In Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”, the main theme is how traditions lose their meaning due to human forgetfulness. This can cause horrible consequences to occur.
The story is set in a small town, ‘on the morning of June 27th’. It opens with false innocence, using children, tricking the reader into an unaware state. The reader almost expects the Lottery to be something wonderful since the “normal” lottery has the winner getting a prize of a large amount of money or possession. Even the story alludes to the innocence, explaining how Mr. Summers also holds ‘square dances, teenage club and the Halloween program’ in the same spot that the lottery is held.
In “the Lottery” we discover in the end, the town-folk use the lottery to pick a “winner” to stone to death. The winner is picked using a black box that has been around for ages. Within the box are slips of paper, enough for the entire town. On one slip of paper is a black dot for the one lucky winner. The black dot on the slip of paper identifies the lucky winner of the lottery; the person who will get stoned by their neighbors. No one in town really knows exactly why it is a tradition although some have some vague ideas.
Old Man Warner alludes that it was once said “lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. Ironically, even the oldest member of this village doesn’t even remember the real reason behind the lottery. Perhaps the villagers once drew names from this black box. When their name was drawn, the villager confessed his or her sins and was punished by having rocks thrown at them. As times changed, ‘The Lottery’ was implemented.
On the eighth paragraph of ‘The Lottery’, the character Tessie Hutchinson, comes rushing to the square because she ‘clean forgot what day it was’. This shows how easily people can forget things. It also alludes to something terrible when Tessie exclaims ‘wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink’ to her husband. Tessie appears to not take ‘The Lottery’ seriously, possibly because of the amount of people in the village or the fact she has been desensitized to the violent ritual. It can be assumed that Tessie doesn’t know very much about the history of the tradition because the other townspeople do not remember the history either.
Mr. Summers, the official of the lottery, was supposed to perform a ‘perfunctory tuneless chant.’ He was supposed to sing a ‘ritual salute’ when addressing each person who came up to the black box during the lottery. The villagers, who remember some bits of history about those forgotten aspects of the ritual, aren’t even definite about the accuracy of their beliefs. Some believe that the ‘official of the lottery should stand’ a certain way when he sang the chant, other believe that he should ‘walk among the people’. No one exactly remembers how the tradition the tradition should be performed. This is why a lot of formality had been allowed to lapse. Because the adults have forgotten the traditions history, the children know even less and they are desensitized to murderous ritual.
The townspeople could have changed the tradition or even investigated the history of the tradition. The townspeople had an active role in the stoning of Tessie. They cannot blame their actions on forgetfulness but rather on hypocrisy. When Mrs. Delacroix was selecting a ‘stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands’, she could have stopped and questioned the ethics of ‘The Lottery’.
Forgotten traditions can be extremely dangerous as Shirley Jackson points out in her short story. Any one of us can forget something important about a tradition that could eventually lead to dreadful consequences.