Symbolism in The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
Length: 1535 words (4.4 double-spaced pages)
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In Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" symbols are used to enhance and stress the theme of the story. A symbol is a person, object, action, place, or event that in addition to its literal meaning, suggests a more complex meaning or range of meanings. (Kirszner & Mendell 330) The theme of the story is how coldness and lack of compassion can be exhibited in people in situations regarding tradition and values. That people will do incredibly evil and cruel things just for the sake of keeping a routine. Three of the main symbols that Shirley uses in the story is the setting, black box, and the actual characters names. They all tie together to form an intriguing story that clearly shows the terrible potential if society forgets the basis of tradition. The story also shows many similarities between the culture of the village, and the culture of Nazi Germany. How blind obedience to superiors can cause considerable damage to not only a community, but the entire world. Symbolism plays a large role in "The Lottery" to set the theme of the story and make the reader question traditions.
One of the main symbols of the story is the setting. It takes place in a normal small town on a nice summer day. "The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day; the flowers were blooming profusely and the grass was richly green." (Jackson 347).This tricks the reader into a disturbingly unaware state,
and to believe the lottery is something wonderful like it is today. The small town atmosphere and beautiful summer day symbolize the idealistic picture most Americans have of what is right and good about this country. This is reinforced by the fact that the lottery is held in the same place as many of the town's celebrations such as the square-dances, teenage club, and the Halloween program, and clearly shows how easy it is for people to clear their conscience of such horrible actions by being able to have such joyous occasions in the same place. The attitude and actions of the characters slightly allude to the reader that something is amiss, but causes little cause for concern or suspicion. The children were playing and building rock piles. The men were talking about rain, taxes, and tractors while the women gossiped. But there was little laughter between the adults, and they stayed completely away from the rock piles.
The setting of the town and the actions of the characters symbolize what many believe to be "right" in America.
The second main symbol in "The Lottery" is the black box. The black box is where the townspeople drew strips of paper from to determine who is the "winner". It was very old and even older than the oldest member of the town.
"The black box grew shabbier each year; by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained." (Jackson 348)
The box at first symbolizes mystery, but by the end of the story it symbolizes doom and death since one of the townspeople's fates lies in an inanimate object. It is also symbolic of our dislike of change since it is so old and worn out. "There was a story that the present black 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." (Jackson 348) This makes it a good example of the original theme of the story of how people will do nearly anything to keep traditions even if they don't understand why. Merriam-Webster's dictionary even has "thoroughly sinister and evil" as one of the definitions for the word black. (427) Black as a color historically denotes death and the box revolves around all the evil that has been done and will be done. The townspeople avoid replacing the box and distance themselves from the responsibility as much as possible. They respond to the black box in awe and in fear as if it were some great power. "Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset as much tradition as was represented by the black box." (Jackson 348) Once again the townspeople are making things more difficult in their own lives by not being able to let go of tradition. The black box is a perfect example of the overall theme of the story and is a symbol of death and evil.
The third major use of symbolism in the story "The Lottery" is the characters themselves. Not only the actions of the characters but their names hint at their personalities. Summers, Graves, Old Man Warner, Delacroix and Hutchinson are excellent examples. Old Man Warner is probably the most obviously symbolic character of the story. Every word that leaves Old Man Warner's Mouth reeks of tradition. He never stops criticizing new ideas about the lottery, the way it is run, or complaining about how things have changed for the worst. When Mr. Adams comments on how a village up north had was talking of giving up the lottery Old Man Warner replied:
"Pack of Crazy Fools Listening to the young folks, nothing's good
enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to live in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while."
He is clinging to tradition, even some that are no longer observed, and totally unwilling to let go of the ones that are still practiced, in spite of how ludicrous they might be. It has always been done that way before so why change things now? He is the ideal symbol of everything that is wrong with tradition. Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves both symbolize authority and how it can be used to coerce the masses. While neither Mr. Graves nor Mr. Summers are tyrannical, awe inspiring, or otherwise persuasive leaders, the townspeople follow them. Mr. Summers' name symbolizes life but in reality it is he who is in charge of the lottery which instead of giving life to its winner it gives death. Graves is the man who carries in the black box and the three-legged stool. It is also from Mr. Graves whom the citizens get the papers from, therefore it is almost like he is the one who has the most influence over whose grave it will be next. The Hutchinson Family is both symbolic of internal faults that all humans have, such as cowardice and indifference. Bill Hutchinson is apparently so scared of saying no to authority that he will not take the necessary steps to protect his family. Mrs. Hutchinson is a perfect example of how evil exists in everyone and when pushed it can take a mother to risk her own child's safety. Since she was willing to demand that her married daughter take part in the drawing just to improve her own chances of survival. Mrs. Delacroix's name means of the cross in Latin, and even though she is a friend of Mrs. Hutchinson she picks up the largest rock and encourages the other people to commence the stoning. The names of all the prominent characters in
"The Lottery" support the idea that everybody hides their evil nature by way of hypocrisy, and their actions symbolize various forms of negativity.
"The Lottery" was first released in 1948 to a post-world war II audience that was appalled by Nazi Germany's treatment "lesser people". Readers were horrified that something so similar to a mini holocaust could happen in their own country.
There were many Americans who, after the end of World War II and the revelations of the early Nuremberg
trials in 1945 and 1946, smugly asserted that such atrocities could happen in Nazi Germany but not in the United States. After all, singling out one person, one religion, one race for pejorative treatment--these things just could not happen here. (Yarmove)
Both these problems were caused by the blind following of people by those they feel are superior. They do no ask themselves "Why am I doing this?" or object to what they are told to do. They simply fall in with the majority and do not do what they believe is right. The cultures of the community in "The Lottery" and Nazi Germany have more in common than most people would like to believe.
In Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" she masterfully uses symbolism to convey a meaning that is not only shocking, but disturbing. She demonstrates the problems of following traditions that have become outdated and pointless. And she exposes many of the flaws of human nature.
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