Blind adherence to traditions in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

Term Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Lottery: Summary

3. The Meaning Of Tradition

4. Blindly Following A Forgotten Tradition

5. Human Nature In The Context Of Tradition

6. Children As A Bearer Of Hope

7. Conclusion

8. Works Cited

1) Introduction

There are numerous communities in the world laying great emphasis on having traditions and keeping them alive. Traditions determine our values, moral concepts and personalities. They determine how we actually perceive events, actions and/or common behaviour patterns of the people we meet or associate on a regular basis. Traditions, however, cannot always be regarded as an enrichment when they do not conform themselves to new, different conditions. Consequently, some ideas, views or practices of the tradition can be outdated or, as time changes, morally reprehensible. It is therefore vital to stay critical of common practices and not to be reluctant to changes that time always brings about.

The Lottery, written by Shirley Jackson, published in 1948, is a prime example for a society that blindly follows an outdated and harmful tradition without questioning it. Usually, winning the lottery implies that one participant gets rewarded, but in Shirley Jackson’s short story, winning The Lottery means getting stoned to death by the other participants, that is, by their neighbours, friends and even own family members.

My claim is that traditions which have lost their meaning and are followed blindly can cause otherwise normal people to act abnormally without thinking. Thus, the human nature is not inherently violent, but it is the unthinking adherence to their tradition which is the primary cause of their violence and cruelty. After all, groups of people can easily influence human nature as well as their distinction of good and evil provided that the people uncritically follow a tradition which they do not consider as a barbaric event, but as a normal civic event taking place annually.

My aim is to examine, in a close reading, the effects of blind adherence to traditions on the characters’ behaviour in the story. In order to this, I will verify the point that the villagers blindly follow their tradition, although they have forgotten its origin significance. Afterwards, I will analyze in how far human nature plays a role when it comes to act brutally and evil, as every villager participates in the murder after all. I finally want to focus on the children’s behaviour in order to demonstrate that there is still hope for villagers of breaking with their barbaric tradition. In order to fully understand the theme, it is important to know what the short story is about, how it develops towards the end and who the main characters are that will be addressed in this paper. On that account I will give a short summary of The Lottery as well as a short definition of what we consider as a tradition.

2) The Lottery: Summary

On June 27, three hundred residents of a small village assemble to participate in The Lottery, an annual event. The participation is compulsory for both men and women, including children, who live in the village. The children, who gather up some stones and put them in their trouser pockets, come together first, followed by the men and the women afterwards. Mr. Summers, a married business owner who is fond of engaging in civic events, conducts The Lottery. Before the event actually begins, Mrs. Hutchinson lately joins the lottery.

After having checked the villagers’ attendance, Mr. Summer asks the heads of each family to draw a random slip of paper from a black wooden box. It is Mrs. Hutchinson’s husband, Bill Hutchinson, who picks a slip with a black spot. The Hutchinson family, five people in total, is thus on the short list. Mr. Summers writes each name of the Hutchinson family on a new slip of paper and puts them in the emptied black box. Now, the couple and its three children have to draw a random slip. It is Mrs. Hutchinson’s slip which has a black spot on it. Mrs. Hutchinson wins The Lottery and gets what the winner gets every year on June 27: a public stoning by the rest of the present participants. Hence, Mrs. Hutchinson gets stoned by her neighbours as well as by her own family right away so that the villagers can return to their daily routine. She screams and complains desperately, to no avail.

3) The meaning of tradition

In order to understand tradition and its impact on society’s behaviour and mindset, it is necessary to define the term. In fact, the term “tradition” has been defined variously. In its barest meaning, it derives from the Latin word “tradere” which means “to hand over, surrender, deliver; to betray; to hand down, bequeath, transmit, pass on; to relate, recount; to teach” (Lunsford et al. 297). The sociologist Edward Shils gives a broader definition of it:

[Tradition is] anything which is transmitted or handed down from the past to the present […], it is created by human actions, through thought and imagination, it handed down from one generation to the next.” (Shils 12)

Thus, tradition can be beliefs, behaviours, habits or even material objects such as “buildings”, “monuments” or “books” (Shils 12). It is performed as well as believed in the past, or, as Shils puts it, “it […] is believed to have existed or to have been performed or believed in the past”

(13). He thus notes that the existence of a tradition can be on the basis of a total lie with no evidence or proof, as events, practices and believes, any type of constructions can be totally made up in the past or they can be based on a truth. It is nevertheless considered as a tradition. Besides, there is no need for an “acceptable evidence for the truth of the tradition” (Shils 13).

