Oppressing the Aloof: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
If there has been one maxim that has been constantly repeated throughout history, it is that history is known to repeat itself. Through and through, there are constant circumstances people experience that naturally prove they blindly carry remnants of history in them. In perpetuating archaic teachings, cautious tensions arise if they are to be challenged or questioned. As a society, we have been taught to not curse, to not chew loudly, or the dangers of sitting with our legs spread far apart, but when did lessons on etiquette breach into the respect of human dignity? We are all taught things that we are told should be common sense, so why ever question sense that’s so “common”? Clarence Walker’s article, “The Effects of Brown: Personal and Historical Reflections on American Racial Atavisms”, underscores society’s stark vice as he shares with his readers his experience in a momentous transition from an egalitarian community where people of all races were treated fairly to the South, a place of stark segregation, where minorities are left to pick up the scraps of those who repress them to lowly standards. To use the word scraps is not to be understated in any fashion as he writes, “The books were discards from the white schools, and in some instances, had both covers and pages missing” (Walker 295). In these reflections, Walker argues that Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” can be viewed “as a metaphor for America and the South” (Walker 300). From a short story written by a white woman in 1948 to an article written by a black man to this essay written by a Hispanic woman, issues of social injustices have been ingrained in our communities will be highlighted through metaphorical messages, historical reflections, and personal analysis.
Tradition is defined as the handing down of statements, beliefs, and customs, and despite the saccharine feelings tied to this concept, traditional thinking and the actions that follow have proven to be one of society’s greatest maladies. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a grim tale of villagers sacrificing one of its own by random selection annually in the name of tradition. The tradition entails a communal killing for the sake of a practice, which would only be justified by archaic superstitions: “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” (Jackson 4). These villagers live in complete oblivion toward the blatant injustices they have been subjected to participate in. By the overruling authority and historical significance of it, the ritual of the lottery is never questioned. When Tessie Hutchinson expresses her resistance toward her ill fate, she is not given a voice but brutally murdered by her compatriots. Even small children partake in Tessie’s death, as children are encouraged to participate in the event. “The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson few pebbles” (Jackson 7). Unbeknownst to these villagers, they are victims of a cancerous government that successfully created a cancer within their society. As these people gather round, they pick their ultimate fate, which relies on the possibility of whose white slip reads of a death sentence, translated by a black spot. What is ironic and should be observed is the fact that the man who runs the lottery, Mr. Summers, does not participate in the ritual. He is also described as “a round-faced, jovial man”. Mr. Summers represents those in this country that are privileged enough to live contently aloof to the harsh environments they create for those who are unable to defend themselves for their own benefit. Old Man Warner makes the mention of the lottery reaping a bountiful feast, a superstition that has kept him obedient to the lottery. Warner is known as “the oldest man in town” (Jackson 11), and living through seventy-seven lotteries, he proves his allegiance to it and what it supposedly reaps. Old Man Warner resembles the older American generation that consists of conservative white men who believe in the importance of distinction of race. He is illustrated to be stubbornly adamant in his beliefs. His adamance festers into a caustic arrogance when making mention of those who wish to progress from the heinousness that is the lottery. “ Pack of crazy fools… 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 anymore, live that way for a while” (Jackson 4). In tying this yet again to history, the “young people” and all that wish to rid their community of this cancerous ritual can be seen as our own society. We are all born into an environment that is systematically controlled. In a system like such, only few are left unscathed as the rest of the lot are born into a life that will indisputably prove to be more difficult than the unscathed. Lives are capriciously held at stake in the name of tradition.
Despite the pertinent role tradition plays contextually in this short story, there is a strong style of writing that only adds further suspense and surprise as Jackson reaches her heinous end that leaves the reader incredulous. As Jackson writes, the reader will naturally read the story in the narrative tone. When they read with this narrative tone, they strip their personal narrative astray from the story in order to wholly understand a story through the narrator’s perspective. Though this can be viewed as an analysis of Jackson’s writing; it should also be considered as an additional, contributing factor to the moral of the story itself. These villagers congregate in their square, await the man in charge of the murder, and ultimately await someone’s death sentence. Just as a reader reads a story without questioning the narrator or the narrator’s intentions, these villagers obediently meet in this square and go on with their ritual. Jackson does a splendid job in masking the impending horror by mentioning the lottery alongside “… the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program…” (Jackson 1). Before a reader learns what monstrosity of the lottery truly is, they could not be blamed for presuming it is a jovial event where children and families are welcomed as Jackson provides the reader with merry, light-hearted details such as “civic activities” (Jackson 1). It is only a successful tactic Jackson uses in leading her readers into unsuspecting oblivion. Similarly, those that are oppressed usually do not know the extent that of which they are oppressed. If all that were oppressed were compared to those in power, the corruption that will result will be astounding. In understanding that these people in power are responsible for the oppressed living under such constraints, a solution can be found in this unmentioned divide. Though there is a pervasive understanding that there is a distinction between the privileged and the oppressed, no one questions why the divide is at all existent. In his article, Walker references this tactic, correlating it to the injustices that are inflicted upon minorities. He makes mention of the “unexamined beliefs” (Walker 300) white Southerners obeyed. Such beliefs can be tied to the chauvinistic narrative of Jackson’s story as Jackson writes, “Soon the men began to gather… speaking of plant and rain, tractors and taxes. The women, wearing faded houses dresses and sweaters, came shortly after their menfolk” (Jackson 1). They follow after their men swiftly and obey domestic rules such as minding the children and typical housework expected of woman. The women in this story are described as property of their husbands, another form of perpetuated injustice that society has learned to sheath under the blanketing concept of “tradition”. These white Southerners not only averred segregation was just, but they also believed it should be practiced eternally. For people who chose to act unaccordingly, they were subjected to punishment. Alongside such commandments, there is and never will be any justification in the degradation of another human being no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, and any other trait that is unalterable. These “unexamined beliefs” resonate strongly with Jackson’s writing style. From the injustices that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement to the present Black Lives Matter Movement, there is a plethora of injustices that occur in minorities’ lives daily, and they are not only ignored but greatly mishandled. Who is to blame for this perpetual ignorance? “Although Jackson was writing about a highly mechanized farming community in the twentieth century, the world she described was organized around an atavism. Jackson’s agricultural community sacrificed a resident every year to ensure that the village’s crops would be bountiful” (Walker 300). Jackson described a world that sounded just like ours. Jackson illustrates a dystopia constructed of ignorance toward blatant errors that our society has allowed to be perpetuated for the last few generations.
After reading this story and understanding the previous quote, an eerie comparison sparked in my mind: those that are sacrificed in Jackson’s figurative village are symbolic of the African-American and Latino lives lost to police brutality. After all of these attacks of the unarmed, non-threatening lives, it is just to argue that our modern law enforcement protects archaic ideals that perpetuate the stereotypes and starkly racist concepts that obstruct minorities from furthering themselves in their own lives. In the story, when everyone learns their slip is blank and their assurance is made, they all pick up stones and kill the one who chooses the marked slip. Today, those who are privileged enough to admit they are not endangered by their own unalterable traits, they have the opportunity to participate in these unspeakable acts. Can the mindless obedience of this tradition be an allusion to the strong hold privilege holds over us? When we fight back, we are forcibly restrained from furthering these ideas. Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as
the villagers moved in on her. “‘It isn’t fair,’ she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, ‘Come on, come on, everyone.’” (Jackson 7). Jackson illustrates the typical punishment sentenced to those who ideas that suggest progression and an end to the inequalities that minorities are constantly and blatantly subjected to. By successfully repressing our voices, tradition is a malady that is continued and unquestioned.