Discussion of Theme in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson In “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, blind acceptance of tradition without question is presented throughout this story as the underlying theme. “The Lottery” is a tale about a town of people who hold a drawing in their town square. The result of this sweepstakes is the death of a resident of the town; the townsfolk stone the unlucky inhabitant to death because they believe that the sacrifice will ensure the town a profitable harvest each fall. Foreshadowing, symbolism and conflict work in conjunction to establish the theme of “The Lottery”.
Foreshadowing used throughout the story begins to expose the reader to the thought that something within the small town is amiss. The children in the square appear excited about the events about to unfold, and are enthusiastically searching for rocks to use during the ritual; they are filling their pockets in order to ensure they are ready when the time comes to begin. During the second paragraph, the narrator states that “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones” (539).
The town has taught their children that this is a necessary, traditional part of their culture. Another example of foreshadowing in the text of “The Lottery” is the arrival of the protagonist, Tessie Hutchinson, who comes late to the traditional drawing. She is in a hurry, claiming to have temporarily forgotten where she was supposed to be. Mr. Summers foreshadows by saying that he “Thought we were going to have to get on without you” (540). Jackson once again presents the thought that the town will have to go on without her, although not simply because she has arrived late.
This statement is presented in a cheerful manner by the gentleman who hosts the lottery for this small town, suggesting that nobody can perceive there may be a moral dilemma associated with this tradition. Tessie’s protestations when her family is chosen as the winners of the lottery give the clearest indication throughout the whole story that, even though everyone appears to be enthusiastic on this day, something is terribly wrong. While she was happy to be a part of the lottery before it began, she is now opposed to her family being chosen.
As soon as Tessie realizes that her family has drawn the paper with the black dot on it, she begins to make pleas as to how the lottery was unfair to her family. Tessie protests “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair! ” (542). The reader does not yet know why winning this lottery is not desired, it is clear now that the result of the lottery will not be pleasant. Symbolism is also used throughout the story in order to expose the theme. The simple use of a lottery in order to choose the sacrificial person is the most symbolic within the story.
The general expectation of a lottery is that the winning participant will be awarded a prize that will be beneficial to them in some way. When the term “the lottery” is introduced as the title of the story, and then again in the first paragraph (539), the reader expects that the joy surrounding the events of the day is based on one of the residents of this town receiving a gift. The use of the word lottery shows that the townspeople believe that, while the person who is eventually chosen probably does not want to die, this event is advantageous to the town as a whole, and their upcoming harvest.
Another symbol used in “The Lottery” is the use of the color black. It is mentioned as being the color of the box that is employed to house the papers that will choose the winner of the lottery, and is also used on the piece of paper inside the box that indicates which man has chosen the winning ticket. The color is originally introduced quickly, “When [Mr. Summers] arrived in the square, carrying the black wooden box” (539) and the reader is consistently reminded throughout the story that the box is black.
Conventionally, black is a color that is used to represent evil and death, and is used purposefully here to demonstrate that this tradition is an evil one as well. Additionally, the use of stones as the means of death for the winner of the lottery is also a particularly significant symbol. Stones have been used for centuries as a way to organize a death by a group of people. Everyone is able to participate, right down to the youngest children in the community, and the people as a whole are eager to begin once Tessie has been chosen. The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” (543). This type of death by a mob only serves to unite the inhabitants of the town even more closely together in their belief that this lottery is advantageous to them. Several conflicts are also presented throughout the story as a means to promote the theme of the dangers of following traditions thoughtlessly. The most straightforward conflict offered is directly after Tessie’s husband determines that he has chosen the piece of paper signifying that his family has been selected as the winners.
Tessie begins protesting immediately and repeats several times that “It wasn’t fair! ” (542). Only one of the participants of the lottery feels that the results are not rewarding to her; the rest of the community is motivated to choose the particular winner from the family and move on to the ceremonial killing. A less obvious conflict within the story is the group as a whole’s fear and resistance to change. During the procession of people selecting papers from the box, Mr. Adams states that at least one town that he knows of has given up the lottery.
The oldest man in the town, Mr. Warner states that they are crazy and that “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them” (541). Traditions are passed on from the old to the young, and this one has been instilled in every member of the community, as an integral part of their belief system that someone must be sacrificed in order to benefit the upcoming harvest. The conflict of unquestioned traditions is also raised within the text. Everyone in the town participates in the lottery, most without question.
When Mr. Adams suggests that it is possible the lottery could be discarded, he is immediately rebuffed by Old Man Warner. None of the individuals are distraught at the thought of killing another member of their close-knit, small town, and everyone participates freely. This conflict demonstrates that while traditions are passed down from one generation to the next, it does not mean that the status quo should never be challenged, and demonstrates the danger of simply following the lead of others. The Lottery” is a harrowing tale that clearly presents a story wrought with conflict, symbols and foreshadowing. Through her use of these characteristics, Jackson has created a story that presents a particularly chilling and deadly demonstration of the possible hazards of following tradition without question. These are ordinary people, on an ordinary day who hold a lottery in order to kill someone simply because it is what they have always done, and because nobody has braved the possible effects of being the sole individual to reject the tradition and campaign to have it discontinued.