The Lottery Analysis

Old Man Warner snorted.  “Pack of crazy fools,” he said.  “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them.  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 in June, corn be heavy soon.’  … There’s always been a lottery.”  (Jackson 220)

“The Lottery” delves mostly into the theme of blindness in the face of tradition, presenting a bleak reality and exemplified by Old Man Warner’s speech.  Even though the villagers know it may kill them, and by definition will kill someone they know, perhaps even someone they love in their own household, they hold fast to their bloodthirsty ritual.  In fact, they don’t even associate it with death. The people gathering as a community, the children playing, the friendly greetings between friends and neighbors, all of this comes together at the beginning to give the impression of a town fair or other joyous occasion.

Though there isn’t the traditional protagonist and antagonist in this piece, one could see it as a conflict between reason (protagonist) and blind obedience (antagonist).  As the strongest supporter of the Lottery, one could paint Old Man Warner as the antagonist, though the piece is more concerned with the theme of evil traditions than with individual characters.  The style of the piece is generally detached, reinforced by a third person omniscient and objective point of view. The darkness of the story comes through more in the syntax element of Jackson’s style rather than the diction.  “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.” (Jackson 222) isn’t a particularly dark sentence, but, connected to the rising unease of the story and the fear of “winning” the lottery,

The diction of Old Man Warner’s starring few paragraphs shows him to be a staunch opponent of change.  As such, he provides a strong symbol of the older generation that is stuck in their ways and dismissive of new ideas.  With the children’s rhyme “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” (Jackson 220), he is cemented as being loyal to the old ways and to tradition.  He believes that the ritual of the lottery is somehow necessary for the farmlands to have a good crop. He assigns cause and effect relationships to events in his lifetime that have generally been associated (for example, the Lottery with a growing season) but likely have no actual affect on each other.  He has had a long time to form and entrench these opinions, too. “Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery,” (Jackson 220) he states with pride, as if it were anything other than luck that had seen him through so many brushes with death. He cannot accept that luck has kept him alive for so long, and so he assigns order and meaning where there are none.  Due to this survival in the face of such a bloodthirsty ritual, he has fallen into patterns of thought that show through in his speech. The pairings of “pack of crazy fools” and “pack of young fools” or “next thing you know” and “first thing you know” (Jackson 220) show that he has his patterns, has become very familiar with them, and will not deviate. Much like a child, he employs magical thinking to feel as though he has an impact on the larger world around him.  However, much like an old man, he blames the youths for any perceived shortcoming in his community.

“’Pack of crazy fools,’ he said.  ‘Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them.’” (Jackson 220) shows Old Man Warner’s disdain for young people with new ideas.  To the reader is comes across as preposterous. Why shouldn’t people try to improve their lot in life?  To Warner though, he sees his way of life threatened. Since the Lottery has never chosen him, it is a fine old institution with many benefits.  It works. It has always worked. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, or a broken system might be what replaces it. He fears the unknown and he fears change, just as he fears being forgotten as another relic just as the Lottery would be if it were abandoned.

What Old Man Warner doesn’t say is also very important.  It is important to the reader, if not Warner himself. For example, where he recalls the rhyme linking the lottery to corn growth, he does not wonder at the likelihood or possibility of bad crops during years (one would assume every year, at least in this village) when lotteries were held.  If there was a bad season, it had nothing to do with the lottery and could be blamed on the weather or something else. If there was a good season, it was thanks to the lottery. He also does not wonder at alternative meanings to the rhyme. “Corn be heavy soon” could refer in a more abstract sense to the amount of food allotted to each member of the village, and have absolutely nothing to do with the physical weight or amount of corn grown.  With a measure of enforced population control, there would be more food per person. It could also be a warning. In this society, women don’t seem to be allowed to work or take part in activities unless there are no men present and able to do it for them. If the lottery is held and a working man is stoned, it would directly affect the amount of work all of the other men, or potentially even a woman, would have to do to keep up with the food demands of the village.  Therefore, “Get your work done early, because it may be heavier later.”

Power dynamics inside each family unit are very rigid and defined.  Women are subservient to the men of their household and even their male children once they’ve come of age.  “Wife draws for her husband,” Mr Summers said. “Don’t you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?” (Jackson 219)  The only reason Janey was able to have some small impact on her own destiny is that her husband had a broken leg and her son wasn’t of age yet.  Others aren’t as “lucky” as Jack Watson, introduced as “a tall boy” (Jackson 219) draws for his mother and himself to encouraging words such as “Glad to see your mother’s got a man to do it.” (Jackson 219)  In addition to the skewed dynamic between man and woman, the bonds of family are less important than those of tradition and the community. When the Hutchinsons are chosen to be the family in the second drawing, the wife, Tessie, reasonably protests.  Her husband merely says, “Shut up, Tessie” (Jackson 219). However, even Tessie turns on her own daughter that had been married off. This attitude of individual bonds being unimportant is ingrained from a young age, exemplified by the fact that “someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” (Jackson 223).  Her son, too young even to handle drawing a piece of paper on his own, has been armed and encouraged to help stone his mother.

The larger world is not without change.  For example, “over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.” (Jackson 220).  However, most still cling to the tradition of the lottery. From Old Man Warner’s dogged, purist approach, he views Mr. Summer’s commitment with disdain, complaining, “Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody” (Jackson 220).  However, all those that blindly follow the tradition are to blame for the results. Joe Summers is the one running the whole affair, keeping the tradition alive, even if he wants to update it, frequently speaking of “making a new box” (Jackson 217) and cannot recall the exact words or “ritual salute” (Jackson 218) necessary in the olden days.

“The Lottery” presents a bleak world in which an evil but beloved tradition and the strain to maintain it overcome even the bonds between husband and wife, bringing the community together while alienating everyone on the individual level.  Though presented objectively, the piece forces the reader to look at and examine traditional values as they exist in the present day, as it constantly reinforces its theme of reason versus ritual. Old Man Warner symbolizes adherence to this tradition and is more valuable to the story as a symbol of curmudgeonly stubbornness than as a character in his own right.  Through him, the reader is invited to poke holes in his ideas and thought process to come to the conclusion that upholding unequal and evil traditions is in itself evil.

Work cited:

Jackson, Shirley.  “The Lottery.” Literature, edited by Janet E. Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridl, Peter Schakel, Joanne Diaz, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 216-223.

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