Pointless Violence Under a Veil of Tradition in “The Lottery”: A Discovery Via the Tools of Irony and Symbolism Within the Framework of Formalism The approach to literary criticism known as Formalism focuses on the literary text itself as the source for meaning, and deems the text as the only context a critic should turn to for research. It is a style of criticism that places emphasis on the literary tools and techniques in a text, apart from a text’s or authors historical context. The key to Formalism is structural and textual analysis.
With the formalist assumptions that format and context are connected, and literature is ultimately symbolic, it is possible to extract meaning in the short story, “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson using the tools and language of the text. “The Lottery” employs complex symbolism within its framework of irony to reflect its theme of needless violence disguised by the notion of tradition and maintained by blind superstition and this meaning can be discovered using the theoretical approaches of formalism. To renowned formalist critic, Cleanth Brooks, one of main areas of concern for criticism is unity.
Each part of the text is necessary for the functioning of the whole, and cannot be taken away without destroying the organic whole. Additionally, the meaning of a text does not lie in the abstract but in the concrete details and objects within the text. This principle of the organic relationship between the solid pieces of the writing firmly defends the notion that the literary text as context is necessary: “In coming to see that the parts of a poem are related to each other organically, and related to the total theme indirectly, we have come to see the importance of context” (85)
Irony in “Irony as a Principle of Structure” is the contrast between the superficial meaning and the deeper meaning and it is widely determined by the context within a text. That is, it requires a textual context or the literary text’s frame of reference to be understood and recognized. So a text that employs irony as one of it’s principal objects cannot be deciphered for meaning without looking primarily at the text itself. The theme of a literary work is absorbed in its details. Such is the case with
Jackson’s “The Lottery”. To understand the meaning of the story, it is absolutely necessary to examine the various literary objects such as irony and symbolism. Irony in “The Lottery” is reflected in the title, setting and the actions of the characters, and the argument presented is further explicated in the symbols the physical objects in the text, and the names of the main characters. “The Lottery” is a story of a day in a small town where the townspeople have gathered for an annual ceremony that is known as “the lottery”.
Each head of the family picks a slip of paper from a black box. The Hutchinson family is the one that picks a slip with a black spot on it. All the papers are collected, and then each Hutchinson draws again to narrow the selection. The wife and mother, Tessie Hutchinson, is the one this time with the slip of paper with the black indication. At that time, amid her protests, the villagers throw stones at her. The story in portrayed in such a manner that the true situation is not revealed until the first stone hits Tessie.
The title “The Lottery” combined with the setting painted establishes a type of cosmic irony in the story. The word lottery signifies a celebratory fortunate occasion. The title purposefully plays of the reader’s assumptions in order to create its unexpected ending. The setting of a date that is “clear and sunny, with the warmth of a full-summer day” (291) promises a pleasant occasion with a happy reward for a lucky participant. However, this lottery is far from happy and results in a prize of demise for the winner.
The separate gatherings of the children, the men’s talk of planting and the woman’s gossip that changes into a terse grouping of families in a hesitated silence betray some foreshadowing into the powerful theme of the story. This subtle seriousness among the townspeople is intermingled with the objective third person narrative description of the black box. This knotting of the present tension with the mysterious past hides the true nature of the lottery until the climatic end of the story.
Indeed, the haunting context of the conclusion is not descriptively foreshadowed through the characters actions or dialogue within the bulk of the story. The plot remains simplistic and the characters not developed. This serves to imply that the lottery is a normal happening and the shock of what the true ritual is forced unto the reader with a shocking effect. The setting remains important in this surprise ending, as the ambiguity of the text seems that the lottery could have taken place anywhere.
The characters actions or lack of actions also contribute to the shock value of the closing. Mr. Summer’s rushed and carefree conduction of the ominous ceremony serves to hide the cruel violence and destructive tradition. His lack of compassion, yet social power points him as a key component of an irony. He, who owns coal mills and runs all town activities because “he had time and energy to devote to civic activities” (292), is in a position to stop the needless violence, yet Summers blindly follows a barbaric tradition that has lost all original purpose. Mr. and Mrs.
