The Tradition of Cruelty

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Traditions appear in almost every culture and society of human beings; the need to feel the connection with past relatives or even past years seems to be a commonality among most. They may be in the form of marriage, holidays, religious or familial practices and the familiarity brings comfort. For most, when asked why they follow a tradition, they shrug and respond, “It’s just the way we’ve always done things” and continue without much thought. For most cultures, there are stories or myths that accompany the actions and the traditions are perpetuated for years. Some are superstitious, Romans believed that doves needed to be slaughtered every morning for the sun to rise, Yemenis practice female circumcision as a way to ensure fidelity. While specific customs can be a wonderful way to remember the years gone by, there is also a darker side to adhering blindly to traditions as seen in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”

The people of the village uphold the tradition and carry it out every single year without considering the impact that it has on others. In fact, they do not seem to appreciate the terror and inhumanity of their actions until it is them that is selected. At this point, the individual who was once part of the ritual becomes the victim of the tradition and perpetuates the status quo. The status quo is people’s acceptance of “the way things are;” and the people of “The Lottery” are determined to uphold it. Jackson leaves out commentary about the reason the villagers continue the tradition or even why it started, the only clues to the past are that the names used to be written on pieces of wood and now they are written on slips of paper. The reason she likely left out this information is that while the reader considers this thought, the villagers do not, they simply go through with the ritual without considering why.

Irony is an element that is prevalent in the short story and it acts as a criticism to the reader’s own society. It is ironic that there is no information given as to why the people must carry out the tradition and few people seem to be worried about the fact that they must murder a human being every single year. It is also ironic that Old Man Warner remembers the time before the tradition and expresses his distaste for the village’s that have banished the lottery, “‘It’s not the way it used to be […] People ain't the way they used to be” (Jackson, “The Lottery” 4) he says. Usually, this is a statement made in regard about young people’s hair styles, clothes or lack of manners but in this case, he is instead upset that the ritual murdering is not being followed. He is criticizing the townspeople for hoping it is not their loved one’s names on the slips of paper. A.R Coulthard’s article suggests that Old Man Warner is not more blood thirsty than the townspeople but he was more honest about his thoughts on the subject (2). This is true because the other residents may squirm in discomfort at the thought of who is selected yet they are the very people who continue the tradition. They are also the people who will spread the tradition to their children and ensure the lottery continues.

The children of the society are also already following the tradition and will become the actors of continuing it. In the story they are already collecting stones excitedly, ready to take part in the act that will also play a role in their acceptance as adults. For those children who shy away from the violence, they are likely to continue the ritual even if they do not ever truly accept it because going against the tradition means to go against society. They may be shunned or treated differently and, since most people do not want to be rejected, they will adhere to a tradition even if they do not agree with it. In fact, little Davy is given the very grown up responsibility of handing out the slips of paper that will decide the death of a human being.

One of the reasons that Jackson wrote this short story was in response to historical examples of following blind tradition, including Nazi Germany. During this time period, people who were ordinarily normal, ethical individuals became oppressors and mass murderers because of the trends that surrounded them. However, the people in the fictional town seem to suffer from the same sheep-like obedience and, “They endure it almost as automatons—‘actors’ anxious to return to their mundane, workaday lives” (Jackson, Shirley Jackson 16). The feeling is almost one of getting it over with, like a disliked chore that was wearying but necessary and act because it is what is expected of them. When Tessie’s name is chosen, however, their robotic actions give way to violence with Mr. Summers suggesting “Let’s finish up quickly” (Jackson, “The Lottery” 9). At this moment, the spell seems to break and the rabid crowd pursues its prey. The same could be said of German citizens in WWII Germany, many would not seem like violent people but when they were commanded to, most gave into the “primitive, selfish, superstitious ghost of paganism” (Yarmove 3). In the commentary in Shirley Jackson, the author reaffirms this, saying that many believed that the United States was immune to such violent behavior and she wanted to show just how simple it could be.

Traditions and rituals are a part of the human experience and evolve over the years. Many are deeply rooted and important to those that follow them, some rituals are even sacred. However, there are times that accepting a tradition blindly can unlock the dark, cruel side of humankind especially if it is performed without purpose. In the seemingly common American village, the people gathered in the square for the ritual that they had performed so many years in a row, heartlessly murdering one of their own without question. Jackson’s story is shocking but serves its purpose; the reader walks away discomforted and begins to question the world around her.

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley. "Chapter 4." Shirley Jackson. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2001, pp. 15-20.

Jackson, Shirley. "The Lottery Full Text." Middlebury College, n.d., http://sites.middlebury.edu/individualandthesociety/files/2010/09/jackson_lottery.pdf.

Coulthard, A.R. "Jackson's The Lottery." Explicator, vol. 48, no. 3, 1990, pp. 226.

Yarmove, Jay A. "Jackson's The Lottery." Explicator, vol. 52, no. 4, 1994, p. 242.