Nicole Esposito 1
March 31, 2011
Traditions are very vital to a community and have much say in the people’s lives that live there. For the most part, a tradition is thought of as a special belief or custom, but one may also consider a tradition detrimental to a community for various reasons. In the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, the traditions of a small village in New England were unfavorable to the townsmen. Ironically, the people of the village had only been practicing this tradition because it is all they had ever known, but were too stubborn to change their ways. It was unnecessary to continue practicing this lifestyle, but their ignorance would not let them reject the ways of this tradition.
Each year, on June 27, a head family member from each family of the village would pick a piece of paper out of an old black box. Only one of those pieces of papers had a black dot on it. The head family member who had chosen the piece of paper with the dot on it, unfortunately has to draw from the box again, except this time each member of their family had to choose and it was solely that family that was choosing. Whoever chose the black dotted paper this go around would be cruelly stoned to death by the people they had once lived amongst. It seems very peculiar while reading this story
because the villagers seem to make light of such a serious and horrifying situation. Even the children took part in the activities. “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix… eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys” (Jackson 247). One may get the feeling that the children take this situation more as a game than as a very serious and scary situation, only because they are too young to know any better, of course.
As an outsider, it is hard to imagine a child collecting rocks with other children so they can kill someone with them. You must be thinking, where are their parents? Surprisingly, the parents are the ones teaching them this. This is how the tradition gets passed down from generation to generation. If you are raised on certain beliefs, you grow up to believe there is nothing wrong with what you do. No one thinks anything is wrong with this tradition until they are the chosen one, of course. Mrs. Tessie Hutchinson, a mother and wife, had been the chosen one this time around. She begged to not be stoned. She screamed “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” (Jackson 252). Mrs. Hutchinson was terrified for her life. She thought of any excuses that she could to try to make Mr. Summers rethink the tradition for once. Mrs. Hutchinson tried to make a point, “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!” (Jackson 251). The end of the story leaves us assuming that Mrs. Hutchinson was indeed
stoned to death, with her fellow villagers, husband and son all taking part in the actual stoning.
There was reasoning behind this tradition, though. It was believed by stoning one person once a year through this lottery, all the crops would grow and the harvest for that year would be plentiful. It is brought to our attention that other villages also took part in this event, but did away with the tradition after some time. “”Some places have already quit lotteries,” Mrs. Adams said. “Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.”” (Jackson 250). Mr. Summers was more or less the head of the lottery itself and was one of the people who had the say in whether they follow the tradition as a whole or not.
By following the tradition for so long, it has become what Tuan likes to call a “mythical space” to the village people. “Mythical space is the spatial component of a world view, a conception of localized values within which people carry on their practical values” (Tuan 86). The people of this specific village in New England all have one uniform view on stoning people. Whether they understand why they take place in the actual stoning or not, they are still partaking in it, thus it is considered a mythical space for them.
A mythical space can have a lot to do with what one believes in and what morals one has. A lot of times people can act on their values, just like the people in “The
Lottery” act on theirs. Therefore, it has a lot of the same characteristics as a religion. In fact, there are certain factors of this story that are symbolic of God. The three-legged stool that the black box is placed upon specifically referred to its three legs and not a more common four-legged stool. The number three represents the Trinity in the Christian faith; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This idea exemplifies that God supports the lottery that takes place in the village each year, in correlation to the stool supporting the box physically.
Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist, states “[Religious rituals are symbolic actions that] establish powerful, pervasive, long-lasting moods and motivations in men” (Geertz 59). Geertz provides us with his view on religion by breaking down religion into two main parts; mood and motivation. “Motivations are “made meaningful” with reference to the ends toward which they are conceived to conduce, whereas moods are “made meaningful” with reference to the conditions from which they are conceived to spring” (Geertz 62). “When present they are totalistic: if one is sad everything and everybody seems dreary” (Geertz 62). This is true about “The Lottery” as well, it is a very totalistic idea that everyone from the village needs to take part in this event. They even have somewhat of a general headcount that Mr. Summers takes into account before they begin picking pieces of papers from the box. “But this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours” (Jackson
247). Low and behold, all three hundred townsmen showed up to the lottery later that afternoon.
The light-heartedness of such a serious matter may strike the reader as unbelievable, but the townspeople were so used to the idea of stoning someone once a year that it was second nature to them. The lightness of this situation is symbolic of the ignorance the group as a whole had about this entire ordeal. Although they may have considered such an antic as a religion, they were only doing it because no one knew what life was like without the lottery. There was room to end this tradition, but Old Man Warner, which was previously mentioned, would not let go of such an event. As a whole, the village was very stubborn and naïve. The villagers were told what to do, and without question, they obeyed this way of life. No one had any drive to research the reasoning behind taking part in the lottery each year, thus each year the lottery occurred. If they had, they may have only come to find that there was no real correlation between the death of one life and a plentiful harvest.
Davy Hutchinson represents the townspeople as a whole. He stands for the ignorance of the villagers and the fact that a life is being taken away for no good reason. The people have not yet strayed away from the majority’s belief of this tradition because of how naïve they are.
Besides the three-legged stool and Davy Hutchinson, there is yet another symbol in this story. Old Man Warner represents the stubbornness of the actual lottery. The fact that he won’t change the tradition, like other villages already have, just goes to show how foolish it really is to kill someone over a belief that has no factual evidence behind it. Then again, this is why Geertz considers it a religious value that they all share; because this is a belief that will stay in this village no matter how hard one person tries to get rid of it. It will never die out.
The symbolism in “The Lottery” is used to discover the ways the townspeople practice and believe in their own traditions. Geertz and Tuan help us label their beliefs further by narrowing what we now know into something many call religion. It is through theme that we realize the villagers will never reject their tradition of the lottery because of the ignorance that lies within the community as a whole.