Adams are more modern citizens who point out the changing conditions and the termination of the lottery in other villages, but “Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers” (302) who were determined to murder Tessie Hutchinson. Tessie Hutchinson’s actions also convey an irony. She is careless and arrives late to the village square because she “clean forgot what day it was” (294). It is her, however, who is destined to die in that day’s proceedings. The irony though is not in her fate but in that she does not protest against the tradition or the violent act itself. Her shouts are against the unfairness of her being chosen.
Her outcry at her name being chosen at a tradition that she is a willing participant in reinforces the hypocrisy of a society that accepts violence under the mask of tradition. Old Man Warner is portrayed as the patriarch of the tradition. He has survived seventy-seven lotteries, is superstitious, and is a defender of the tradition. He embodies the theme of cruel violence hidden under the guise of tradition and superstition. It is ironic that the supporter of murder for the sake of tradition should be the one to have escaped it the longest: “There’s always been a lottery” (297).
Symbolism plays a key in finding the meaning to the short story as well. This symbolism can be seen in a simple color analysis. The black box is a good representation of the main theme of the story. The color black is an emblem for death and evil. It is also mysterious. Originally, in “The Lottery”, the reader regards the black box with some skepticism and mystery, but this view is changed by the conclusion of the story. The black box contains the unlucky lottery winner’s fate; and this fate is death.
Additionally, the objective narrator recants the history of the box to the reader wherein the box is the catalyst for the violent acts committed in the past and to come in the future. The black box is the symbol for the tradition that veils the needless violence, which is the theme of the text. This box also signifies that the tradition of the torturous lottery is not bound to end as the village is opposed to replacing the box with a new one; or metaphorically replacing the tradition of the lottery with a new tradition that does not encourage violence. but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it…. (293) The fateful slips of paper that are distributed to the citizens of the village are also symbolic in the way they are blown away after the first part of the ceremony is conducted: “he dropped all the papers but those onto the ground, where the breeze caught them and lifted them off” (299).
This shows the ease with which life can be carried away and foreshadows the fate of the one hapless victim of the violent lottery. Symbolism in Jackson’s haunting story is so prominent that even the characters name alludes to the greater meaning of the piece. John Ellis in “The Relevant Context of a Literary Text” dismisses the problem of allusions in formalism by stating that historical. Cultural and biblical allusions become part of a linguistic community’s shared meanings and associations.
These allusions do not force the reader to go outside of the text to understand it, but rather to relate the text to the reader’s own frame of reference. As such, name symbolism in “The Lottery” help reveal the true nature of the story. Mr. Summer’s name suggests not only the setting of the story on a summer day and the happy associations with the season, but also further supports the cosmic irony especially when in conjunction with the name of Mr. Graves. Mr. Graves is the postmaster of the town, which could serve to also mean a grim reaper of death as he helps Mr.
Summer conducts the ceremony. This symbol is made more ironical when looking at Mrs. Grave’s comment: “Time sure goes fast” (296). Old Man Warner stands for the tradition in the society and also for the superstitious warning that there may be unknown dangers were the tradition of the lottery to desist. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about “Lottery n June, corn be heavy soon. First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorn. (297) The “Old Man” part of the name observes the notion that the elder seem to be wise, but this particular character is ignorant in his superstition that is maintaining the pointless violence. The violence is meaningless in that nobody in the village remembers how the ritual started or the purpose of it but they do hang on the violent nature: “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (301).
So the violence is clung unto under the facade of tradition. Formalistic criticism employing the theoretical principles of looking at the tools and objects of the literary text itself help to indicate key meaning in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. By looking within the story as context, with particular emphasis on the structures of irony and symbolism, the critic is able to ascertain the nature of the true story is its discussion of purposeless violence cloaked by tradition and supported by superstition.