Just because tradition is handed down, it does not mean that the next generation is obliged to follow any sort of tradition. It is a product from the past; therefore it is completely up to the generation as to whether they follow the tradition or completely reject it. The following question arises: Under which conditions do ideas, concepts, practices become an established tradition? Anthony Giddens puts it in a nutshell and says that “tradition is a feature of organic creatures, they develop and mature or they diminish and die” (qtd. in Zheng 108). There were numerous customs, habits and patterns in the past which are forsaken afterwards, as they were not regarded and perceived as a tradition. Shils tries to explain this issue in his book, but admits that there is actually no appropriate answer to it. He still argues that the duration of the belief, custom, habit etc. plays a decisive part in becoming a tradition: “At a minimum, two transmissions over three generations are required” (Shils 15) in order to become and remain a tradition. There is also the possibility of blindly following a tradition. In this case, traditions are “accepted without being assessed by any criterion other than its having been believed before” (Shils 128). Consequently, they can lose their significance and even harm the community which upholds them. Shirley Jackson depicts a perfect example of a tradition that has become insignificant, and yet preserved zealously by its community, in The Lottery.

4) Blindly following a forgotten tradition

There are several details given about the villagers’ tradition. It is not the same tradition as it was a long time ago. For instance, numerous objects that are used in the original tradition are lost or renewed and/or replaced. The narrator tells that “Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood” (Jackson 2). Likewise, it adds that “the original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago” (1) and notes that “every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box” (1). The narrator’s notes demonstrate how the articles of the villager’s tradition are linked to its actual meaning: both are gradually ignored and disregarded by the villagers. The value as well as the meaning of The Lottery retreats in the background, but it is still practiced by its villagers.

If its meaning has been lost, why do the villagers still blindly follow it? Jung tries to give an explanation to this; he believes that it is not important for the villagers to understand the meaning or the purpose of their tradition, but the experience of participating in their tradition matters, providing the “individual a place and a meaning in the life of generations” (Jung 188). Old Man Warner, who is the oldest person in the town, is the only person who is capable of perceiving the gradual diminution in value of The Lottery. After he hears that other villages contemplate abandoning it, he angrily calls them a “pack of crazy fools” (4), as, according to his point of view, “nothing’s good enough for them” (4). He informs the villagers on the original sense of conducting The Lottery, which is “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (4). This explanation implies that it indeed had an original purpose; the villagers, however, do not remember anything. Old Man Warner also makes an instructive remark by trying to give arguments for continuing their almost forgotten tradition and says that “there’s always been a lottery” (4). His remark throws light onto his mentality: he is not afraid of the consequences of not adhering to The Lottery, he just follows it, as the generations before him used to do it. As it has always been practiced, the Old Man Warner approves of continuing it without really questioning its actual meaning. As a matter of fact, none of the participants question the act of killing an innocent person. Old Man Warner himself, taking part in the Lottery for his “seventy-seventh time” (4), does not make any comments on this matter whatsoever.

5) Human nature in the context of tradition

In order to investigate the motives for murdering an innocent person that one knows, likes or perhaps adores, one has to take closer look at the primary cause of the villagers’ cruelty. Coulthard strongly argues that The Lottery “is not an assault on mindless, cultural conformity. It is a grim, even nihilistic, parable of the evil inherent in human nature” (Bloom 34-35) According to him, “it is not that the ancient custom of human sacrifice makes the villagers behave cruelly, but that their thinly veiled cruelty keeps the custom alive.” (34). In order to assess Coulthard’s claim, one has to examine the short story. In fact, in the beginning of the story the villagers do not behave cruelly or evil whatsoever, but they are friendly and also have relaxed conversations with each other. The description that Mrs Delacroix and Mrs. Hutchinson “laughed softly” (Jackson 2), indicates that they get along well with each other and that they may be even friends. At the end of the story, Mrs. Delacroix, however, does not hesitate to “select a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands” (Jackson 7). She could have chosen a smaller stone, but she opts for a big one.

In fact, critics share different views on the main cause of the villager’s brutal behaviour. Brooks and Warren argue that there is an “awful doubleness of the human spirit - a doubleness that expresses itself in the blended good neighbourliness and cruelty of the community’s action” (Bloom 30). Nebeker takes an unequivocal stand on this matter, arguing that the tradition of the lottery ”actually serves to generate a cruelty not rooted in man’s inherent emotional needs at all” (Nebeker 2).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Blind adherence to traditions in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
University of Osnabrück
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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blind, lottery, shirley, jackson
Quote paper
Ahmet Yildirim (Author), 2014, Blind adherence to traditions in "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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