Lisa Marie Shade Prof. Dunn ENG 102-110 August 9, 2012 The Plot Thickens- In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. A good harvest has always been vital to civilizations. After the fields have been prepared and the seeds sown, the farmer can only wait and hope that the proper balance of rain and sun will ensure a good harvest. From this hope springs ritual. Many ancient cultures believed that growing crops represented the life cycle, beginning with what one associates with the end–death. Seeds buried, apparently without hope of germination, represent death.
But with the life forces of water and the sun, the seed grows, representing rebirth. Consequently, ancient peoples began sacrificial rituals to emulate this resurrection cycle. What began as a vegetation ritual developed into a cathartic cleansing of an entire tribe or village. By transferring one’s sins to persons or animals and then sacrificing them, people believed that their sins would be eliminated, a process that has been termed the “scapegoat” archetype. In her short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson uses this archetype to build on man’s inherent need for such ritual.
To visit upon the scapegoat the cruelties, that most of us seem to have dammed up within us and explores “the general psychological basis for such cruelty, showing how we tend to ignore misfortunes unless we ourselves are their victims. The Lottery’s [sic. ] then, deals indeed with live issues and with issues relevant to our time. Jackson’s realism makes the final terror and shock more effective and also reinforces our sense of the awful doubleness of the human spirit—a doubleness that expresses itself in the blended good neighborliness and cruelty of the community’s action. Evans, 112) Jackson weaves seasonal and life-death cycle archetypes, which coincide with vegetation rituals, into the story. The lottery takes place every year when the nature cycle peaks in midsummer, a time usually associated with cheerfulness. The villagers of a small town gather together in the square on June 27, a beautiful day, for the town lottery. In other towns, the lottery takes longer, but there are only 300 people in this village, so the lottery takes only two hours. Village children, who have just finished school for the summer, run around collecting stones.
They put the stones in their pockets and make a pile in the square. Men gather next, followed by the women. Parents call their children over, and families stand together. Mr. Summers, a jovial man, who conducts the lottery ceremony, sets the tone of the event with both his name and his mannerisms. But lurking behind him, Mr. Graves quietly assists, his name hinting at a dark undertone. The picnic type atmosphere betrays the serious consequence of the lottery, for like the seed, a sacrificial person must also be buried to bring forth life. Jackson creates balance by assembling Mr.
Summers and Mr. Graves to share in the responsibilities of the ritual: Life brings death, and death recycles life. At one point in the village’s history, the lottery represented a grave experience, and all who participated understood the profound meaning of the tradition. But as time passed, the villagers began to take the ritual lightly. They endure it almost as automatons–“actors” anxious to return to their mundane, workaday lives. Old Man Warner, the only one who seems to recall the seriousness of the occasion, complains that Mr. Summers jokes with everybody.
But, even if one does not understand the meaning, the experience provides the individual a place and a meaning in the life of the generations. Because there has “always been a lottery” (Jackson 216), the villagers feel compelled to continue this horrifying tradition. They do focus, however, on its gruesome rather than its symbolic nature for they still remembered to use stones even after they have forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box (Jackson 218). The reader may conclude that humanity’s inclination toward violence overshadows society’s need for civilized traditions. Mr.
Summers asks whether anyone is absent, and the crowd responds that Dunbar isn’t there. Mr. Summers asks who will draw for Dunbar, and Mrs. Dunbar says she will because she doesn’t have a son who’s old enough to do it for her. Mr. Summers asks whether the Watson boy will draw, and he answers that he will. Mr. Summers then asks to make sure that Old Man Warner is there too. Mr. Summers reminds everyone about the lottery’s rules: he’ll read names, and the family heads come up and draw a slip of paper. No one should look at the paper until everyone has drawn. He calls all the names, greeting each person as they come up to draw a paper.
Mr. Adams tells Old Man Warner that people in the north village might stop the lottery; he says that giving up the lottery could lead to a return to living in caves. Mrs. Adams says the lottery has already been given up in other villages, and Old Man Warner says that’s “nothing but trouble. ” (Jackson, 216). The shock value of the long process and all the moments’ one character or another could have realized the nonsense of the ritual and spoke up. When Mr. Summers finishes calling names, and everyone opens his or her papers. Word quickly gets around that Bill Hutchinson has “got it. Tessie argues that it wasn’t fair because Bill didn’t have enough time to select a paper.
