How do rituals organize our modern lives? How do we lose the original meaning of rituals? In what ways do we use rituals to sanction meaningless violence? Shirley Jackson explores these questions in her much anthologized short story, “The Lottery.”
The story opens innocently enough on June 27th with three boys, Bobby Martin, Harry Jones, and Dickie Delacriox, putting stones in their pockets. Today is the lottery, about which the reader gets let information. Early on we learn that the lottery is run by Mr. Summers, and the entire village must participate in it. We are not told its purpose, and its original intent seems to have been lost to all the village except for Old man Warner. He hints at the lottery was believed to be connect with a good harvest, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” An atmosphere of anxiety pervades as each family gathers for the ritual. The heads of the family each come forward to take a slip of paper from an decaying box. We then learn that Bill Hutchinson has chosen the slip with a black circle on it. Tessie Hutchinson protests that Bill was not given enough time to choose. Each member of the Hutchinson family, including their children Bill, Jr., Nancy, and Davy, select slips of paper. Tessie discovers she has selected the final black circle. The story closes with Tessie being stoned to death. (Even Mrs. Delacroix picks a rock that she must lift with both hands!)
The question Jackson puts front and center is why the village still goes through with the lottery. As Mr. Adams points out, other villages have stopped the lottery, to which Old Man Warner rebukes him. Most seem to have either forgotten or ignored that the lottery comes out of the irrational belief that through ritual human sacrifice the village will enjoy a good harvest. The ritual of the lottery has lost its solemnity – Ms. Summers laughs during the selection and “much of the paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago.” People had talked about making a new box, “but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.”
So, again, why do the villagers adhere to this tradition? Does it comes out of a sense of fear? Is it just blind, unthinking devotion to rituals outdated? Or is it that the lottery becomes an outlet for the violence lurking just below the surface of society?