Ritual and Lottery Essays

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Words: 1554
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Hiba Siddiqui
Professor Regan
Essay III
29 March 2012 “The Lottery,” A Literary Analysis
Although fiction, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” accurately examines humanity’s strikingly realistic capacity for evil within a contemporary, familiar American setting. The story explores how a modern society follows a deadly ritual obediently and in uniformity, with the same fervor and joy as in the past. Through her alarming imagery in the story, Jackson guides readers to understand the futility and foolishness of blind compliance—pushing audiences to question their own society’s traditions rather than simply conforming to them as the villagers had done. In the story, the townspeople become desensitized to the morbid and perverse ritual slips are drawn from a box to randomly select a neighbor as a sacrifice. This person is then stoned to death following what began as a vegetation ritual but overtime morphed into a cathartic cleansing of an entire village. It is incredibly unfortunate to live in a time of intellectual and moral paralysis; a time where people commit inhumane acts under the cloak of tradition. Jackson, rather adroitly, explains how the ultimate form of cowardice is to implicate and violently execute the innocent in the name of customs which have been unexamined and unchanged. A good harvest has always been necessary and vital to the existence and flourish of civilization. When the fields have been prepared and the seeds sown, a farmer can only wait and hope that the proper balance of rain and sun will ensure a fruitful crop. From this hope springs ritual—which Merriam-Webster defines as, “an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite.” (Webster). Many ancient cultures believed that raising crops was a representation of the life cycle, beginning with what one associates with the end--death—symbolized through buried seeds, apparently without hope of germination. However, only with the addition of life forces such as water and the sun will the seed grow—representing rebirth. Consequently, ancient peoples began sacrificial rituals to emulate this resurrection cycle. By transferring one's sins to persons or animals and proceeding to sacrifice them, people believed that their sins would be eliminated, a process that has been termed the "scapegoat" archetype (Guerin et al. 158). In "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson uses this archetype to build on man's inherent need for such ritual. At one point in the village's history, the lottery represented a grave experience, and all who participated understood the profound meaning of the tradition. But as time passed, the villagers began to take the ritual lightly. They endure it almost as automatons—“actors" anxious to return to their mundane, workaday lives (Jackson 76). Old Man Warner, the only one who seems to recall the seriousness of the occasion, complains that Mr. Summers jokes with everybody (77). But why do the villagers cling to tradition when they no longer find meaning in the ritual? It can be posited that even if one does not understand the meaning, the experience provides the individual a place and a meaning in the life of the generations. Because there has "always been a lottery" (Jackson 77), the villagers feel compelled to continue this horrifying tradition. They do focus, however, on its gruesome rather than its symbolic nature, for they "still remembered to use stones" even after they have "forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box" (79). This quote explains how the villagers remembered the brutality of the tradition, but not the origination or significance of the tradition itself. When no recollection of a ritual's symbolism exists, the mass psyche becomes the hypnotic focus of fascination, drawing everyone under its spell. The group experience, then, lowers the level of consciousness like the psyche of an animal. Therefore, the base actions exhibited in groups (such as the