Mr. Summers asks whether there are any other households in the Hutchinson family, and Bill says no, because his married daughter draws with her husband’s family. Mr. Summers asks how many kids Bill has, and he answers that he has three. Tess’s eagerness to see the lottery through is only paralleled by her desperation to get out of it once it turns out to be her turn. She goes so far as to try to substitute her daughter and son-in-law for herself, yelling, “There’s Don and Eva… Make them take their chance! Her extreme moral compromise, as she tries to offer up her daughter for the slaughter instead of herself, underlines that this ritual has nothing to do with virtuous martyrdom; Tess is no saint. Her murder is exactly that: a vicious, group killing of a frightened, antiheroic woman. Tessie protests again that the lottery wasn’t fair. Mr. Graves dumps the papers out of the box onto the ground and then puts five papers in for the Hutchinsons. As Mr. Summers calls their names, each member of the family comes up and draws a paper. When they open their slips, they find that Tessie has drawn the paper with the black dot on it.
Mr. Summers instructs everyone to hurry up. The villagers grab stones and run toward Tessie, who stands in a clearing in the middle of the crowd. Tessie says it’s not fair and is hit in the head with a stone. Everyone begins throwing stones at her, as even her own children. “Tessie may be selfish in her reaction, but her claim that the lottery is not fair may still be true. Whereas the common villagers are described as “taking” their slips, the businessmen “select” theirs—a subtle implication that the results have been rigged” (Evans, 112-113) Therefore, the base actions exhibited in groups (such as the stoning of Mrs.
Hutchinson) do not take place on the individual level, for here such action would be deemed “murder. ” On the group level people classify their heinous act simply as “ritual. ” When Mrs. Hutchinson arrives at the ceremony late, flustered because she had forgotten that today was the day of the lottery. She chats sociably with Mrs. Delacroix. Nevertheless, after Mrs. Hutchinson falls victim to the lottery selection, Mrs. Delacroix chooses a “stone so large” that she must pick it up with both hands (Jackson 218).
Whereas, on the individual level, the two women regard each other as friends, on the group level, they betray that relationship, satiating the mob mentality. The people of the town are caught up in the ritual to such an extent that they have given up any sense of logic. Mob psychology rules their actions. Though they appear to be sane, sensible individuals, when the time of the lottery comes, they abandon their rational nature and revert to the instincts of the herd. This psychological phenomenon is characteristic of humans throughout history.
Although Jackson portrays it in its extreme form in this story, the idea that men and women in groups are willing to forgo personal responsibility and act with great cruelty toward others is evidenced in actions such as lynch mobs, racial confrontations, and similar incidents. “The willingness of people to act irrationally as members of the herd displays aspects that, while unpleasant, are still integral parts of their nature that they must recognize, if they are to keep them in check. ” (Mazzeno) A first-time reader of “The Lottery” often finds the ending a surprise.
The festive nature of the gathering and the camaraderie of the townspeople as the lottery is conducted belie the horror that occurs at the conclusion of the tale, is one of the tale’s strongest points. Another strength, however, is “the skillful way in which Jackson prepares the careful reader for the denouement by including key details so that, on a second reading, one is assured that there is no trick being played on the reader. ” (Mazzeno) In comparison to the heavily symbolic figures of Mr. Graves (Death), Mr. Summers (Progress), or Old Man Warner (Tradition), Tess is resolutely anti-symbolic.
She’s a woman in an apron with soapsuds on her hands, who cracks jokes and wants to join in her community – but, it turns out, they don’t want her back. She’s the sacrificial lamb for that year, an outsider that the village then violently excludes. Although civilized people may no longer hold lotteries, Jackson’s story illustrates that society’s tendency toward violence and its tendency to hold onto tradition, yet even meaningless, base tradition, reveal our need for both ritual and belonging.
Work Cited Evans, Robert C. “The Lottery. ” Short Fiction: A Critical Companion (1997): 112-119. Literary Reference Center. Web. 6 Aug. 2012. Hall, Joan Wylie. “Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). ” Columbia Companion To The Twentieth- Century American Short Story (2000): 310-314. Literary Reference Center. Web. 6 Aug. 2012. Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery”. Drama, and Writing Compact sixth ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2011. 213-218. Print Mazzeno, Laurence W. “The Lottery. ” Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition (2004): 1-2. Literary Reference Center. Web. 6 Aug. 2012. Yarmove, Jay A. “Jackson’s The Lottery. ” Explicator 52. 4 (1994): 242. Literary Reference Center. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.
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