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The Lottery: A Synopsis

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Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a conflict between morality and tradition, and how individuals can be blindly led to committing immoral acts under the illusion that these traditions sacred.  This is the main theme that ruminates throughout the narrative.  The plot consists of a small town of about 300 families who, through the maintenance of a very brutal ritual, force one another to stone to death a chosen few of their fellow citizens for the sake of a good harvest.  The dark irony of story stems from its presumed contemporary setting and nonchalant nature of the characters in contrast with the harsh reality of what is really happening.  Throughout the story there are multiple symbols given attention that embody this very eerie theme of meaningless tradition over morality.

            The black box is the most significant symbol throughout the story that represents the lack of control the characters have over their situation.  The men all reach in to decide what will happen to their families, with the entire fate of their lives dependant on the luck and chance of the draw.  Whatever piece of paper is pulled out decides who will be slaughtered and essentially dictates the action of the group.

The box allows the members of the community to disregard all responsibilities for their actions.  This circumstance is very ironic in that the characters are blind to their fate, and ignorantly following a tradition that may potentially kill anyone one of them.  The very fact that these villagers are willing to put the lives of their loved ones on the line for this ritual says volumes about how serious the entire community values tradition over morality or even their loved ones.

            Another key symbol of the ritual and dually significant to the theme is the act of stoning.  It has biblical relevance, and allows the moment near the end of the story to have a double edged significance in that if the tradition is also inherently religious then it could be seen as an honor to be chosen for sacrifice.  Obviously Mrs. Hutchinson doesn’t see it this way because she pleads for her life, but the very fact that the act of stoning implies a connection to Christianity is a very significant and symbolic gesture on the behalf of the author making the narrative cut very close to home in most western culture households.

The act of stoning at the end of the piece allows this eerie story to oddly be familiar to the reader making it even more creepy and controversial.  It is first done in the beginning of the story and implied as a simple method of passing time for the young children.  If Mrs. Hutchinson were killed through another method the tale would just be tragic and dark, but the use of stoning is an attempt by the author to rationalize the act of the villagers in the mind of the readers.  Through this simple choice of execution methods there is an immediate religious connection and the reader has no choice but to recognize that to condemn the villagers is to condemn their own personal judgments of others done in the name of their faith.  Now, the reader must debate tradition over morality.

            The final symbol of the story that holds major weight in developing the theme is the courtyard.  From the very opening of the story the reader is given a tranquil image of piece through the use of the village courtyard where the community assembles.  “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green (Jackson).”  The author goes on to talk about how the villagers gather in the courtyard of the small community.

The image one gets from the mention of clear skies and ‘richly green’ grass along with jovial close community is more along the lines of a picnic or even a peaceful festival.  This is where the irony truly lies in the story, in the first few opening lines.  Historically in literature the use of natural elements like the sun and the grass specifically in the way that Jackson uses them is almost always identified as romantic.  The author goes on to describe the frolicking nature of the young boys near the courtyard square gathering stones, she says, “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– the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”–eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys (Jackson).”  This is a very playful fun image; the last image a reader might expect to see after the opening paragraph is to see a woman get stoned to death.  This is a harshly opposing image to setting of the courtyard and provides for an unforgettable close to the piece.  More importantly it shows the horrific ramifications of sacrificing morality for tradition.

            In sum, the conflict between morality and tradition in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” reveals how tradition can make one sacrifice their morals, and do so often in a state where they are completely unaware of their actions.  Just to compare the title to the horrors depicted in the final sequence reveals the delusional mindset inherent in devout faith or belief in a tradition.  Mrs. Hutchinson is the winner of the lottery, which naturally implies a positive connotation.  Despite this there is nothing uplifting or good about her lottery winnings.  Jackson’s piece is inherently Christian at heart and yet reveals the many contradistinctions that occur within religious faith in general.  It’s no wonder why Jackson’s piece is recognized as the 17th most banned publication in American literature.

Work Cited

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery” <http://www.americanliterature.com/Jackson/SS/TheLottery.html>

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