The Ritual of “The Lottery” It is often said that there is strength in numbers. While it is true that a large group of people has more power than an individual, a single person within a large group will almost always conform in some way. This weakens the individual and leads to fewer new ideas in order to maintain group status and agreement. Many times, rituals or ideas are allowed and accepted just because they are favored by a majority or have been part of that society for so long that they have become almost like a tradition.
In “The Lottery”, Shirley Jackson uses alarming images to guide the reader to understand the futility and foolishness of blind obedience to these rituals. The lottery “selection” emphasizes the importance of questioning what is right in front of you instead of just conforming mindlessly. The story begins with the children gathering in town square. They are laughing, playing, and having fun doing things other children do. Some are gathering stones from the surrounding area and building a pile.
Soon the men and women arrive, bringing with them a much less cheerful disposition. The adults make small talk, laughing quietly with each other while maintaining a slight solemnity. Jackson uses foreshadowing early in the story by mentioning the stones and how the older villagers distance themselves from it. “They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed” (pg. 562, lines 20-21). Something is not quite right about this atmosphere.
Suspicions are confirmed at the end of the story when we learn that this assemblage is a morbid and perverse ritual in which people draw slips from an old box to select a neighbor in the village. This person then becomes a scapegoat and he or she is stoned to death to guarantee a profitable year ahead. There are indications throughout the story that some people are starting to think that the tradition is not really so rational and that perhaps the year can be just as successful if the lottery were no more. Mr. Adams and his wife say, “Over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery” (pg. 65, lines 38) and that, “Some places have already quit lotteries” (line 35). It is obvious that there is a certain discomfort about the ritual. It is human nature to feel shame when taking part in acts like the ones in the story. When the discomfort arises in the form of people speaking out, though, majority and tradition silence it. “Pack of crazy fools,” he [Old Man Warner] said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s ever good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while.
Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon. ‘ First thing you know we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly (pg. 565, lines 29-34). The reader is given the impression that, if taken privately and questioned, all but a few villagers would oppose the idea of eliminating a member of their village. Yet because of tradition in this ritual and fear of opposing the majority, they continue the horrific action and scorn those who outwardly oppose it.