9 October 2014
“The Lottery” and “The Rocking-Horse Winner”
The theme of “sacrifice” is integral to the author’s purpose in both “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence. While the two authors use the idea of sacrifice in very different ways, the importance of sacrifice is clearly delineated. However, Jackson and Lawrence approach the theme from separate angles and with two very unique purposes in mind. This paper will examine the theme of “sacrifice” in each short story and show how it is used to convey the author’s underlying message of the importance and value of Christian sacrifice.
In Jackson’s “Lottery,” sacrifice is arbitrary and random. Each year, an individual from the town is selected by lottery. There is no sense, no reason given for the tradition, other than that it is a tradition and must therefore be followed. One has a sense the village operates according to a rather anti-Christian creed: instead of “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” these villagers assert that all must throw stones regardless of guilt or innocence. Blood must be shed. Someone must be sacrificed.
In Lawrence’s “Rocking-Horse Winner,” the child Paul sacrifices himself in order to please his mother, who is consumed by a materialistic/selfish mentality. As he is able to predict the winner of horse races by riding his rocking-horse, he collects vast sums of money, which he gives to his mother in an attempt to fill the empty hole inside her. At first, the money seems to work, but gradually it turns out that enough is never really enough. The problem is that each “race” takes a little from Paul’s life, until finally he gives himself so completely to one last race that he loses his life.
Paul’s example of sacrifice (literally dying for his mother, who, ironically, fails to really perceive the value of the gifts) is much different from the example of sacrifice given in Jackson’s “Lottery.” In the village, none of the citizens are willing to take upon themselves the kind of life-giving heroism displayed by Paul in Lawrence’s story. Lawrence takes the theme of sacrifice and shows how noble an ideal it is—and how brutally it can be abused by those who are shallow (like Paul’s mother), people who take no time to appreciate or understand another’s sacrifice. Jackson’s characters are as self-absorbed as Paul’s mother: they think only of themselves and pray each lottery that they are not the ones chosen.
In “The Lottery” Jackson is showing how a civilization, a culture, might institute practices and actions that are completely antithetical to reason. One example of the irrationality of the village in the “The Lottery” is given in the conversation between Mr. Adams and Old Man Warner, both of whom discuss the nature of the lottery they celebrate. Mr. Adams suggests that the tradition of randomly picking an individual from the village to be stoned to death may be a dying out: “‘They do say,’ Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, ‘that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery’” (Jackson, 2011, p. 225). There is a kind of hopeful tone in Mr. Adams’ assertion. He would gladly see an end to this foolish tradition, so it seems. But Old Man Warner is unwilling to abide by anything so sensible. He blames such senseless abandonment of institutionalized/ritualized murder on the “young” people, eager to throw off the old ways: “‘Old Man Warner snorted, ‘Pack of crazy fools,’ he said. ‘Listening to the young folks…’” (Jackson, 2011, p. 225). The discussion highlights the disconnect between reason and authority. Old Man Warner represents a society that will oblige others to sacrifice themselves. Jackson’s purpose appears to be contained in the notion that there is no real merit in sacrifice that is not freely given of one’s own free will. The “sacrifice” at the end of the story is met with chilling