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.
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...
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