In Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” she represents an average society with seemingly common order and widely developed traditions which everybody is forced or even glad to follow whatever they are. First we see how everybody has traditionally defined roles within the community: men, women and even children know well how they are expected to behave. Men are the dominating part; they have the right to make decisions for their families. Women have a subordinate position: they are supposed to “walk shortly after their menfolk” (328) and to work only at home. Children are involved in the social life and supposed to learn its traditions from an early age.
A surprising thing is that nobody finds anything bad in this or tries to rebel. Afterwards, we see that full obedience to the social order leads to the support of the main tradition – the annual ritual of choosing a “winner” in the lottery- a victim to be stoned to death. And this shows what is common about such different roles of the people: whatever they do, they play just one role – a blind obedience to traditional social foundations. People, like the ones described in “The Lottery”, are often so conservative and convinced with following the rules that they can’t distinguish between right and wrong, and admit pointless or even insane things.
What unites the people in the village of “The Lottery” is that they all not just submit to established order, but also are afraid to violate it without a clear understanding of why they should do so, even when it concerns so trivial a thing like the small box used as part of the rite. Jackson emphasizes this by saying “No one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box” (329). Men are afraid to break the tradition of the lottery itself, even though they can’t reasonably explain why is it so essential. The explanation of Old Man Warner lacks any cogency: “Used to be saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’.
First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery…” (Jackson 332-3) and he assures that there is “Nothing but trouble…” in quitting the lottery (Jackson 333). Women are uncomfortable if their husbands for some reasons are unable to execute their role; for example, to draw in the lottery because of illness, like Mr. Dunbar, or to admit that there’s no mature man in the family, like Mrs. Watson before her son got old enough. And children are uncomfortable with sudden freedom because of vacations: “The feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them…” (328) Moreover, they tend to copy adults’ behavior; they are infatuated by the ritual, for instance, by collecting stones for it. No doubt, they do not think of somebody’s death because of the stones.
Before “The Lottery” begins, there are just two people who try to protest against the ritual: Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Being afraid to say openly that the lottery itself is wrong, they are talking about other villages which quit lotteries. But after the victim is chosen, there are already three people who find the ritual unfair. Tessie Hutchinson, “the winner” of the lottery, realizes that it’s wrong just after the tradition of the lottery affected her. The same happens every time in our real life: we don’t mind something just until it strikes us.
We might see others suffer and still do nothing to change it. Even though other traditional foundations in this story are not so bloody, it’s still notable that everyone’s roles are defined by these unwritten laws. Women silently agree that they should “belong” to their husbands and family and shouldn’t work outside the house. Men, seeming to be on top of social hierarchy, still have no rights against social norms of their community. Overall obedience and inaction bears traditional order which bonds everything and extinguishes freedom.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is hard to read, but it seems to be an author’s intent to dramatize and exaggerate the situation so it would shock the readers. And then, as the readers looked around, they would realize that there are some things they live with which are unreasonable or antiquated or simply aren’t worth the result. They would see that they don’t have to tolerate them or avoid them or shut their eyes at these things because they do not affect them directly. They would realize that they have to speak up and be heard before something unpleasant happens even if it seems that they cannot find the energies to protest.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery”. 40 Short Stories. Ed. Beverly Lawn. New York: Bedford, 2001.