Shirley Jackson’s insights and observations about man and society are reflected in her famous short story “The Lottery”. Many of her readers have found this story shocking and disturbing. Jackson reveals two general attitudes in this story: first, the shocking reality of human’s tendency to select a scapegoat and second, society as a victim of tradition and ritual.
Throughout history, we have witnessed and participated in many events, where, in times of turmoil and hardship, society has a tendency to seize upon a scapegoat as means of resolution. The people of the village had been taught to believe that in order for their crop to be abundant for the year, some individuals had to be sacrificed. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”, said Old Man Warner.
The irony here is that villagers are aware that this act is inhumane but none want to stand and voice their opinion, for fear of going against society’s standards and being outcast or being stoned. “It’s not the way it used to be,” Old Man Warner said clearly. “People ain’t the way they used to be.”
Fear that if they go against a society they might be chosen as the lottery winner or there might be a truth, after all, that it would disrupt their corn season. “Some places have already quit lotteries,” Mrs. Adams said. “Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.”
In stoning Tessie, the villagers treat her as a scapegoat onto which they can project and repress their own temptations to rebel. The only person who shows their rebellious attitude is Tessie. She does not appear to take the ritual seriously, as she comes rushing to the square because she “clean forgot what day it was”.
The villagers are aware of her rebellious attitude and they are wary that she may be a possible cause for their crops not to be plentiful. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her. We can understand how traditions are easily lost through the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another.
It is how traditions that lose their meaning due to human forgetfulness can cause dreadful consequences to occur. Although “the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original box, they still remembered to use stones”. Do people just pick and choose which part of a tradition they want to keep? We tend to remember the actions and the objects necessary to proceed with a ritual, but we always seem to forget the purpose or the reason behind it.
Are we correct in still continuing the tradition even though there is a victim involved? It seems we, as part of a society, are scared of being ridiculed if we change or end a tradition because everyone around us will still behave in the manner they were taught. “The people had done it so many times that they only half listened to the directions,” shows that the meaning and purpose behind the ritual had been lost and they were just acting it out through repetition.
The villagers, who remember some bits of history about those forgotten aspects of the ritual, aren’t even definite about the accuracy of their beliefs.
Some believe that the “official of the lottery should stand” a certain way when he sang the chant, others believe that he should “walk among the people”. No one exactly remembers the how and why of the tradition, most have become completely desensitized to the murderous rituals.
Because the adults have forgotten the tradition’s history, the children know even less and they are desensitized to murder, thinking it’s just another fun holiday like Christmas. Jackson expressed clearly how violence that occurs around us or that we cause is pointless and has no purpose. Yet this violence and evil grows from a seed within our hearts and minds waiting to free itself in times of panic and turmoil.
We need to learn to find solutions to our problems instead of putting the blame on others as means of a remedy. When there are no other corrupt and sinful human beings to kill, society will turn on itself. Even caring and normal human beings can throw stones. Forgotten traditions can also be extremely dangerous as Shirley Jackson points out in her short story.
People hear what they want to hear and choose what rituals to keep for traditions. The simple game of telephone proves that as a society, we are just like the villagers, forgetting the original words but continuing on as if the words we know are the original.