The Dark Traditions in “The Lottery”

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The power of a story where a town must go through the horrible tradition as described in Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” comes from the themes that encompass it. There is something to be said about a dark event in the warm weather of summer. The characters, when stripped of their dialogue, serve as underlying concepts hidden throughout to the darkness of the story. Young or old, family or survivors all add to the dark nature of the tale. There are also the connections between the slips of paper and the weathered box they are put in. They, like many other parts of the story, combine a macabre symbol worth deeper examination.

The most prominent portion of “The Lottery” is the crowd of the people. The concrete characterization of each one is unnecessary – their names serve as icons. Consider the significance of the last name Summers. The link between that and the setting solidifies it as a fixed moment different than the others he conducts. The name of his assistant serves as a piece of foreshadowing – Graves, who brings with him the box and three-legged stool. By combining the names it brings out the message of a looming death at that moment in time.

There are additional names that serve as images in the mind of the reader upon examination. Delacroix has a religious connotation, as it is of French origin meaning ‘of the cross”. While the overall story does not have any thematic tie to Christianity or any other denominations the name adds a veneer of religious order. Consider that the young Delacroix is one of the children putting together the stones that will be used in the event. He, like the other boys, serves a function similar to that of an altar boy in that he is bringing together the final tools necessary to the ceremony. Near the end of the story, it is Mrs. Delacroix picking up “a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands” that serves as a mirror image of using that tool to finish the ceremony (Jackson 301).

The symbolic significance of the Hutchinson family is that they put a face on the deadly ritual. Their very names – Bill, Tessie, Billy Jr., Nancy, and Dave – evoke the image of the all-American family. There is no particular interesting characteristic to the surname, save for its Anglo-Saxon roots. Even if one concentrates on the name of Tessie the victim one can imagine their own version of her physical traits, but the one that is clearest is that of a normal housewife. She is emblematic of the everyday person that fears death just like everyone else. She is no different than the nameless that perished in concentration camps during the Holocaust. She is equally as betrayed by her own family even when “someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” as in fascist societies in the 20th century (Jackson 301). But like those examples, her sacrifice has a meaning, as warped as it is.

Two things that have more meaning than the names of the characters are the two principle items – the box and the slips of paper. The color of the box adds two shades of importance to the story. The first is its original color, black, which is the most conspicuous allusion to its purpose as a receptacle for a macabre lottery. However, the color is fading, exposing parts of the original wood. It is ancient and has a legendary status according to the stories the townsfolk tell each other. The box, in its present condition, shows how powerful a fetish it is to the people to the point that any ideas of altering it “fade off without anything being done” (Jackson 293). It is what is left of the original ceremony stripped of all the pomp and circumstance, and is the last bastion of order in the town before the necessary violence.

The slips of paper are a relatively modern part of the event. While the lottery had a long and almost mythic history as a tradition of cruelty, there was a need to update part of it in order to serve a growing population. The switch from wood chips to paper is an example of the slight progression ancient ceremonies and holidays go through, such as the modern use of masks for Halloween or the progression of St. Valentine’s Day. However, what remains constant on those slips of papers is the black dot.

It is important for the reader, upon finishing the story, to once again review the actions of the townsfolk as they grab their slips. Those slips are a symbol of not just death, but the randomness of it. The anxiousness of the men grabbing the slip for their family, “turning them over and over nervously,” is an inversion of our regular emotions one feels when there is a raffle ticket in one’s hand (Jackson 297). That is the power of that black spot scribbled with a pencil; it reminds not just the townsfolk but the reader that the end will come at any moment, even if it is planned.

The universality of “The Lottery” works because of its normalcy. The town is like the one a few counties away from one’s hometown, almost-forgotten in one’s mind. Its image as a random town somewhere in the country connects to the quiet volatility inherent in those faraway places. A community can be of different creeds or backgrounds, or under a warm summer day or bitter winter night, and still have the same outcome. This is a ritual, an anthropologic atrocity that serves as a sign for humanity’s own failings at keeping to traditions. In creating this everyday horror story Shirley Jackson subverts folkloric thoughts and imagery that creeps up on oneself, just as how the townsfolk came upon Tessie.

Work Cited

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, 1991. 291-302. Print,