, her entire family - and community - turns on her for the sake of tradition, and they all take part in killing her.

Another key theme is the human capacity for violence and cruelty.  Again the community doesn't question such a violent tradition.  They just obediently follow along.  The fact that villagers can be so normal and docile one moment, and then turn on a fellow villager so cruelly a few minutes later is truly shocking.  This theme is further highlighted by the excellent article by Shirley Jackson stating the fallout and repercussions of publishing her story in 1948.  Click on the last link below for access to the article.  The final paragraph of that article is just as shocking as Jackson's story itself, for it elaborates on what some of Jackson's readers really wanted to know about the lottery.

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What do you think Shirley Jackson is driving at in "The Lottery"?

The focus on this story is how the power of tradition can blind us and force us to commit horrendous and unforgivable acts of barbarity and terror. If you re-read the story, note how emphasis is placed on the importance of carrying out the Lottery and how other communities have stopped practising it, much to the chagrin of the townspeople.

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What do you think Shirley Jackson is driving at in "The Lottery"?

Clearly she has illuminated how the darkness of ignorance quite frequently ends in horrifying results. The community is mired in the ignorance of how things have always been. They refuse to move along towards enlightenment as other communities have. In addition, she highlights the danger of blindly following the ignorance of tradition for tradition's sake.

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What do you think Shirley Jackson is driving at in "The Lottery"?

She is obviously against tradition for tradition's sake.  People have long forgotten the reason the lottery was started (much like the feud between the infamous Hatfields and McCoys), yet it continues on without much of a rebellion.

She is also yelling loudly against conformity.  Refuse to be a lemming!  Be a leader, think for yourself, do not participate in a lottery just because that's the way it's always been.  Move!

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What issues does Shirley Jackson raise in "The Lottery"?

Some believe Jackson was delving into the question of the Holocaust. She wanted to know how the people of Poland, Germany and other countries could know what was going on in the next town, or in their own, and not lift a finger to help. How could humans sink to a level where they could watch woman, children, or the elderly, those who society have been taught to protect, and do nothing. Perhaps because humans are inherently selfish when it comes to their safety. Perhaps humans are truly cowards at heart.

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What issues does Shirley Jackson raise in "The Lottery"?

I think that one of the most profound and intense issues that comes out of the short story is how the notion of the "banality of evil" is approached.  There is a desensitizing effect to the lottery in the small town that strikes the reader as shocking.  The question as to why no one speaks out against such an inhumane practice is what the reader is left to assess.  Yet, the most profound implications are not in the story.  When the reader has to gauge what happened in the story, the most logical consequence is to introspectively examine the role of the reader in the narrative.  What would be done if we were Tessie in a similar situation?  What would be done if we were to encounter an Old Man Warner in a parallel predicament?  Do we possess the courage to speak out against something we know is wrong when we see it or would be remain silent, being more comfortable in progressing with the group?  These are issues that are raised in the short story.  They strike at the very essence of who we are, in what we believe, and how we approach the presence of evil, no matter how banal it may be, in our own lives.  Jackson creates a story that operates more as a looking glass, more of a mirror, into our own sense of identity as much as we assess what is happening in the story.

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What is the significance of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery"?

Controversial because of its grisly ending--some readers cancelled their subscriptions when it first appeared in the New Yorker in 1948--Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" has gone on to be anthologized many times over in high school textbooks. Briefly, it tells the story of a group of ordinary and convivial villagers who assemble one fine summer morning to engage in an ancient tradition accompanied by a half-forgotten ritual. It requires the townspeople --divided by the official conveners of the rite into households and families--to draw paper lots from a black box somewhat the worse for wear. A housewife, Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson, draws a paper ballot marked with a black dot, whereupon her erstwhile neighbours and friends close in around her and stone her to death. The power of this short fiction gem lies in the uneasy juxtaposition of homespun and horror. But from this tension rises the author's point. When rituals are uncoupled from the reality they signify--when rite becomes rote--then they descend into violence. In other words, the dead hand of tradition deals out death. A necessary, if bloody ritual sacrifice, meant to restore cosmic fertility, has become desacralized and an excuse for pointless bloodletting.

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What is the significance of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery"?

The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is about a small town in which its inhabitants have maintained an ancient practice that began with their ancestors. This ancient practice is “the lottery”. In this lottery, the name of a person is drawn from a peculiar box. The event is led and conducted by the town’s elders. The end of the lottery occurs when the person whose name gets drawn gets stoned to death.

Nobody in the village ever questioned the rationale for the lottery, and that is precisely what brings out the depth of its meaning:  The stagnant state of mind that prevents our mental development and leads us to aberration.

