The Lottery Themes

The main themes in “The Lottery” are the vulnerability of the individual, the importance of questioning tradition, and the relationship between civilization and violence.

  • The vulnerability of the individual: Given the structure of the annual lottery, each individual townsperson is defenseless against the larger group.
  • The importance of questioning tradition: The townspeople’s refusal to abandon the lottery suggests the negative consequences of unthinkingly following established practices.
  • The relationship between civilization and violence: Jackson implies that civilizations are built by allowing—or even encouraging—violence.

Themes

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The Vulnerability of the Individual

One of the central ideas of Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” is that individuals are vulnerable to persecution by a group. Safety comes from being a part of a group. This theme is predominantly explored through Tessie’s experience as the winner of the yearly lottery. However, it is also explored more subtly through the experiences of the Watson and Dunbar families.

Generally speaking, the annual lottery breaks down the family and community bonds within the town and then builds them back up again. During the initial lottery, as the household heads draw slips, each family unit is pitted against all the others. The bonds between families remain, but the overarching community bond dissolves. This dissolution of community bonds is exemplified when Tessie calls for a redo of the initial lottery. She is willing to sacrifice another family as long as it means that her family is safe. After the first round of the lottery is over, the families who were not chosen can re-assimilate into the community.

However, the family that is chosen is now broken down into individuals. The narrative suggests a dissolution of family bonds as each member independently draws a slip. This is modeled when Tessie tries to insist that her married daughter participate as a part of the Hutchinson family. Rather than trying to protect her daughter, Tessie instead looks out for herself as an individual. Finally, after it is revealed that Tessie has drawn the marked slip, the rest of her family re-assimilates into the community. Tessie is left as the lone individual, expelled from the safety of the group. The town community is brought back together as everyone—including her family—stones Tessie to death.

Tessie’s expulsion from the collective results in a loss of sympathy, camaraderie, and bodily autonomy. Upon winning the lottery, Tessie is reduced to a town-wide obligation instead of a valued community member. Mr. Summers tells the townspeople to “finish quickly” so that everyone can return to their lives. Tessie’s death is not treated as a tragedy; rather, it is an inconvenient necessity. Her pleas fall on deaf ears. Her isolation from the community is so complete that someone even hands her youngest son, Dave, a handful of pebbles.

The experiences of the Dunbars and Watsons also speak to the perils of individuality. Tradition dictates that the patriarch draws for their family or household. In the cases of the Dunbars and Watsons, the patriarch is unavailable. So, both Mrs. Dunbar and the Watson boy must step in and draw. Narratively, the emphasis on these two families’ inability to conform to tradition suggests a level of vulnerability not extended to the other townsfolk. Both the Watson boy and Mrs. Dunbar are presented as nervous. Their unique family situations mark them as different from the rest of the town. In a similar sense, Tessie is set apart from the rest of the town on account of having arrived late. Her boisterous entrance, though initially met with good humor, disturbs the otherwise solemn air of the ceremony. While the Dunbars and Watsons break tradition out of necessity, Tessie’s actions mark her as transgressive. In a world ruled by tradition and conformity, Tessie singles herself out as an individual, increasing her vulnerability.

The Importance of Questioning Tradition

The lottery is an annual tradition for the villagers, and they dutifully uphold it. Once a year, on June 27, someone is randomly selected to be ritually sacrificed. This person is not guilty of any crime, nor does there appear to be a restriction on age. No amount of protest from the selected party will change the will of the town once the lottery is complete. The killing is considered justified since everyone took the same risk. Though the town breathes a sigh of relief when little Dave Hutchinson’s slip is blank, there is nothing to suggest that they would not have killed him had he drawn the marked paper from the black box instead. The townsfolk are willing to turn on their neighbors, friends, and even their own families, which speaks to the dangers of blindly following tradition.

