“The Lottery” focuses on Tessie Hutchinson, a woman who is stoned to death by members of her village.
Violence and Cruelty
Violence is a major theme in “The Lottery.” While the stoning is a cruel and brutal act, Jackson enhances its emotional impact by setting the story in a seemingly civilized and peaceful society. This suggests that horrifying acts of violence can take place anywhere at anytime, and they can be committed by the most ordinary people. Jackson also addresses the psychology behind mass cruelty by presenting a community whose citizens refuse to stand as individuals and oppose the lottery and who instead unquestioningly take part in the killing of an innocent and accepted member of their village with no apparent grief or remorse.
Custom and Tradition
Another theme of “The Lottery” concerns the blind following of tradition and the negative consequences of such an action. The people of the village continue to take part in the lottery even though they cannot remember certain aspects of the ritual, such as the “tuneless chant” and the “ritual salute,” simply because the event has been held for so long that these aspects have been lost to time. Jackson highlights the theme of tradition through symbolism. For example, the black box from which the slips of paper are drawn represents the villagers’ inability to change. The box is very old and in bad shape, but when it is suggested that the people make a new box, the subject is “allowed to fade off without any thing’s being done.” Further emphasizing the long history of both the box and the ritual, the narrator notes: “There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here.” Old Man Warner, the oldest man in the village, also represents the theme of tradition. When Mr. and Mrs. Adams suggest to Warner that some other villages have already given up the lottery or are thinking about doing so, he replies with, “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves … . There’s always been a lottery.”
Victim and Victimization
Victimization, or the act of oppressing, harming, or killing an individual or group, is also addressed in “The Lottery.” The villagers believe, based on ancient custom, that someone has to be sacrificed for the good of the village even if that person has not done anything wrong. Jackson highlights humankind’s capacity to victimize others by having friends and family participate in Tessie’s killing. For example, even though Mrs. Delacroix is kind and friendly to Tessie at the beginning of the story, she rushes to stone her “with a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands” after Tessie’s name is drawn. It is also considered significant that a woman is chosen as the story’s victim. Some critics maintain that Jackson’s depiction of a ‘ ‘normal” town that victimizes a woman fits logically with the traditional patriarchal type of society in which men have power and authority over women that has been accepted as “normal” in much of the world.
Some recent reviewers of “The Lottery” tend to classify the story as feminist literature. They maintain that Jackson highlights the negative aspects of patriarchal societies through her telling of the lottery ritual. In the story, men draw for their family, and women are treated as possessions or subordinates. For example, when Tessie dares to question the method of drawing, her husband tells her to shut up. Some critics have also noted that the method of the ritual itself helps guarantee the traditional role of women as mothers in the village. Fritz Oehlschlaeger states in Essays in Literature that ‘ ‘the nature of the process by which the victim is selected gives each woman a very clear incentive to produce the largest possible family.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale, 1997.