Literary Analysis: “The Lottery: by Shirley Jackson
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To a first time reader, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” seems simply as a curious tale with a shocking ending. After repetitive reading of Jackson’s tale, it is clear that each sentence is written with a unique purpose often using symbolism. Her use of symbols not only foreshadow its surprise and disturbing ending but allows the reader to evaluate the community’s pervert traditional rituals. She may be commenting on the season of the year and the grass being “richly green” or the toying with the meanings of the character’s names but each statement applies to the meaning and lesson behind her story.
As far as symbolism in objects, the most prominent and often mentioned is the “black box” from which the names are drawn from (Jackson 573). The box itself represents the townspeople’s fate; being black in color refers to their impending death. After many years of use the box is in very poor shape and described as “shabby” (Jackson 573). In that sense, the splintering of the wood and chipping of the paint is parallel to the falling apart of the tradition since what was once a high honor is now a dreaded consequence. Jackson’s mentioning of replacing the old wood chips with slips of paper symbolize the increasing loss of tradition and emerging new ways.
Jackson uses the lottery’s conductor Mr. Summers and also Mr. Graves whom oversees the lottery, together to symbolize life versus death, new ideas versus traditional ways. Most simply, Mr. Summers represents the season of which the lottery takes place, June 27th. Summer is known to be full of life and growth which is very similar to Mr. Summer’s personality. He is described as a cheerful, jovial man wearing a clean, white shirt and jeans. Mr. Graves’ name on the other hand refers to death and more precisely the fate of the lottery’s winner. While Mr. Summers speaks frequently of change, whether it be trading the old shabby box for a new one or replacing the wood chips with slips of paper, many fear to “upset…tradition” opting to look towards traditional Mr. Graves for permitted direction (Jackson 573).
Ultimately there are only two views the townspeople have on the lottery; one is either for or against the ritual, but there are many reasons why one may form their opinion. Originally, winning of the lottery is meant to be of great honor, the sacrificial “lamb” offered to a Higher Power in hopes of receiving a plentiful season of crops for the overall community (Nebeker 8). “Life brings death, and death recycles life” (Griffen 5). Over time much of the accustomed songs and original ways of conducting the ceremony were lost becoming more of a nuisance (Griffen 5), and enabling the new generation to dream of a life without the lottery. Often it is the families who have experienced the lottery’s winnings on a personal level that hold the strongest opinions. The Dunbar family lost their son to the lottery as well as young Jack Watson losing his father. Both families represent the pain of the personal loss caused by the lottery (Jackson 574-75).
Jackson uses Old Man Warner as the town’s consistent reminder of the origins and sanctity of the lottery and strongly blockading the community of change. His name refers to his constant warnings of what could come of losing the lottery and not respecting the tradition. After participating in seventy-seven lotteries, he has witnessed most drastically the massive deflation of tradition and willingness of the townspeople (Jackson 576). Old Man Warner is exasperated by the “young fools” and their talk of being rid of the lottery (576). The Adams family is the first in the story to comment on neighboring communities talking of discontinuing the lottery (675). In Jackson’s irony, Adam was also the name of the first man created by God. Both questioned their way of life.
Mr. and Mrs. Adams question the lottery though it has been apart of their community long before they were born. Adam and Eve questioned God’s authority even though they knew no other way of life than to obey Him. A common conception of the townspeople’s willingness to continue to participate is the opportunity to “release suppressed cruelties” (Nebeker 6). Though the realization of the horror of their ways may be present in most, it is proof that “humanity’s inclination toward violence overshadows society’s need for civilized traditions” (Griffen 5).
After reading “The Lottery” it is apparent that Jackson uses symbolism to foreshadow the finale’s impending death. Another significant use of symbolism is the repeated connection between the storyline, characters and objects and their reference to Christ and Christianity. No one can decipher every intentional use of symbolism entailed in Jackson’s classic piece of fiction, but that is also its appeal.
Jackson, Shirley. “The lottery” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing.
Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Third Ed. Fort Worth:
Harcourt, 1997. 309-16.