The fact that the villagers continued to carry on with a tradition that was outdated, morbid, and made no sense, is indicative of stagnation, ignorance, and lack of common sense. Not questioning the status quo and preserving traditions that serve no purpose are also indicative of a mentality that resists change. Resisting change is conducive to philosophical, psychological, and physical extinction. The lottery, therefore, represents social and psychological stagnation.

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What is the significance of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery"?

When we think about the significance of any work we have to consider the importance of the message that the author is trying to convey. In this short story, it is clear that what Jackson is doing is challenging our preconceptions and ideas and turning the mirror of what happens in the story on to us by examining the role tradition has in our lives and how it can lead us to engage in practices that are cruel and inhumane.

Old Man Warner is a crucial character to examine in this regard. He, more than any of the other characters, represents the forces of tradition that are against change, even when change is clearly to be preferred. Note what he says about other villages that have abandoned the practice of 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 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.

Note the arguments for maintaining the stasis. According to Old Man Warner, any form of change is wrong and is equivalent to taking humanity back to "living in caves." Also note that the tradition of human sacrifice is linked to good crops. Thus Jackson severely challenges us by making us think of what inhumane practices we carry on doing, year in and year out, under the banner of "tradition." Perhaps, she suggests, we are not so far away from these bloodthirsty villagers than we think.

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Justify Shirley Jackson’s thoughts in writing "The Lottery."

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is often thought to be a story primarily about scapegoating.  For whatever reason (the ambiguity appears to be intentional), the people of the town sacrifice one person a year for the sake of the town and the townspeople.

Literally the story might present similarities to societies of the past in which humans really were sacrificed, or blamed then sacrificed.  Figuratively, though, scapegoating is universal.  I don't believe one could find a single society or culture that didn't or doesn't scapegoat.  Even if publicly and politically and officially a society doesn't scapegoat, its members certainly do privately.  Women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Irish, Italians, Polish, English, Catholics, etc., have all been blamed for society's ills in the United States alone. 

In short, scapegoating is universal.  Therefore, "The Lottery" can't help but be relevant, and Jackson justified in writing it. 

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What point is Shirley Jackson making about certain kinds of rituals and traditions in her short story "The Lottery"?

Shirley Jackson's much-anthologized short story "The Lottery" is a particularly traumatic transaction between reader and text. Through its narrative, the reader is relentlessly and finally compelled to ask the hitherto taboo question: 'How much is our society also laced with mindless, but brutal traditions?' To do this Jackson first lulls the reader into assimilating the pleasant, even prosaic behaviour of a nameless small town. On a benign early summer day the villagers have paused in their affairs to participate in a traditional lottery:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

As it unfolds, the narrative - as if creating a tapestry - stitches in more and more apparently innocuous details. But at a certain point, earlier for some, later for others, the reader begins to realize that winning the lottery is not the lucky event one would expect. Inexorably the reader has been brought into the circle of townspeople who pick up stones to execute the unwilling winner of the lottery, Tessie Hutchinson. At the same time, the reader recalls that details overlooked have been preparation for the acceptance of ritual sacrifice. This was alluded to, but dismissed in an earlier reader/text transaction when Old Man Warner, the village's outspoken redneck opines: "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." The reader, in some consternation, realizes that he or she has become an unwilling participant and victim of an age-old ritual of scapegoating, now moribund, where only the bloodlust remains. Herein lies the reader's trauma which constitutes an essential part of the meaning of the story.

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What point is Shirley Jackson making about certain kinds of rituals and traditions in her short story "The Lottery"?

One of the central themes of this excellent and chillingly brilliant short story is the way that traditions and rituals can control us and how blind adherence to them can cause us to commit horrendous atrocities. If you read through the story again carefully, this theme is best presented through the character of Old Man Warner, who acts in the story as the bastion of tradition and blind adherence to what has always been done, and suspicion of any form of change. One of the most telling remarks he makes is in response to Mr. Adams, who says that there are some villages who are talking about giving up the practice of the lottery that still has such importance to their village:

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 anymore, 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.

Thus speaks the voice of tradition, who equates any form of modernisation or change with a step backwards to the dark ages when men lived in caves. His "petulant" voice at the end perhaps suggests how ridiculous this approach is, and yet it is enough to ensure that the village keeps practising the tradition of the lottery and thus they commit a barbaric crime that all are involved in for the sake of tradition. Thus Jackson turns the story on us, asking us to think long and hard about why we do what we do, and if we have a similar slavish adherence to something that has actually dulled our moral values and causes us to commit a crime against humanity.

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