Tradition in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

Tradition is a common aspect in many stories, including the story of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, where a small town observes an annual ritual known as the lottery. The purpose of the lottery is to randomly pick a victim to be stoned to death to assure the community’s well-being. Through the Psychoanalysis theory, New Historicism/Cultural theory, and Marxist literary criticism, we can see how Jackson portrayed the dangers of not allowing your society to advance and grow out of certain norms.

Traditions should not be followed blindly otherwise it can lead to a lack of advancements within a society.

The characters psychological behaviour within a society can be seen and analyzed through the psychoanalytic lens. People are brainwashed into following certain norms of their society which does not allow for growth within the society. In the story, before the lottery takes place, old man Warner expresses his concerns about not following the tradition of the lottery. Warner is worried that the “next thing [the villagers] know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves”(Jackson, 3).

Warner has experienced the lottery ever since he was young and believes that it is something valuable within the village. When somebody brings up the idea of no longer having the lottery, old man Warner becomes worried that their society will be taking steps backward. His unconscious mindset, that he and many of the other villagers express, shows that they are not comfortable with change from the norm of society.

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Not only do people unknowingly follow the norms, but when there is a threat to the norm, they object to it. During the annual ceremony Tessie Hutchinson, a villager at risk of danger, yells that the lottery, “[i]sn’t fair”(4). The villagers are quick to tell Tessie to “be a good sport”(4). When Tessie expresses her undesire for the lottery, people quickly turn against her for the sake of following the tradition. When people start following traditions subconsciously, they find themselves in a stuck mindset which leads to the restriction of growth not only within themselves, but the people around them as well.

“The Lottery” was published in 1948, shortly after World War Two. This war changed the mindsets of people within our society largely influencing their actions. Through the New Historicism/Cultural Theory, Jackson’s warning of the following of unhealthy trends within society can be analyzed through her personal experiences. Jackson wrote this story in a time where people blindly followed the rule of the leader which lead to bloodshed and disorder. Relations to this can be seen throughout the story with the violence that takes place. In the story, after the winner of the lottery had been decided, the villagers prepared for the rite and “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (6). Though the villagers were not quite sure of the purpose of the lottery and why it started, they knew for sure that it involved violence. Similar to the Second World War, people followed tradition without a true understanding of the cause. Not only was violence portrayed, but the sense of division between the men and women in the village was also shown. The gender roles that were given in the story directly relates to a specific time in Jakcson’s history when there was a large separation between men and women. When Mr. Dunbar, one of the villagers was unable to choose for the lottery, his wife volunteered to do it for him, but she was asked if she had “a grown boy to do it for [her]” (2). Mrs. Dunbar was questioned when volunteering to draw from the lottery for her family since typically the father is the one to draw the paper slip on behalf of the rest of the family. This reinforces the idea that women are seen as less important than men in this society. This reflects the separation between men and women in history as well. When Jackson was growing up, men were often the ones to go out and work while women stayed home and took care of the husband and children. These basic gender roles portrayed in the story which were influenced by history, restricted women from contributing to their society. Violence and sexism are reflected upon in the story as a warning from Jacksons past, as these routine behaviours are what prohibit societies from moving forward.

Having only two basic social classes and the large void between them can make it difficult for any sort of social change. The lottery is an alarming example of what happens when a society can only distinguish two social classes, more specifically the lower class and the upper class, which can be analyzed through the Marxist lens. Upper classes take control over the things within their society, including the people. In this story, Mr. Summers represents the upper-class. As a part of the upper-class, Mr. Summers has control over the things that surround him including the thoughts of the lower class. In the village, “The lottery was conducted – as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program – by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities” (1). This claims that it is only Mr. Summers has time and energy to carry out these things, suggesting that he is not part of the lower-class. Mr. Summers is trusted with many large responsibilities giving him control through fear over the lower class. In society, lower classes are not given the opportunity to take part in the development of their society. The lower-class is comprised of workers who are unable to think from a lack of energy and time. After the gathering of villagers within the square, Mr. Summers tells the people to “get started [and] get this over with, so [the villagers] can get back to work” (2). The lives of the lower-class citizens revolve around work. Even an annual ritual such as the lottery is an inconvenience to their workday. The lower-class are kept fatigued by their leaders which leads to a lack of rebellion in this society. The expectations held for each social class is what sets them apart and as a result of this large difference in these classes, social change is made almost impossible.

Traditions are a common concept amongst many stories, but when traditions are followed blindly, it is nearly impossible for society to advance and develop. In the short story “The Lottery”, the villagers follow a tradition called which causes them to sacrifice one winner of the lottery for the villages gain each year. The dangers of following these traditions can be analyzed through the conscious and unconscious minds of the characters, the author’s history, and the relationship between classes within the story. We all should recognize that to flourish as a community we must break free of the norms and traditions of society.

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Tradition in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. (2022, Feb 03). Retrieved from

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