As the oldest resident and the lottery’s most vocal proponent, Old Man Warner represents strict adherence to tradition. The younger townsfolk are nervous and solemn during the ceremony. Some, like the Watson boy, seem to have reservations about participating. In contrast, Old Man Warner proudly proclaims that he has been through 77 lotteries. For him, the lottery is necessary for the town’s survival. He is unable to envision a world without the lottery. Mr. and Mrs. Adams mention that other towns have given up the lottery. Old Man Warner claims that this will lead to nothing but trouble. He is scornful towards younger people, claiming that “nothing is good enough for them.” His resistance to change echoes the town’s steadfast upholding of the lottery as a tradition.

No one, even Old Man Warner, knows exactly when or why the lottery began. This sense of timelessness gives it power. Since they do not know why it began, they cannot be certain of what will happen if they stop it. Instead, they cling to it for fear that “trouble” will happen if they break with tradition. The culture of the town seems structured around the idea that the lottery is necessary for survival. Their unwillingness to question the lottery as a tradition suggests that change is a fundamental human fear. They would prefer to continue their brutal tradition rather than risk losing a longstanding part of their culture.

However, the townspeople's adherence to tradition is inconsistent. For example, they refuse to make a new box, but they were willing to switch to paper over wood chips. They are reluctant to let a woman draw for her household, yet they have long since dispensed with the ceremonial rituals. This inconsistency suggests that tradition for the sake of tradition is meaningless. The townsfolk agreed to start using paper over traditional wood chips because the population of the town had grown. Through this detail, Jackson suggests that as the cultural context of the world changes, so should its traditions. While the wood chips made sense for a smaller population, they do not for a larger one. Similarly, just as the lottery used to make sense, an increasing number of villages are questioning its presence in a more modern world. Jackson uses “The Lottery” to ask readers to question the traditions of the world around them.

The Relationship Between Civilization and Violence

Another theme in “The Lottery” is that civilization and violence are not mutually exclusive. Against the backdrop of a seemingly-peaceful town, the brutal killing of Tessie Hutchinson stands out as an especially violent act. But for the characters in the story, it is little more than an annual tradition. The apathetic approach that the villagers take towards Tessie’s killing highlights the fallacy of thinking that civilization prevents violence. Jackson uses this contrast between the peaceful village and the violent death to suggest that systemic violence is perpetrated within civilization.

“The Lottery” was published in 1948. In the wake of World War II, most Americans associated violence with external threats, such as Nazi Germany or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. American nationalism was on the rise as the country came together against a perceived external threat. “The Lottery” challenges that narrative by crafting a story where there is no direct villain or antagonist. Mr. Summers, the lottery officiant, is not a menacing villain. He wears blue jeans and is described as “round-faced” and “jovial.” There is no single person to blame for Tessie’s death. Instead, a commonly accepted social custom leads a town of otherwise ordinary people to kill an innocent woman.

This theme of civilization begetting violence is further explored through the characters of Mrs. Delacroix and Bobby Martin. Mrs. Delacroix is the first to greet Tessie in the square. Mrs. Delacroix reassures her that the lottery has not yet begun. Based on this interaction, the two women appear to be friends. However, after Tessie is chosen as the lottery winner, Mrs. Delacroix picks up a stone so large that she needs “both hands” to lift it. She also encourages the other townsfolk to “hurry up” with the stoning. Once Tessie is chosen, Mrs. Delacroix’s apparent civility vanishes, and she readily joins in the killing of Tessie. The lottery is a form of state-sanctioned violence, so the villagers do not consider it murder. Mrs. Delacroix’s easy acceptance of Tessie’s death suggests that even the most civilized people will happily commit violent acts if they are sanctioned by society.

Bobby Martin and the other village children show how societal indoctrination perpetuates systemic violence. For the village children, the lottery is akin to a festival. They arrive early to the square and gather the pile of stones that will later be used to kill someone. Furthermore, children are also eligible to win the lottery. Before they have time to develop their own ideals or morals, the children are taught that “there’s always been a lottery” by their elders. This lifelong exposure makes them less likely to question the practice. Instead, they will accept it as a fact of life, just as their elders did. This creates a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by each generation. However, the Adams family offers a glimpse of hope: other towns have begun to reject the lottery. This suggests that though progress is slow, it will eventually prevail.

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